Yes She Can Inc.

Podcast Episode 43. “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right,” according to Henry Ford: this week’s podcast guest Marjorie Madfis clearly believes this to be true. With Yes She Can Inc., Marjorie has not only created employment opportunities for her own daughter, but she has also created a training process which other parents can use to help their children develop better employability skills. In essence, by using the same processes she has used, you too could create a sustainable business to help young people with additional needs to gain work.

Marjorie starts off by explaining why she started Yes She Can Inc., which is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping young women with autism spectrum disorders develop transferable job skills. Marjorie watched as her own daughter received job skills training which simply wasn’t fit for purpose and which wasn’t teaching the right job skills that would help her to get a job.

Her daughters’ dream job was working for American Girl, a doll production company, so Marjorie decided to help her daughter go towards achieving her dreams by opening a store which resold used American Girl merchandise. Once she realized that it wasn’t only her daughter who needed a space to develop job skills she turned her business idea into a non-profit organization, focusing on helping young women on the autism spectrum develop transferable job skills

Marjorie talks about the importance of having a “proof of concept” trial. She started out small and got professionals involved, including social workers, psychologists, and occupational therapists. Once the trial was successful, she was then able to scale up quickly to have a “Girl Again” retail shop along with a connected training program.

Marjorie talks about the training program and some of the challenges for the young women on the program. In particular, the need for them to realize that their work isn’t always about them. It’s about the customer and satisfying someone else’s needs before your own. Marjorie talks about how her own daughter struggles with prioritizing the immediate customers’ needs over other tasks she had already begun. She also explains the kind of skills that the young women learn from data input to phoning customers to writing marketing materials.

She also talks about why a reselling business is an ideal route for training young people with additional needs. She explained how a business like this has a variety of job roles which other businesses might not have, from sorting stock to online selling. This enables young people to develop a much broader range of skills than other types of work might. In addition, as with her daughter, the right kind of business can enable young people to work in a business they are genuinely interested in. Marjorie also talks about her belief that training programs need to have qualified professionals, such as occupational therapists and psychologists, actively included in the design and delivery of any training rather than less qualified training providers. She argues that professionals have a much better understanding of why behaviors occur, and so can help develop long-term strategies to help the young person developing coping skills in the workplace. This ultimately helps the young person.

She also explains very well why we all need to think differently about the job options for our young people. As she explains the job market has become more generalized. Organisations want flexible employees that can carry out several or more tasks. Why? Because businesses aren’t in the business of employment. As Marjorie puts it, they want as few employees as possible. This means that one of two things need to happen young people need to develop a variety of skills which is what the Yes She Can Inc. program aims to do. Alternatively, as Marjorie also suggests we need to find smaller employers who have a job role which matches the core skills of the individual.

Marjorie also discusses how the model developed at Yes She Can Inc might be replicated how the processes used and best practices developed could be taken by other parents and professionals and used across any reselling business.

Like many parents/carers of a child with additional needs, Marjorie is on a crusade to change perceptions about what young people with additional needs are capable of in the world of work. She has created a model and process which we can all use as a guide to our efforts to change our young person’s work future.

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to episode 43 of the Journey Skills podcast. This week, I’m talking to Marjorie Madfis, founder of Yes She Can Inc., which is based in New York and focuses on developing transferable job skills for young women with autism. So although this might not reflect your particular situation, this isn’t so much about who Yes She Can is focused on helping but more about the model they’ve created which could be taken by anyone of us and replicate it to create quality training and also potentially employment opportunities for own young people.

What Marjorie has done essentially is develop a set of processes which could be used in any type of business, reselling any type of used product. In the case of Yes She Can, it’s American Girl dolls. Marjorie explains it could be pretty much anything where value can be added to secondhand products. Marjorie explains really well why reselling-focused business offers so much more training opportunities. And she also talks about something that might resonate with many of us who have already looked at what is expected in today’s workforce and wondered how our children will fit in.

Today’s employees are expected to be multi-skilled, as Marjorie said many of our young people are very good at maybe one or two things. And she talks about the possible solutions around this which again could be copied by anyone of us. What’s a bit different about what Yes You Can is doing is that Marjorie’s taking this all a step further and looking at why she can make the process used, the assessment procedures, the best practice ideas available to others to replicate in whatever area they want to. Providing a solid and proven base for the rest of us to build on is how I see it. Just a quick reminder, if you haven’t had a chance to review the podcast, please remember that by doing so you make it easier for others to find it. Just go to the website www.journeyskills.com, click on Podcast on the top menu and everything you need to know is there. I really appreciate your support with this.

DEBRA: This week I’m talking to Marjorie Madfis who is the founder of Yes You Can Inc. Welcome, Marjorie!

MARJORIE: Thank you! Thank you for having me.

DEBRA: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and also a little bit about Yes She Can?

MARJORIE: I have a 22-year-old daughter with autism. My daughter was diagnosed which is about two and a quarter. When she graduated from high school without a Regents diploma in New York but she got a certificate of career readiness. I have an MBA and a 30-year career in marketing. My last position was at IBM and while I was there, I was observing my daughter in her job skills development classes and I was pretty disappointed because I didn’t think she was learning what really was necessary to be effective at work which to me is all about being able to collaborate, be able to understand somebody else’s priorities especially the managers or the customers, be able to shift from one task to another, being able to deal with uncertainty and incomplete information. All of these things are difficult for people with autism and I did not find that internships that she was being offered or being coached by somebody who really understood what really goes on at work. It’s not about the task that she was capable of doing. It was really about all those other skills so I thought I would be able to do a better job and I guess perhaps, naively.

[Talks about how the whole idea came about] Well, my daughter’s career ambition is to work at American Girl which is a company based in the US that makes dolls that are 18-inch size and they have a lot of appeal to people on the spectrum because there’s a huge amount of detail to the product line. So I thought, “Well, you know maybe, I could open up a little store for reselling used American Girl doll merchandise because there is a demand for a secondary market and then I realized there is really no profit margin there to do that and I also realized, as the time was going by, that my daughter was not the only person who is not getting the kind of job skill development that they deserve and that if they had it, they really would be capable of entering the workforce. Also I had learned that 80 percent of adults with autism in the US are unemployed and then the jobs that most people were getting were working in supermarkets and a bagging and one of the things that I find from my daughter is she’s much more motivated if she’s engaged to what she’s doing and her negative behaviors come out when she’s disinterested. I said, “You know, maybe I could make this into a nonprofit.”

[Talks about the whole process of getting things started] And really even though we are selling jobs, we’re not in the doll business, we’re in a job skills development business. So I developed some concepts and then I put the word out to our network to see was there any interest and when I got a lot of response. So I incorporated the organization in November 2013. We opened up our retail space inside another store, literally, it was a closet in somebody else’s store. But I really wanted to do a proof of concept test. Could I get trainees? Could I come up with a methodology of teaching them skills that I thought were really relevant? Could I get customers? Could I get donated merchandise? And could I get some professionals to help me? So one of the things that happen here in the US is for people who do have developmental disabilities and there is some type of job skill programme, they’re usually coached by somebody who has no business background, they’re very low wage employee, the turnover is high, they don’t have any expertise in behavior development, in psychology and one of the things that I felt was important was to bring on social workers and psychologists and occupational therapists who really could help in the social skills and emotional regulation which are the key things that are preventing people on the spectrum from being effective at work. Putting all that together, we opened up the store in 2014 and it was successful. As so we then start to look for another space.
[Talks about some of the challenges that came along] One of the challenges that we have as a retailer is that we need to be in a place where moms and 8-year-old girls want to go. We can’t be on that third-floor industrial building or that, you know, somewhere out in the countryside. We have to be in a typical retail district. Retailers are not willing to, you know, there no incentives to give away space to a nonprofit, so we’re paying retail rent which is definitely a challenge. Yeah, there is a big for merchandise and we are very thankful that we get donated merchandise from across the country. We’re in New York which we’ve gotten donations from Hawaii, from California, from Texas. In our programme, we bring in trainees, our young women between 17 and 25. Some of them have college degrees, some of them do not have high school diplomas. They all have the desire to work. Even those that have college degrees have very similar challenges to those that who aren’t academically successful. It’s all those issues I talked about. Dealing with their frustrations, appropriately.

[Shares some of her insightful conversations and how these conversations have helped the trainees] One good example is that a young lady who could take the subway in Queens which is a section of New York City and then she has to take the subway to Grand Central station and take a train and then walk 3 blocks to our store up in White Plains and she gets there and I asked her to dress the doll in and out again but didn’t originally comment. Well, she said can’t do it, it’s not authentic. And I said, “Are you willing to potentially lose a job over this stance of yours?” And that was not something she could actually process and she thought it was about her. And I said, “This is not about you, this is about the customer. Seeing something from somebody else’s perspective is very hard. Work is really not about you. It’s about satisfying a business need. If you can’t do that, the owner isn’t going to want to employ you.” So we also talk a lot about efficiency. I had one trainee who was very particular about dust on clothes and she could spend a half an hour picking off every little teeny piece of lint off of a little jacket. I said “We’re gonna sell this jacket for $5, so where is the margin here? We can’t afford this.” And again, she just couldn’t understand that concept. How do you understand good enough? And that is a very big concept. Again, we try to spend some time talking about these things. Another thing we do is because we’re a store, they have an opportunity to interact with the public so they have the chance to help customers with shopping. And my daughter who loves this product and she loves selling, she had an assignment to put in some data into our what we call the Inventory Management System which is basically a spreadsheet and she’s doing her work there and I said, “Oh you see, a customer came in. Would you go help him?” And she said, “Not now, I’m busy.” Understanding that, yes you have your assignment but the customer is the priority. You have to stop what you’re doing and realize that you can always come back to that task. So we have to teach them things like saying “Give me one minute” because if they have a couple of prepared rolled expressions it can be helpful to make that adjustment. Another thing we do is talking on the phone. One of the things I realize is that when that the phone rings, not only as a noise a little startling and so I decided “Well, let’s talk about all the possible reasons somebody might call and what might be asking” so they can learn to anticipate and not be afraid of that unknown on the other side on the phone. And in reverse, we get people who call wanna know if we a doll, we said we’ll put you on the wishlist. So now we have this doll in, and we need to make an outbound call. Again, they’re a little nervous because they might be able to start the conversation by saying “Hi, This is Susan from the Girl Again. We just got in Konami and you’re on the list”. They could do that but then once the person says something back to them, it’s an unknown and they’re not sure how to answer. So we’re working on those kinds of things.

DEBRA: How do you fix things linked to that?

MARJORIE: So the store is set up, it’s a one-space, 750 square feet, divided it with a very sheer curtain, and the curtain is usually open. Kind of a symbol to separate workspace versus retail floor space. When customers come in, they can see the whole workspace and the trainees who are sitting at this table can see customers coming. Around the table, we typically have 3 trainees at a time and one of our job coaches, our job coaches are social workers or psychologist, at the same time, we also have the store manager in the store. So the idea is that the trainee should be taking direction from the store manager but the coaches kind of help to interpret it and guide the trainees. So if the store manager says, “We just got a big donation in, we need to clean and prepare these 5 dolls and these 20 outfits.” So then each trainee has a To-do list. Also, we like to have them do some marketing activities so I say, “Ian, we want you to write a blog about this particular doll in white because we have so many of them, we should try to market them more. So why is Molly so interesting.” We also have on their to-do list that they need to make phone calls to the wishlist. So each trainee has their to-do list with activities that are quite easier for them and more challenging for them and the coaches are there to guide them. One of the things that we want them to do is instead of always turning to the coach for support to be able to turn to their peers at the table. All trainees are coached. We don’t have any trainees who are there without that level of support. Now if we have some trainees who can work much more independently than others, the coach steps away and you know, the manager gives the direction. You know, we get these donations and merchandise, it’s just a big box of stacks, they put it all together. They have to come up with a price, they put it into the inventory management system, they go hang it up. Even if they are not helping a customer, when they walk across the floor, we teach them to ask the customer “Is there anything I could do to help you?”. Some of our trainees who are much more passionate about the product, they’re gonna launch into a lecture about “This is Felicity and this is why Felicity is so great!” And so I have 2 sentences about Felicity and then wait and see if somebody is actually interested and bought it.

DEBRA: With all the processes that you have, like when you just mentioned there about 2 sentences, you have a book there with all of the ideas that come up?

MARJORIE: I wish we were only had like a scribe sitting there, every time they saw some new opportunity for a teaching moment they would be jotting it down. We have in every other week coaches meeting and we’ll go over things that happened, things that could be improved upon, processes that you know we thought were working and no longer seem to be working. And so we’re constantly tweaking and it always depends upon who the trainees are because each one is so different. It’s interesting, you know, that the whole expression that ‘you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. And we need to, on one hand, accommodate them but on the other hand, I’m sort of the voice of the business so there’s always so much accommodation we can do because we really want to replicate actual business environment. Most businesses are not going to do these types of accommodations that we would love to have in an ideal world.

DEBRA: The trainees that you have at the moment, is the plan that they go to other paid employment?

MARJORIE: I was naive when I set this up and thinking, “Oh we’ll have these trainees here for 6 months and then they’ll go use our social service programs and we’ll get them a job.” One of the problems is that in the business world today, jobs have become much more generalized. So for example, you used to be able to just be stock room person at stock merchandise. Retailers don’t want that specialization because they want the flexibility of moving people around so if you’re going to go work in our bookstore, not only have to be able to stack the box, you also have to be able to work on the cash register, you also have to be able to be in the customer information booth. Our government had said that competitive employment means being able to do the exact same job as somebody else who doesn’t have a disability. That’s unrealistic in many respects for most of our people. And so, we have people who are fabulous data entry but there’s no such thing as anymore just data entry jobs as supposed to be doing a much broader range of jobs. So one of the things I want to go into next is to do job development. Smaller businesses is really where I think the opportunities are but it takes a lot more work to develop those jobs as supposed to going to a big bookstore or supermarket and you making a relationship. So these have me one-offs and that’s expensive. So you need to go to your local real estate agent and say “You know, I have somebody who’d be really good at adding the data into the multiple listing service while your million dollars real estate saleswoman can be out there actually talking to customers and selling houses as suppose to sitting back in the office.” And they may say “You know, that really helps us be much more efficient. We see the benefit of that.” That really takes a skilled person who can have that type of conversation with business to be able to go in and recognize where there’s some inefficiency in the business and say we have a solution that will be profitable because you know, business isn’t in the business of employment. The heart of the business is having fewer employees as possible. And so every employee has to add value.

DEBRA: Are you also planning on adding more retail shops?

MARJORIE: The reason why I didn’t want to have the store Girl Again that resells dolls to become an employer is because I wanted to address the issue of 80% unemployment. And so I felt I should be an incubator in a place where people develop skills and then as I said, naively, that “Oh, it will all just push out and they’ll just go right into the competitive marketplace”. I’ve gotten calls from the day after I started this from across the country saying, “Oh, we’d like to do what you’re doing” and I said, “You know, I want you to wait until I can prove that we’re actually doing something of value.” We are now at the point of taking our curriculum and we’re going to talk to intellectual property attorneys to figure out how we can create some type of licensing programme. There’s no way that somebody’s gonna be able to pay us for what we invested in this. But some small fee for helping them to get set up. Even though we wanted to focus on women and my daughter’s favorite product, American Girl. It’s really about a resale business of any type because with resale, you get donated merchandise and then you have to actually do work to it. You’re gonna put labor in and add value to it to then sell it. With all those steps in that process, there’s every single one has a learning opportunity that’s relevant to another business. So, I did it with my daughter, nobody else wants to work in American Girl. But all those skills they’re learning are truly transferable. They’re not gonna clean dolls anywhere else but they’re gonna learn about how much is clean enough, how much is good enough to be able to satisfy the customer. All these skills transferable and so I say people could replicate this by doing other kinds of resale. Other types of toys, sports equipment that they can add value to. That’s our next mission is also to work on being able to replicate this so that other people can follow this model across the country. So, it’s a very local but very integrated model. You get your trainees, you have your source of merchandise, you have your source of customers, you have your processes and then you need your physical space so you can just replicate this very easily. Well, I will rephrase it, with effort.

DEBRA: So what is about resale that you particularly like?

MARJORIE: Because there are many different tasks that happened in business, so for example, you may not have to be that involved with the product but you are now learning to put data into a spreadsheet, so we’ve taught them how to use Excel. Believe it or not, there are this fan base wikis for this product line but we only focus on two because there are too many. You can go back and look at all the stuff that was sold because American Girl doesn’t keep track at this because they only care about what’s currently available. So, you do the research to find out what we’re all the pieces in this outfit so we’re teaching them research skills. Then when they put in the item into the inventory they’re writing, what was its original price? It’s no longer available so we teach them to go on eBay to see what’s the competitive price. And this is a very hard thing for them because when they wanna resell it, they said, “Well it was originally $20 so shouldn’t we sell it for $20?” “No, we wanna see, first of all, is there something similar that’s available brand new at American Girl? Because somebody can now go buy a new red dress in American Girl for $20. We can’t sell ours for 20`”. So there’s a lot of opportunity for analysis, pulling information together, thinking things through. One of the things that we focused a lot on is instead of constantly asking for somebody else do thinking and then come to me with 2 recommendations. You don’t have to have the answer, let’s at least have 2 ideas and then we will talk about the pros and cons and help you think it through. It provides all these times where they gonna be challenged and not having a black and white answer because there is no right answer for this price should be. There’s a huge range of skills that we’re teaching that are truly transferable. If there was no work to be done, if it was brand new merchandise and all they did was put it on a shelf, none of those tasks would be required. One of our missions is to actually help people get familiar with people with disabilities being productive. We are kind of fighting a stereotype. When some of our trainees who have social awkwardness are talking to a customer about a doll, the child and even the adults don’t seem to care as much because they really care about the product. You know, “Tell me what you know about this product” and they’re focused on that. When you’re confident about what you’re doing and the other person has an interest in the product, it’s not about you anymore, it’s about providing some value.

DEBRA: Thank you very much for your time, Marjorie.

MARJORIE: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure.

DEBRA: Key takeaways? A business built around reselling is most likely to provide the kind of training opportunities needed for our young people to develop their employability skills. Look at small businesses and how your young person might be able to meet the particular need that these businesses have.

Resources
Yes She Can Inc

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