Opening doors to opportunity for all involves breaking down barriers — and a lack of access to meaningful and supportive employment is one of many systemic barriers faced by neurodivergent people. In Canada, there are around 500,000 working age adults with intellectual disabilities or autism; yet approximately 88% are unemployed or underemployed.
Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace not only means those who may have been traditionally denied opportunities can access employment; it means a more skilled and creative workforce.
The concept of “business for the greater good” is what informs social enterprises, which aim to achieve social, cultural or environmental benefits by selling goods and services, feeding profits back into their mission. An important subcategory — the employment social enterprise— creates opportunities for people facing barriers into the labour market by providing training, employment and wraparound supports; this is a natural fit for bringing inclusivity principles and practices into the workplace.
In February 2020, the Azrieli Foundation arranged a workshop, run by Start Co., to help organizations create a social enterprise business plan.
“I’ll never forget the intensity of that first (and only) in-person meeting,” says Eve Rochman, Founding Director of Zera Café, a not-for-profit social enterprise catering business with a neurodiverse staff.
At the time, Zera Café was very early in its development. Rochman says networking with more mature, like-minded organizations helped her envision possibilities for the future.
Rochman’s most significant takeaway from that session was “how important it was to be very clear and specific about what we were doing, and then be prepared to justify and defend the plan we had to make it happen.”
As the organization grows, she still makes use of the presentation deck and elevator pitch she created that day — and continues to benefit from participating in the Social Enterprise Network that was developed after the first workshop.
Since late 2020, the Foundation has facilitated a network of organizations that are in various stages of developing social enterprises. This Social Enterprise Network currently has more than 30 members (including both for-profit and not-for-profit entities from across Ontario and Quebec), all with the goal of providing adults with neurodiverse needs with meaningful and supportive employment as they enter the labour market. Members meet quarterly to share knowledge and resources, develop new skills and discuss things like business development and strategic partnerships, mental health and business law.
The Network is led by Orly Fruchter, Manager of Neurodiverse Initiatives at the Azrieli Foundation. She works alongside a different co-chair for each meeting, generating the content collaboratively and adapting it to meet the group’s needs. The Network helps enterprises succeed, and, in turn, empowers them to hire more adults with disabilities. Connections made among members have already led to several business collaborations. Courier service Good Foot Delivery hired the cleaning crew from Community Living Toronto for its offices, and Toronto’s DANI hired Montreal-based Promo21 to print silk screen reusable bags for a fundraiser.
The Network is helping aspiring and existing social enterprises harness resources and maximize their impact. As a result, these businesses are enabling neurodivergent individuals to find meaningful and equitable employment opportunities and participate fully in their communities.
Stu Guttman, an active advocate for the neurodivergent community and former Director of Development at Summit School in Montreal, feels great pride in participating in this initiative.
“A community is a group of people who agree to grow together,” he says. “The community that has been created through [the Network] has grown into something that is truly unique, beneficial and beautiful. Each member contributes, in an open and safe environment, with the shared goal of helping create a better tomorrow.”