Staunch believers in ‘people with autism are talented and are capable of producing high-quality goods, given the right environment of training, encouragement and support’, Siri and her family have a lot to share with the world. Entrepreneurship and autism are not mutually exclusive. Social enterprises built around the strengths and interests of autistic adults continue to emerge across the country. The following interview with Siri’s parents sheds light on her inspirations, dreams, challenges, goals, and supports in her entrepreneurial journeys.           

Who inspires you the most to pursue your dream of jewelry design business?

​​Siri and her parents like the concepts proposed by Temple Grandin about finding what one can do and pursue it.  In her chosen line of work, there are very few who have successfully navigated this path.  Siri is trying to create her own path.

What challenges have you faced in pursuing your dream social enterprise? And what community resources were helpful?

The first challenge was to figure out what Siri was good at that is marketable.  Another difficult part of running Siri’s enterprise is getting the word out that she being autistic, can still work with her hands and tools to make beautiful jewelry.  Local community organizations have helped Siri by inviting her to their events to sell her work.  But there are very few community resources that can help someone at this level.

Do you have any ideas about how to harness the entrepreneurial skills of people with autism? And commercialize their product or services more effectively?

There is so much potential in people with autism to be able develop products or services.  The main problem is that they need a lot of support, encouragement and coaching to reach and sustain a certain level of productivity.  There are 3 stages where they need support:

1. Exploring to find a skill that is marketable.

2. Creating and running a business to commercialize a product or service.

3. Support in marketing and sales and spreading the word.

Each of these areas is labor intensive. We are teaching other individuals with autism to make jewelry.  Unless there is demand for this jewelry, we cannot support them.  So, we focus on marketing and sales.  And that spreads us thin.

What would have happened to your entrepreneurial dream had there been no parental coaching or support?

There would not have been a dream!  The biggest challenge with this severity of autism is that you need someone who knows you well to explore one’s strengths and sift through available options.  Siri’s skills would not have been discovered if her parents were not involved.  There are no organizations nor professionals we could have used to do this exploring and see what an autistic individual is good at.

Jewelry made of silicon one can chew on

What roles have you as parents played in helping Siri achieve this goal? Who are other key support persons?

We as her parents are equally involved.  Her mother’s involvement is hands on, in running the day-to-day business, coaching and exploring opportunities for Siri.  Her dad develops the marketing material and helps at the events where Siri needs to be present.  Her brothers are also supportive of Siri’s work. There have been local organizations that helped Siri in her path:

  1.      De Colores Arts, a non-profit, helped Siri to create an online platform for her jewelry and raise funds to start a business.
  2.      Wings Learning Center, Siri’s alma mater, invites her to sell her jewelry at events and also buys her sensory jewelry that she makes for some of their students.
  3.      Autism Society of America, San Francisco Bay Area chapter spreads the word and provides space at their events to sell Siri’s jewelry.

Do you use any assistive technology or tools?

Just a cell phone for texting when Siri is not able to clearly vocalize her needs and wants. Siri has a very limited vocabulary and speech, sometimes hard to understand.

Have you ever changed the style/shape of your jewelry article due to your customers’ feedback?

Yes.  Many items Siri makes are based on ideas given by her customers.  Examples: Sensory jewelry, metallic bracelets and wine glass rings to name a few.  Siri also makes customized jewelry for events based on the customers’ needs.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years provided that you get the needed support from the community?

Hopefully, we would have scaled up the business to be able employ other autistic individuals in the production and distribution of the jewelry.  We plan on developing jewelry kits, which folks with autism can take home, make the jewelry and send it back to be sold.  Being recognized more for the talent is another goal for Siri and her team.  Developing enterprise customers who would want to buy the Siri’s products to resell in their own businesses to provide consistent work would be awesome.  We are hoping to have enough work for Siri and her team to keep them busy and be able to sustain themselves financially.

What message do you want to convey to other budding entrepreneurs on the autism spectrum?

Never give up!  If one person turns you down don’t get discouraged there are 99 more to approach. A few may be interested in what you do.  Be proud of your achievements no matter how small others think they are.

Where can our readers view and order your products?

Siri’s website: www.DesignsBySiri.com  We are also on social media channels including YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Etsy & Tumbler.  We request your readers to spread the word.

 

About the Author

Zelalem Tiruneh Rejie

Zelalem Tiruneh Rejie is a former employee of 801 East Shelter/Transitional Rehabilitation Program located in Washington DC. He has more than four years of experience working with chronically homeless individuals. He is completing Masters of Science (MSc) degree in Health Systems Management at University of Baltimore and is currently interning at Madison House Autism Foundation for the Autism Housing Network.