Everyone has a dream. For some, the dream sounds simple yet there are huge obstacles beyond their control preventing them from achieving their dream. Ann Marie Sullivan saw an opportunity – and a need – to help people with autism find meaningful employment. She’s built a unique company, Spectrum Works, which is helping others live their dreams.
Dennis: Dream. Believe. Do. The concept manifests itself in many, many different ways. Sometimes it's us pursuing our own dreams and other times it's us helping others pursue their dreams. I'm really happy today to be talking to Anne Marie Sullivan. Ann Marie, welcome.
Ann: Thank you for having me today.
Dennis: Ann Marie, you had a dream that you wanted to pursue. And I’d like to hear about that dream a bit. And then also, how that's morphed over time into how you're helping other people pursue their dreams, please.
Ann: Absolutely! Well, I'll start way back and go quickly through that part because the most interesting part I think is how I'm helping other people pursue their dreams. But in order to get there, I’ll sort of tell you where I started. And even at the age of 17, I had a bucket list of all the dreams that I’ve ever had. And I think writing it down really changes everything. I encourage everyone to do that. And so I just started checking them off, which was one was still, you know, “live in Europe,” which I did. I lived in four different countries. And starting a business was also on my list. So I started two businesses in Europe and the United States. And being an entrepreneur, it's great; you get to be creative, you get to have new ideas, start something from scratch and actually make it happen. So it is a dream in itself.
But once I actually did that for twenty years, I decided that I wanted to do something more rewarding with my life and use my entrepreneurial skills that I had gathered up over these years and as well living in various countries. I wanted to use that and do something more rewarding with my life. And so I wanted to pursue a nonprofit career in some way. And how I transitioned was I decided that I wanted to volunteer grassroots. And I traveled around the world and I volunteered on various grassroots projects from living in Africa, working on a game reserve, helping with research on lions and elephants to living in Papua New Guinea with a tribe in the middle of a very remote area, helping them with earned income model sustainability, eco lodges and things like that.
Ann: And what I realized… yeah, those are my dreams. I actually do think my travels aren’t always what other people’s travels are, you know, like adventures like from jumping out of planes to climbing mountains. I tried to climb Mont Blanc and Everest basecamp and various things I challenge myself. So the dreams could be anything from something physical to, you know, like I said, climbing mountains or jumping out of planes or living in remote areas and volunteering to something of starting a nonprofit that helps people in something more rewarding. So I think I encourage everybody to do various dreams. It doesn’t have to be one specific thing.
Dennis: Your bucket list is like, you know, one of the items on your list is like some people’s ultimate dream and you’ve done this whole bucket full of dreams. It's pretty amazing.
Ann: Yeah. For me, it is. My friends tell me you couldn’t pay them enough to take my vacation or my experiences.
Ann: Everybody’s idea is very different. I'm not saying that I don't like to stay in a luxury resort, but I also don't mind, you know, in Papua New Guinea where there's no running water, no electricity, there was no way to have a phone call. There was no connection to the outside world. And you realize what's important in life, that people, they don't need anything; they have their family, they have their land. And they're happy; they laugh, they have conversations, they're funny. And it's really as eye opening to what people need in their life to be happy. So all of these experiences like I've said, from starting a business to moving to Europe to adventure of things like you know climbing mountains or jumping out of planes or taking flying lessons, every dream is individual to a person, and everyone is worthwhile. And so when you write it down and you see it in writing, you kind of feel like you have to check it off whereas if it just stays in your head, it might just stay in your head. That's why I encourage writing it down and telling somebody about it. You're more likely to actually make it happen.
And so what I've found out is that when I was traveling and living in these places and working on these grassroots projects that my skills aren’t environment, I wish I had. I wish I could go back to school and do those again but it's not the environment. And I'm not a doctor and I can’t work in the areas and be the most effective and impactful. What I realized is that my entrepreneurial skills are really what I can make an impact of. And I started studying social enterprise earned income model. And when I went back to the United States, I volunteered as a management consultant for a nonprofit consulting company. And I helped them to make a social enterprise division and we would go out to executives of nonprofits teaching them earned income models, sustainability models. And I was introduced to a company in New York that had a very small program on autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities and they had a small screen printing shop. And when I walked in, I thought I was going to evaluate them from a business perspective. The board wanted them to be more sustainable. They were losing money. But when I walked in, I found something very different than I imagined. I didn’t have any exposure to people with disabilities on any level.
Ann: And I thought I’d come in from a business perspective and sort of tell them how to run the business. And what I've found is when I walked in, it was a very special place. People were laughing and joking but they were productive and they were learning and they were happy and they were making a product. And I thought, “Wow, this is so amazing! This should be bigger than it is.” So when I left there, I thought “How can it be better? How can it be bigger and more impactful?” And so I wrote a business plan on, you know, how we can start multiple social enterprises and share infrastructure, be financially sustaining from the sale of goods created by our workforce and then implement something that could be sustainable over three years.
Ann: That's kind of the dream that I had was just sort of fell upon me for anything dealing with autism. But I think that is life; you follow and you pursue and you could write down all the things you want to do. But then things happen along the way and you could change and modify and sometimes become better than you imagined yourself by people on the outside giving you ideas and changing that model and being flexible, helps bring me to the place where I am now, which it took us two years to get funded. So, my suggestion to people is don't give up even when people tell you that you might as well give up, you're not going to get the money for your startup, it's difficult for a business for-profit to get funded, let alone a nonprofit to get funded.
And many times, I almost did give up. And then finally we did get funded. And everything changed after that. We originally were going to do sort of a screen printing shop on our own. And I happened upon one of the largest screen printing companies on the East Coast, and within five minutes the owner said, “Why don't you do it with us?” And our whole model changed. Everything changed to an integrated work environment along their typical employees. We get to work with a company that does Nike and Rolling Stones and Lady Gaga. And our work force is now integrated into their workforce in a way that I could never have imagined. It's a much better model that I could have created on my own.
Ann: And so that's where we are today. It's kind of you know, and the dreams that you talked about of… and that was my dream, but the idea now is I get to help people with autism from the age of 16 to 21. In school, we have a school program where they come as part of their curriculum, we teach them a trade and they get paid a salary while in school and then we hire them when they graduate. And most of them are unemployed. So eighty percent of people with autism, seventy five to eighty percent are unemployed or underemployed.
Dennis: Unbelievable. Really?
Ann: And what happens when they graduate is that there's no opportunity. So for us, it's get them while they're young. Teach them the skills. And then to change awareness because our mission is to give job trainings for people with autism through social enterprise. But our vision is bigger. And that's something that this interview could help us with is because we want to raise awareness that people with autism could be valuable, productive members of society through work. And that’s the bigger challenge is to make more companies aware of us. So everybody that wears our t-shirts or hats or sweatshirts or gets our cups knows that it was made by somebody with autism, so that they will give them opportunities. We can never start enough social enterprises. What we can do is educate the public that they are capable of making great, amazing things so that… or teach other companies how to incorporate people with autism into their workforce. And that's the impact. The dream is to get people with autism. Everybody wants a job. Their dream is our dream. Everyone wants to work, get a paycheck, feel productive, build your self-confidence.
Ann: And this gives them that opportunity to pursue their dream. From graphic designer to my production manager, down to the factory workers, they all have autism.
Dennis: Interesting. So to make sure I understood this correctly, when you decided to come back to the States and you started working for a nonprofit consulting company to bring your entrepreneurial skills and then your for-profit business training and skills into play there. But then you got exposed to the small print shop that is doing silk screening and had employed people with autism. And it struck you that they were having fun, it was alive and it was a very positive environment. And you thought how could you scale that to a bigger opportunity.
Now, did I understand right that when you started out to build this new structured business plan together, you actually ran across a printing operation that existed and you ended up becoming actually helping to be sort of like a Manpower trying to get people placed in that organization. Is that how that works then?
Ann: It actually works that we, Spectrumworks – me in particular – I go out and I sell. And everything that I sell, the screen printing jobs that I sell, goes to fund their salaries. But we work in the infrastructure of under the supervision, so that we can have high quality, competitively priced items under the supervision of experts on the field. And their job coaches and mentors are his employees, so they're very integrated into the work force. And they work on his jobs as well as my jobs. And so what that opens up is that integrated environment where they can work alongside very typical employees is what doesn’t exist right now. Most places are segregated. And everything is needed because there's so many people… there's going to be about 500,000 kids in the next ten years will be graduating – that’s Autism Speaks’ statistics. What happens to them? So we will never be able to hire enough. So getting other people to be aware and his employees now know more about autism than they knew before.
Dennis: I'm sure.
Ann: They're not afraid, they care about them, they love them, they treat them, they call them their children. It's a very family… it became a very family atmosphere. They are very well received here, which is a great part of our mission. It's not one-sided; it's not just about giving dreams to our employees and helping them to realize their dreams, it's also raising awareness amongst his employees as well. So, you know, it's all about more opportunities for people with autism so that they can have their dreams pursued.
Dennis: This is really amazing. I’ve read your website, spectrumworks.org and I noticed that you have some goals set up there in terms of how many people you're trying to get placed on a calendar year basis to try to get them employed. Where are you today, right now, in 2015?
Ann: Well, we have already 26 people who have gone through the program and part of our school program and our employment program. But the only way, and you know, I do interviews, and we've had magazine articles and what I think is people, or the parents calling me wanting to place their children. But for us, in order to reach our goal and to employ more people, what we really need is for people – corporations and companies to buy our products. Come to us for screen printing because in a direct correlation, what they buy goes to fund the salaries. The more people buy, the more people with autism I could hire and train and…
Dennis: Of course.
Ann: And so that's the message that we want to go out. It's high quality, competitively priced items. They do 65,000 garments a day. We can take orders, we can go out to corporations and for corporate social responsibility, you know, we're not asking them to buy anything that they wouldn’t have purchased anyway. And now, they get to say that if they raise their image as a socially conscious company, have high quality competitively priced items for no extra cost, not even a donation. And so what we're really trying to do is to change those perceptions through screen printing at the moment. That's our first business.
Dennis: Actually, I mean, as a businessperson, I find it pretty fascinating that it's a very unique model you’ve come up with. As you’ve said, it's not a donation; it's actually you're buying products you'd be buying anyway. You’re just having to buy it from a very specific organization that goes back and benefits the organization directly. As you said it goes back into salaries. More salaries or more products bought means more income. More income means it goes back in to salaries. You can then hire more people and continue to expand your business, which is lovely. What was the catalyst that made you believe this was possible? What was that moment that told you that this was going to happen? Do you remember?
Ann: I'm always… I think people who are entrepreneurs sort of always believed that they can make something happen -- for good or bad -- and then try to pursue it. I just felt that… the small nonprofit in New York really dealt with not just autism but intellectual development disabilities and autism, so it wasn't specific. But in terms of what I saw, I saw that they can do something and that's the first part that I really wanted to help. And then the funding and any business, for-profit or nonprofit, in order to make it happen, you need to have the funding behind you.
And so I think our first big donation came from the New York Yankees. And that belief in us, one month later we had a very big grant. And that’s when I believed that this was actually going to happen. Because it's not just about… everybody can have a great idea, but if you can’t put a plan together and get the people to believe and fund you, it's just a great idea. So when that happens, and then along the way, I've met amazing people you know, I've met a mayor of a town believe so much in our cause, that he helped us. The owner of this for-profit company believed in our idea so much that he does much more than a normal relationship for a company.
And so along the way, you have certain milestones. I would say first is finding what I wanted to do was to work with people with autism in the employment, because there aren’t any jobs for them when they graduate, so I wanted to help in that respect. And then when you get funded, that's another point where you're like, “Okay, there's a possibility.” And then when you develop the right partnerships, you see people that believe in you outside of yourself and help you along the way. So each time you see the vision getting closer and closer. But it's a business like any other. And you know, it takes time to develop those relationships. I'm also working with the university, three universities to help us as well. So it's somebody from the outside, but you know every step along the way brings you closer to whether or not you believe it’s possible. It all, in the end, you have to have a longevity of being sourced funding until you become financially sustainable which we believe should be in another year and a half.
Ann: So I don't think it's one point, I think it's you know, with the euphoria of getting the funding. First the idea and then the funding and then building the relationships that could actually help you, because you can’t do this alone. I haven't done this alone. I've done it with the help of other people, including the people who have autism that work for me. I have amazing boy who -- they all are -- but he started as a graphic designer who's now my production manager. And he could never find a job. He graduated from college and nobody would hire him. It was at least like two years and still nobody would to hire him. And he's excelled and watching his dreams come true of being able to pursue what he went to school for, plus learn new things and be my production manager. And I have multiple stories just like that. And watching their dreams come true of being able to… and helping them along the way. That's what this is all about. Watching and helping them and having other people see that they can do it. So that's inspiration to other people and creating that awareness so that they know that they can get a job when they graduate.
Dennis: I think it's amazing. It's such a great story. It's really, truly a great story. You’ve mentioned in trying to get things going and starting and funding and making connections and building relationships with people and so forth, what's been the hardest part of moving forward? What's been the hardest obstacle? The biggest obstacle you've had to overcome?
Ann: I would say funding. And also you know, if you don't have the funding, you can’t hire and put together the people that you need to be in place in an organization and build it from the ground up. You need to have the funds to hire the right people and to grow the organization. So I would say that that would be one of the biggest obstacles to us.
Dennis: And how did you find the solutions for those?
Ann: Every day, we're in the process of… it's trying to go out and have events and try to raise funding and to try go out and sell. So for us, you know, we can do all of those other things just as startup money. But for us, to prove our model, we need to do sales. We want to run as a social enterprise. We want to run sort of like a business with a social mission, with everything going back and being reinvested into the employees that we have. And we need to go out and sell more. It's all about making relationships with people like you who may want to put out a podcast and that spreads the awareness. Because in the end, the more people that know about us, the more people that might buy from us, the more jobs that we can give, the more people we can hire and the salaries. And it's all a revolving circle for how we work. And it's a learning curve. Every is a new day and everyday it's trying to find a new way to get funding for ourselves. But to be dependent upon grants and donations is not what we want to be. We would never turn them away. We will always have that as a part of our pie but we want them the majority to be coming from… we want to be sustainable from the sale of goods and services created by our workforce, eventually.
Dennis: I think it's great. I think it's a great idea, great model. What's been the most surprising thing so far? Anything?
Ann: I think that I would say it's how you go in with one idea of how do you think a model should be, and then you can change that model. Like, you have to be open to think your idea, whilst you think it's great, it could actually be even better. And if you listen to the people around you, and surround yourself by intelligent people, they might have ideas. I would say that the learning curve is it isn’t what we started; it’s better. It's not the, as I said, the stand alone with people with autism doing their own production, it became an integrated environment that doesn't really exist.
Ann: …I think that we're doing. And I think the biggest surprise was that it did change. It changed pretty quickly. And I would say that my advice would be to be aware that it can change and it could be better.
Dennis: That's a good point! You had a couple bits of advice in here, actually. One, you mentioned earlier on about on a personal dream basis, how important it is to write it down. It becomes a bit of a commitment. And when you tell others about your dream, then you’re sort of on the hook for that, right? I mean, the cat’s out of the bag; you’ve shared it with somebody else. Somebody else knows what your dream is. And the other part you just said right now was to be flexible in what the plan is and how it may adapt and change to be able to move with that. Any other advice you want to share with people about pursuing their dreams or helping others pursue dreams?
Ann: I think that sort of summed up like what I would, I think like there’s three good points that you’ve pulled out of them. I tend to talk a lot, so, I think you’ve pulled out three really good points. And for me, it's also about affecting other people. I try to be a mentor for other people. Anybody who has an idea, who don't have to go through the same thing of several years of trying to put together something like me. And that's what you're doing so that in this podcast, any advice that I may have given, if it helps somebody else in some way, that's impactful for me. So I appreciate that you actually put the time to talk to me and pull out those facts.
Dennis: No. You have a great story. I wanted to share the story. Ann Marie Sullivan, I want to thank you for your time today. The name of the company is Spectrum Works. The website is SpectrumWorks.org. And I'm Dennis Hodges. Dream. Believe. Do. Thanks Ann Marie!
Ann: Thank you!
P.S. Here's a link to a story written by Yogi Berra's granddaughter in New Jersey Monthly about how working at Spectrum Works has changed her brother's life. Powerful message: http://njmonthly.com/articles/jersey-living/people/thriving-on-the-job-spectrum-works/
I welcome your comments and suggestions. Feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can leave comments here. Thanks! Dennis
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