Guest Post: How to start a company to hire people with autism

Randy Lewis is a disability employment advocate, author and parent of a child with autism. He is best known for pioneering a disability employment model at Walgreens that transformed that company’s workforce so that people with disabilities made up ten percent of Walgreens distribution center employees. His 2014 book, No Greatness Without Goodness, chronicles his path to creation of the Walgreens Model, "a gold standard of disability hiring." He comments here on the potential autism entrepreneurship has in addressing the underemployment of people with disabilities. Find out more about Randy at his website, or follow him @RandyNOGWOG

Parents in Common

I have never met John D’eri, but it seems as if I have known him for years. We share the same dream that our sons—Austin Lewis and Andrew D’eri—will have a life filled with hope and love despite their struggles with autism. John and I know that a job opens new doors and brighter futures for people with disability, especially those on the autism spectrum.

A few years back, we talked on the phone about his family’s plans to open a car wash and employ people with developmental disabilities. In the beginning, John knew little about the car wash industry or where he could find, train, and employ people with autism. He wasn’t sure of the problems the new company might face or if his efforts would be successful. Nevertheless, John believed that too many people with capability were left out of employment and society, especially those within the autism spectrum.
As someone who has struggled with opening doors for those with disabilities, I understood his concerns, but applauded his determination to succeed, whatever roadblocks might arise. With John as CEO and Andrew’s brother Tom as COO, they proceeded on faith that they could succeed.

The new business

Like most new businesses, success did not happen for the Rising Tide Car Wash overnight. Through setbacks and disappointments—some anticipated and others a surprise—John and Tom learned the business and the elements to build a successful business with employees on the autism spectrum.
Today, the company located in Parkland, Florida services 150 vehicles per day, over 150,000 in a year. Thirty-five of the forty-three employees are people with autism. A second location is in the works.

Helping others to start their own businesses

Rather than spend his energy on building a national chain or establishing company franchises, Tom—the day-to-day manager of the business—decided to tell others about their experience. By doing so, they hoped other Johns, Toms, Bills, and Mikes would also open their own businesses and employ people with a disability, especially autism.

Working with professionals at the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders, Tom documented the process with the lessons learned from his own experiences—the good and bad, triumphs and missteps—to start a new business that employed people with autism. The process became the basis for a curriculum and workshop for others who might be interested in starting a new business.

Awakening the Autism Entrepreneur workshop

When Tom called me early in the summer with plans for a multi-city tour with the workshop, I jumped on the opportunity to invite him to Chicago. Other Chicago-area organizations and agencies were happy to join the effort, helping get the word out to those who might be interested and participate in the workshop. The workshop is a unique opportunity to learn the many resources available to help those with disability, especially autism in the Chicago metroplex. The agenda focuses on the real obstacles that might arise and the best steps to avoid or overcome them.

Chicago: Sept. 16th or 17th

The one-day seminar will be held two separate days – Friday, September 16 and Saturday, September 17 – downtown Chicago. The fee for attending is $15 per person and is used to provide a box lunch and refreshments during the meeting. Please visit our website for more information and pre-registration.