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Aww Shift

Jan 10, 2023

In today’s episode, our guest is Thomas D'Eri. He is an expert in autism employment through his experience as the founder and COO of Rising Tide Car Wash, a social enterprise that employs more than 80 individuals with autism. 

He is also a recognized thought leader in the autism employment field and a 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list-maker in social entrepreneurship. Tom regularly speaks at Fortune 500 companies, international conferences, leadership development programs, and universities. 

[3:16] Why should I listen to you? 

I have the type of personality that is looking to learn much more than to tell people what to do. And if I were to talk to you in a coffee shop, I can promise you that I’d be asking many more questions than speaking. 

[4:45] Where did you develop the desire to be curious about other people? 

A lot of experiences come to mind, but the one that comes to mind most frequently is my experience with my brother, Andrew. Andrew has autism, and that is why we founded our business, Rising Tide Car Wash. Growing up with him and getting to know other people, I learned that people have all different types of struggles that you may not see on the surface. I think that has always been interesting to me, and it has also made me empathetic. 

[7:20] Tell me how the carwash came to be. 

My father, John Dre, and I founded the business in 2013. At this point, Andrew was turning 22. And at that point, in the autism community that means you are kind of out of the school district, out of the support system that you have through your childhood. We knew we had to act for a couple of years, but before then we had been doing research and testing different ideas to see what would work best for Andrew and what we felt could be a viable business, and we settled on a car wash. We opened our first location in Parkland, Florida, in the year 2013. It was an old kind of struggling car wash, we renovated it and we put it in our brand and our concept. When we bought it, it washed about 35,000 cars a year, and now it’s washing over 170,000 cars a year. Because of the progress, we were also able to build two more. 

[9:20] Can you share how that kind of system operates and functions? 

We take the approach that our employees with autism are extreme users of organizational systems. So they have the same needs as everyone else. They’re just more parents, and by designing for and with them, we’ve learned how to build more systems that are clear, streamlined, more inclusive, and that work better for everybody. So instead of letting go of employees, we take the approach of designing a system that they’re chafing up against in a way that works for them. Typically, we end up with a more innovative, better process that works better for everyone. Not every way works perfectly, but this approach works well for us. 

[11:06] What are some of the challenges you faced in getting this off the ground? 

When we were doing our research, there were not a lot of examples of non-profit businesses that designed and employed people with autism as most of their staff. Some nonprofit organizations have had some success but nothing we were trying to do was a consumer-facing business. We talked to a lot of experts and they told us it wasn’t going to work. My dad had been an entrepreneur before then and he was like, we will go into it and test it. We’ll take feedback but we will try and see if it’s going to work or not. I spent so much time figuring out how we will employ people with autism, how to train them, empower them and make them great employees. 

[14:23] How do you tweak the system? 

About 16% of the autism spectrum has a significant intellectual disability and half of the autism spectrum has no intellectual disability. It’s very wide and that is why we adopted the approach of figuring out who is having the biggest difficulty. So when we find out our team members just can’t do the work, we try to figure out where they are being challenged and we fix it. We also designed a sign that says drive forward, car in neutral that way they find it simple, and directional and that made it easier for our team members to navigate the process. 

[18:03] How do you expand the business into multiple locations? 

The first thing we do is by figuring out the challenges of a particular team member and we proffer solutions to them. We are also always at one location with only a couple of people to start. We expand it from there to one whole staff and then company-wide if it’s working well. 

[20:17] In your own words, what was the inspiration behind you writing a book? 

Throughout the business, we have had a couple of "lightning in a bottle"  moments where we’ve caught the attention of the media, magazines, and so on. Every time these things hit, we get an outpouring of parents who come to inquire about how we started the business and how they’d love to build something like that too. We can't help all of them individually. So our first inclination was to build entrepreneurship training for these parents. We partnered with the University of Miami and the Taft Foundation to build an online course and workshop around this training, which turned out to be great.  

[23:17] Does the book have any idea around that kind of stuff? 

Essentially, the book is centered around the idea that four hidden problems hold businesses back from achieving success. The first one is being able to objectively assess talent and hire people based on their actual skills instead of biases, the second is driving clarity through everything that we do; the third is how you build coaching, compassion, and leadership into the organization; and the fourth is how do you design an employee’s experience that works for everyone? And by doing these things, you unlock psychological safety, ethical accountability, and purpose for your entire team. 

[29:50] Where should someone start with creating this ease of flow for people? 

So picture the person you are most frustrated with on your staff, talk to the staff about it, and fix that particular staff problem. After trying your best and there are no changes, you can decide to let go of that particular person 

[35:46] Do you see yourself trying something else besides this?

To be honest, right now, I'm fully invested in the car wash. There are other things that I would love to do but I get a lot of satisfaction from solving operational challenges and as we try to scale this business, there is an unending amount of inspiration. 

[39:08] How do you keep the business functioning when there is rain? 

Obviously, on days like that, we don't wash a lot of cars. We focus on training and cleaning during days like that. Also, we have a subscription part of the business where people pay a monthly fee and they can come and get their cars washed as many times as they want and that helps to tide us over when the weather isn’t good. 

[43:12] What promise did God make to the world when he created you? 

That there would be someone who cares about helping people work through and meet their individual potential. 

Key Quotes

[24:38-24:25] People quit their managers, but they don’t tend to quit their jobs. 

[26:50-26:55] You have to be able to create different levels when you work with individuals who are harder than an average person. 

How to connect with Thomas D’eri