When Valerie Herskowitz opened The Chocolate Spectrum in 2013, her goal was to find a meaningful job for her adult son, who had just graduated from high school but lives with autism. Making mail-order chocolates in her West Palm Beach home seemed like a good place to start.
Sales proved brisk, and in 2016, she decided to expand the business and open a storefront in Jupiter. But having worked her whole life as a speech therapist, she didn’t have any experience running retail.
But she knew the D’Eri family. Tom D’Eri and his father, John, had founded Rising Tide Car Wash in 2013 in Parkland as a way to help find employment for individuals with developmental disabilities like Tom’s brother Andrew, who is also autistic.
The D’Eris opened a second Rising Tide location in 2017, and their story has garnered international attention. The business is profitable; D’eri declined to state revenues but said approximately 27,000 cars are washed each month between the two locations. In 2018, Tom was named to Forbes’ 30-under-30 list.
Just as Herskowitz was opening her storefront, the D’eris were launching their latest project, Rising Tide University. It’s an online boot camp for individuals looking to create and market social enterprises, with the goal of creating profitable business opportunities that also employ developmentally disabled individuals. The course comprises seven units, paid in five installments of $99 each. Its website is RisingTideU.com.
To date, Rising Tide U. has helped kick-start 16 different enterprises nationwide that now employ 115 individuals.
Herskowitz calls the D’Eris her “angels.” Since opening its storefront, it’s helped 24 individuals gain job experience. Today, The Chocolate Spectrum employs two individuals with developmental disabilities and is currently training three more.
“It’s one thing to have a business, and one that has a community like they do,” Herskowitz said. “It’s another thing to make it part of your mission to continue helping other like-minded people to develop their business.”
Even as the U.S. unemployment rate has hit historic lows, the rate among individuals with conditions like autism remains stratospheric. That’s despite an initiative taken under former President Barack Obama’s administration to set a goal for employers working with the government to hire 7 percent of their workforce from America’s disabled population.
“Rising tide is necessary because over 70 percent of persons with disabilities are unemployed, despite many being able to and wanting to work,” said Debbie Dietz, executive director of Disability Independence Group Inc., a South Florida-based nonprofit that advocates for the disabled, in an email. “All employers should be hiring people with autism, or other developmental or intellectual disabilities. Municipalities and other employers should analyze their job duties and affirmatively create positions for this population.”
D’Eri said progress has been made in making the business case to established companies for hiring autistic workers. But he’s found that the onus remains on families themselves to demonstrate the proof of concept: that hiring someone on the spectrum is a sound investment.
In South Florida, most employed developmentally disabled individuals still work at “mom-and-pop” shops.
But D’Eri found many parents of autistic children still struggle finding their children any kind of stable job. With the university, he’s set out to teach caregivers how to set up their own Rising Tide-model businesses. The goal: that the bullet on an autistic person’s résumé gets them hired elsewhere down the line.
“The only way to get companies involved is to prove that [hiring a disabled person] is not going to be some kind of charity,” he said.
D’Eri said awareness about integrating ability-diverse workers has increased in South Florida. Programs like the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) — which partnered with the D’Eris to developed Rising Tide U.’s curriculum — have helped.
Mike Alessandri, UM-CARD’s director, said individuals on the spectrum often get discouraged and give up the job hunt. CARD tries to increase success through its own job training programs with help from new grants.
“We realized we were investing all these resources in early intervention and not thinking about the long term as much as we needed to,” Alessandri said.
He wants parents to know that given the right fit, even severely autism people can thrive. He cited the success of one of CARD’s own part-time employees, who is in charge of shredding classified documents — no small task.
“For a neurotypical person ... no one would want to do something like that,” he said. But the opportunity for repetitive work is a perfect fit for many individuals on the spectrum.
The Chocolate Spectrum teaches its autistic employees to run everything in its store, including making treats, serving customers and working with walk-in consumers. Herskowitz declined to state its current revenues, saying it still depends on assistance from grants and donations.
“We want to make it clear we are working with people on the spectrum,” said Fatema Hussain, a trainer at the store. “That they are employable. We don’t outright say it, but if a customer is there, we ask them, ‘Do you guys know about our mission?’ Otherwise it’s just a regular business.”
At the same time, Herskowitz says, Rising Tide U. taught her that running a social enterprise requires results beyond its core mission. She has eight separate income streams; the largest are private orders and events. The shop will help cater the upcoming International Red Cross Ball in Palm Beach.
“The best piece of advice I received is, ‘Don’t think the people you’re helping are going to be your customers,’ ” she said. “I assumed that if you open these types of businesses. I sell chocolates to help people with autism, so [I thought] anyone with autism will come and buy from me. It doesn’t work that way.”