Purpose Before Profit: Nafisa Obi of Essential Speech and ABA Therapy On The Benefits Of Running A Purpose-Driven Business

An Interview With Chad Silverstein

Chad Silverstein
Authority Magazine
12 min readJan 10, 2024

--

Always prioritize the quality of care — the profits will come if you place an emphasis on the quality of the care you provide.

In today’s competitive business landscape, the race for profits often takes center stage. However, there are some leaders who also prioritize a mission-driven purpose. They use their business to make a positive social impact and recognize that success isn’t only about making money. In this interview series, we are talking with some of these distinct leaders and I had the pleasure of interviewing Nafisa Obi.

Nafisa Obi is the owner and founder of Essential Speech and ABA Therapy. Nafisa has a BA in English and Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a MA in Communication Sciences and Disorders from the University of Houston. Nafisa enjoys inspiring, educating, and empowering individuals that live or work with children with autism. Through franchising, Nafisa dreams of supporting franchise partners to expand Essential Speech and ABA Therapy across the nation, making it the Golden standard in the industry. When Nafisa is not working to support individuals on the autism spectrum or new Essential Speech and ABA Therapy franchise owners, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her three daughters and husband.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”?

I have always had the capacity to connect with other individuals in a highly empathetic and emotional way. When I decided to pursue communication as a profession, I also knew that I wanted to do something that could positively impact the lives of others. Coupled with my love of children and early education, it seemed natural that I pursue speech language pathology. For many years I practiced in a corporate setting, focusing on children with traumatic brain injuries. While challenging, this set me up for a future applying many of the same techniques to children with autism. A fellow speech language pathologist and friend of mine from grad school, Amber Lister, had kept in close contact with me after graduation and we had often discussed opening our own business, but we had not finalized what or when. It wasn’t until she introduced me to fellow speech language pathologist Camila Trevino, that we discussed our work on a deeper level and how we could use our experiences to help a greater number of people. As a mom first and business owner second, I saw an opportunity to make a difference to a vulnerable and underserved community. After partnering with these two amazing women, we launched our first Essential Speech and ABA Therapy location in Pearland Texas, creating a haven where children on the autism spectrum can thrive and grow through collaborative, wholistic care.

We often learn the most from our mistakes. Can you share one that you made that turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?

We believe that a company is an ever-evolving entity and that there is great potential in analyzing and overcoming challenges to build a stronger foundation. For me, that also means not being married to any one idea, policy, or procedure as being the “best,” but to be flexible with changes and open to ways to improve. For instance, this past year we experienced an internal issue which exposed several weaknesses in the internal communication process, including the way we disseminate information from different levels of the organization and how we disclose crucial news to staff and parents. We collected information and conducted interviews and analysis and realized our communication channels and processes/procedures were not conducive to a cohesive and inclusive work environment. Thanks to the helpful feedback from parents and staff, we were able to implement policy changes and create clearer guidelines that improved transparency and corrected how we communicated from the top down.

As a successful leader, it’s clear that you uphold strong core values. I’m curious what are the most important principles you firmly stand by and refuse to compromise on. Can you share a few of them and explain why they hold such significance for you in your work and life?

In our industry, being compassionate and empathetic is a key component to our business model and the driving force behind our strong core values. We believe that every child has the right to an education in a safe space that initiates personal growth and development. We also understand the responsibility we have to staff members and families to uphold a high level of service and care where everyone can feel supported and empowered. In that way, we LIVE our core values of excellence in care, empathy, integrity, and collaboration. I think we demonstrate this in many ways, but one that we are most proud of is our franchising opportunities. Before approving any new franchisee, we complete a thorough vetting process to ensure consistency with our values, as well as their connections to the autism community, and passion and commitment to the cause.

What inspired you to start a purpose-driven business rather than a traditional for-profit enterprise? Can you share a personal story or experience that led you to prioritize social impact in your business?

Before the development of Essential Speech and ABA Therapy, I worked with fellow founders Amber Lister and Camila Trevino assisting autistic children with speech therapy, but only for roughly 30 minutes per day before and after school. We were deeply invested in the success of our children and found that many of the kids were coming early or late because of conflicts with their ABA therapy. As experts in communication, we wanted to know about what other training our kids were receiving and how it would complement (or not) what we were teaching. When we reached out to other facilities we were met with imposition and were unable to gather the information we needed to tailor our sessions. At that point, we thought, why don’t we specialize in a space where children could receive ABA therapy and speech training? So, we put in motion the idea to collaborate on the three pivotal practice essential to the development of autistic children and make them all available under one roof — board-certified behavior analysts, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists. At the time, collaboration was NOT the standard and very few facilities were providing all three services. Even now, we have found that many facilities don’t provide these services in-house but bring in outside resources several times a week to help out. This is not the way we wanted to provide services. By making these resources all available in one place, we help to ease the burden of long driving distances, extended wait lists, and the need for multiple facilities. This allowed us to cater directly to the diverse needs of each child efficiently and conveniently for families.

Can you help articulate a few of the benefits of leading a purpose-driven business rather than a standard “plain vanilla” business?

When you have passion behind your business, you have a reason to move forward, in a way that is more than just money. The families and the children rely on us to provide these crucial services, and we know that directly impacts their quality of life. It’s rewarding to see the impact we are able to make on children and families, and we remain committed to conducting our business differently. We have seen many similar facilities that are profit-based (investor run) and we feel like they lose the connection and emotional investment to our community. In an effort to maximize profits, it becomes transactional, they overload their staff or place too many children in a classroom and they lose elements of compassion for the needs of the children, which directly relates to the quality of care. In Texas, 90% of ABA clinics are investor owned, and we are proud knowing that we place quality and care above all else.

How has your company’s mission or purpose affected its overall success? Can you explain the methods or metrics you use to evaluate the impact of this purpose-driven strategy on your organization?

We founded Essential Speech and ABA Therapy in 2017 as a company built on a cohesive team approach to education, childhood development, and comprehensive treatment. Our approach combines three powerful therapy practices under one roof, helping to ease the burden of long driving distances, extended wait lists, and the need for multiple facilities, allowing us to cater directly to the diverse needs of each child. In fact, our proprietary combination of board-certified behavior analysts, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists was part of what made our model of Autism education therapy so special and fueled our substantial growth of more than a dozen locations across ten cities and counting. We believe passionately that no one should have to wait for these essential, life-changing services and that an early diagnosis and immediate introduction to a collaborative therapy program can provide the crucial developmental skills necessary for each child to connect with the world. We believe that our purpose and approach has directly contributed to our expansive growth over the last 7 years.

Can you share a pivotal moment when you realized that leading your purpose-driven company was actually making a significant impact? Can you share a specific example or story that deeply resonated with you personally?

We know that ABA therapy is largely recognized as the most effective treatment for autistic children due to its positive reinforcement, scientific behavioral training, and cognitive developmental support, which is what makes our training so successful. To see it making meaningful impacts on the lives of our clients is profoundly rewarding, especially since we understand that an initial autism diagnosis can be overwhelming and devastating. As we go through this journey together, we get to share in the joy of varying milestones, and to each family that looks different. For example, sometimes we see huge achievements, like a child who comes to us non-verbal or who isn’t potty trained, and over time they are eventually able to transition successfully to school and general education — a huge milestone for many families. But those aren’t the only rewarding accomplishments. Sometimes we get children in who are completely non-verbal and then they learn to say something like “Mom” which is a huge victory and deeply touching for the families. These are the things that remind us that what we do has such a huge impact on communities and families that it drives our passion to continue our work.

Have you ever faced a situation where your commitment to your purpose and creating a positive social impact clashed with the profitability in your business? Have you ever been challenged by anyone on your team or have to make a tough decision that had a significant impact on finances? If so, how did you address and reconcile this conflict?

This is a constantly challenging issue and has come in many forms.

Early in our business development, we considered adopting some of the revenue streams that the big corporations implement, such as bringing in investors. After some consideration, we determined that although it might be lucrative, it would significantly impact our ability to provide quality care and services to our clients. So, we found a more meaningful solution in opening franchise opportunities, which empowers individuals to live the dream of entrepreneurship while also giving back to their community. We expanded on this by offering this opportunity only to those with a tie to the autism community and who have displayed a passion and background for the cause. But there have been smaller, more personal instances too, such as when we are faced with the decision to terminate services for children covered by insurances that have significantly dropped their rates. In these challenges, we consistently come back to the same answer — when you are truly putting your clients first, you cant make those issues a priority. And when you put an emphasis on compassion, care, empathy and integrity — part of our core values — the business will thrive organically.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs who wish to start a purpose-driven business? What are your “5 Things You Need to Create a Highly Successful Purpose-Driven Business.”

1 . Always prioritize the quality of care — the profits will come if you place an emphasis on the quality of the care you provide.

2 . Put the clients first and enable a support system for your staff.

3 . Stay empathetic to your cause — for us, we have to recognize that there are great difficulties in this diagnosis and families are struggling with the realization. When we can stay empathetic, we create stronger ties and bonds to the community.

4 . Collaborate with your teammates and the community — have conversations with your resources to be sure you are providing the best quality services.

5 . Live your core values.

I’m interested in how you instill a strong sense of connection with your team. How do you nurture a culture where everyone feels connected to your mission? Could you share an example or story that showcases how your purpose has positively influenced or motivated people on your team to contribute?

I believe we have an enormous opportunity to positively impact our community and the lives of the families we serve by providing consistent high-quality client services and individually tailored therapy sessions for children. But that begins with strong communication, transparency, and consistent dialogue within the organization, placing a heavy emphasis on employee satisfaction and encouraging open communication of issues, concerns, or ideas. For instance, what thoughts do the parents have about their services? What are employees saying about their work environment? Are there unmet needs or resources that would improve our ability to do our jobs? We also believe that supporting our staff through their personal and professional development helps improve their satisfaction and connection to the mission. That’s why we placed an emphasis on training and education programs, which includes workshops on effective communication strategies, conflict resolution, team building, compliance, and personal development. Many of these may also highlight emotional intelligence, adaptability, creativity, influence, communication, and teamwork. This allows us to support a healthy company culture with a clear vision of purpose and intent.

Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?

I think we have done a lot of growing and that our best years are ahead of us. We have successfully navigated issues and challenges, analyzed areas for improvement, developed changes based on the best decisions of the company, stakeholders, staff, and families, and met the deeply emotional needs of those we serve. 24 months from now I would like to say that we were able to broaden our community base by opening new locations in areas of the highest need, provide more life-changing services, and empower individuals to thrive in entrepreneurship.

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. :-)

I would like to raise awareness about the misunderstandings and misconceptions of autistic individuals. I always see people wanting to change their child or change themselves to fit into society and be accepted. But there is nothing wrong with an autistic person. They have differences just like anybody, and they should be encouraged to embrace who and what they are instead of trying to change everything about themselves. People who are unfamiliar with autism will often look at these children and feel bad for them, but they are people too. We shouldn’t be extending this narrative that they don’t fit in or that their life isn’t a good one. If I could inspire anything it would be to raise that overall awareness of society to understand and accept autistic individuals for who and what they are.

How can our readers further follow your work or your company online?

Our social media accounts are a great way to stay connected to the wonderful work we do and the positive stories we create. You can follow us on

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/essentialspeechandabatherapy

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/essentialspeechandaba/

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/essential-speech-and-aba-therapy/

This was great. Thanks for taking time for us to learn more about you and your business. We wish you continued success!

About the Interviewer: Chad Silverstein, a seasoned entrepreneur with over two decades of experience as the Founder and CEO of multiple companies. He launched Choice Recovery, Inc., a healthcare collection agency, while going to The Ohio State University, His team earned national recognition, twice being ranked as the #1 business to work for in Central Ohio. In 2018, Chad launched [re]start, a career development platform connecting thousands of individuals in collections with meaningful employment opportunities, He sold Choice Recovery on his 25th anniversary and in 2023, sold the majority interest in [re]start so he can focus his transition to Built to Lead as an Executive Leadership Coach. Learn more at www.chadsilverstein.com.

--

--

Chad Silverstein
Authority Magazine

Chad Silverstein: 25-years experience as a CEO & Founder, sharing entrepreneurial insights & empowering the next generation of leaders.