Social Enterprise

By October 19, 2020Business

Spectrum Designs in New York followed a thread on creating a workforce talent of people with autism. That thread knitted together one of the most impressive, productive work cultures in the apparel industry.

The history of Spectrum Designs reads like a string of headlines chronicling the American Dream:

  • 2011— T-shirt screen printing nonprofit starts in a barn with two teens with autism and three dedicated adults
  • 2012— Staff grows to 10 teens and production moves to 500 sq ft room
  • 2013— Sales triple and production moves to 1,500 sq ft building
  • 2014— Sales double and plans for expansion begin
  • 2015— Equipment upgrades help production increase 500%

And so their successes continued, year after year, through right now:

  • 2020— Spectrum Designs employs a workforce of 42 and counting. Opened an 8,000 sq ft warehouse for operations. Counts Google, Facebook, and Uber among their client portfolio.

The brand expanded to Spectrum Enterprises, which includes Spectrum Bakes, a small-batch wholesome snack company, and Spectrum Suds, a community-based laundry service. All three companies focus on employing people with autism spectrum disorder.

“This is not charity for us,” says co-founder and CEO Patrick Bardsley, one of the three dedicated founders in the barn in 2011 screen printing t-shirts for local autism organizations. “We’ve actually stumbled on a secret workforce that’s very good for business.”

“We’ve actually stumbled on a secret workforce that’s very good for business.”

Bardsley and the other two co-founders, Stella Spanakos and Nicole Sugrue, specifically designed the custom apparel company to gainfully employ adults on the autism spectrum. Spectrum Designs provides a sustainable business solution to the “service cliff”—the dropping off of services for people with autism when they reach 21 years old. People with autism need jobs. They have desirable workplace talents that are often overlooked.

“The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 70-80%,” Bardsley says. “This is a population that is underestimated, undervalued, underappreciated, and underutilized. We have 75% of our employees on the autism spectrum. We work with people who have a high attention to detail, loyalty, and a very low attrition rate.”

Because Spectrum Designs employees stay at the company for the duration of their careers, Spectrum doesn’t waste hundreds of thousands of dollars rehiring and retraining workers.

“The success of Spectrum Enterprises is a testament to what people of all abilities can do,” Bardsley says. “There’s the social side. But there’s also the economic side. If it didn’t make business sense, we couldn’t do it. Having neurodiversity and inclusion means you have different eyes, different minds. You have a culture of acceptance and tolerance. An inclusive workplace is an energy that improves the mindset of a company. We focus on what can be done. We focus on people’s strengths.”

“Presume competence,” Bardsley advises to business leaders. “You have to get past the fear that hiring people with disabilities won’t work. If you want efficient employees, if you want a lack of turnover, it makes sense.”

It’s obvious that inclusion pays. Hiring people with disabilities proves the American Dream is alive and well.

And that’s the kind of social enterprise we think makes a model business out of a brilliant business model.

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