Thorkil Sonne was the technical director of a Danish telecommunications company when his son Lars was diagnosed with autism, at the age of three. As Lars grew up Sonne began to see unusual abilities in his son that he looked for in his own employees and had an idea that convinced him to leave his job, mortgage his house and take a two-day accounting course.
He established Specialisterne (meaning the Specialists in Danish) as a recruitment company for high-functioning people on the autism spectrum, with the belief that thousands – and indeed millions – of others like Lars could find jobs in which they could not only survive but also outperform the market. Sonne is a stand-out social entrepreneur.
The year that Lars was diagnosed, Stephen Glynn was a 10-year old boy in Celbridge, Co Kildare, when his mother first brought home a laptop from her office. He got straight to work, taught himself how to code and then took apart computers and reconstructed them when he wasn’t pleased with their battery life.
This was “back in the dial-up days, when it took six weeks to get a connection”. He daydreamed about Microsoft, about how a small company could create something that everyone in the world would end up needing to have. “To me, that was it.”
Fifteen years later Stephen had dropped out of college, having “barely attended school” in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. He was working in his 12th job, in retail, and was struggling.
“It was impossible to deal with people explaining things to me without explaining anything about the actual problem they had. If you’re Irish you love an old spiel. For me this becomes a physical anxiety. There was nothing about the job I couldn’t do, but I couldn’t handle the atmosphere.”
He left the job after four years and was unemployed for 10 months. He saw more than a dozen therapists, was medicated for depression (among other things) and was gaining weight. Then he was diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome and was put in touch with Specialisterne Ireland.
As a candidate he was assessed by performing tasks relevant to the role in question rather than sitting through socially uncomfortable interviews. Prospective employers were supported to put structures in place that would create routine and ease stress.
The Irish branch is based in the offices of the software company SAP in Citywest, Dublin. Glynn now works on site for the technology giant. For SAP this is more than a gesture of goodwill.
The person in charge of the partnership between Specialisterne Ireland and SAP, Kristen Doran, explains: “People on the autism spectrum can see products and software differently. They can figure out how something works, break down the product and rebuild it. Diversity in the workplace increases innovation, but, more than that, it engages employees in something personally meaningful.”
Glynn speaks with relief about the structures put in place to help him succeed and praises his manager Ronan Cullinane and mentor, Róisín Thornton. SAP, he says, understands the core principle on which Specialisterne is founded: “They see the value we add.”
Specialisterne is led in Ireland by Peter Brabazon, a social entrepreneur, who estimates that about 15,000 people in Ireland have conditions and abilities similar to Stephen's. He believes they are suitable for roles in IT and related areas, a sector with 7,000 vacancies.
To put that in perspective, Brabazon cites research estimating that the total economic benefit of a person with autism moving from welfare dependency to gainful employment works out at about €60,000 a person a year.
Specialisterne’s goal is to enable 5,000 such jobs in Ireland over the next 20 years, a mission it shares with a growing network of job placement agencies, autism training services and employers.
Unlike conventional, profit-orientated businesses, social entrepreneurs often view success as the ability to collaborate around a shared goal rather than to simply compete and grow the size of their organisation. It’s easier in the private sector, where pockets are deeper and change is more common. But similar stories of systemic reimagination are happening in the public sector, too.
In 2012 Dublin Fire Brigade won bronze in the most-sustainable government category at the International Green Awards. In 2009 the staff at Kilbarrack Fire Station, in Dublin, were putting in long hours, and morale was flagging. One crew member, Neil McCabe, started encouraging his fellow firemen to collect and recycle batteries, simply to try to turn the mood around with something constructive.
A social entrepreneur in uniform McCabe, who is still a full-time fireman, then founded Green Plan. Kilbarrack is thought to be the world’s first carbon-neutral fire station, and Green Plan has generated €7.5 million in public-sector savings. Mini wind turbines and other light infrastructure generate more energy than the station uses; fires are put out with harvested rainwater; retired firemen tend beehives to improve biodiversity, and companies have sprouted up in the area to meet the new demand for green technologies.
Some of these new business owners were previously unemployed, such as John Doyle, director of RainShed, which supplies rain-harvesting systems.
McCabe’s original idea grew and turned the station into a form of community centre, using climate change as the goal. Over time Green Plan began to blossom.
“We’re taking the oblique approach to climate change. That’s the ultimate purpose of Green Plan, but by dealing with morale and motivation first.”
Central to Green Plan’s success was ringfencing the savings from Kilbarrack to finance similar activity in Phibsborough, which in turn began the ripple effect throughout the fire brigade. This would have been impossible without a social entrepreneur to lead the way but equally impossible without the firefighters, civil servants and entrepreneurs throughout the organisation and the communities around fire stations.
Social entrepreneurs provide new leadership to society because they introduce ideas that allow people to think and act differently. They change the system.
Barry Flinn is communications manager with Ashoka Ireland, part of a global network that supports social entrepreneurs