Taking Conscious Capitalism to the Next Level

In today’s world of instant gratification and short-term profits, what does it mean to be a “conscious capitalist?” While making money is essential for the financial sustainability of any business, conscious capitalists don’t make profit their only raison d’etre. According to University of Virginia professor and Conscious Capitalism, Inc. trustee, Ed Freeman, conscious businesses focus on purposes beyond profit.  What sustains us through hard times and acts as a guiding force? He asks. By focusing on creating meaning along with money, conscious business inspire and energize employees, customers, and investors. As Ed Freedman explains, “We need red blood cells to live (the same way a business needs profits to live), but the purpose of life is more than to make red blood cells (the same way the purpose of business is more than simply to generate profits).  Purpose is one of the things that separates us from animals.”

Using a similar analogy, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey describes conscious capitalism as the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly. “Humans can choose to be like caterpillars (mindlessly consuming as much as possible) or we can evolve dramatically into butterflies (beautiful creatures that serve an invaluable function in nature through pollination of plants and thus producing food for others to eat).” Ordinary corporations function at the caterpillar level, maximizing their profits while draining resources from the environment. Conscious businesses choose to be agents of creation and collaboration, cross-pollinating human potential to create value for consumers and the environment.

If you’re an autism parent like me, you already know why we need to take the next step to compassionate capitalism. It’s time to employ young adults on the autistic spectrum in far greater numbers. Compassionate capitalism cannot be the sole province of desperate parents, random philanthropists or luck. Government incentives, such as tax breaks, should be offered to all kinds of businesses willing to train and employ people on the spectrum. Further, more colleges should be making the effort to educate people with autism and integrate them with their neurotypical peers. Extensive government outreach programs should follow graduation. Diversity must become a reality, not a slogan.

Countless young adults on the spectrum will soon be either tax-payers or tax burdens. “Roughly 50,000 youths with autism will turn 18 years old this year,” said Paul Shattuck, an associate professor in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. “So many of these young people have the potential to work and participate in their communities.  Supporting this potential will benefit everyone—the person with autism, the family, employers and society.”

Clearly, the U.S. is ill-prepared to support the tsunami of young adults with autism aging out of school programs. My daughter Samantha graduated from Pace (cum laude) nearly two long years ago. Like thousands of others with autism, she wants to find meaningful work, but her social challenges make it difficult to network, write cover letters, or “ace” an interview. Nevertheless, people with special needs are a valuable resource our culture has ignored too long. Given appropriate training, they can contribute to the world instead of costing taxpayers a lifetime of disability payments, housing subsidies, and Medicaid. The yearly cost of supporting the 1.5 million U.S. citizens with autism is estimated between $35 billion to $60 billion (Autism Society, 2011), adding up to a lifetime cost of $3.2 million per person. Two-thirds of this expense happens after individuals on the spectrum reach 18 and remain unemployed. With one out of 68 babies born on the spectrum (an increase from one out of 150 when my daughter was born in 1990), care to do the math?

There is not only a moral imperative, but also a financial necessity to include people with autism in the workforce. Parents, frustrated by long waiting lists for government services and severely limited job opportunities, are setting up businesses to provide work for their young adults with autism. For example, Janet and Ray Steffy of Louisburg, KS founded Poppin’ Joe’s Gourmet Kettle Korn in 2005, and their son, Joe—with both Downs Syndrome and autism—runs the business today and employs seven part-time workers with disabilities. John D’Eri of Miami opened Rising Tide Car Wash to employ his son with autism. Today the car wash is one of the largest employers of people with autism in the U.S. with 30+ employees. Also in Miami, Lee and Marie’s Cakery employs 10 people on the spectrum; their mission is twofold: the production of delicious goods and compassionate employment.

Walgreens is a corporate leader in compassionate capitalism. At their distribution center in Anderson, South Carolina, more than 40 percent of their employees have a physical or cognitive disability. “We’ve worked technology and creativity into every inch of this place, but it’s the people here who will amaze you,” said Randy Lewis, Walgreens senior vice president of supply chain and logistics who instituted the program in 2002. Expanding the workforce by employing people with disabilities isn’t just an act of compassion. Walgreens discovered that the right combination of training, technology, and awareness empowered people with disabilities to run the newest generation of their distribution centers even more effectively and productively. As Lewis says, “This has led to the conclusion that hiring the disabled is not just as good – it is better.”

Companies like Microsoft and SAP hire high-functioning people on the spectrum to test software and enter data. Repetitive and detail-oriented tasks are tedious for neurotypical employees, but workers on the spectrum may be uniquely qualified to excel in these areas. Unfortunately, my daughter isn’t a computer whiz; nor does her autism helps her focus repetitively. On the other hand, Samantha is an actress with perfect pitch. She reprised her co-starring role in the award-winning short film Keep the Change this summer. Scheduled for release in 2017, the full-length film showcases Samantha singing two solos. Currently, she performs in cabarets with the Dreamstreet Theater Group, but has no paying job.

Unlike other minorities suffering from discrimination, social and communication challenges render people with ASDs unable to organize protests, lobby their congressional representatives, hire lawyers or effectively voice their outrage. Unless their neurotypical parents are willing to (tirelessly!) advocate for them, the Samanthas of the world will remain sidelined. When young adults with ASDs graduate from high school (or even college), after a lifetime of structure, they fall off a cliff into… well, nothing. More than 80 percent of adults on the spectrum are unemployed, despite the “safety net” of government services.

Without compassionate capitalism, Samantha and others like her are largely excluded from the workforce because social networking is extremely difficult for people with autism. Speaking of networking, maybe you know someone looking for a lyrical soprano with perfect pitch, who loves young kids? She’s a hard worker with a great memory, an upbeat attitude, and always on time.

Marguerite Elisofon is a New York City writer and the author of My Picture Perfect Family <http://margueriteelisofon.com/sample-page/, a memoir about how her family navigated life with a child on the autistic spectrum before the internet and support groups existed. She also blogs about parenting young adults and disability related issues in The Never Empty Nest <http://margueriteelisofon.com/blog/>. Her writing has been featured in a variety of publications, including Time and NY Metro Parents magazine, and her family’s story has been featured by the NY Post, Fox News, Parents Magazine, and on Jenny McCarthy’s Dirty Sexy Funny radio show. A Vassar graduate, Marguerite was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her husband, Howard, in their mostly-empty nest. She is available to speak about a wide variety of issues relating to twins, parenting, and autism.