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Nicole Sugrue Of The Nicholas Center On How They Are Helping To Promote Financial Inclusion

An Interview With Orlando Zayas

Become informed on the financial inclusion status of your workforce. You might be surprised to learn how many people may be unbanked or underbanked, or even considered low income. Get to understand the population and circumstances of the people you wish to help. Come to understand what some of their life’s goals are.

Most of us take it for granted that we can open a bank or a credit card. But the truth is, according to the World Bank, close to one-third of adults — 1.7 billion — are still unbanked, and have no access to a transaction account. About half of unbanked people include women in poor households in rural areas or out of the workforce. What can be done and what is being done to promote more financial inclusion? Authority Magazine is starting a new series about Companies Helping To Promote Financial Inclusion. In this series, we are talking to leaders of companies and organizations who are helping to promote financial inclusion.

As part of this series, I had the pleasure to interview Nicole Sugrue, Executive Director and Co-founder of The Nicholas Center, a non-profit founded in 2011 in Port Washington NY, that has revolutionized the way Autistic adults live, work, and play.

Nicole has made it her mission to establish powerful programs to support people with Autism, so that they can lead full and productive lives in the community. As the parent of a young adult son with Autism, along with her two co-founders of The Nicholas Center, Nicole reimagined a community-based approach to provide social, vocational, and educational opportunities to Autistic individuals who have aged out of (or about to age out of) the school system. Nicole’s dream has become a reality; she has brought together like-minded professionals to help solve the social dilemma brought on by the surge of under-employed and under-engaged individuals who were diagnosed with Autism in the late 80's/early 90’s. The Nicholas Center offers individuals with Autism a place to continue their education, build social and work skills, create meaningful friendships, have jobs if they want them, and foster deep connections to their communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was raised in New York with my older brother by our stay-at-home- Taiwanese Aboriginal immigrant mother and Air Force veteran father (turned PhD) in a loving and warm home. We lived simply, humbly, and played outside all day long with friends of all ages, races, and religions, and ate only home cooked meals. We were raised to have strong moral compasses and were taught early on that family, faith, hard work, and living by a set of principles would help get us through any hardship.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you?

Believe it or not, “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World” by Admiral William H. McRaven was a game-changer for me. My father gave it to me later in life, and it’s very powerful. It helped validate many of the values my father instilled in me as a child, and growing up. I always thought he was so strict, but now I have a deeper appreciation of the work he put into parenting. “Make your Bed” reminded me of how I was taught to take pride in and be accountable for all I did, be it housework, homework, or handling relationships. It reminded me how to be a good team player and citizen. I also find great comfort and knowledge in faith-based Scripture, for which I have my mother to thank.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light. Helen Keller

Faith has helped me through tremendous difficulties in my life. It helps me be bold and unafraid of taking risks for the greater good. Having a child with Autism tests your character, your patience, your faith, and your relationships. Operating a non-profit takes a great deal of decision-making, especially during the uncertain times we’ve experienced over the last two years. I look back at all that we’ve weathered, and despite the pandemic, what we were able to accomplish. This includes retaining all our 60 staff members and opening a program in Westchester to serve more Autistic individuals, all while other programs were closing their doors. After my 20 years of serving hundreds of families across Long Island, and now Westchester, I have to believe that it is no coincidence that things always manage to work out for the best.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

As a science, leadership involves procedures and techniques learned by study and experience. As an art, leadership involves interpersonal skills that rely on sensitivity, intuition, and timing. The best leadership comes from the gut — from knowing how to interact with and inspire your colleagues and co-workers and ensuring that the people you collectively serve are getting what they need and more.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One day, I was preparing for a staff training. I usually try to create presentations that not only produce higher performance, but also inspire a love for the work. Often, people who work in the field of developmental disabilities don’t truly understand the importance of their work, or comprehend just how special they are. Not everyone can do the tasks they are asked to do, and it takes a unique kind of person to work in the “care” industry. Compensation for these jobs is often low, so I always feel compelled to help them recognize their divine talent. So in this particular training session, I explained that when I was a child, I could fly on demand in my dreams. This came in very handy if I was being chased by a scary monster or was free- falling from the roof of a skyscraper. I could even scale staircases in one single bound. But, I naively believed that EVERYONE could fly in their dreams. I was informed by a friend that this was absolutely not the case. I remember feeling awkward, that no one else knew they could simply flap their arms and fly from harm’s way. That day, I told my staff, perhaps we CAN ALL FLY, you just have to believe you can. After the training, an employee thanked me for the talk, and told me she often felt special, but never felt worthy of thinking that highly of herself. It was at that moment that I realized my work was not only to impact the lives of people with Autism I was serving, but to inspire the people I work with every day to help them recognize just how incredibly wonderful they are.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with a basic definition so that all of our readers are on the same page. What exactly is Financial Inclusion?

Financial inclusion to me suggests that everyone in society should be given the opportunity to pursue financial freedom and prosperity through available financial services, knowledge and programs, regardless of their income or economic background.

What does it mean to be “unbanked”?

When an individual does not utilize banks or banking institutions.

For the benefit of our readers, can you explain some of the typical reasons why a person might be unbanked? Why can’t they just walk into the local bank and open an account? Why can’t they simply open an account online?

I would assume there is either a level of distrust in banking institutions, or simply a lack of financial education on the part of some consumers. Sometimes it’s a cultural/survival behavior passed down from generations. Depending on the unbanked person’s background, if they didn’t have access to financial education to learn about the benefits of investing, savings, or how interest works, they will continue just living the way they are accustomed to living. Also, many people live check to check and have no opportunity or need to be banked. They want to have their money immediately available to simply get through their everyday lives. With regard to people with developmental disabilities, they possess various learning challenges that would prohibit them being banked independently. They also often have limited income. At The Nicholas Center, we provide education about banks, money, and how a person can be financially responsible — notwithstanding their disability.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your work to promote Financial Inclusion? Without saying names, can you share a story about a person who was helped by your initiative?

Our program supports over 120 young Autistic Adults in the world of work and work readiness. I believe having a job is inherently rewarding and provides a tremendous boost to self esteem, establishes a feeling of being part of a team, and contributes to a person’s financial independence and overall satisfaction with their life. With that said, we provide one- on-one job support counseling for Autistic people who have experienced chronic failure in the workforce. One day one of our employed young adult participants said to me, “Nicole, this summer I will save up enough money from this job so I can see my family, and visit my mother’s grave in Puerto Rico.” At The Nicholas Center, we promote financial inclusion by helping those with developmental disabilities realize their life’s desires and providing them with a means to achieve it. Through our programs and services, we help them understand the value of work, savings, budgeting, and how being employed and financially independent gives them choices and freedom.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for businesses to promote financial inclusion?

You would be surprised at how financially illiterate many people are. Despite their work ethic and intelligence, many employees have not had access to a financial education. It would be a great investment for companies to ensure financial inclusion by providing workshops for their employees on how they could be more financially successful, or how they can make what they have or earn work better for them. Providing these types of resources could be life- changing, and inspire grateful and long-term employees.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps Business Should Take To Promote Financial Inclusion.” Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Become informed on the financial inclusion status of your workforce. You might be surprised to learn how many people may be unbanked or underbanked, or even considered low income. Get to understand the population and circumstances of the people you wish to help. Come to understand what some of their life’s goals are.

2. Explore ways to educate through simple common-sense approaches. Many individuals who are underbanked may not know they even had an opportunity to improve their financial circumstances.

3. Encourage the development of low-cost financial products — the underserved have many unique obstacles and financial needs. Companies should establish frameworks that help employees set up banking, savings, or retirement accounts that address the unmet needs of the underserved.

4. Increase access and innovate ways to offer loans to low-income employees, or to groups who do not typically have access to financial programs.

5. Inspire your people to invest in themselves, and in their spiritual, emotional, and physical health and well-being. Create a positive workplace culture, one that helps people recognize that everyone is worthy of prosperity and success. Bring in motivational speakers and presenters. You never know whose life you might change for the better by simply putting some extra thought into your efforts.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My world is built around a cohort of the population that is routinely ostracized, bullied, and misunderstood. I would foster a movement where disabilities were normalized and woven into the fabric of communities. Inclusion, education, and understanding would go a long way to help people who are different live happy and fulfilling lives.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I have always admired Marcus Lemonis, who is a great philanthropist and businessman, and shows his incredible skills on CNBC’s The Profit. His style inspires positive business principles, and he puts people first. My favorite episodes are the ones where he transforms toxic business owners or employees by helping them recognize their own barriers to success. I enjoy watching him apply a set of principles in all he does. He’s also hilarious. Marcus is a great example of a leader who inspires others to lead, and someone who has achieved the American Dream through hard work, determination, and belief.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit our website at tncnewyork.org or subscribe to our Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/company/nicholas-center. We are working on a monthly podcast and blog to discuss the most pertinent topics relating to living a life touched by Autism for 2022, so stay tuned!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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