If you ask David Flink, founder and chief empowerment officer of Eye to Eye, how the national organization that mentors students with learning and attention issues nabbed a spot in the Top 10 Nonprofits to Work For in 2018, he’ll tell you without hesitation, it’s the people they hire. “They have a strong work ethic and a huge amount of creativity, curiosity and empathy, says Flink. “I’d say they also all have a deep understanding of our mission and why teamwork is essential.” That’s a long list of qualifications for an ideal job candidate anywhere, at any level. I ask him how he fills the ranks.
“It’s simple: We hire a lot of people with learning and attention issues,” says Flink. “It’s a point of pride at Eye to Eye that we are run by and for the 1 in 5 people who learn differently.” I can hear the smile in his voice when he says that. Flink, who has dyslexia and ADHD, has spent years thinking about how people think. He then built a nonprofit that serves people who learn differently and also employs them. The organization’s vision is to create a world in which people with learning differences and ADHD are fully accepted, valued and respected—not just by society, but by themselves. Eye to Eye pairs middle school students with a high school or college mentor who also has a learning difference. It’s an empowering social-emotional intervention that helps participants become leaders and ambassadors of the brand. They learn to live free from second thoughts or worry and are ready, able and eager to apply their unique strengths to their chosen career.
Although Eye to Eye has been working with students for decades, the concept of taking pride in learning and attention issues and advocating for support in the workplace is fairly novel. It’s more typical for the one in five Americans with a learning disability to try to overcompensate or work harder than others to mask an issue. Many forego any support they might have been offered to be sure their differences remain a secret in the workplace.
That’s changing, slowly but surely. Flink says he was stunned at first when he asked students who participated in one of the more than 150 school-based programs how they felt about their learning differences. “Students come up to me and are truly proud. Shame isn’t part of their repertoire. It’s stunning. They talk about differences as positives that are fundamental to their identities, just as a triathlete, a Catholic, a med student or a Californian might do when asked to describe themselves.”
Being a diverse and inclusive workplace isn’t so much about talking about the issues of acceptance and sensitivity, it’s modeling them. In other words, you need to be the leader who talks openly and honestly about his learning and work style. You are creating a place people trust they can be themselves. That’s Eye to Eye’s goal: Reaching every kid in the corner living in self doubt who has the potential to be a leader and empowering them. They also gain a supportive community where they can be themselves. At every leadership training program Eye to Eye runs, it is giving young adults the training and confidence to become the collaborative, agile leaders and creative thinkers this country needs.
Marcus Soutra, president of Eye to Eye, says when a new employee begins work in the organization, he asks them a few simple questions: How do you like to work best? How can we help you to be successful? Most people on staff have a learning disability or attention issue, but not all, and each is expected to perform the job they were hired to do at a very high level. We know that people have strengths and weaknesses,” says Soutra. “All we ask is that you know yourself, the environment you work best in and that you clearly communicate what you need for success.”
Most accommodations are not difficult to put in place nor are they pricey, says Soutra. At Eye to Eye, you can literally look around you and see people like yourself being successful. Team members feel free to take breaks when they are overwhelmed or use noise cancelling headphones to help them focus. Other times, team members offer advice on apps and technology, for speech-to-text translation, reading or note-taking—anything that gets the job done well.
While companies have made diversity and inclusion a top priority and are investing money in improving the workplace for underrepresented employees, it’s still a tsunami of change out there. So where do most businesses start? In general, the goal of most corporate training is awareness and sensitivity to difference, but that approach reaches only the edges of the problem. Could Eye to Eye be the model for designing a modern workforce? Their success seems to indicate it could be. Since 2005, the nonprofit has reached the top 10 percent of nonprofits nationally and has corporate partners that include Microsoft, Apple and Arc Touch as well as nonprofits Teach For America, City Year and Understood.org.
The Eye to Eye team has great advice for people who want to make the most of their strengths, work collaboratively, succeed and lead in the workplace. Here are their top tips: