(Mind) Shifting Our Perspective
Open Road — Week 2 by Team ACAI
What is diversity and why does it matter for businesses? Most people would likely agree that categories of diversity include gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Other common categories of diversity are education level, personality, religious background, disability status, and age. Businesses increasingly prioritize diversity in their hiring, although many struggle to achieve diversity even in gender, let alone other categories. A cursory Google search reveals the belief that diversity is important in business settings not just for representation, but also because diversity drives innovation by bringing in a breadth of perspectives.
During our second week of Open Road, we learned that there is more to diversity than the views described above. We spent the week in Fargo, ND working with Mind Shift, a nonprofit dedicated to helping businesses employ the strengths of people on the autism spectrum. Individuals on the spectrum bring strengths to bear that make them ideal fits for certain roles, especially those that require precision, accuracy, pattern recognition, or an affinity for repetitive tasks (see this BBC article for more on this topic). Unfortunately, finding and keeping employment is a challenge for many people on the autism spectrum; 58% of young adults on the spectrum are unemployed. Margie, James, Drew, Tony, and the rest of the Mind Shift organization are working to increase neurodiversity in the workforce — a category of diversity which argues that differences in neurological condition are assets, not disorders as they are commonly perceived. Mind Shift is accomplishing this goal by hiring “specialists” on the autism spectrum and securing them employment with “business partners” that range in size from local, such as Fargo’s Office Sign Company, to large players such as Accenture and GE Healthcare.
We arrived at Mind Shift at an interesting time in the organization’s development. It is still a lean operation, but Mind Shift now has three offices and is considering opening more; it is not too far from achieving financial sustainability without the need for donations to keep the lights on. Mind Shift has found that there are many high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum that are excited about the prospect of rewarding work, but in order to serve these people, Mind Shift needs to find additional business partners who have roles for these individuals. Our work was centered on how Mind Shift could expand their reach to achieve this goal by answering the question, “how can Mind Shift best message its value to different types of business partner stakeholders?” In order to answer this question, we developed several deliverables designed to help Mind Shift showcase different aspects of its model, depending on the stakeholder with whom they are interacting. We couldn’t have done this without the thoughtful insight from local Fargo businesses Office Sign Company and Donor Dock, as well as Florida’s Rising Tide Car Wash.
Our learnings about neurodiversity during our time in Fargo made for an interesting complement to the types of diversity that we encountered while in Detroit for Week 1 of Open Road. While working with Us Food Market, race was a predominant issue that frequently came up in our discussions, given Detroit’s complicated history with race, as well as issues with current access to start-up funding and other entrepreneurial resources. Sexual orientation was another type of diversity that we engaged with. The insights that Mind Shift presented on neurodiversity built upon our Week 1 conversations by expanding our understanding of diversity as a general concept that will stay with us as we leave academia and take on leadership roles. Applying the concept will likely improve team productivity and overall success, recognizing people’s talent based on neurodiversity.
Our hosts at Mind Shift displayed such hospitality to us during our time in Fargo, and they went out of their way to help us understand what makes Fargo a community that is truly “north of normal.” They steered us to the best restaurants and brews in the city, not to mention joining us for happy hour and a taco-truck dinner at the incredible Junkyard Brewing Company. They had just moved to a new office but were gracious in providing us a large working space. They introduced us to the supportive and collaborative Fargo entrepreneurial community, taking us to a 1 Million Cups event for local businesses and connecting us with folks at other enterprises. They inspired us all with their passion for serving individuals on the autism spectrum, while also helping local businesses get the best people for their open roles. Thanks to Mind Shift, we left Fargo with an expanded understanding of diversity and a renewed energy around its importance in businesses large and small.