Free Enterprise Staff  | July 6, 2016

How One Entrepreneur Refused To Let Autism Hold Him Back

Joe Steffy, who was born with down syndrome and later diagnosed with autism, was told he would likely never be hired for a normal day job. Officials at his school told him he would struggle to communicate, have a difficult time caring for himself, and likely always be dependent on others.

Joe Steffy

Joe Steffy, owner of Poppin Joe’s Gourmet Kettle Korn.

They were right about one of those things: Steffy may never be hired.

That’s because he’s too busy running his own successful company.

With help from his parents, Steffy, now 30, started Poppin Joe’s Gourmet Kettle Korn in 2005.

The Kansas Department for Developmental Disabilities provided Steffy with a startup grant to grow the business and he now oversees two retail locations: one in Louisburg, Kansas and another in Brunswick, Georgia.

The company sells a variety of kettle corn products to retail outlets, festivals and specialty events and regularly ships batches of its product to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“My business works for me,” Steffy said recently. “It creates new opportunities for me to grow as a person, and to be an engaged, valued member of my community.”

Today, Steffy is a sole proprietor and employs seven seasonal workers. In 2016, he brought in $67,000 in gross sales (up more than four-fold from the $15,000 he made in 2005).

The entrepreneur is one of a growing number of Americans with intellectual or developmental disabilities who are running or working for small businesses. Their stories often go unnoticed, but Steffy shared his story with the U.S. House of Representatives’ Small Business Committee in May as part of a larger conversation in Washington about why it’s important for disabled Americans to be given more exposure to entrepreneurship opportunities.

“The worst disability there is that of low expectations,” Steffy told the committee. “They said I would never hold a job, that I had no attention span, could not focus, would need to live in a group home and go to a sheltered workshop. My parents disagreed.”

Steffy’s success is a testament to the potential rewards entrepreneurship can offer to individuals with developmental disorders. Lisa Goring, executive vice president for programs at the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said during the hearing that employment opportunities for people on the autism spectrum are getting better, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Moreover,  programs like the one that helped Steffy can help the economy in the long run by helping people with disabilities become more independent and less reliant on government services.

Joe Steffy with a new batch of popcorn

Joe Steffy with a new batch of popcorn.

“Research shows that employing individuals with autism, even with publicly-funded, intensive personal job supports, actually saves government costs by reducing the number of benefits that people with autism need when they are unemployed,” Goring explained. “In addition, employing individuals with autism alleviates some of the pressure on the overburdened adult service system. When employment supplants traditional adult day supports, we can create greater cost efficiency.”

Goring pointed out that now is a perfect time for business leaders to start taking an active approach in recruiting workers with disabilities (and creating a work environment in which they can thrive) as well as supporting entrepreneurs with such handicaps, as the largest wave of children diagnosed with autism are currently aging out of school.

Rajesh Anandan agreed. The co-founder of Ultra Testing, a software testing company based in New York, regularly hires individuals on the autism spectrum who have the perfect skills to work in the technology space but who find it difficult to land jobs.

Ultra currently employs people in 13 states, and 75 percent of his staff are on the autism spectrum. It’s these workers he says who have helped his company triple its revenues two years in a row.

“Ultra has proven that employing individuals on the autism spectrum can be a source of sustainable competitive advantage,” he told lawmakers on the committee.
Anandan also noted that there are 3.5 million Americans on the autism spectrum, and that by some estimates, one-third have graduated high school and been admitted to college.

“Many individuals on the autism spectrum… are extremely capable and willing to work hard, and would make a fantastic addition to any team or organization,” he said. “Yet, over 80 percent of this community is not employed.”

It’s not merely those individuals who miss out on opportunities, either. Their communities lose, too, Steffy explained.

“I am a contributing citizen and am able to do fundraisers for local churches, schools, businesses and communities events, as well as for many non-profit organizations,” he told the committee. He encouraged others to think more open-mindedly about who can own a business and how access to entrepreneurship can be expanded.

“With the right support system, being a self-supporting entrepreneur can be, and is, a reality for me,” Steffy said, later adding: “I love my freedom. It gives me a great life.”