After graduating from high school, Brennen Novak was discouraged and depressed about his career prospects. Even though he wanted to deploy his tech skills, as one of the roughly 500,000 people with autism entering adulthood in the next decade, he had few options for work.
Shortly after, he got his break. Novak is one of about 40 employees at AutonomyWorks, a Downers Grove, Il.-based digital marketing firm that hires people living with autism—a group that sees unemployment rates as high as 90 percent, according to Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy organization in the US.
The social venture is the brainchild of David Friedman, ’89, a longtime marketing executive and an alumnus of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who started AutonomyWorks in 2012. Friedman’s son, who’s on the spectrum, also works at the firm.
The marketing firm specializes in providing cost-competitive processing services like website quality assurance (QA) testing and ad layouts to companies, including Morningstar, Mediacom, Land O’ Lakes, and others. Most employees are 20 and 30-somethings with at least a high school degree, working between 20 and 30 hours per week, oftentimes wearing headphones at their desks.
As a long-time social entrepreneur in residence for Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, Friedman mentored students looking to launch and scale their business ideas in the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC). Now he’s looking to scale his own.
While Friedman’s own background is in digital marketing—including roles at Razorfish and Sears Holdings—AutonomyWorks is moving beyond digital agencies to focus in new industries including manufacturing, legal, and healthcare.
“We are really good at we do, and now know that these kinds of QA needs exist in many other places,” he said.
Friedman thinks he has a unique advantage over competitors in the digital space.
For one, employee retention is stellar. “Our turnover rates are in the single digits,” said Friedman, who estimates that only one or two people leave per year, many to go to college.
Another example: his employees excel at the types of work that can seem redundant to those working in traditional agencies specializing in the same services.
“Our employees are great at detail-oriented, process-intensive activities where quality is really important,” he said. “People with autism often have a high level of anxiety. For most people, repetitive work is boring, but, for them, knowing that your next task looks like your last task can reduce anxiety.”
Kendall Martin, 27, joined the firm just one year after it opened. She said the repeat clients speak to the high quality of work. “Just because you’re different doesn’t mean you can’t do it, and we’ve proven that here.”
Employees hope more companies take a chance to work with AutonomyWorks so the social venture can grow and make an even bigger social impact.
After more than a year of earning a paycheck, Novak is finally saving up money and appreciating the new skills he’s learning along the way. As the firm name implies, he is gaining more autonomy.
“I was able to buy myself a car to get here in the morning,” the 20-year-old said. “Eventually, I want to live on my own.”
This is part of a series of stories celebrating the 10th anniversary of the SNVC, which is the social impact track of the University of Chicago’s nationally ranked accelerator, the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC). The SNVC is run by Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Click here to join the celebration.