As part of our Generation 2014 series, Adam Harris of AsIAm shares his experience with SEI as an Elevator Awardee for the last year. Changing Ireland and reducing the stigma for people on the Autism spectrum, AsIAm has ambitious goals and clear objectives to achieve their mission.
Sitting down to write this almost feels surreal. It is very hard to believe that nearly 1 year has passed since AsIAm was selected as an Elevator Awardee for 2014. If times flies when you are having fun, I think it flies twice as fast when you are working hard, and that is probably why we literally did not feel the year go by. Where we are now is totally unrecognisable from where we were last year, and so much of this is to do with the support, counsel and credibility, which Social Entrepreneurs Ireland has brought to our work.
This time last year we were a newly launched organisation, with a strong mission and vision for what Ireland should be like for people with Autism, but still trying to work out what our role was and how we could play a focused part in bringing this about. We had no staff, no office and the reach of our organisation remained very small. Our only funding, and indeed prospect of funding, was table quizzes and race nights.
Fast forward 12 months and I am now the full-time CEO for an organisation which also has a part-time community manager. We are based in DogPatch Labs, a hub for tech startups in Ireland and we have a clear sense of what we can do to make this country more inclusive of people with Autism. We have a growing team of volunteers and supporters committed to making that vision a reality.
How did this happen? Well, lots of different opportunities, approaches and planning helped us develop to this point but a common thread that seems to run through them all is SEI.
On winning a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Award, I received coverage on national radio and online publications like “The Journal”, which resulted in an invitation to the “The Saturday Night Show”, which brought unprecedented interest and support to our work. This vehicle for change has enabled us to develop a network and a reach much greater than before.
As a very young CEO and Social Entrepreneur, fundraising has been a challenge for a range of reasons – perceptions play a part, and so does experience and confidence. However, SEI levelled the playing field to some degree for AsIAm. Other funders and grant-making organisations were no longer being asked to make an independent, in depth assessment and be the first to back a new concept – rather they could take a measured risk in supporting us, knowing that a very credible organisation had already assessed our potential. This led to us being able to significantly increase funding to the organisation. We are still small and still have to work very hard to access funding. However, there is no doubt we would struggle full stop if it were not for SEI boosting our reputation and giving me the skills to apply for grants and have conversations with potential funders.
As a Social Entrepreneur working in the area of Autism, I am very much emotionally invested in the issue. As a young person with Aspergers Syndrome, it makes me angry to see the challenges people with the condition are facing – 50% bullied while still in school, 80% unemployment and a significantly higher rate of self-harm – all challenges which are not necessarily a part of an Autism diagnosis, but are often brought on by the attitudes of society towards people with the condition. I am determined to change this and I passionately believe we can, by empowering the community with a dedicated, online information service and engaging the public at the same time. I believe similar approaches have helped advance many other issues in Ireland in the past but I feel we have ignored the societal piece and that this is what we must now focus on.
However, all that said, when you are emotionally involved in an issue it is easy to want to change the world overnight or to attempt to solve every single issue. Indeed, I would even say this is normal for many social entrepreneurs. However, it led me at times to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. Autism is such a large field you need to pick an area of focus and work to change that. We are the only organisation working for a societal understanding of Autism, and this is where we must focus.
In reflection, I would never have been able to get to this point of focus and determination without the fantastic counsel of SEI and my mentor, Eamonn. In 12 months we have come from a point of well-intentioned campaigning to a more focused, professional organisation which will soon produce its first 3 year strategy – a strategy I hope will sow the seeds of change for people with Autism. This highlights how SEI is about a lot more than just grants, but rather their help and focus has been a huge support in bringing us to this point.
Of course, we have a very long way to go. We have still not established solid lines of funding, we still are testing our programmes in schools, community and online – and they will take time to perfect.
We are still honing our message and our vision but the crucial point is – we are on our way!
The virtuous journey of a social entrepreneur is often plagued with misfortune, mishaps and misunderstandings. What is my mission? What does success look like? How will I truly help the people who need it most? The SEI Impact programme gives direction, focus and mentoring to those who need it in their journey to try change Ireland for the better.
Karen Leigh, an Impact Awardee in 2014, has had a steep learning curve in her quest to provide therapy and professional services for children with Sensational Kids, a Kildare-based therapy centre for children.
This year, Karen celebrates the first anniversary of her relationship with SEI following her Impact Award in October 2014. The evening of the awards ceremony in Christchurch Cathedral was a surreal experience for the mother, social entrepreneur and businesswoman. Questions centering around “Am I going to be able to get through this?” or “Am I going to be able to give my speech on time?” consumed Karen, only to realise her efforts had been successful and she would make the transition from Impact finalist to Impact awardee. And Karen’s aspirations weren’t small: in her speech, she vowed not to rest until she could see Sensational Kids in every province in Ireland.
“The long-term plan is to grow and scale Sensational Kids. I won’t rest until I see at least a Sensational Kids in every province in Ireland”
Moving on from the awards ceremony, into the Impact Programme, Karen breathed a sigh of relief: “I’ve won the award now, happy days – I’m going to sail off into the sunset”. Unfortunately, the reality wasn’t as simple for Karen, as a robust programme of workshops, mentoring and goal-setting was in store. Karen quickly realised the effort and hard work needed to make her ultimate goal a reality would need significant time and energy investment.
The most obvious change for Karen in her work ethic, through the mentorship programme, was the change from thinking about operations to thinking about strategy.
“In the past, I might have got caught up in the day-to-day operational activities, which is important too, but through the SEI workshops I’ve really realised in the last year the importance of prioritising what is going to bring the most impact. It has really changed the way I work”. Speaking about the importance of resilience in social entrepreneurship, Karen cherished her time with her SEI confidant, Annalisa. Moving into the second year of the programme, Karen sees SEI helping them “build that bridge from where we are now to where we want to be in the future.”
“It’s life-changing in terms of work and how you do it. It’s the connections and relationships you build with other people that are really beneficial”. Hoping to transition from a mentee to a mentor, Karen highlights the experience of growing her own organisation, as an opportunity to help new social entrepreneurs entering the sphere “The challenges you face everyday as a start-up are nearly everyday things for me as we have been there, done that and do it nearly everyday. You can then help other people, give them advice and help them with those challenges – That support in the alumni network is really beneficial”.
The mentorship, funding and alumni network have been fantastic resources for Karen, however her newest SEI support service, Count Me In is proving truly beneficial to her business model. Count Me In is a synergistic initiative to bring together industry professionals with social entrepreneurs hoping to change Ireland. Karen was delighted to have the fantastic marketing support of a Count Me In partner, volunteering her time to help grow Sensational Kids especially with so many events and workshops throughout the busy summer period – “we have really valuable volunteers with really great skill sets to come into the organisation and help us, all through the SEI corporate superhero”.
“Growing and scaling our impact was going to be a huge step and is going to take a lot longer than previously thought”.
However for Karen the programme offered the right mixture of funding and mentorship to allow her to grow Sensational Kids over the last year. A combination of impatience and passion is met with strategic support to help Karen, one of Ireland’s best social entrepreneurs, succeed.
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