Adults living with autism face drastic rates of unemployment, and Jenny Anderson figured out that entrepreneurship is one possible solution for this problem.
We got to ask the founder of Celebrate Autism herself about her work, inspiration, and passions. Throughout the interview, these are some ways that she refers to autism: the autism spectrum, on the spectrum, autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
For readers who may not know, what is Celebrate Autism and what inspired you to start it?
Jenny Anderson: Celebrate Autism is a nonprofit that I started about two years ago to encourage and empower young adults with developmental disabilities by providing them access to innovative entrepreneurial education. We have created a comprehensive curriculum to teach entrepreneurship and business skills in order to help these young adults create happier and more productive lives. Our programs are run online and accessible to people across the country through partnerships and collaborations.
I started this organization because I have an older brother on the autism spectrum. Brent is 29-years-old and is an entrepreneur. About four years ago he wrote a book and started his own business as an inspirational speaker. Today he travels around the country talking about the importance of humor in the lives of people with disabilities. Seeing him find his purpose and happiness in his life through the path of entrepreneurship, inspired me to start an organization that would help others with disabilities find this same positive experience.
Can you talk more about the numbers regarding employment among young adults with autism—why is entrepreneurship a good option for adults with developmental disabilities entering the workforce?
JA: The unemployment statistics for adults on the autism spectrum are truly astounding. Currently, 82% of adults with autism are unemployed. With over 500,000 individuals on the spectrum leaving the school system in the next 10 years, it is imperative that we find opportunities for them to find success.
Entrepreneurship is a great option for individuals on the spectrum for a few reasons. First, it allows them to control certain environmental factors such as amount of social interaction, external stimulation, and work hours depending on their needs. Additionally, many of those on the spectrum are highly interested in specific topics; entrepreneurship allows them to build a business around these interests and passions.
Much of your work in education is inspired by your brother Brent, who is on the autism spectrum. Do you have any advice for readers with family members with autism?
JA: The best advice that I can give is to recognize and honor the interests and passions of your family member on the spectrum while also encouraging growth and pushing them out of their comfort zone. You can start this process at a young age by exposing them to a variety programs, and activities to find the things that spark their interest. If they find something, encourage them to pursue it; you never know where this could lead in the long run!
Can you describe one of your proudest moments since starting Celebrate Autism?
JA: My proudest moment was when I attended the first “entrepreneur fair” hosted by a school that used our program with their students in May 2015. During this event, each student had a table and materials that represented their business idea; some students even dressed the part! About 40 people attended the event including family members, teachers, and community leaders. I had the chance to talk to the students and ask them specific questions about their businesses. I was so impressed by their professionalism, knowledge, and enthusiasm. I was beaming with pride to watch our program at work and I can’t wait for many more moments like this!
You work with many inspiring adults living with autism—are there any misconceptions you have come by that you want to dispel?
JA: There are so many misconceptions about autism it is hard for me to express everything I’ve discovered in one answer. Something I know for sure is that lumping individuals on the spectrum into any one category is harmful.
While there are some similar traits associated with the diagnosis of ASD, each individual is just that, an individual. Every person has a different set of interests, skills, and passions. This has been abundantly clear in the wide variety of business ideas I’ve seen in the Celebrate Autism programs. There is really no article, book or movie that can teach you about what autism actually is. The only way you can really learn is by talking to people on the spectrum, spending the time to get to know them, and seeing who they really are.
What’s one of your biggest challenges of being an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
JA: My biggest challenge has been, and continues to be, my fear of public speaking. As an entrepreneur, I am required to speak about my business all the time; sharing information about our program, pitching to potential customers, and speaking at conferences. I have always been petrified of public speaking but this fear is something I am continuing to work on and am getting much better at!
What are the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur?
JA: I believe that successful entrepreneurs are first and foremost passionate about what they do. Entrepreneurship is tough, if you don’t have a deep passion for what you do, it is hard to persevere through the difficult times. I also believe that entrepreneurs are most successful when they are authentic. Those who are authentic know when to ask for help, they are honest about their own capabilities and knowledge, and they are able to reach their highest potential because of this.
Do you have any advice for women looking to turn their personal passions into a nonprofit organization?
JA: Yes! The first thing I would say is check what other organizations are out there doing work in your passion area. If there is a nonprofit that is doing similar work to what you would want to do, find out how to get involved (volunteer, intern, employment, fundraise etc.) There are a lot of great organizations out there that always need help and I believe we can get a lot more done by working together than each starting our own separate projects.
If there isn’t an organization out there that you love, and you really do want to start your own nonprofit, I suggest surrounding yourself with support. You can do this by finding an incubator program, a mentor network, an online community, or nonprofit leadership group. Launching a nonprofit is hard work, but with the right support system you can definitely find success!
What are your hopes for your future and the future Celebrate Autism?
JA: I am so excited to see what the future holds for Celebrate Autism! I hope that this organization becomes a leader in changing the conversation about people with autism and developmental disabilities. I hope our programs can impact millions of lives, and that our work helps decrease the unemployment rate of those with autism.