As the parents of a son on the autism spectrum, Chet Hurwitz and Sara Barron were well aware of the phenomenon known as “falling off the services cliff” — when a person “ages out” of mandatory educational and social support services.
They were especially determined to address the void in meaningful employment for the 80 percent who are unemployed or underemployed, which is a concern in communities everywhere.
Hurwitz likens the situation to a relay race, in which the baton of appropriate services moves forward year to year but stops at adulthood. “We wanted to pick up the baton,” he says. Following a successful career as an attorney and business advisor, Hurwitz has dedicated his personal skillset to solving the employment challenges facing the neurodiverse community. Barron, a former director of marketing for a nonprofit that employed adults with developmental differences, soon joined him.
In 2017, the couple founded Ventures ATL, an Atlanta nonprofit whose mission is to provide meaningful, sustainable employment for adults with autism or related disorders. Their approach is not a placement model — in which clients are placed with an employer — but rather direct employment at Ventures ATL.
The organization has two key operating principles. First, there must be a real commercial demand for its services; second, the jobs must maximize the strengths of neurodiverse employees. These strengths include focus, attention to detail, affinity for repetitive tasks and a strong motivation to work — skills highly valued in the workplace.
Ventures ATL operates a portfolio of businesses to provide their employees with a range of opportunities. One of these businesses is a data management service that may require employees to enter raw or unstructured data, clean up existing databases, or compile data in real time to facilitate reports and analytics tools.
Their primary clients include a large regional insurance agency, a major telecommunications company, a prominent private equity firm, a commercial real estate firm, a global professional services firm, a large healthcare IT and pharmaceutical distribution company and a statewide nonprofit.
“Our employees have delivered excellent results for our clients — occasionally ‘wowing’ them with outcomes far in excess of their expectations,” Hurwitz says. “Our references are very strong.”
Another business is a product fulfillment service in which employees perform “the pick, pack, label and ship” functions for items ordered online. Ventures ATL partnered with Dooney & Bourke to create an exclusive Autism Awareness-themed product line with a special emblem on each handbag, which are sold on the Ventures ATL website.
“The customers love the bags and the personal note from the employees included in each box,” Hurwitz says. The organization also provides product fulfillment for Walmart.com orders of products from FIXD, an Atlanta-based maker of automotive diagnostic devices.
Barron conducts the initial interviews with all job applicants. “We want to ‘screen in’ candidates who have strengths like focus, attention to detail and spreadsheets,” she says. “I encourage them to practice so that they can showcase their strengths!”
Having a career path in line with their strengths and interests creates other positive ripple effects in their lives, personally and professionally.
Ventures ATL employees work regular business hours and earn salaries based on an hourly wage commensurate with industry standards for their skills and experience. Operations manager Jordan Greer organizes employee teams to work on specific projects.
For example, some clients utilize Ventures ATL for projects that recur on a monthly basis. Other clients start the relationship by picking a specific project and then expand to other areas as they learn more about the skills of the Ventures ATL team. One client has now worked with them on 16 different projects.
“Our employees’ commitment to success often exceeds expectations,” Greer says with pride.
“While we are organized as a nonprofit, Ventures ATL must deliver at the same high standards as those of any other business,” Hurwitz confirms. “Our commercial clients become repeat clients, which validates our work model of optimizing the skills and abilities of an historically underemployed group. Currently we have 23 employees, expect to have 30 by the end of the year and we’ll continue expanding from there. We provide a work environment that capitalizes on our employees’ strengths, and we are looking for others with skills and interests in our primary area of growth, data management.”
When asked about what Ventures ATL employees like best about their jobs, one might expect answers like getting a regular paycheck or working in a professional setting. Most employees, however, expressed pride and reliability as a motivating factor: “We know our work is important, and businesses like what we do. They depend on us.”