001 – The Autism Advantage: Lessons from Building a Successful Autism Enterprise

Welcome to the Autism Advantage podcast! I’m your host, Tom D’Eri, the COO and co-founder of Rising Tide Car Wash. In case you’re not familiar with what we do, we employ a fantastic team of individuals with autism, allowing us to empower our staff while offering a fantastic experience to customers. We believe that individuals with autism are an incredible untapped resource for many business, and this show is dedicated to proving that employing these people can create real competitive advantages.

Today, I’ll be joined by two great guests. John D’Eri is a serial entrepreneur who has built various businesses across completely different industries. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Rising Tide Car Wash. (He’s also my father!) Dr. Michael Alessandri is the executive director of University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, a professor at UN for over 20 decades, and one of the most dedicated people we’ve ever met within the autism community.

This podcast is part of a three-year partnership between our team and the aforementioned Center for Autism. We’ve heard many questions about starting businesses employing people with autism, and know that many of you want both actionable steps on how to do so as well as reassurance that it’s possible. We’re here to provide both!

John D’Eri started Rising Tide Car Wash because his son (and my brother), Andrew, is on the autism spectrum. John realized that Andrew had no clear path for a purposeful life with employment opportunities. To help his son, he put his entrepreneurial skills to use. Together, John and I created something scalable and sustainable that would employ not only Andrew, but others who have autism.

Tune into this episode to learn why a car wash specifically is excellent for forming social and emotional connections among people with autism, how important it is to put the business rather than the social enterprise first in some regards, and why only about half of our customers even know that most of our employees have autism.

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In This Episode:

[02:37] – John starts off the conversation by explaining why he started Rising Tide Car Wash. The mission was to hire 85% of their staff with autism, create a community, and change people’s perception of autism.

[06:53] – Michael talks about his experience in working with people with autism, and why he’s focusing on employment opportunities now. He shares the story of meeting a young boy named Marlin, and being fascinated by the contrast between the things Marlin could do and the things people were saying he couldn’t do.

[09:24] – It occurred to Michael that there was virtually nothing for people with autism after they exited school.

[11:08] – Work defines a lot of who people are, and for many of the employees at Rising Tide Car Wash, there was some sort of gap or uncertainty before they began working there.

[12:33] – John discusses what his hopes were for his son, Andrew, in terms of Rising Tide Car Wash. As a result of the company, Andrew now has friends, a feeling of accomplishment, the pride of making money, and all the other positives associated with having work.

[17:39] – Michael points out that when you look beyond the autism community, it’s clear that employment forms the foundation of an individual’s social fabric. He also talks about a common misconception about people with autism.

[19:21] – Michael talks about something else he’s been thinking a lot about lately, which is the importance of finding a balance between inclusion in a wider community and supporting people with autism in spending time with other people with the same condition.

[20:44] – We hear John’s thoughts on the way that skillsets translate from work into society. He then points out that at Rising Tide Car Wash, everybody does all of the jobs.

[24:31] – Michael jumps in to discuss the mechanics of a car wash, and the fact that it’s fundamentally structured in such a way that each person has some responsibility for the overall success of the product and result.

[25:20] – When they were starting out with Rising Tide Car Wash, Tom explains, they didn’t understand the gravity of what they were doing.

[27:25] – It’s business first, and you have to couple the social enterprise into it, John points out. You need to consistently produce value and quality.

[30:34] – Michael backtracks a little bit to talk about the issue of trying to build businesses around an individual’s unique restricted interests.

[32:45] – We hear more about the core abilities of many of the people with autism who Michael has worked with.

[35:46] – John talks about how the core abilities that Michael has mentioned are an advantage at Rising Tide Car Wash, and describes some of the steps involved in their process.

[39:50] – The 46 steps of their car-cleaning process create a consistent, quality product that the customer can rely on, John points out.

[43:26] – John’s point is this: by relying on a specific structure and maintaining it regardless of what’s going on, they deliver a product that is quality-driven, value-oriented, and superior every single time.

[44:08] – Only about half of the people who go through the car wash even know that the employees there have autism.

[45:56] – We learn what attracted Michael to the work that John and Tom have been doing at Rising Tide Car Wash.

[48:20] – John steps in to say a couple things to listeners. He emphasizes the point that he opened the car wash to play to his strengths, and other parents of people with autism should play to their own strengths.

[50:15] – Michael adds in a last point of his own by discussing how invested Tom and John are in expanding their mission.

[51:35] – If you have any questions, feel free to ask through the Autism Advantage website!


Links and Resources:

Tom D’Eri

John D’Eri

Dr. Michael Alessandri

Rising Tide Car Wash

Rising Tide U

Autism Advantage

University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities


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