Invictus Enterprises: Building The Steps Into Work

Podcast Episode 46. What happens to young people with additional needs when they finish full-time education? How will they find employment? How will they cope on their own throughout adulthood? One organization helping to provide some of the answers to these questions is Invictus Enterprises based in New York. In this week’s podcast, we hear from Alison Berkely co-founder of Invictus Enterprises about how they are helping young people with autism acquire the work skills they need to get into paid sustainable employment.

Alison talks about the challenges of getting the training program started and explains the benefits of basing the training program in the culinary industry. The first product launched was No Bones About It dog biscuits which have proved to be a commercial success with the profits being used to fund the training of even more people.

Alison talked about the need to teach both hard and soft skills. Invictus Enterprises have a support team with a variety of professional backgrounds and they help support the individuals physical and sensory needs in a way that enables them to learn effectively. When it comes to making the dog biscuits, for example, participants are shown how to follow a recipe, use the cooking equipment and develop the stamina required to be on their feet for a large part of the day. They also focus on developing their skills around teamwork and social communication skills.

Alison also explains the importance of technology and she describes it as the real “game changer” for the organization because it opens up the world of work for many young people who otherwise would not have an opportunity because they are not able to communicate verbally. Alison has even created a digital cookbook curriculum that takes students through the entire baking process using touchscreen technology.

As Alison says we all worry about what the future holds for our children. But there’s no doubt this worry is amplified when the child has additional needs. What Invictus Enterprises is doing serves as a reminder of the importance in aspiring to the future and finding new and innovative ways to help our young people find and keep paid employment. This will make the question how will they cope on their own a lot easier to answer.

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Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to episode 46 of the Journey Skills podcast. I hope that if you’re a regular listener, you’re starting to feel optimistic about what there is out there for young people with additional needs. And maybe you’ve noticed that one of the topics I’ve covered quite a bit recently is around work. When we started this whole journey, sorry, can’t resist the occasional pod, we knew there were three areas we want to focus on: Relationships, Daily Living, and Purpose or Work.

For me and perhaps because of the age of my own daughter, I’ve figured that daily living skills were the most important, otherwise, she might end up living on fast food, not that she would mind, that to be fair. And of course, I worry about her friendships because loneliness is something a lot of young people with additional needs suffer from, as they get isolated from the community and also when our children are young, we sit and exude them from parties, so I wanted her to have friends and to know that people liked her. So that point, purpose was a distant point to be fair because really school was feeding that need anyway. And I suppose, I thought of purpose as really a place to go, something you do each day. I now have a very different view of what my priorities need to be. And this is not because she’s a little bit older because we still have a few years of school to navigate through, but I believe they’re planning this is not now because she needs a job, not just the purpose but a paid job.

There are many reasons for that including the money to live independently. The paid job will give her, in my opinion anyway, the solid base to make the other things work. When I talk about daily living skills, I don’t mean just bring up to look after herself. I mean her living away from us, in a house of her own. In order to do, that she would need the confidence the job will give her, not to mention the money will give her to pay the bills.

Friendships, too, make home via work. I mean, how many of us have made good friends at work. I know I have. Now I know some people will say that their child wasn’t realistically ever be able to hold in a paid job. I don’t know those children so I can’t comment but I would say, listen to this podcast, particularly the part where we talk about how technology would change work opportunities in the future.

So this is really why I’m a bit excited about this interview with Allison Berkeley from Invictus Enterprises because they’re out there doing what I will need to be fairly soon, or at least find an organization similar to what they’re doing so that my daughter can have the work opportunities that she deserves. Invictus Enterprises is based in New York and helps young people with autism into paid work and although they’re charity, they think and operate like a business to provide sustainable opportunities for young people. Through innovative training combined with fantastic business ideas, they’ve created employment opportunities that will be sustainable for the young people they actually help. As a parent of a young person with additional needs, I have three settings when it comes to their future: worried, in denial and optimistic. Now guess which one talking to Alison made me feel.

DEBRA: Today I’m talking to Alison Berkeley who is the co-founder of Invictus Enterprises which is based in New York. Welcome, Alison!

ALISON: Hi! Thank you so much for having me.

DEBRA: Can you tell me about Invictus Enterprises, what you guys do and also a little bit about yourself?

ALISON: Of course. So, Invictus Enterprises is a nonprofit based in New York that’s dedicated to job training and employment for people with autism. We run training programmes throughout the year and we are currently in the culinary space where we make and bake an all natural dog treat. And then we sell those dog treats and all of the proceeds from sales go back into job training and employment.

DEBRA: How did you get involved in Invictus?

ALISON: Oh, it’s kind of a long journey but of life you know create sort of these opportunities of happenstance and since I was very young, I worked and volunteered with people with all different kinds of special needs. And when I went off to college, I thought I was gonna do something completely different and then one summer, I was a one to one with a young man who had PDD-NOS and I completely fell in love with the idea of being a teacher or working in the educational community in some way. And so after I graduated, I started working at a private school in Manhattan, that was primarily for children with autism. And over the years, I became a little disenchanted with the methodologies and the ways in which a lot of the established schools worked with students, so I became really passionate about creating sort of an individualized approach to education. And a former teacher that I worked at the school with and myself started our own business. And we grew that from doing social groups into a full-fledged school that’s still here in Manhattan. And after we became a school, we became a nonprofit and I asked Molly Sebastian, who’s my co-founder to be on the board of directors there. And we started working on this big question of what happens when our guys turn twenty-one. After we spend all this time and energy educating them and working with them and do all the therapy and things, what is the sort of rest, what is one of the other sixty years look like. And Molly and I became really passionate about figuring out what currently was out there and then what we can do to also improve the eighty-five percent unemployment rate that we see with adults with special needs. So Molly and I began doing a whole heck of a lot of research and development on the social enterprise movement and then we started looking at where it was that we wanted to get started and so for a million and one different reasons, we picked dog biscuit and then we decided that we would get a training programme up and running and sort of road test our adaptive curriculum which is pretty central to everything that we do. And lo and behold, it’s been a huge success. We’ve been tracking along very rapidly and are really thrilled with what our guys are doing.

DEBRA: How does the programme work for the young guys that kept coming, are they about 21 when I come to you?

ALISON: Not necessarily. Our training programme participants are between the ages of fourteen and I think our oldest right now is twenty-six but we’re really trying to target the pre-vocational skill sets so we can get in there and give them the work readiness skills that they need, train them in an environment in which we curated and we take care of all their sensory needs, their learning styles, all that good stuff. And then really prepare them for what it means to have a job and bridge the gap between their talent and their intelligence and then their productivity and their ability to really get to work.

DEBRA: So the dog biscuits initiative, is that really about having a process that people can work on as they’re learning all the employability skills that you’re teaching them?

Alison: Yeah but the culinary industry is right for our guys for a number of reasons. So we really try to look at real-world businesses that follow a process that can be broken down into steps and using technology, we bridge the gap between our guys where they can be productive citizens of the world. So the culinary industry just was really right for the picking for a number of reasons. We want to be able to solve problems from both sides of the aisle, so we want to solve this huge unemployment rate and really help people reframe, how they think about autism and we want to be able to solve a real-world problem.

And in the culinary industry, they can’t possibly train guys fast enough to fill entry-level positions. Whether that’s a restaurant, a catering company, a bakery- there’s this real-world need for a workforce. And so what Molly and I recognized is that our guys can be that workforce. It takes a lot of work to put together the curriculum and the tools but what our guys are showing us time and time again in the kitchen, is that they are ready to do it, they can do it and there is like magic being in the kitchen with them. We started out with dog biscuits as a sort of stepping stone to get into the culinary industry and we’re, right now, working on getting into the bakery industry as well.

DEBRA: You set up a business and you have your guys working and learning all the skills and the idea is to leave you and go and work say for a bakery or someone else?

ALISON: We wanted to be able to do a little bit of both because some of our workforces are at the point where they could go into a neuro-typical working environment and really thrive if they found the right kind of employment and the right kind of employer, but some of our bakers really do need a curated environment. So we’re planning for both essentially. Our training programme and our dog biscuit business, we curate the environment, we have the music plan, we have the technology up there. We know that if there are some behavioral issues or if somebody needs a little bit of an extra break or an extra level of support, we’re able to provide that and still enable them to be really productive. For a portion of our bakers, you can see them as they work and just envision them going into a real-world bakery and thriving and doing a great job. So we wanna be sort of a feeder for those businesses that need a workforce or really dedicated, committed, talented workforce, we’d love to be a feeder and have our guys be able to take their skills and go out and apply them in the rest of the world and in life.

DEBRA: What kind of skills are you teaching in, you said, a curated environment?

ALISON: We target both hard skills and soft skills, so the actual process of making and baking dog biscuits. Following a recipe, being able to use the equipment, being able to have the stamina to be up on your feet for three or four hours at a time, all those kinds of things you would need to the needy-greedy, as what I call the hard skills. So what bakery owner might be looking for and somebody who can make their muffins or make their cookies or we teach those skills but we also teach teamwork, communication, self-advocacy, you name it, we kind of work on it.

DEBRA: Is it all done within the business factory or whatever you call it, is it all done in there? Or do you do separate thing outside that or is it all done within that workspace?

ALISON: Right now, we have our, well we call it Invictus Kitchen, it’s a beautiful food arts culinary center right in the middle of midtown Manhattan. And it’s a real commercial kitchen training center. And that’s where we do our training programme and we do all of our production lines for the dog biscuits and so currently that’s where we are.

DEBRA: What’s been some of the biggest challenges getting things up and running?

ALISON: I guess just that it’s you know we started just the two of us in that we only have so much beyond within, so much, so many hours in a day, but in terms of how we’re gaining traction and how effective the programme has been, it’s been not necessarily challenging but really exciting and trying to see how well organized we’re doing. I think one of the challenges is scaling up as fast as we sort of want and the demand created is out there for us to scale up super fast, but making sure that we maintain the quality of our teaching and our programme all the way throughout.

We have an amazing team. We try to bring in people with a variety of backgrounds so, for instance, we have an occupational therapist who’s phenomenal, Sandy, who works with us. And she really helps support the physical and sensory needs of our bakers and helps create different what we call hacks in the kitchen so that our bakers can really thrive no matter what their sensory profiles are. We have a lead instructor who has a more traditional educational background. He’s a special-needs public school teacher. We have 2 that have a really great background in recreation and more play-based type things. And so we created a team where everybody has a little bit of a different perspective, a little bit different secret sauce that they bring to the mix and that way our bakers have a little bit of everything to relate to.

DEBRA: You didn’t mention the challenges about fundraising in people there. You’re employing a lot of people. How does the funding work?

ALISON: That is always a big challenge. Getting the funding for it and we’re always looking for more a stronger financial backing. I think that any business kind of runs off of that principle, right? So when we first started, we really wanted to marry the profit-driven approach of a business with a social mission of a nonprofit. So our training programme is fee-based and that’s partly what kinda enabled us to get up and running really quickly. But we didn’t have some angel investor, we don’t have some huge donation via the sky for u. We were able to sort of bootstrap it from the ground up and create or this grassroots programme that was self-sustaining until we were able to make our tangible product which we can then go and sell in stores and online. In all of those proceeds, like I said, go back on the job training and employment. So we do operate on a pretty tight budget. But I think now you said it, funding is always a challenge for nonprofits but we have lots of ways to make it work so far.

DEBRA: And I feel as well that you said you’re getting a lot of traction, have you got people focused on the marketing or creating winner, what you’re doing?

ALISON: Always. I think the community piece of our parent community particularly is one of the exciting things about what we’ve created because people have a huge cliff that happens when their kids turn twenty-one. So whether a parent comes to us and their kid is ten or twenty-one, they’re thinking what happens next, what happens for the longevity of their lifespan. And what Molly and I created, I think is inspiring people to change their hearts and their minds about what’s really possible and where guys can go for the future. And so they get really motivated to help us out to talk to other people, to spread the word for us and to chip in and be part of it. So we really are a vibrant community of lots of different kinds of people who all kind of have the same drive and ambition to get our guys working.

DEBRA: Talk about selling up, when you talk about scaling up, do you make a bigger bakery, or what?

ALISON: Well the possibilities are really endless. So, we don’t dream small, Molly and I. We think about pretty much every industry, every job that can be broken down into steps like I said and that kind of fits the EST cognitive style. And where we can use technology to teach and empower our guys. So we started with dog biscuits, we’re now currently working with real-world bakeries to become what’s called co-packing. There’s a huge multi-billion dollar industry within baking that I didn’t know about until we got started called co-packing where if you’re a bakery owner and you have a muffin that you sell at a big chain place like call foods, you may not have the bandwidth to produce however many thousands of muffins you need for call foods while running your own bakery. So they essentially outsource their proprietary recipe in packaging to a co-packer who can then produce the amount of a product that they need for the bigger stores. So we are in full, you know, elbow-deep in the throes of doing the co-packing pilot with a real-world bakery that will take us from the pet food industry into the human edible industry and that really creates a huge opportunity for our guys not just in terms of being bakers but working on all the different aspects of the elements and carving out other kinds of job roles that they can really thrive at. So when we say scale up, we’re working sequentially and trying to work very methodically from what’s been really successful for us so far in terms of profit margins and real-world need but there are many different kinds of industries, so many different kinds of jobs that we can take our model and replicate it and create jobs for a whole different industry. Our goal is to definitely have our own dedicated workspace in our own sort of social innovation work center where we can provide all the different kinds of training means that were or delving into and get our guys working no matter whether they want to be a baker or compute-coder or something else.

DEBRA: Relating to that question, you made mention technology a couple of times, what kind of technology have you been using?

ALISON: Technology is a game changer for us because a lot of our participants are minimally verbal or nonverbal and so Molly and I recognized early on that not speaking is not the same as having nothing to say. We know that students with autism that are minimally verbal or nonverbal are highly intelligent, highly capable and constantly overlooked in terms of what they can do. Not just in life but as adults and has a workforce. So the technology that we utilize are Microsoft Surface Pros which are basically fancy, touch screen enabled laptops. I created a digital cookbook curriculum that takes our bakers from the very beginning all the way through the process of making it big in the dog biscuits. And it caters to pre kind of learning styles so whether you’re an auditory learner, a visual learner if you can read or not as long as you can take one finger and swipe, you can access the knowledge that you need in order to be really successful with the process itself. So when we first started out, we only had one or two touchscreen tablets which meant that we were pretty limited in how many students we can teach at one time. Last winter we went and kind of took a shot in the dark at a Microsoft event that we got invited to, to make a wish to have a technologically savvy workplace and out of I think about twelve thousand contestants and people who submitted their wishes, Microsoft gave us 3 Surface Pros which was huge for us and then when they came and did a follow up interview, they gifted us another six so now we have plenty of technology to share with all of our bakers. So we went from having four to six bakers in the kitchen at one time to now we have ten to twelve. We can now have multiple different recipes, multiple different processes being worked on. I mean there are so many applications next week. We’re meeting with a virtual reality company who does sort of augmented reality tools for tech companies and things. And the application possibilities for something like that for a nonverbal or minimally verbal person, being out in the world or learning how to conduct themselves out in the world or gaining that independence are tremendous. So I really do you see technology as being the literal bridge for our guys being independent and thriving in sort of a bigger world. It’s pretty exciting to think about what it’s going to enable our guys to do in just a couple years from now or five years from now.

DEBRA: Because you’re also going through it and you see obviously ready to scale up, what advice would you give to other people who are starting, thinking about doing something similar?

ALISON: We could do so many routes with how or what advice to give to somebody trying to start it up. I say all the time that every sort of miracle in this movement seems to happen from motivated parents. I think that the love and passion that parents put into creating something that might not already exist for their kids is tremendous. Finding like-minded people who have this sort of defiantly optimistic outlook on things who know that, you know, just because it doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. Those are the kinds of people you want to surround yourself from. And I found that this movement is full of collaborative people who just want to create a better world for our guys and so finding those people, learning what’s worked for them, learning what kind of pitfalls exist for the rest of us, it’s hard to create a real self-sustaining business model when you’re working in a nonprofit world, but it’s possible. Finding a product or an industry that makes sense not just for the one child but for a larger set of students can be tricky but these jobs are out there. There are so many successful examples. I know you interviewed the American girl company owner, Marjorie and that came from her daughter’s true passion and she was able to flush it out into this beautiful thing that opened access to all these other young women. There’s rising tide in Florida that is running a car wash and doing something totally different and that maybe nobody had thought of before but they serve as sort of inspirations for all of us to see where we can enter into the real world, create real jobs for our guys and enable them to be really successful.

DEBRA: Thank you very much, Alison.

ALISON: Okay, thanks. Thank you very much.

DEBRA: Key takeaways? Look for help and inspiration. There’s lots of people out here doing some great stuff and we need to be all learning from each other.

Invictus Enterprises
No Bones About It
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