Kick Start finalist Mike Tozer witnessed his sister missing out on job opportunities for thinking differently. That’s what led him to establish Xceptional – a platform helping connect people on the autism spectrum with companies looking for top talent.
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Mike Tozer’s sister Sarah has always had trouble finding and keeping jobs, so when she was diagnosed with autism eight years ago, it finally seemed to shed some light on her challenges.
“It helped us understand why she was having so many challenges, but it also showed me how employers were missing out on the strengths she had to offer,” he explains.
For one, Tozer found he was more likely to be offered jobs despite his sister being a better fit – just because she’s on the autism spectrum.
“She wanted to work in a school that was looking for people to sit and read with the children. But when they found out she was autistic, they shut the door. And yet, they’d let me do it when my sister would actually be much better at that job because she’s so patient and good with kids.”
Frustrated by the stigma surrounding the condition, he saw an opportunity to make a change and tackle the status quo of work diversity in Australia.
“I saw a business opportunity to deploy people like my sister in ways that utilise their strengths while supporting their challenges,” he says. “Xceptional was born out of that, and we’ve grown from strength to strength since then.”
One of the big hurdles autistic people face are traditional job interviews, which, in Tozer’s opinion, aren’t effective for evaluating a candidate’s strengths.
“Job interviews are relatively cheap to run but they’re really bad for understanding someone – particularly people who are more introverted or not good at pitching.”
Instead, Xceptional uses an accessible online games-based recruiting and placement process designed to reduce anxiety and assess candidates’ areas of strength.
“Autistic people have 34% unemployment,” Tozer explains. “Pre-COVID-19, the national rate was about 5%, so that’s seven times higher than the average. There’s a whole series of innovations we’ve applied to help with that: we allow people to go through an online assessment instead of a job interview and help candidates to carve out a new career pathway. We do things differently at every step of the process.”
Once a candidate is placed in a suitable role, the Xceptional team keeps in touch with both the candidate and the business to provide support and make sure the relationship is a good fit.
“We provide a coaching service to both the candidate and the business and we track the candidate’s wellness on a monthly, sometimes even weekly, basis,” Tozer says. “We track some people for as long as two years after placement and help them with their next role. We’re really focused on getting people into meaningful work rather than just a ‘job’.”
Originally set up to match people with roles in the tech space, Tozer says there’s been a push to expand the Xceptional platform to service other sectors as well.
“Any time I would speak at an event, I’d have people coming up and saying to me, ‘Hey, I’m autistic and I’ve got strengths in these areas, but I’m not focused on technology’. Meanwhile, businesses were saying to us, ‘You’ve been placing people in tech roles, but what about logistics, fulfilment, finance?’ There’s been this push from both sides of our marketplace encouraging us to step out.”
This opportunity was what led Tozer to apply for the St. George KickStart program.
“We realised only about 10% of autistic people are appropriate for the tech industry and there’s a real opportunity to expand our own assessment technology and processes to help the remaining 90%,” he says. “We were looking for an injection of funds to help, and the Kick Start program seemed like a great match.”
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has shifted priorities for the Xceptional team, who are now working with more fast-growing small businesses while larger organisations scale back hiring. But the broader move towards remote hiring has worked in Xceptional’s favour – and marked a milestone moment for the business.
“We’ve got one candidate, Aiden, who’s never been into the office or even spoken to his manager,” Tozer explains. “He’s the first non-verbal person we’ve placed into work, and all his communication with his manager Geoff has been via Skype.
“Geoff said he just wanted the best person for the job. But we had so many people contacting us saying, ‘Wow, you’ve gotten someone non-verbal into work, that’s amazing!’. That really hit us and gave us more encouragement to focus on the future.”
Looking forward, Tozer and the Xceptional team’s mission is to support more people on the autism spectrum find meaningful work and encourage more companies to promote work diversity.
“Coming out of COVID, we see this as a real opportunity to get more people back into the workforce and bring about positive change for people who are autistic. We’ve unearthed an incredible talent pool and we’d love for more people to reach out to us about increasing diversity and inclusion within their company or their team.”
Xceptional is a Kick Start 2020 finalist. To learn more about other finalists in this category, visit the St. George Kick Start hub.