From Interest to Innovation: The Micro-Enterprise Model of Employment
Ideally, everyone desiring employment  should be able to find a job. Long term employment which provides income necessary for independent living is traditionally viewed as a key factor in creating quality of life. However, this aspect of quality of life is elusive to many adults with autism. While those with autism may well be able to find some form of employment, they are often underemployed (doing a job below their skill level, and/or working less hours than desired) or they are unable to maintain employment long term. The reasons many in the autism population struggle to maintain employment are varied. According to the director of one service provider who assists young adults with disabilities in finding employment, a primary reason for job failure within this population is lack of interest in the job itself on the part of the employee. This lack of interest may manifest itself in various ways such as poor attendance and/or poor performance.
One way to circumvent the lack of employee interest, as well as address the shortage of opportunities in a struggling economy, is to custom build an entrepreneurial opportunity. The US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy  lists the following benefits of entrepreneurship for people with disabilities:
- Independence and the opportunity to make their own business decisions;
- The ability to set their own pace and schedules;
- Reduction of transportation problems when a business is home-based and
- Continued support from Social Security Disability Insurance  (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income  (SSI)—including health care—when income and assets are within these programs' requirements.
This customized employment scenario has given rise to an entrepreneurial model known as the “micro-enterprise.” A micro-enterprise is a small business, typically having fewer than five employees and requiring less than $35,000 in startup capital. While micro-enterprises originated  as a means to help poverty-stricken citizens of developing countries, the model can be applied to addressing the needs of adults with disabilities, especially those adults with the unique and special interests often associated with autism.
How does an adult with a disability such as Autism Spectrum Disorder turn a special interest into an employment opportunity? According to Ron Irvine , Micro-Enterprise Specialist at Hope Network  in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it starts with the passion of the potential business owner. "As part of assessing the feasibility of a potential micro-enterprise, we must determine if this is just a hobby or if there is true business potential there. It starts with [the client's] passion and we provide the supports and leadership development to get the ball rolling. This process we use actually empowers the individual to see whether they want it to be a business or a hobby. We work with them until it is clear to them what they want and what is feasible."
Hope Network is a nonprofit organization that provides numerous support services to people with developmental disabilities, mental illness, and brain and spinal cord injuries. Support for micro-enterprise development falls within Hope Network’s Supported Employment and Skill Building and Community Inclusion services. Irvine has worked at Hope Network for four years and is responsible for assessing the feasibility of micro-enterprise for budding entrepreneurs. He notes that there are four areas in which feasibility is considered:
- The individual: Does the person considering a micro-enterprise have enough drive to create a business? Is there a desire to learn the skills necessary for success?
- The product: Is the product marketable? Is it a quality product and will the quality of the product remain consistent?
- The profit: Can the product be sold at a price that will make the production costs worthwhile, while at the same time provide income to the entrepreneur?
- The support: How independent is the business owner? Can he or she drive? Is the family supportive of the endeavor and the entrepreneur? Are the necessary supports in place where they are most needed?
Hope Network emphasizes leadership development when helping young business owners, in addition to helping get their products to market. One-to-one coaching is a critical piece of the business development, as are monthly meetings held with business owners, known as the Micro-Enterprise Club. This club provides peer review of business plans and shared experiences through evaluating each other’s successes and failures. Through the County Mental Health Department, a discretionary fund has been set up for Hope Network’s micro-enterprise owners to borrow up to $500, interest free, in order to offset their startup costs and ongoing expenses. When asked about the percentage of his clients that obtain loans, Mr. Irvine responded, "Roughly 80 to 90 percent of our clients do not use these funds, because taking out a loan is scary for them. Many of them have been doing their craft as a hobby, and therefore have materials on hand, so start-up costs are not an issue."
Sarah Frisch is a 23-year-old woman who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology. As recently as two years ago, Sarah was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, Generalized Anxiety Disorder , Cognitive Disorder—NOS , and Dysthymia . After earning her college degree and completing an internship at the public library, Frisch turned to Hope Network for help with her career search. "A friend of mine knew I was struggling in my job search, and suggested I see what Hope Network had to offer," she explained.
With the help of Hope Network’s Micro-Enterprise Program, Frisch was able to turn her chainmail jewelry making hobby into real income. She began making chainmail after attending a workshop at a gamers’ convention. "Making chainmail is very intricate and very repetitive. I find it calming,” she said. When Frisch completed the project from the chainmail workshop, she began to experiment with the leftover materials. That experiment led to the creation of jewelry, which she now sells at markets sponsored by Hope Network. Frisch makes earrings, necklaces and bracelets which range in price from $4 to $32. She has made one intricate cuff bracelet, which might sell for $60, but Frisch believes the price is beyond what people would be willing to spend for such a piece. Regarding her first participation in a Hope Network market, Frisch commented, "I was surprised that people actually wanted to buy my stuff." And she notes that there are challenges to this business model. "You don't make a lot at small sales. It can be difficult sitting there for three hours and only having a few sales."
Sarah has not needed a loan for her jewelry business, and sells her jewelry at Hope Network sales as well as at a local animal shelter operation. When asked about branching off and perhaps selling at Renaissance festivals, for instance, she said, "It's likely that someone else would already be selling chainmail jewelry at those types of events."
Since turning her jewelry making into a business, Frisch has accepted a full-time position in the Information Technology field. She works for a small company that counts among its clients the same public library where she completed her internship. Frisch says that the income she earned from selling her jewelry at the Hope Network markets definitely made a difference in her ability to maintain her independence and support herself until she found full-time employment. In addition to her full-time job and the Hope Network markets, Frisch also has two volunteer positions she participates in regularly and lives in an apartment on her own. Frisch’s work ethic and self-reliance is indicative of the type of passion Irvine looks for when assessing a potential micro-enterprise client for Hope Network.
What if you or someone you care for is a budding entrepreneur and don’t happen to live in Kent County, Michigan and have access to Hope Network’s services? In the case of Anthony at Your Service , a courier service in Edmonton Canada, the business was born out of parent ingenuity and the creative talents of support staff. Anthony Barrett’s mother, Deborah, recognized the absence of opportunities for a young adult with autism and set out to create an employment experience for her 24-year-old son. Anthony Barrett had been attending literacy courses at a local college but needed something else to occupy his time. Barrett enjoys riding in the car and making quick visits to new locations. His enjoyment of these small trips made courier service seem a logical choice for him. The flexibility of a being self-employed was ideal for Barrett, and thus Anthony at Your Service was born.
However, Anthony at Your Service would not be possible were it not for Barrett’s aide, Mike Hamm, who does most of the administration for the business, and takes Barrett to customers either by car, bike, or public transportation. Hamm sees the opportunity Barrett has to develop needed skills through this business model. Barrett is mostly nonverbal, and this exposure to the community is teaching him invaluable social skills such as greeting someone without prompting and tolerating standing in line. As Barrett’s familiarity with his role of courier grows, Hamm is hopeful that Barrett will be able to learn additional skills associated with the business. As it is now, Barrett makes roughly the equivalent of minimum wage and spends four to five hours each weekday making deliveries. Hamm is compensated by Barrett’s family, who are in turned reimbursed through government funding.
Anthony at Your Service debuted in August 2012, and has already received national attention in Canada. Hamm posted a YouTube video introducing Barrett and his business venture, and within two hours of posting the video Hamm received a call from a national news outlet. “If I tried to start a delivery business, it would not have succeeded,” said Hamm. “Anthony’s greatest skill is how likeable he is. He’s got this smile and he warms people just when he steps into a room. A lot of people want to work with Anthony because they want to see Anthony.”
Deborah Barrett adds, “What I think is so important about this is that Anthony at Your Service plays to Anthony's strengths and the things he likes to do. More than that, though, it's Anthony's business. It leaves control with Anthony, his family and Mike. Because it's our idea and our business, we can control things to make it serve Anthony as much as to make it serve the community.”
Where can you or your loved one find access to financial support when starting a business? Check out The Abilities Fund . According to their website, “The Abilities Fund is the first nationwide nonprofit community developer and financial institution focused exclusively on expanding entrepreneurial opportunities, including access to capital, for people with disabilities. We do this by providing a unique combination of financial products, training, technical assistance services and advisory supports to individuals with disabilities.” The Resources  page on their website provides a wealth of information for the entrepreneur in the process of formulating an idea for a business.
While it’s clear that not all micro-enterprise models will provide enough income to support independent living, there are other advantages to this type of employment that are not income-driven. This type of employment model allows for flexibility to build a business around an individual’s strengths, allows for increasing skill acquisition, and provides opportunities for community involvement and social connections. A micro-enterprise might not provide a living wage, but it just might provide a life activity. With a little research and a lot of perseverance, it may be possible that you need look no further for that career opportunity than your own front door. In addition, service providers are developing programs around the micro-enterprise concept. This means that support in the form of micro-loans, business development, and general skill assessment is becoming more readily available. This doesn’t mean that any hobby can instantly become an income-generating business proposition. But if the passion is there, so might be the support and tools necessary to turn that passion into a way of life.