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Some With Developmental Disabilities Find Entrepreneurial Success In Triangle

Extraordinary Ventures
Courtesy of Extraordinary Ventures

In a traditional labor market, Ewan Toscano might be considered "hard to employ." But he's part of group of young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities who have a proven track record -- not only of employment -- but of entrepreneurship in the Triangle. 

Toscano really likes his job, saying, "I work at EV for two hours four days a week.I make twelve candles.  I love my job.  I see my friends."

"EV" is a Chapel Hill company, Extraordinary Ventures. They create and nurture these small businesses. Van Hatchell is EV's Managing Director. He says that the company tries to build on the skill sets that these future employees already have when they dream up businesses:

For example, a group of employees said 'We like to cook.' So we created a candle business because there is a recipe process. Some people found comfort in doing very structured tasks like folding clothes. So we created a laundry business.

Some of EV's businesses have succeeded and some have failed. But each entrepreneurial endeavor needs time to grow. Here's Van Hatchell:

So we started off with the minimum viable product that we could - literally a candle in a glass jar. And then over time we added things to increase the value to the consumer, so we could increase the value to our employees.

A conference in Chapel Hill this week will highlight the lessons EV has learned over the years.

EV was co-founded by a mom, Lori Ireland.  She says it was important to make sure her 23-year-old son Vinnie was able to have a productive life after high school.  Ireland says Vinnie is well-coordinated but not high functioning.  Still, he is able to work in the organization’s laundry business:

He goes in, gets his bags, brings them back to EV and there are various levels of who does what of the actual laundry. And then in the afternoon, he has his own business, called Weed Whacking Weasel, where he does yard care.

The conference, “Employing Adults on the Autism Spectrum,” will feature more than a dozen pioneering small businesses from across the country, like AutonomyWorks in Chicago and Beneficial Beans, a cafe in Ph0enix.  Ireland says what is "extraordinary" about EV and the featured businesses is how they have been able to grow small, custom businesses for a population that is often overlooked:

We do not think that going to work for big companies is a bad thing at all. We are very appreciative for all that the big companies and medium-sized companies do. But they just can't take up this explosion of all the people coming into the workforce."

Today, EV employs 40 young adults with autism or a developmental disability.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
Carol Jackson has been with WUNC since 2006. As Digital News Editor, she writes stories for, and helps reporters and hosts make digital versions of their radio stories. She is also responsible for sharing stories on social media. Previously, Carol spent eight years with WUNC's nationally syndicated show The Story with Dick Gordon, serving as Managing Editor and Interim Senior Producer.
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