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What was the problem?
Mona and Shaz Shah’s son Ash, who turned 16 last year, has autism and they, like many other parents in a similar situation, were worried about his future. Only 15 per cent of the 350,000 people with autism of working age in the UK are in full-time employment, while 61 per cent of those currently unemployed are desperate to work, according to the National Autistic Society.
“There is no doubt that for people with autism finding paid employment is a major challenge and this affects them mentally, physically and financially,” Mr Shah notes.
What was the solution?
The couple came up with the idea for their company — named Harry Specters by their son Ash — while on a family holiday to Scotland.
They visited a local shop where they saw how a business that both made and sold chocolates could get people with autism involved in every aspect of the enterprise — from making and packaging the products to administration, brochure design and photography.
At the time, Mr Shah was studying for an executive MBA at Cranfield School of Management. Ms Shah, who worked in the NHS mental health service operation in corporate governance, had been making chocolate as a hobby for more than a decade. Together they drew up a business plan for a social enterprise that focused on making the product and selling it online.
For Mr Shah, the distinctive traits of young people with autism is what made them a good investment: “Throughout our journey, we have found [they] have great attention to detail and are very loyal, which makes them wonderful workers,” he explains.
How was the product developed?
A lot of the early planning involved working out how to create an environment suitable for the needs of autistic employees.
“It is well-known that people with autism like a structured work environment; they do not like surprises,” Mr Shah says. “The executive MBA helped tremendously as it gave me the tools I needed for business.”
One of these was what Cranfield calls a ‘blue ocean’ strategy, in which founders are encouraged to set their business strategy up in such a way as to make competition irrelevant. The Shahs did this by focusing on a good cause: for every £1 of profit Harry Specters makes, 60p is set aside for furthering the social aims of the business.
“Our main target segment is corporate customers and within that space, we do not have any competition,” Mr Shah says. “We offer them a great product for a great cause at a premium and they buy from us in order to improve their CSR credentials.”
A key moment in the development of the business model came when the Shahs worked with the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship at Cranfield, where they received advice from several senior academics at Cranfield. The UK schools’ alumni also played an important role in connecting them with the corporate sector.
“The product itself was first tested by [my] EMBA cohort,” Mr Shah recalls. “It is not one but all of these things that helped Harry Specters and I am still, even though my MBA is finished, very much in touch with Cranfield.”
What happened next?
The company started trading in November 2012, during Mr Shah’s first year at Cranfield. Since then Harry Specters has provided work experience to more than 30 young people with autism and enabled 100 students with special needs to participate in a package design project.
The Shahs also hired Andy Kemp, another Cranfield alumnus, to develop the management team and oversee the financial side of the business, and three part-time employees. “As a small company, we are yet to make profits, however in terms of revenue we have made more than 100 per cent growth in revenue as compared to the previous year,” Mr Shah says.
The company is trying to raise £250,000 to expand their Cambridge-based operations and hire a full-time team of up to 10 people with autism by the end of 2016. Once that is achieved, the couple plan to replicate their business model and develop local teams of autistic employees across the UK, which could develop a variety of food products.
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