His Competitive Advantage? Employees With Autism

On an otherwise reasonable evening in July, more than 1,000 people packed an auditorium in Boulder, Colorado,  for the culmination of the 2014 Unreasonable Institute. They came to watch 11 ventures present their solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Here, in one of those presentations, Rising Tide Carwash co-founder and COO Tom D’Eri describes how his company has made a competitive advantage of a workforce that is 80 percent autistc. D’Eri points out that autistic people tend to be more comfortable and confident with structured routines like washing cars, and the advantage this gives Rising Tide is huge. The existing business that D’Eri took over in 2013 washed about 2,700 cars per month. A year later, Rising Tide washes more than 10,000 cars per month at that same location while boasting lower employee turnover. And the business is profitable enough that D’Eri is looking to expand nationwide, with a goal of employing 10,000 people with autism by 2020.

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Unreasonable Institute

Unreasonable Institute

The Unreasonable Institute arms entrepreneurs creating solutions to the world’s biggest social and environmental problems with the mentorship, capital, and networks they need to do so.

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12 Comments

  • I love this. There aren’t, to my knowledge, any big, national car wash chains, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense, given that there are national chains for oil changes, brake repair, mufflers, etc. So even without the awesome social-good angle of employing people with autism, there’s probably room to do something big in this industry. Add in Rising Tide’s mission, and I think this could really be something special—and that’s before extending their model to other industries.

  • Having worked at a summer camp for teens with autism, I saw a group of really smart and capable people that society has overlooked. It is great to see a company that recognizes and utilizes all these amazing people have to offer.

  • FANTASTIC!!!!! What a wonderful idea and actually put it in to place. Yes, we do need this across America and Global markets. There is such an increased awareness in Autism, its great to see someone who is making a place for them, that is worthy of their capabilities, knowledge and friendliness. Rising Tide is the answer and brings out the awareness that this has become an issue we can not walk away from, listening to the numbers were staggering, but listening to the solutions and using great a management technique of matching employees to the best job for them. You and your employees can only win and continue to reap the rewards of not only Rising Tides success, but each and every employee. Thank you,Tom D’Eri for sharing your wonderful success story on so many levels and showing and teaching, all of us that there are opportunities not only for a successful business, but the social contribution that is made to society as a whole.

  • The opening quote from Einstein sums this video up quite well. If we judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. I love that quote as I love what Tom and his father have done. I have always found it quite sad that others treat people with special needs like they cannot contribute to society. Like Tim said in his speech, people with disabilities often have areas where they are more highly skilled than “normal people”. I love that the car wash takes advantage of that and employees people with autism who couldn’t otherwise have employment. My supervisor (who has a disablity) puts it best when she describes herself and others not as having disabilities, but instead having different abilities. Just because someone does not fit the mold of a “normal person” does not mean that they are necessarily disadvantaged; it simply means that their abilities are different than yours, and with those different abilities come a different set of skills they can bring to the workforce. I hope more people follow Tim’s model of employing people with different abilities and I wish the best of luck to you.

  • I like how Tom is using an overlooked population who want to work but are stigmatized. I hope his plan to become a national chain works out.

  • I have had the privilege of knowing a young man for the last few years who is autistic and non-verbal. I too have learned that the stigmatization surrounding autism has absolutely nothing to do with the capabilities of people afflicted, but is exclusive to the misunderstanding of what it means to have autism. There are varying levels of disconnect present between those with autism and those without, but if Tom’s presentation is any indication, there could be any number of companies capable of providing employment and advancement opportunities to what appears to be an almost entirely untapped labor force. The first month profits are certainly a plus, but facilitating the feelings associated with achievement is most important here. I would love to see the look of pride and purpose in my friend’s eyes more often, and perhaps this business or one like it could provide a solution.

  • To see concepts like this business succeed in the real world is very encouraging. Empowering those that society has overlooked will benefit not just those affected or their families but will really move our society as a whole into a better future. Everyone has something valuable to offer they may just need help finding what that is sometimes. Charity is a wonderful part of our society now but I believe the most effective form of helping others is building up their sense of self and encouraging those who are overlooked to reach for greatness.

  • What a great and motivational entrepreneur! I’d love to see this type of activism spread further – activism that relies less on donations and handouts and more on providing steady and reliable income to people who are eager and capable of the work.

  • Very well said, Lindsay. I completely agree with you. Empowerment is an incredibly valuable tool, and I think Rising Tide Carwash has created a fantastic business model that provides those affected by Autism to find not only a sense of worth in their lives, but also a strong development of community. Being given the chance to thrive is priceless.

  • This video and idea are truly something that we should all be looking towards when it comes to true social entrepreneurship. Not only is his cause one that fights that stereotypes and stigmas of society, but he understands that this is also a unique competitive advantage. Understanding this competitive advantage will help guarantee the continued success of the business. He is truly tapping into a source of skill and precision that people have taken for granted. But the best part of this story and idea, is that his vision is not founded on money. It is to give people with autism a sense of purpose that many times is taken away by society. As long as he sticks to this vision, and not worry about the profit, he can succeed because people buy into the idea of social responsibility and social entrepreneurship.
    It is alarming that 90% of people with autism are unemployed. This is an example of the stereotyping and exile that we as a society put towards those that may be different. Thankfully we have people like Tom, who realizes the potential and the effect that a clever idea makes. Not only are they making money now, but more importantly they are fulfilling their role of allowing people with autism to be a part of something great. This increases the positivism in the company, in the workers, the customers, and the families of all of those involved. I hope the best for this organization and that they can expand and start hiring new employees as soon as possible. This idea is so useful on so many levels that everyone wants to see it grow. People get good car washes, the workers have jobs and get paid, and the company feels that they did a good job by taking on this social issue.

  • After many years of working with children and adults that have autism or down syndrome and encouraging them to obtain jobs and get involved in their community, this video is very heart warming. It is sad to see nowadays, businesses denying applicants of jobs because of their abilities, or lack thereof. I applaud stores and businesses that hire children/adults with disabilities, although they are seen to be having “different” complementing abilities. Even though I tend to only see Publix hiring autistic or down syndrome children/adults, seeing somebody take a stand and implement a work area and atmosphere specifically for these adults is empowering. With all of the negativity and fear taking over today’s world and society, a car wash made for the employment of autistic adults is what we need. I found it interesting that repetitive and structured work is what helps autistic people in excelling at a task. After thinking about it, it made sense to me that those working without autism are always stressed and running around hectic to do things. However, when placed in an environment with structure rather than pressure, autistic adults are able to thrive in their performance of their work and their personal development. Seeing work provided for these autistic employees in order to create income for them, rather than relying on donations, is incredible. This is because, not only does it bring in money for the employees but it also gives them the chance and ability to make friends and be social with the other employees working there as well as the customers. Just like Tom said, these autistic employees create an atmosphere that attracts customers and makes them want to be apart of it. This is so important because in today’s society, employees are just trying to make it by during their shift and on their paycheck. The actual notice and feeling of wanting to assist customers and interact with them has flown out the window. All of the benefits Rising Tide Car Wash is bringing to the community is not only helping the autistic employees working there, but also the people visiting and spending time there as a customer.