According to the National Institute of Health, the rate of unemployment among individuals with autism is as high as 80 percent. The Harvard School of Public Health estimates that the annual indirect cost of caring for an adult with autism, fueled in part by this high unemployment rate, is between $39,000 and $130,000. Furthermore, there is statistically significant evidence that shows that individuals with autism who engage in vocational activities experience a greater degree of independence in daily living and have greater reductions in autism symptoms. There is a significant personal burden due to the intense feeling of lack of purpose that many adults with autism experience.
Enter Rising Tide Car Wash.
Rising Tide is dedicated to solving the 80 percent unemployment rate that autistic individuals face. Individuals with autism typically have a sharp eye for detail, are enthusiastic about working, and enjoy repetitive tasks — traits that Rising Tide turns into its competitive advantage. Rising Tide directly employs individuals who are on the autism spectrum at its operating car wash business and then shares its learnings through training and coaching to help entrepreneurs build similar businesses in their own communities. We spoke with co-founder Tom D’Eri about his experience employing this underserved population.
What inspired you to start your venture?
Tom D’Eri: I love my brother Andrew. The thought of him rotting away in his bedroom, playing video games all day, with no friends, nor sense of purpose, haunted my father and me.
Andrew was our reason for starting our business, and today we’ve had the pleasure of getting to know hundreds of people with autism. Most of our employees come to us from high school, where they were either significantly bullied or weren’t given the chance to excel in special education classes. This life experience tends to cause our employees to start off with a very limited view of their capabilities. Nothing I’ve experienced is as fulfilling as showing people with autism their own potential.
Through building Rising Tide Car Wash, I’ve developed a passion for designing systems that empower people. The car wash has given me an incredible living laboratory to learn how to design effective training, build consistent operating processes, and identify business models that can harness the natural talents many people with autism have.
What do you believe has been the critical element to your organization’s success to-date?
TD: The most important factor for our success so far has been our decision to innovate within an established business model instead of trying to generate an entirely new concept. With 19,000 conveyorized car washes in the US, we had little doubt that the business model would work; we just needed to learn from industry leaders and figure out how to best employ individuals with autism within that model. From there, the leadership provided by my father, a seasoned entrepreneur, and the great team of mentors we’ve built through SONNY’S Enterprises Inc., the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, and the Unreasonable Institute has helped us build one of the only financially viable and operationally proven social enterprises in the autism employment community.
What are the largest stigmas around working with the population that you do, and what do you wish you could tell people in response to that stigma?
TD: Our view is that the primary reason for such high unemployment among people with autism is due to the way our society views autism: as a disability that requires sympathy instead of a valuable diversity. We’ve been taught to feel sorry for people with autism, and that creates a very challenging stigma for this community to overcome when looking for work. How can we expect a business owner, who depends on his or her employees to produce, to hire someone whom he or she thinks is an inferior employee?
My response to this is to have them come visit our business. We’ve taken a struggling car wash that was only washing 35,000 cars annually, and by hiring people with autism and building operating systems around their talents, we’ve turned the business into a thriving enterprise that is now washing over 150,000 cars annually.
Can you tell us what it feels like to do this work?
TD: There is no way around it: operating a car wash is hard! A lot harder than one would think. There are thousands of moving parts, working in a wet environment, expected to fire properly hundreds of times a day. However, as tough as it might be, there really is nothing more fulfilling than helping individuals with autism see the potential they possess. I think our whole management team would agree that it doesn’t matter how stressful a day may become at the car wash; if you spend ten minutes talking to the guys about their day or their new ideas, you immediately realize that it’s all worth it.
As entrepreneurs, we tend to want to reinvent every aspect of the business we’re creating — I think it’s just part of our nature to want to make things our own. However, that’s a death wish when starting a new business, because it’s impossible to do that well, and it’s wrong to think you know better than people who’ve been working in your industry for years. It’s a far more effective strategy to figure out what the one thing is that you want your brand to stand for (e.g., empowering people with autism) and then work to implement industry best-practices in everything else you do.
I love Simon Sinek’s message about the adoption curve and think it’s extremely relevant for mission-driven entrepreneurs. Most of us are trying to do more than just build a good business; we’re trying to build a movement and inspire others to action. To do this, we need to remember that we must inspire the innovators in our community to take action before we attack the mainstream.
In our business, this meant getting really involved with the school district early on, because that was the epicenter of the local autism community. Those people shared our story and were able to get people to come to the wash first, then the rest of the community followed. For our growth initiatives, we’re targeting other potential autism entrepreneurs, because those are the innovators in the autism employment movement — the people who will create a critical mass of evidence showing how great individuals with autism are as employees.
Building a business is hard work. It takes insane dedication — maybe even obsession. My girlfriend would certainly agree with that statement! My experience has been that building a business is like pushing a boulder up a hill: a long, arduous, and monotonous series of small actions eventually leading to success. The implication of that insight is that each and every day brings an opportunity to move forward, and if you allow your momentum to stop, it’s pretty easy to be crushed by the weight of your challenge.