This article is part of our continuing Fast Forward series, which examines technological, economic, social and cultural shifts that happen as businesses evolve.
Byran Dai was 24 when he promised his mother, who passed away less than two months later, that he would look out for his younger brother Brandon, who is autistic. Brandon, 15 at the time, was receiving special education and social services, but Mr. Dai knew that by 22, his brother would phase out of the services and education provided by the state.
“In the autism community, we call that ‘falling off the cliff,’” Mr. Dai said. “It’s what a lot of families are worried about.”
Like so many entrepreneurs inspired by personal experience, Mr. Dai’s concern for his brother ultimately became the genesis for a new business. In 2018, Mr. Dai co-founded Daivergent, a start-up that is connecting tech companies with a pool of candidates on the autism spectrum. The company already has 20 corporate clients and has helped 75 people find work. There are about 1,100 candidates in the Daivergent pool.
The employment rate for individuals on the spectrum — even for those who have finished college — is extremely low. Statistics vary, but according to Anne Roux, a research scientist at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University, about 50 percent of those on the autism spectrum have had at least one job since high school, but often that job is a low-paying part-time position. For those with greater impairment, she added, only 14 percent have employment in the community in which they live.
It’s not that their abilities are lacking, said David Kearon, the director of adult services for the advocacy group Autism Speaks. “Anecdotally what we hear all the time is that autistic adults have the intellectual capability, but, because of their challenges with social skills, they’re often unemployed.” Brandon Dai, for example, “can focus on detail-oriented, complex, repetitive kinds of work that underlie much of the data structure that go into artificial intelligence and machine learning,” his brother said.
Mr. Dai, a data scientist, and a high school friend Rahul Mahida, a data engineer who has an autistic cousin, realized that there was no platform to pair those on the spectrum with companies looking for candidates who could work in data and artificial intelligence. The corporate name, Daivergent, is essentially a portmanteau combining Mr. Dai’s name with neurodiversity, the term describing those individuals who have a range of neurological conditions including autism. Most of the general population is considered to be neurotypical.
Leon Campbell, 24, who is autistic, was employee No. 1 at the new company. With a computer science degree from Hunter College in New York, Mr. Campbell had technical skills but had never had a job before Daivergent hired him. He initially worked on labeling, but now focuses on quality assurance, overseeing the projects Daivergent’s remote workers complete. “I am one of the last lines of defense,” he said, before the work is sent to the corporate client.
He worried that his new job would be stressful, but because Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida were so accommodating, “those concerns quickly faded away on the first week of the job.”
Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida have taken a multifaceted approach to building their company because both the candidates and the tech companies have needs that can be complex.
At the outset, Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida reached out to organizations like Autism Speaks and AHRC New York City to find suitable candidates, whose skills are assessed through Daivergent’s readiness platform, which incorporates work experience, technology skills and socialization. Teaching the requisite skills is accomplished through video-based education. Mr. Mahida said the candidates often excel at the ability to vet thousands of images. “They do much better on these assessments than Byran and I did,” he said.
The most difficult part may be improving social and communication skills. Daivergent, Mr. Dai said, builds “shared interest groups through community forum and instant messaging tools, and also creates virtual job clubs where folks on the spectrum can swap tips and review resumes. It creates a community by us, and for us.”
And Daivergent is working with the software giant SAP, which is a leader in employing those on the spectrum through its Autism at Work initiative, which started in 2013.
Judith Williams, SAP’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said that Daivergent would be offered for customers who purchased Fieldglass, SAP’s product for managing contingent workers, so that those customers could have access to Daivergent’s work force. In addition, Ms. Williams said, SAP’s managers would have direct access to Daivergent’s work force as well.
Daivergent is also working with colleges to help autistic students gain employment. At Drexel, for example, the company is working with the university’s autism support program, to help those students obtain work to fulfill academic requirements, since the school is a co-op system that requires students to complete several internships before graduating. It’s often difficult for autistic students to obtain internships, but Daivergent is helping to bridge the gap. “While I just started working with them in April,” said Amy Edwards, who runs the autism support program, “they’ve been awesome.”
Daivergent is not the only company helping autistic workers find employment. Brenda Weitzberg was one of the first entrepreneurs to tackle this issue. More than a decade ago, motivated by her oldest son, she said she read “one sentence about a Danish company that hired those on the spectrum to do software testing.” With neither a technology nor an entrepreneurial background, she shopped her idea with professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and asked if there were a group of students interested in an “employment autism project.”
While the students’ proposal didn’t pan out, Ms. Weitzberg and her husband, Moshe, nevertheless persevered, bootstrapping their fledgling company. They parlayed their first client into others, and now the company, Aspiritech, has about 130 employees, neurodiverse as well as neurotypical. Based in Highland Park, Ill., wages start at $15 per hour, about twice the state’s $8.25 minimum.
While Aspiritech doesn’t have specific training, the company has hired support staff to work with its employees. And the employees have formed clubs for after-work activity, increasing their social interactions. While autism inspired the company, Ms. Weitzberg said her company’s focus was on the work. “Autism gets us a foot in the door, since many people have a child or family member with autism, but it doesn’t keep us there. There has to be quality.”
Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida know this as well and, as a result, are deliberate in scaling their efforts. That is difficult because there is demand from the tech community, eager for capable employees.
Ultimately, those in the field hope this will be the beginning of expanded employment opportunities for the neurodiverse community. As Ms. Williams of SAP said, “One really important thing we have learned — we had an idea of the types of jobs we thought people with autism would be suited for — like jobs where there is a repetitive attention to detail. But that’s stereotypical. We found that those on the spectrum can also work in H.R. and customer experience as well as engineering.”
In the meantime, Daivergent, like other start-ups, is charting its course securing funding and determining the best way to meet the needs of the community and its corporate clients. Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida have participated in the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator and an SAP accelerator as well earlier this year. And they have raised $1 million in funding to date.
Mr. Dai hopes that his brother will eventually be suitable for the platform. “He’s well-versed in his iPad and grew up with computers, so I always thought of his potentially working somewhere in tech, likely more in a support role.”
Growing the company has been a learning process for Mr. Dai and Mr. Mahida. “We don’t say tech will solve everything. We have to understand the nuance first,” Mr. Dai said. “There are people who have spent decades on accessibility and we won’t be the people who will say we know just what to do.”
For companies — whether in tech or other industries — who want to add staff from the neurodiverse community, Mr. Campbell, Daivergent’s employee No. 1, has some advice: “I want an employer to see me as a person. Don’t hire because you want to look better for your investors.”