Industry the April 2021 issue

Beautiful Minds

There’s a business case for hiring neurodiverse talent.
By Brianne Spellane Posted on March 31, 2021

That decision was driven in part by his demonstrated brilliance but at least as much by his inability to focus. For Minicucci school was a constant struggle.

Underrepresented in the workforce, neurodivergent people make up an underutilized source of talent.

By widening the scope of their hiring practices, businesses can expand their pool of applicants and find more qualified employees, resulting in long-term success for the business.

April is Autism Awareness Month.

Check out our sidebar, Rethinking the Interview Process for Neurodiverse Talent

Check out our sidebar, Insurance Industry Ripe for Analytical Talent

“I wasn’t learning in school, in my day-to-day,” Minicucci says. “I didn’t fit in well with that sort of step-by-step repetition. I knew very early on that I just wasn’t going to fit comfortably with the conventional learning style.”

Minicucci has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), executive dysfunction disorder, sensory integration deficit, and synesthesia—an irregular blending of two or more senses. For every digital number Minicucci sees, for example, he also sees or thinks of an associating color, and when Minicucci is around friends and family, his brain simultaneously assigns certain textures and patterns for each individual. And though he’s never been formally diagnosed, Minicucci also believes he exhibits several signs of dyslexia and autism.

In a word, he is neurodivergent.

Neurodiversity refers to neurological conditions, such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia, autistic spectrum disorder, Tourette’s syndrome and others that can affect memory, concentration or the way people process information. Being neurodiverse simply means having a brain that’s wired differently. Advocates for the neurodiverse say those differences should be recognized and respected as any other human variation, not as cognitive deficiencies.

While each of these disorders impacts what, in the mainstream, is considered to be normal intellectual, emotional and/or behavioral function, they often are accompanied by superior technical and mathematical abilities, such as extreme focus, pattern recognition, attention to detail, and excellent rote memory.

The insurance industry is facing a huge talent crisis and will only need more of those very skill sets. Yet, across all diagnoses, unemployment—and underemployment—is prevalent.

Minicucci is a prime example. At 18, despite an associate’s degree, the New England native spent the summer working in food service. He was living at home, had a passion for computers, and longed for direction.

Pat Woodward, 28, is a technology-based government contractor in Washington, D.C. Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) in the second grade, he struggled in school, citing executive function disorder as his chief obstacle. Commonly referred to as “the management system of the brain,” executive function skills include working memory, flexible thinking and regulating emotions. When people struggle with executive function, they often have difficulty focusing, following directions and managing daily life.

“Teachers would always say things like, ‘You’re so bright, you’re so smart, why can’t you just do this project?’ Or, ‘Why can’t you do your homework?’ And it was just that I would get home from school and the literal last thing in the world that I would do is open my homework planner,” Woodward says. “So when I should have been doing projects and homework, I was running servers in my mom’s basement.”

How are you going to penetrate that market if you don’t represent that market? A lot of that culture-change work begins with leadership. It has to.
Nancy Romanyshyn, consultant in fair pay, Syndio Solutions

After a brief stint at Northern Virginia Community College—“It just didn’t work”—Woodward joined the workforce, gaining valuable experience in website hosting and design. “It was strange because at that point I was 18 or 19 years old, and instead of knowing basic computer science or a lot of the fundamentals that my peers were learning in college, I knew the stuff companies needed, like, day one,” Woodward says. “So I kind of walked in with this level of experience that none of my peers had.”

But his peers had something he did not: a college degree.

InventiveLabs

About 35 miles north of Boston, on the top floor of a renovated mill building, InventiveLabs is a research lab and business incubator that helps people with learning differences find their passion and turn it into a livelihood. It was co-founded in 2014 by Rick Fiery and Tom Bergeron, two outside-the-box thinkers who came to know each other as competitors in their early days working in the quickly evolving software industry. As Fiery and Bergeron moved up the ranks, they became partners, identifying an opportunity to combine what they learned working all those years alongside software developers, architects, engineers and other technological savants within a business world that didn’t yet recognize the benefits of neurodiversity.

While researching the concept of their new lab, Fiery and Bergeron confirmed what they already believed to be true: trailblazers like Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Cher, Richard Branson, Simone Biles, Stephen Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg and Muhammad Ali, to name a few, all had learning differences that were key to their success.

“JetBlue founder David Neeleman is another great example of a successful entrepreneur [who is neurodiverse],” says Bergeron. “He still talks about, some days, he still feels like that kid who couldn’t make it in school, even though he did amazing things in the business world.”

The InventiveLabs program is modeled after a typical college experience, with semesters and end points. Five “guides,” including Fiery and Bergeron, run daily five-hour sessions, and professionals from various industries serve as real-world mentors along the way. During the sessions, the so-called Inventives undertake two phases. The “discovery” phase identifies their skill sets, aptitudes and interests. The “launch” phase outlines plans to achieve their stated goals.

Inventives have differing profiles. Some, like Minicucci, dropped out of high school. Some, like Woodward, have professional work experience. Others have both high school and college diplomas. The lab trains 10 to 12 Inventives at a time, blending these varying levels of school and work experience to keep balance and perspective. A formal diagnosis is not required at InventiveLabs, but Bergeron estimates that 80% to 90% of Inventives have been diagnosed with some form of learning difference.

“Every situation is kind of unique,” he says. “Every case of autism is different. Every case of ADHD is different. Sometimes with ADHD people, the ideas are flying out. And sometimes the autistic person takes an idea and kind of goes and makes it a reality. I think what’s pretty common is they struggled in the school system at some point. Some were straight-A students up to sophomore, junior year, until organization becomes more of a skill that you need. Other folks struggled early because of dyslexia. But once they figured reading out, they did quite well later on. But at some point, they usually struggled at school, and quite often that anxiety, that negative self-image, whatever you want to call it, sticks with a person.”

The lab can serve as a gap year, the path to identifying a specific college major or internship, or the kick-start of a new business venture. Program costs run about $15,000, and scholarship assistance is available. Punching the clock is largely irrelevant, exploration is encouraged, and chair-spinning is understood. Bergeron says the format is a welcome break from the anxiety of societal pressures and expectations.

“Our teams really blend well,” he says. “I think, because they’ve all felt like outsiders at one time, acceptance has been an issue. I think coming into a place where they can just let their guard down and be themselves is kind of a game changer. [When] the noise around them stops, it’s neat to see how that changes their view of themselves and their own productivity.”

For both Fiery and Bergeron, the success of the lab is personal. Bergeron, 57, says he has traits of both dyslexia and ADHD but was never diagnosed as a child, citing a lack of generational awareness. Despite struggles in school, he excelled in the business world and wanted the same resources and opportunities for his children as they grew into the workplace. They, too, showed signs of learning differences.

Both Minicucci and Woodward experienced success coming out of the lab…and then adversity.

“I’ve always been a very computer-centric guy, very techie,” Minicucci says. “So Tom and Rick helped me figure out, for one, there’s lots of paths that someone can take in that field, and two, you don’t have to go to college or have a computer science degree to learn software engineering. And that was the important thing.”

Minicucci found a strong interest in cyber security, and after graduating from the lab, he entered a 12-week intensive coding boot camp in Boston called General Assembly.

“We were learning a new coding language every week, and I flourished,” he says. “I did really well there. I felt great. My projects were great. I found myself completing the daily challenges sometimes before the rest of the class.”

Minicucci was armed with confidence and marketable skills. Then COVID-19 hit, and he spent the next 11 months looking for a job.

“I was applying to at least 20 or 30 positions every single week, and I would find a lot of positions that I was very interested in,” he recalls. “But in the end, I would not hear from the vast majority of them. And the ones that I would hear back from, I would rarely hear back from more than once.”

Woodward’s experience at the lab took a different track. Using the program curriculum to his advantage, he launched a startup company with two other Inventives right out of the lab. Money was raised and hopes were high, but after about a year and a half, they had to call it quits. “It was a great experience, and I don’t look back on it with any sort of negativity,” he says, “but when people say that 90 out of 100 startups fail within their first year, they absolutely mean it.”

With their promising venture now folded, Woodward moved back to D.C. in search of something new. His ensuing job search, however, met with hurdles. Because he lacked a college degree, he says, prospective employers often balked. “They would rather just hire someone who had a degree, and then they check that box,” he says. “It is difficult when you walk in knowing you’re at a deficit.”

Employer Hesitations

According to a national parent survey, conducted in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.1 million children in the United States from ages 2 to 17 are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The Society for Neuroscience says as many as 15% of Americans, or 49.5 million people, have dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read, write, spell and speak.

In May 2020, CDC reported an estimated 2.2% of American adults have an autism spectrum condition. That adds up to 5.4 million people age 18 and older.

But nationwide, only 32.5% of adults with disabilities are employed, according to a 2017 National Core Indicators survey. For neurodiverse individuals, that number falls to 14.7%. These numbers do not account for the unemployment plunge resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Massachusetts, where InventiveLabs is based, about 38.2% of people with disabilities are employed, while nearly 80% of those without disabilities have jobs, according to the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. A study compiled by a subcommittee formed to look at the discrepancy identified several contributing factors to the persistent un- and underemployment of people with disabilities in the state, among them access to transportation, physical barriers to getting into and around the workplace, and concern that disclosing a disability could imperil their chances of securing a job.

“Whether it be concerns about high accommodation costs, fear that managing performance will lead to legal action, lack of awareness of available services, or misconceptions about individuals with disabilities, a general sense of discomfort or unfamiliarity regarding people with disabilities can create barriers to successful employment,” the study found.

It’s not a pity hire. It’s not out of charity. It’s out of fiscal responsibility. These neurodiverse people can offer and do offer something to your company that you could want. They can make you more money. They bring in perspectives that nobody else would see. They can find you problems that’ll save you time and money.
Henry Minicucci, account support associate, EY

Aimee Pedretti is a senior manager of HR consulting and strategy at ThinkHR and Mammoth HR. The most common employer hesitations she sees come from simply being unaware of actions they can take to help make the work environment more welcoming and to remove barriers to inclusion. Part of the problem, Pedretti says, is that companies may think of people with learning differences through the lens of “deficiency” and not “difference,” thereby assuming they must lower performance standards or remove essential functions from the job for neurodiverse employees or applicants.

“We remind employers that being inclusive does not mean they have to hire someone who is not qualified or that they can’t address performance concerns,” she says. “We also regularly help demystify the reasonable accommodation process under the Americans with Disabilities Act for our clients.”

Pedretti is encouraged that the needle is moving in the right direction. “Over the last 20 years, we’ve been moving away from the idea that diversity is a thing to be managed versus a thing to be celebrated,” she says. “In the past, people often viewed neurological differences as disorders rather than natural variations that are normal and desirable, without the need to be ‘fixed.’ The latter perspective is growing more common, and it can help to reframe thinking.”

Distinct Advantages

The Massachusetts study found several instances of reframed thinking that led to tangible bottom-line benefits, including one project that was advanced six months ahead of schedule by a neurodiverse worker.

Employers in the study also cited several competitive advantages in making deliberate efforts to hire individuals with disabilities: happier employees who enjoy their jobs; higher retention rates and the reduced personnel costs that go along with them; greater innovative thinking; and loyal customers who appreciate a business that makes a positive impact in the community. Several programs also provide grants and tax incentives to companies hiring individuals in targeted groups or to offset costs related to providing accommodations.

“There is a definite advantage to employers who are open to the prospects instead of focusing on the challenges,” says Elizabeth Chrane, chief people officer at OneDigital in Atlanta. Chrane says individuals with learning disabilities might not be first to raise their hands for new opportunities in the workforce, but it’s worth the effort to seek them out.

“It’s well documented that a diverse workforce makes a stronger, more successful company,” Chrane says. “People of different backgrounds, experiences and, yes, even those wired differently in the way they think or learn contribute to this diversity.

“Because many people have conscious or unconscious bias, [neurodiverse] individuals are not often sought out and given the opportunity to show their specialness. In my experience, if you are looking to hire a more diverse team in this way, you will be rewarded with a loyal, hard-working employee who presents a unique point of view.”

Leading the Charge

Jamell Mitchell is the chief talent and strategy leader for EY’s Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence (NCoE), a highly selective program that employs neurodiverse talent because of, not in spite of, their cognitive differences. When the idea to hire people on the autism spectrum was first introduced, it was believed they would be assigned to complete some of the more monotonous tasks in EY’s tax, assurance and audit realms while freeing up neurotypical team members to focus on more complex work. It seemed to make sense—until the neurodiverse talent began to show they were on par with or exceeding their neurotypical peers.

“The more we delved in,” Mitchell says, “the more we started to really see this onion being unpeeled.”

EY got its start in the neurodiverse space by attending the technology giant SAP’s inaugural Autism at Work summit. Pioneered in 2013, Autism at Work is a global movement of social change, raising awareness of autistic talent and supporting all manner of neurodiversity in the workforce.

Impressed by what SAP was building, the team at EY committed to co-sponsoring the summit the following year. Today, EY, SAP, JP Morgan Chase and Microsoft make up the four largest U.S. autism hiring programs. Each has a retention rate of more than 90%.

Mitchell says EY readily collaborates with these and other companies in a collective effort to grow and scale programs to help lower the un- and underemployment rates facing neurodiverse talent. EY has partnered with Disability:IN, the leading nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion worldwide, as well as the University of Washington in Seattle. Together, they have created an “Autism @ Work Playbook” aimed at retooling autism hiring initiatives.

We look for the best and the brightest that have the skills and interest and aptitude that we’re looking for. We make no excuses for that. I often tell people, this is not a ‘nice to have.’ This is not something wherein the goal is to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, because that would be doing them a disservice. If they get a job here, they’re going to be expected to do the job.
Jamell Mitchell, chief talent and strategy leader, EY’s Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence

EY employs about 120 people globally with Neurodiversity Centers of Excellence in Boston, Nashville, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Jose, Mumbai and Toronto. Mitchell says he’s already in talks to build more centers in Costa Rica, Spain, Poland and the United Kingdom.

Make no mistake, EY has a rigorous four-phase hiring process and is extremely selective with its talent, targeting a certain area within the spectrum in order to meet the needs of its clients.

“[This] is nothing different than the company that targets a person to make sure that he or she is going to be the best attorney hired,” Mitchell says. “It’s nothing different than the company that hires for the best surgeon or the best accountant. It’s really what the role requires and finding those individuals who have the skills to meet and exceed the expectations of the organization and of that role.

“We look for the best and the brightest that have the skills and interest and aptitude that we’re looking for. We make no excuses for that. I often tell people, this is not a ‘nice to have.’ This is not something wherein the goal is to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, because that would be doing them a disservice. If they get a job here, they’re going to be expected to do the job.”

One of EY’s most recent hires? Henry Minicucci.

As an account support associate in Boston’s NCoE, Minicucci is focused on projects related to data management and cyber security.

“I’m able to interact with the business world, but I’m able to do it in a more friendly environment, a more accommodating environment,” Minicucci says. “I’m very happy in my position.”

Mitchell says his work with neurodivergent team members like Minicucci has given him a sense of true teaming. “Individuals are so positive and so supportive to one another. It is something that really warms your heart,” he says. “Over and over again we hear, ‘This experience, whether I get [the job] or not, has changed my life.’ That’s a direct quote. I don’t think 10 years ago some of the work I was doing, which was with really, really important people with very, very tight deadlines, I ever heard that type of response. It makes you feel proud that you are making an impact on individuals’ lives.”

Mitchell points to EY’s tagline, Building a better working world. “This is an example of what building a better working world looks like,” he says.

Broker Involvement

Nancy Romanyshyn is a consultant in fair pay at tech startup Syndio Solutions. When interviewed for this article, she was in her 20th year at Willis Towers Watson in New York, providing consulting and advisory expertise in compensation program design, administration and governance. She also served on WTW’s North America Inclusion & Diversity team, helping companies tune into and understand the needs of their workforce.

Romanyshyn is passionate about optimizing different talent pools and innovative thinking.

Her son, now 17, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2.

“Just having children changes your life, but my son has changed the way I see the world and view the world,” she says. “And for me personally, it’s very important that I see that reinforced in my place of employment, that we’re welcoming of all people.”

Willis Towers Watson is part of the Autism at Work Employer Roundtable, a collective of businesses including EY, IBM, Fidelity, Ford, JP Morgan Chase, Travelers, Microsoft and others. The group provides support for autism-focused hiring practices and aims to highlight the benefits of such initiatives.

In addition to the Employer Roundtable, Willis Towers Watson also enlisted the help of Specialisterne USA, a multi-tiered change-management approach to recruitment and onboarding dubbed “The Gold Standard of Neurodiversity” by Harvard Business School.

Romanyshyn says the combined experience of working with the two organizations inspired WTW to think differently about the way it recruits, screens, hires and places employees. Instead of prioritizing social skills and résumés that likely show little work history, WTW opts for things like daylong boot camps and robotics projects to more effectively “screen in” neurodiverse applicants.

Being more thoughtful about the workplace environment can also go a long way. Employees who struggle with sensory triggers, Romanyshyn says, might or might not be comfortable sitting next to a window or underneath buzzing fluorescent lights. In the current remote work environment, some employees may shy away from being on camera or using instant messaging technology, which they may find distracting.

“To me, it’s about sustainability,” she says. “We accept our colleagues, and we create an environment that helps them be the best person they can be and bring their whole selves to work. And because of that, we get their innovative thinking, we get the benefit of something that makes them unique and therefore collectively makes us unique. That differentiates us in the business world.”

Teachers would always say things like, ‘You’re so bright, you’re so smart, why can’t you just do this project?’ Or, ‘Why can’t you do your homework?’ And it was just that I would get home from school and the literal last thing in the world that I would do is open my homework planner. So when I should have been doing projects and homework, I was running servers in my mom’s basement.
Pat Woodward, technology-based government contractor

Romanyshyn recalls an autistic colleague hired to work in the marketing department. “It was like: Autism? Marketing? Not something you’d necessarily put together. But when you think about some of the analysis and pattern recognition…his skill set came out in managing all the marketing data. He was able to do things with our data that we hadn’t even thought of. He probably wouldn’t do well in a typical interview, but, oh my gosh, he’s head and shoulders above other people who might have done well in an interview. He just has a skill set that we never would have known had we not given him a chance.”

Romanyshyn says being deliberate about neurodiverse talent is another step toward realizing true diversity, equity and inclusion across organizations. She points to culture and environment as key to long-term sustainability, emphasizing the need for leaders to be more intentional and committed to change.

“You hear things like unconscious bias training; it really is just empathy training,” she says. “I think there’s this idea [that] we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way. But it takes true leadership—insightful leadership—to take a step back and say, ‘OK, wait, why are we doing it this way? How does this drive our strategic objectives as an organization? How is this going to help us better serve our customers? How is it going to help us push that product out faster?’ But I think really being able to think through and articulate that—How are you going to penetrate that market if you don’t represent that market?—a lot of that culture-change work begins with leadership. It has to.”

A Path Forward

Minicucci’s long-term goal is to become a cyber threat response manager, and he has aspirations of starting his own company.

“One thing I’d like people to know is that neurodiverse people are just as capable, just in different ways,” he says. “And when I have trouble with something, it’s not necessarily a matter of dropping it and going and doing something else. It’s really a matter of coming at it from a different perspective, analyzing it from a different angle.”

Minicucci says neurodiverse individuals, if given the chance, can be the secret ingredient for innovative companies.

“It’s not a pity hire. It’s not out of charity. It’s out of fiscal responsibility,” he says. “These neurodiverse people can offer and do offer something to your company that you could want. They can make you more money. They bring in perspectives that nobody else would see. They can find you problems that’ll save you time and money.”

As for Woodward, he’s happily working—these days remotely, without “a million different things in the office to distract me,” he says—with evolving technology such as Amazon Web Services as part of his current contract with the government. He continues to be self-taught and pictures himself “doing something with computers” until the day he retires—“and probably even after,” he says.

He no longer worries about going back to school to earn that college degree. “I think I’m at a point in my life where, if things keep progressing the way they are, I don’t know if I’ll ever need it,” he says. “It’s no longer a stepping stone to get into a career I want, because I’m already in the career I want.”

Woodward says there is room for improvement in today’s business world and the neurodiverse community has a role to play.

“The thing that I’ve seen is people who are in this kind of community will never not have ideas or never not have thoughts about how things could be different. A majority of white-collar positions, in my opinion, can be way more creative than they are, and having someone who can think outside the box or who just approaches things different is going to lead to unseen consequences in a positive way. You won’t know that there’s change until you look around years later and can see it.”

Bergeron notes the difference in the Inventives from when they first start at the lab to when they receive their certificate. “That’s the most rewarding, and that’s why we did it at the beginning,” he says. “It’s just great to see the journey they’ve been on and where they’re at now.”

It should come as no surprise that the most common theme in job applications Bergeron sees is a desire to change the world. For some that means finding the next technology tool that makes life easier, but for most it means finding ways to make the world a better, more accepting place.

“Having a mission or something you’re trying to do tends to make the best employees,” Bergeron says. “So if someone’s trying to change the world, you can get a lot of work productivity out of them versus someone who is coming in to make a buck and pay the mortgage.”

“We all need some monetary compensation, but people are driven by different things and we often have folks who are just driven by an idea or a concept of helping others or whatever it might be, and in the right spot, they tend to really shine.”

Brianne Spellane Associate Managing Editor Read More

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