Extraordinary Ventures: An Employment Model
First published on May 2, 2012.
The term “venture” implies discovery. It means to undertake something that has an uncertain outcome, learning the way as you go. “Venture capital” refers to monetary investment in a new project with unproven returns. A “joint venture” implies teaming to face the unpredictable, while “venturing” forth signals a willingness to move forward into the unknown. For a North Carolina-based enterprise, Extraordinary Ventures  (EV), the term means all of this and more. As an employer of autistic adults, EV consistently sails into unchartered waters in an attempt to develop a business model that can thrive and also allow its employees to flourish.
Like many support programs for autistic adults, EV began when parents saw a void in services as their children approached adulthood. Gregg and Lori Ireland had relocated from California to Chapel Hill, NC, to access the autism services of TEACCH  (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children) during their son’s school years. But they realized that few options existed after high school for young adults with ASD. “When my son was about 14 or 15, we started asking the questions about what we were going to do,” says Gregg Ireland. “High school ends. If you don’t do anything about it, it can really sneak up on you.”
What the Irelands decided to do was work with other parents to create a nonprofit organization that could help support autistic adults. “It took a little while to settle on the idea of jobs, and it took a little while to settle on the idea of us being the employer,” notes Ireland. And so in 2007, Extraordinary Ventures was created not as a service provider, but as an employer housing a “portfolio” of small business ventures staffed by autistic adults. Initially, EV adopted a traditional approach to the business structure and hired an experienced executive director who reported to the Board of Directors. To determine what types of small businesses EV would develop, the Board looked to the strengths of potential employees. A laundry business came first. “A couple of the kids really like laundry,” Ireland says. Leasing a building owned by the Irelands, EV installed washers and dryers and began a wash, dry and fold service which is marketed to area families and to students at the nearby University of North Carolina (UNC) campus. “The first three years were a period of going through a lot of different ideas,” Ireland notes. EV tried a paper delivery route and a service cleaning fraternity and sorority houses, but fit wasn’t optimal in these ventures. Ireland points out that it was necessary to learn “not only about what our kids could do, but what businesses we could control and manage.” Each business had to have an element of consistency. “You quickly learn that you have to be disciplined about what you do, because our kids can’t deal with last-minute stuff.”
Then two years ago, the business came to a crossroads in viability, and according to Ireland, EV “almost started over.” Instead the Board decided to try the somewhat unusual approach of hiring a team of recent college graduates, rather than one executive director. This decision provides for more management manpower for EV’s administrative buck. A board of directors and groups of advisors provide support as the team develops enterprises and oversees day-to-day operations. “We decided what we had was lots of experience and people who could help with ideas, but we didn’t have a lot of young energy on the ground,” comments Ireland. The management team reports to the Board of Directors every month and can seek advice as needed.
It also became apparent that the EV’s building itself could be used to produce revenue. And so the organization focused on space rental . Four types of spaces were created: a Great Hall, a Board Room, a lower level Rec Center, and smaller Multipurpose Rooms. This provides flexibility in rental, allowing for conferences, parties and receptions, and even a contract from a local congregation for weekly church services. The space rental business has it pluses and minuses, however. The obvious plus is that it trades on a commodity EV already has—the building. “The good thing about the space business is that it creates a lot of money,” says Ireland. But it also costs money, in terms of initial build-out, equipment purchases, and maintenance. And Ireland notes that space rental doesn’t create a great number of jobs for EV’s employees. While some events call for set-up and staffing, often only the space itself is desired. And some service staffing needs don’t match EV employee abilities. However, renting space does lure community members in the door. “In a way, it’s our calling card,” Ireland says.
For the past few years, Kelly Looser has been serving as Events Director at EV. Looser notes that EV fills a niche in Chapel Hill that other venues, such as hotels, UNC buildings, and churches don’t. “We love the hotels in Chapel Hill,” she says. “They’ve been very supportive of us.” But for people looking for event space, hotels can be restrictive, since all services must be provided by the hotel. Churches have restrictions regarding space usage as well. At EV, patrons can hire their own caterer or bring in food and drink themselves. “We can do almost anything,” says Looser. After crunching numbers recently, Looser estimates that approximately 1000 people walk through the EV doors every week. That’s 1000 people who can in turn spread the word regarding EV’s mission and services.
Growing EV has meant thinking creatively about developing new businesses. Stephen Dougherty, Director of New Business Development, notes that starting new ventures has involved some trial and error. “We were taking whatever was thrown at us,” he notes. “A lot of that was piece work, contracts.” This included publication delivery and packing of soaps. Not everything worked out well. The prep and delivery of publications turned out to involve too much work for the EV managers, create sensory issues for many employees, and was a logistically difficult undertaking. The cost—mostly in terms of human experience—was not worth the revenue. So this project was dropped and others sought.
“A big change occurred about a year ago,” says Dougherty. “That’s when we decided to scrap all these small contracts that weren’t working so well. We went through the process of formalizing and defining what were ideal ventures for us. We wanted to do some deep reflection on a real person-centered approach to how to develop a business. Number One: The job has to be meaningful and take into account the skills of our individuals. It has to be something we can control. It has to align with our mission and have low overhead. And so we started generating ideas. Google searches, brainstorming, looking through phone books. Going to websites that had business ideas. We didn’t want to have to reinvent the wheel.”
In addition to space rental and the laundry, EV currently runs:
- EV Gifts : An online store selling candles, bath salts, and herb garden kits;
- Gravesite Guardians : A service to maintain and beautify graves and personal monuments;
- Football Parking : The operation of a secure lot for UNC football games, with room to tailgate and
- Interior Bus Cleaning : A service contract with the city of Chapel Hill to clean and detail transit buses.
All of these businesses are staffed by adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. EV employees make minimum wage and work part-time, with hours based on EV’s weekly activities and on individual situations. On a weekly basis, EV provides approximately 25 adults with work. EV does not provide job coaching, however. Individuals needing one-to-one assistance bring their own coaches—who may be funded through state agencies or privately. Sometimes family members serve as coaches as well. EV does not provide any transportation, so getting to and from EV or job sites is up to the employee or family. (EV’s facility is located on a public bus line.)
Community contacts have been the backbone of developing business contracts. In addition, having a presence in the community is important not only to job development, but to employee inclusion. “We want to have a social environment in working,” says Dougherty. “We want it to be as inclusive as possible. We want them going out into the community and working on crews.” Socialization extends beyond the workplace, however. EV has developed a program to help its employees socialize. “Friday Night Live! ” provides recreational opportunities to members, both EV employees and other adults in the community. Bi-weekly on-site gatherings, as well as local outings, allow for socialization with supports. In a way, these events allow for further “normalization” of the employment experience for autistic adults, as creating a social network at work and ending the week hanging out with fellow employees is very typical behavior.
The proximity of UNC and the TEACCH program has also had an upside for EV. Engagement with the university provides business opportunities, and a source of college grads to serve as managers. The presence of TEACCH has created a culture of autism education and acceptance, as well as a tremendous resource for teaching techniques. “My father works for the TEACCH program,” comments Dougherty. “Growing up, all of my peer work and summer work was with kids with autism … Being near TEACCH, the knowledge just sort of rubs off.” TEACCH also provides consulting and support via board members and advisors.
With any support model for autistic adults, it’s necessary to consider sustainability. Does EV have the right stuff to survive and to continue to fulfill its mission? The organization certainly has put down the type of roots that would seem to allow for continued growth. First and foremost, EV has built its ventures based on the skill sets of autistic adults coupled with an eye toward available markets in the area. Secondly, the administrative overhead is relatively small, while pro bono support for the young managers is substantial. The downside of hiring recent college grads, however, is that while working at EV provides a wealth of experience, it is, in all likelihood, a first job for the young directors, not a long-term one. Assumption of turnover in managers must be part of the model. Other overhead is also relatively low. The facility basically pays for itself in space rental. EV utilizes relationships with other agencies and families to provide individual employment supports—the piece of supported employment that is most costly. And perhaps most importantly, EV continues to be flexible about its portfolio of businesses, adding and subtracting based on good fit for its population of employees. Lastly, EV is a nonprofit, which allows for financial support from grants and donations (40 percent of revenue) as well as income from the businesses. All of this adds up to a model that would seem to be designed to last, serving the growing number of autistic adults in need of employment. “It’s sort of like building a house,” says Ireland. “You don’t start by just putting the walls up. You start by doing a lot of planning.”