When Valerie Herskowitz opened the Chocolate Spectrum in 2013, her goal was to find a meaningful job for her adult son, who had just graduated from high school and lives with autism. Making mail-order chocolates in her West Palm Beach, Fla., home seemed like a good place to start.
Sales proved brisk, and in 2016, she decided to expand the business and open a storefront in Jupiter, Fla. But having worked her whole like as a speech therapist, she didn’t have any experience running retail.
But she knew the D’Eri family. Tom D’Eri and his father John had founded Rising Tide Car Wash in 2013 in Parkland, Fla., as a way to help find employment for people with developmental disabilities like Tom’s brother Andrew, who is also autistic.
The D’Eris opened a second Rising Tide location in 2017, and their story has garnered international attention. The business is profitable; D’Eri declined to state revenue but said approximately 27,000 cars are washed each month between the two locations. In 2018, Tom was named to Forbes’ 30-under-30 list.
Just as Herskowitz was opening her storefront, the D’Eris were launching their latest project, Rising Tide University (RisingTideU.com). It’s an online boot camp for people looking to create and market social enterprises, with the goal of creating profitable business opportunities that also employ developmentally disabled individuals.
To date, Rising Tide U. has helped kick-start 16 enterprises nationwide that employ 115 people.
Today, the Chocolate Spectrum employs two people with developmental disabilities and is training three more.
“It’s one thing to have a business, and one that has a community like they do,” said Herskowitz, who calls the D’Eris her “angels.” “It’s another thing to make it part of your mission to continue helping other like-minded people to develop their business.”
Even as the U.S. unemployment rate has hit historic lows, the rate among those with conditions like autism remains high. That’s despite an initiative taken under the Obama administration to set a goal for employers working with the government to hire 7 percent of their workforce from the disabled population.
“Rising Tide is necessary because over 70 percent of persons with disabilities are unemployed, despite many being able to and wanting to work,” said Debbie Dietz, executive director of Disability Independence Group, Inc., a South Florida-based nonprofit that advocates for the disabled. “All employers should be hiring people with autism, or other developmental or intellectual disabilities. Municipalities and other employers should analyze their job duties and affirmatively create positions for this population.”
D’Eri said progress has been made in making the business case to established companies for hiring autistic workers. But he’s found that the onus remains on families themselves to demonstrate the proof of concept: that hiring someone on the spectrum is a sound investment.
With the university, he’s set out to teach caregivers how to set up their own Rising Tide-model businesses.
“The only way to get companies involved is to prove that [hiring a disabled person] is not going to be some kind of charity,” he said.