About 80% of the 85 employees at Rising Tide Car Wash in southern Florida have autism. The company’s mission is not only to hire people with disabilities, but also to change the way the business community views people with autism.
“We believe that the reason there’s high unemployment among people with autism has really nothing to do with their ability but everything to do with perception,” says Tom D’Eri, who co-founded Rising Tide with his father, John, in 2012. They were inspired to open the business because Tom’s brother Andrew is on the autism spectrum.
“We as a society tend to look at autism as a disability that requires sympathy instead of a really valuable diversity,” D’Eri adds.
The D'Eri family (Courtesy of Rising Tide Car Wash)
D’Eri credits the business’s success and growth with the funding and guidance they received from the Disability Opportunity Fund (DOF), a CDFI that lends money and provides equity investments to organizations and individuals nationwide that serve people with disabilities. DOF, which launched in 2009, focuses on affordable housing, education, vocational training and employment.
“We have tried to look for the niche kind of things in which nobody else would give that project a chance,” says Charles Hammerman, DOF’s president and CEO. “Whether it’s a loan or equity, it’s not about how much did we lend in one year as much as what have we accomplished in one year to the next year.”
Hammerman had an extensive financial career with Merrill Lynch prior to starting the fund. He was inspired to create DOF after having a child with a disability and seeing how difficult it was to access services.
When it started, DOF’s average loan was about $100,000. Now, it’s more than $1.5 million. “We’re not trying to do volume,” Hammerman says. “For us, it’s about trying to make an impact.”
To decide which projects to fund, Hammerman says DOF looks at whether the project is consistent with public policy and the disability sector, whether the person or group leading the project will be successful, and whether it’s a good financial deal.
Some of the projects DOF has funded include a for-sale neighborhood exclusively for people with disabilities in Phoenix, Arizona, and $1 million to help a New York City private school for children with speech and language challenges expand. In early 2022, DOF is opening the Schoolhouse Hotel, a boutique hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, that’s fully disability accessible.
The disability market is ripe for investment, Hammerman says, because the “demand outstrips the supply.” There’s a growing number of veterans with disabilities and people are living longer and will need services and care as they age. The prevalence of autism has also increased as there’s more awareness about the condition.
Along with financing, DOF provides technical assistance, which Hammerman says is about listening, offering advice and connecting people with the best resources available. Rising Tide Car Wash first connected with DOF through technical assistance.
The company initially planned to launch as a nonprofit. But, D’Eri said Hammerman convinced them to start a for-profit business to employ people with disabilities. Later, Rising Tide accessed funding from DOF and has received about $2.5 million so far.
“They’re taking that chance on us early and continued partnership has been a really a major factor in our ability to scale,” D’Eri said. “They continue to be a really valued partner, not only from a financing perspective, but also from just a strategic partner whenever we’re contemplating new ideas or ways to grow.”
Their latest venture, Rising Tide U, is an online training course created with the University of Miami that offers a step-by-step guide to help businesses hire people with autism. D’Eri is also writing a book coming out next year about the value that small and medium-sized businesses can see when hiring people with disabilities.
What’s unique about DOF, D’Eri said, is that it’s one of, if not the only, groups investing and supporting people with disabilities in this way. “Disability is still very much on the fringe of the whole impact world,” he says.
This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is generously supported by Partners for the Common Good. Sign up for PCG’s CapNexus newsletter at capnexus.org.
Erica Sweeney is a freelance journalist based in Little Rock, AR. She covers health, wellness, business and many other topics. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Good Housekeeping, HuffPost, Parade, Money, Insider and more.