“I’m excited to see what the future looks like by including more of our neurodiverse population and asking them to contribute to the conversation—versus asking them to adapt to the conversation.”

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Episode 8: Neurodiversity in the Workplace  

Transcript

Announcer: Hey, everyone. Thanks for joining us back at The Intersection, a podcast that brings you candid conversations from members of our community and leaders in our industry. Today we're excited to share a conversation between our colleagues, Al Chiaradonna, Krista Deguffroy and Alicia Peracchia, about the SEI Neurodiversity at Work Program. Take a listen.

Al Chiaradonna: Hi, I'm Al Chiaradonna, host of the blog Front and Centered. Today I'm joined by two lovely women I work with. Let me start with you, Krista. Could you introduce yourself, please?

Krista Deguffroy: Sure. I'm Krista Deguffroy. I'm the Director of Inclusion and Compliance here at SEI. I'm one of our coleaders of Autism at Work. 

Al Chiaradonna: Fantastic. Thank you. Alicia, how about you?

Alicia Peracchia: I'm Alicia Peracchia. I work on our Service Excellence Team, in our private banking market unit as well as the other co-leader of Autism at Work.

Al Chiaradonna: So I thought maybe we would just start out with an introduction by each of you, a quick little tidbit on your role in the Neurodiversity Project. Then we'll jump into some questions and comments. Sound fair? 

Krista Deguffroy: That works. 

Alicia Peracchia: Yeah. 

Al Chiaradonna: All right, you guys pick who goes first.

Krista Deguffroy: Alicia. 

Al Chiaradonna: Okay.

Alicia Peracchia: All right. I'm going to go first. OK. So I began my journey with Neurodiversity when John Fisher tapped me to join a random meeting. I didn't have much background on it. He told me about five minutes before what it was. Walter was out. So that's why I got tapped. So I was brought into that meeting, and it was us. Various people at SEI, you were in the meeting, I think. Sitting down with Hilltop to talk about what might a Neurodiversity internship look like. Can we take some of their alumni in some capacity over the summer to experience working at SEI with hopes of future opportunity?

 That was pretty early into the planning. It had been going on for a while, but it seemed like it was about when we were going to start taking action. What is this really going to look like? So from there, my involvement at that point was just that Walter and my team was taking an intern. John Fisher and Walter raised their hand to take a neurodiverse intern. We started to figure out what that looked like. I ended up managing, not one but two interns.

Chris will probably talk more to that. We ended up taking twice as many as we expected to, originally planned to. So we had two interns that worked on the service excellence team for that first summer in our pilot program. Ever since that program was successful, Krista asked me if I'll be her business partner in co-directing this Autism at Work Program. Since then, we've deemed ourselves co-directors of Autism at Work at SEI.

Al Chiaradonna: It's a wonderful thing, just to give yourself your own title. If you could give me a title, that would be fantastic. 

Krista Deguffroy: I'll give you one. 

Al Chiaradonna: Yeah.

Krista Deguffroy: I don't know if you want it, but I can.

Al Chiaradonna: This is all being recorded. So be careful. Krista, why don't you give us a step back and just talk a little bit about what is Neurodiversity? What sparked your interest in it? How did it lead to this piece on autism?

Krista Deguffroy: Yeah. So I mean, Neurodiversity is certainly a spectrum of the way that people think. There’s a wide variety of diagnosis that fall into there. Autism just happens to be one of the largest, most prevalent. But there's ADHD, there's Asperger's. There's certainly dyslexia, essentially just different ways of thinking than the neurotypical. I'm a parent of a child on the spectrum. I have an eight-year-old son who's very high functioning. 

But when we first started talking about this Neurodiversity program, it was not even in the realm of, "Hey, I could be impacting the way that the future looks for my child." It was more about how do we create more on ramps and more pathways of opportunity to help those that are traditionally not within the financial services and technology market, get into and sustain growth within that market? So when we had an existing relationship with Hilltop Prep from SEI cares, we just realized this isn't just about philanthropic work that we're doing here, there's a real talent opportunity. 

So we decided that let's commit. Alicia mentioned that we'd commit to two interns. We couldn't narrow it down to two. So we ended up taking four, and that's really been the birthplace of Autism at Work for us, is working with the early collegiate career on through to their first or second opportunity post graduation from college.

Al Chiaradonna: So one of the things he just said that was interesting is it was an interesting creating an on ramp for these individuals, and then keeping them engaged. I mean, I think one of the Things that touches my heart is anytime regardless of whether it's Neurodiverse or not, providing personal growth for people. But then you switched halfway through that conversation. You put a talent angle in that. So as it relates to SEI, how do you see this playing into SEI's talent management?

Krista Deguffroy: So when I think about AAW, or we're kind of kicking around broadening this to Neurodiversity at work, so it will be NDAW, is the concept of working with non neurotypical people forces us to think more about our communication, our development, our pathing for everybody, not just the neurodiverse. It forces us to think more about communication and expectation as well as delivery and follow through. It forces us to think differently in terms of innovation.

We're bringing together more solutions to the table, and we're also thinking about interpersonal relationships because some of the things that the neurotypical may take for granted in terms of social situations, they may look very differently with a neurodiverse. Doesn't mean that that talent isn't as good or as equal or as accessible, it just may look differently. That forces us to retrain ourselves on what the word "talent" really means.

Al Chiaradonna: Anything to add, Alicia?

Alicia Peracchia: I would just like to add in the hiring process, so a lot of the time, neuro diverse people, especially people with autism, they're screened out throughout the hiring process. So part of our long term goal, as is the goal of the entire Neurodiversity at Work initiative, is to just make general hiring and across the board, general business practice inclusive of everyone, rather than screening them out.

Al Chiaradonna: It's so interesting just to hear you guys talk about that. So I think what started out like a random meeting for you became a very deliberate exercise for the both of you. What do you think you learned through this process? If I were to say to you, what are the one or two things you learned during this journey so far? I realized, as you're saying, I love the idea that we're thinking about broadening it from autism to Neurodiversity in total. I think that's smart. But what do you think you learned? It can be about yourself, or about SEI or about the students.

Alicia Peracchia: I'd say the first thing that comes to mind for me is because I directly managed some of the people through our program and still do. I learned that as somebody who likes black and white instruction, I can't even give very good black and white direction to people that come through our program. So I just learned how gray the world most of us are so comfortable living in really is. It takes real reflection and intention to give direction that can be understood easily to people on the spectrum, which is my main experience at this point, and how beneficial that would be if we all could learn to communicate like that, and how more efficient everything would run if everybody had the experience to learn to think more directly and concisely.

Al Chiaradonna: Such an interesting point too, is that we're talking about a segment. We're talking about Neurodiversity, but your lessons are broad in their appeal. I mean, three things that you said in that, communication, how important that is. It takes some time to deliberate an act like this, for us to actually reflect on how we communicate because just assuming that it's going to work didn't work here. So you had to be a little more deliberate about that. I think that's a fantastic lesson. 

 I think sometimes I'd be interested to hear how you feel ... Both of you use the word "inclusion", how does that represent itself in this type of situation? So I get it, that we don't typically recruit these types of individuals and now we did. So I can see them included. But it seemed like it was deeper to you that the meaning of inclusion was broader than just putting someone into the mix that hadn't been there before.

Krista Deguffroy: I can take a stab at this. I think for me, when I think about the Neurodiversity Initiatives that we're starting to see pop up with other companies more, which I think is incredibly indicative of this movement, that it's more about talent versus doing something for corporate social responsibility or just a nice charitable action to have is that it's not about just finding people and saying, "Congratulations. We need you to adapt to our culture." 

 It's not about being a cultural fit, but it's really about being a cultural contributor, and what you're adding to the mix and what you're adding to ... SEI, we've had 51 years of success. I'm excited to see what the next 51 years looks like by including more of our neuro diverse population and asking them to contribute to the conversation versus adapting to the conversation.

Al Chiaradonna: Yeah. That's such a wonderful thing. The word, just "cultural contributor" puts the onus on us, not on the individual. I think that it would apply to any employee, creating a platform where employees can speak openly, honestly, transparently, and in the voice that they're accustomed to speaking. I think that's a really powerful thing for us beyond this program. You used the word, this was the second time you said it, I'm really interested in it. Do you see Neurodiversity, a program like that, as a competitive advantage to the war for talent? 

 So as we start to think about all the different things that relate to talent, you read article after article as of the 10 jobs we're going to have in 10 years, we'll only have one person to fill those 10. We're going to be short of talent. Do you see this as an opportunity for us to rethink what we mean by talent? How do you see that playing in?

Krista Deguffroy: I do. So I think oftentimes in the world, Neurodiversity too, there's also this the stigma that the neurodiverse are only going to be geared for technology jobs or processing jobs, or automated jobs, things that are fast and repetitive. What we're finding here is that through AAW, through Neurodiversity at Work, we're finding people who just think differently, who are willing to challenge our process, and to take a stab at creating something better, not because it's going to make them look better, get a promotion and get a raise, do something. The only real goal of trying to change the process is to make something better for users.

 When we have not only this drive to do better, and to perform better, and to have something impact our teams, it's not just about me as the individual. Right? I'm not saying that everybody on the spectrum or everyone who's neuro diverse has that same thrive. But we're seeing that pretty consistently, that it's about improving experience versus improving my experience and my role and my growth.

Alicia Peracchia: I would also like to add that as far as talent competition goes between us and maybe our competitors, at this point, in the Neurodiversity at Work world, we're all working together to place the amount of talent we have. When we say talent, it truly is talent. So there are more people that are trained and ready to go to take jobs. These companies, they're just waiting for the openings. These people are incredible and talented. So at this point, we're working closely with some of our competitors in the business world, for working together to try to place all these people. We're saying we had this person come through our program, we don't have a spot for them right now. What do you have? And vice versa.

Al Chiaradonna: It's interesting because what you're saying is maybe you're looking at the talent problem incorrectly. There's actually a supply of talent that you haven't considered, which makes you feel like there's a talent shortage. Part of it is creating this on ramp for new talent. I think that's a powerful thing. If in fact, other companies are willing to collaborate on that, then it's more than just a hunch, really.

Krista Deguffroy: So we're part of the eastern coast group, right, the East Coast Chapter of Neurodiversity. What's interesting is I just came back from Jupiter, Florida at the Autism at Work Summit. One of the main focuses was this small group outside of Philadelphia is working collaboratively to change the perception of work opportunities for those on the spectrum or those that are neuro diverse. I mean, the recent statistic is up to 85% of adults, adults on the spectrum, are unemployed or underemployed. So they may have a retail job. They may have a part time job. But the realization is they're not working to their full potential.

 It's through programs like ours and programs like SIP and EY, and Vertex, that we're tapping into potential. We're really investing in what we'd like to say is the full spectrum of ability, instead of assuming that if you don't hit these four bullets on a job description, you're not going to be a fit. Maybe takes a little bit more time and more deliberate question and rethinking about what a professional looks like. But we're seeing the results. If that means that we invest more time in the beginning for a long term output, why not?

Al Chiaradonna: So much. I mean, just that last comment. It's the difference. I believe this, by the way, that the future for individuals, whether on the neuro diverse spectrum or not, is about employability, not employment. So when you take that shot, it fits very nicely in what you said. You're not looking at a job description, trying to have someone fit a job. You're looking at an individual's potential and their ability to contribute. Can you ladies share for us how that came out in this process? Did we see that with the interns? Did we see it more about the potential of an individual and then moving them into a spot that they could contribute versus having a job for someone and seeing if they fit the criteria?

Alicia Peracchia: I would say yes. I mean, throughout our hiring process for the pilot program, we had a lot of opportunity to interact with the people looking for employment. We were able to get a feel for their ability and make sure that we place them in a role where they could use those abilities. I think we did pretty well for the most part with that pilot program. Then of course, the people we have on full time now, they pretty much stayed within the same teams that they were interning with.

 So that was a good fit in the end. But I think something that we've been ... We haven't focused on it too much yet in our programs, but some of the other programs really focus on helping people looking for work work on a portfolio. So not only having a resume, but having a portfolio. That could be anything. So for coders it could be a program they built, it could even just be a PowerPoint presentation from something that some presentation they gave. So they're trying to change the narrative and how people hire, and not just looking at a resume and saying, "Hey. Maybe my phone interview skills are not going to be that great. But take a look at this portfolio. This is what I can do." So I think that would also start to help change the narrative in how we're placing talent.

Al Chiaradonna: Yeah. It's an interesting thing for me to hear. Because what I take away from this is, are we thinking about how to secure and hire talent correctly? Or through this process, are we learning that there's a more human element to recruiting? Maybe some of the efficiency we've applied to HR is actually backfiring. It's building bias into the situation. It's not helping us appreciate what are the individual talents that this person has to offer. I'm just wondering, maybe we should reverse it. Maybe it should be about what are the capabilities of the individual? Then to your comment of cultural contribution, think about, okay, how would we use them versus I have a job and do you fit the criteria of filling it?

Alicia Peracchia: Screening in.

Al Chiaradonna: Yeah, exactly. Screening in, is that something that is very common in ...

Alicia Peracchia: It's a word we hear thrown around or used, thrown around is loose, but we hear that used. So saying, can you do the job? Okay. Now, we're going to interview you for it. Rather than ...

Krista Deguffroy: I think, the premise that we look at in Neurodiversity at Work and Autism at Work is just because you've had maybe a role filled traditionally by a certain skill set or by a certain background, that doesn't mean that that's the only way. There are some things that come innately to a human being. There's other things that are learned on the job. It doesn't mean that it looks the same to everybody.

 I think we invest a lot in coaching and talent development, in a lot of what we do at Discovery Week, which is essentially an employment readiness boot camp for a week where we work pretty intensively with students for about 40 hours. It's less about your skills because your skills got you here. But it's more about the things that allow you to interact with your peers and show those soft skills that every team requires, like collaboration and teamwork. 

 Does it look the same to everybody? Absolutely not. But by focusing on that, it allows their skills to shine that much brighter because they're able to work within a team and to be able to say, "This is something that Alicia and I did together. Here's what we were able to come up with. Here's how I tapped into my talents and she tapped into hers," which doesn't necessarily come easy to a lot of our students. So it's something that we actually have to teach in terms of working collaboratively or working with a team.

Al Chiaradonna: You said something earlier, and as you're describing this, it just made me think about it. I don't think any employee should be forced to adapt to the culture. If we truly wanted diverse perspectives, we should have a culture that adapts to the individual, excluding morality, legal stuff. You got to have to some limits.

Krista Deguffroy: Got to draw the line somewhere.

Al Chiaradonna: Yeah, somewhere there has to be a boundary. But as you think about this and you look at not what it meant to the individual that we placed, but what it meant to the managers interacting with them, how did we coach them, train them? Did we coach them, train them? Because I think sometimes, the culture will take over. We will just assume this is another hire. For the last 100 hires, I did this so I must do this for the 101st. What did we experience? What did we learn through that process?

Krista Deguffroy: I think it taught them to be human. Right? If you have 100 hires, and you've been doing things, the 100 the same ways, you turn into more of a robotic process and less about, "How do you as an individual learn?" So that's one of the first things we focus on is about getting to know the person. They'll come to Alicia and I and say, "Well, how do I work with somebody on the spectrum?" There's no playbook. If you've met one person on the spectrum, congratulations, you have met one person on the spectrum. Everyone is different. We lead with people first.

Alicia Peracchia: Yeah. I'll say, all you can do ... Our main suggestion to them is just take it day by day and feel it out. You have to adjust. So I think just like Chris has said, forces them to be human again and just pay attention to their human senses rather than just doing what they always did. They have to really start looking at not only this employee, but now all their other employees as individuals rather than my team, and try to best accommodate each individual in the ways they need to be supported, to do the best work they can do. I don't know, kind of helps you feel more engaged in all ways, in all your surroundings, to be forced out of your comfort zone.

Krista Deguffroy: I think too sometimes ... We were just talking about this last week at the Autism Network Summit we were having, a lot of times, if there's an accommodation or a thing that changes for this neurodiverse individual, maybe in your office, they wear sunglasses because the lighting is not conducive to their working style. Something as small as allowing somebody to wear sunglasses or to be able to get up and pace, and you as the manager by embracing that, you're also sending the message to the rest of your team that it's okay to make the adaptations that allow you to be successful. Because that's really all that you have with the team, is you have a group of individuals who feel that they can be their best self to be successful with.

Al Chiaradonna: It's really interesting to me, to think about how comfortable we are as leaders to actually let people be their best self. If we don't think their best selves conforms to what we know or a policy we have, there's a part of me that thinks part of this program's benefit is just to get us to step back and ask, "What is it like to be human at work?" Because I think sometimes we rely, I'll speak for myself, on the crutches of policy and procedure to say this is the way to go.

 I think in doing that, you're not in tune to what the individual actually is saying or actually needs. In this process, it's almost like you can't do that. Right? I mean, that to me, when you say human, it says to me that you've got to pause first. Did you guys experience that? I mean, you went from a conversation that you didn't know you were invited to because a colleague was out of work to be in passionate about it. How did you learn through the process? What did you experience?

Alicia Peracchia: Well, speaking in SEI lingo, one of my top five strengths is learner. So I think for me, this is exciting. So I'm learning all the time from my work, work, work at work. But for this, it was learning ... A whole different side of my brain felt like it was learning throughout this process. So for me, I was just constantly, constantly just absorbing all the information, whether it be like actual written information I was reading, just everything anybody said in any of the meetings we had, any visits we had with people throughout the program, whether they be candidates for programs or we had an occupational therapist in. So I was kind of just tapped into my sponge-like ability and absorb everything I could. 

 Then of course, once the people were here, just feeling it out, just feeling out how, like I said, it's almost like you're walking into a room blind. You don't know. For me, I didn't know what was going to happen. I hadn't had much interaction with neuro diverse people or people on the spectrum. So it's like you're just feeling things out, just saying, "Okay, no, that's not the right way to say this," or ...

Al Chiaradonna: Were you nervous?

Alicia Peracchia: Not that nervous. I don't look back on it and feel the nerves all over, you know what I mean? When I reflect on it emotionally, I don't feel nervous.

Al Chiaradonna: Now, when you first, let's say the other side of your brain that you like to use, so you said you're challenging a different piece of your brain. What is the other side of your brain just so the rest of us know?

Alicia Peracchia: Well, so what I'm paid to do at SEI is data analytics, and more technology work day to day. So we're on the service excellence team. So we're always trying to analyze data.

Al Chiaradonna: Do you feel anxious when you get a new project as it relates to looking at data or do you feel confident and comfortable in that as well?

Alicia Peracchia: I think it depends if we have the data or not.

Al Chiaradonna: You're wondering whether we have access, yeah.

Alicia Peracchia: Right. If I have the data, then no. But if it means that we have to create or hone a new process in order to get that data, it can be a little bit ...

Al Chiaradonna: Scary.

Alicia Peracchia: Anxiety. 

Al Chiaradonna: What spurred you to bring this to SEI?

Krista Deguffroy: So I had been thinking about, actually I was looking at my outlook archives the other day. I laughed because I found this original folder that I had created back in 2016, saying, "I'm going to create the SEI abilities program." What I really wanted to do was kind of change the narrative about what success looks like in financial services and technology. At that point in time, I didn't have the ability to deploy such a program. Then when we found out we have this existing relationship with SEI Cares, and we have these students who are facing this problem, where they were bright and wonderful, and they had gone to college, but their social skills were impacting the ability to land an opportunity post college, I just felt like this is something that I've been waiting to do and deploy. That was the right time. I wasn't going to let that opportunity pass by because it wasn't about something I wanted to do. 

 But there are these students and families who weren't being able to feel confident, right? We talk about all the time that employment and dignity are very close together. There's a lot of individuals who weren't able to secure employment. It's easy to fall down that rabbit hole that I'm not qualified, I'm not good enough. I'm not strong enough. So we had a real chance to impact that. I think in my role here, whenever there's something that I can do that's not for the benefit of me, but benefit for our community, I don't think we have the luxury of saying no.

Al Chiaradonna: It's interesting too, I mean, so much of what the two of you are sharing, to me resonates across the board. I have two girls that are dyslexic. So I can see, just as you said earlier, stigmas and labels, and the difference between people understanding that this individual learns differently than is learning disabled. So that resonates. But what I find so interesting in this conversation is how applicable what you're talking about is to everyone. 

 So one of the things that I always say, is, doesn't everyone want to feel that they could be treated with dignity and respect? How sad it is, in some instances, that it takes a situation like this for us to rethink that. Instead of saying, "Wait, no. How does that apply to everyone?" You mentioned something though. You mentioned a lot. Some we'll have to come back to. I love this idea of SEI abilities as a program. That's such a catchy little thing. We'll have to save that for another podcast. But I think one of the things that you see as the two of you are talking is how emotionally connected you are to the program like smiling, laughing, how deliberate your words are and the thoughts you're putting together before you speak. So you can see all of that and what it means to you. 

 Would you share a little bit of what it was like, one, for the students? What did they share with you? What did they learn, what did they feel? Then secondly, what did it feel like for the parents of the children? What did they see? Because when you say the word "community", to me, I think we always think of the people that walk in the doors here at SEI. But the truth is, the community is so much bigger than who walks in. It's who else support who walks in? Can you share a little bit about how that has felt, what they have learned the things that they're anxious and nervous about, etc.?

Krista Deguffroy: So there's this notion in Neurodiversity at work. There's this line that we live by with everything we do, that there's nothing about us without us, meaning that Alicia and I, who are neuro typical, are not directing a program without consulting with our neuro diverse population. So every change we make, every program we roll out, we do so with the feedback of our students and our program participants. Because that's not what this is about. When we're talking about community, it's not Alicia and I dictating what it looks like. It's constant feedback. 

 I think some of that has come from our students in terms of what they've liked. There's always this concept of, do I disclose, do I not disclose? How does that impact me? We take a very positive approach to it. But we also leave the role of disclosure up to them. I think that's been a key cornerstone of what we do is that we believe in the autonomy of the individuals. We're here to support and make a more equitable playing field. But it's up to them. It's been life changing for some of our students.

Alicia Peracchia: Yeah, so somebody we have now in private banking, Kelly. Kelly was one of the interns we had in our pilot program. Her mom emailed us or emailed somebody that eventually got to us about how the time at SEI for Kelly was really life changing. Kelly never thought feeling ... Never thought they would be able to find a job that could challenge their technical skills, but also feel so welcoming and also give Kelly an artistic outlet.

 So something not everybody in our area knows about Kelly is that we have a nice new piece of art right above where marketing and myself sit, that got there last summer because Kelly said, "What's the deal with all this art stuff," and got involved in that right away, and was able to pick a new art piece for our area because it was missing one. It was just really cool to see somebody come in and just feel immediately so welcome and at home. It was almost like Kelly had found their place.

Krista Deguffroy: One of the things that we have ... I think that's one of our lessons, right, is how involved the family is. If you think about it, so I'm a parent of a child on the spectrum, mom and dad or parent involvement or family, whatever is included in every aspect of that young learner's life, everything, every meeting with teachers, etc. Even in college, they're still involved. But when they come to the place of work, it's all of a sudden this big break. For a parent, that's anxiety producing. I can't imagine.  So what we've built into our program for this year is a Take Your Parent to Work Day.

Al Chiaradonna: That's awesome.

Krista Deguffroy: Where we're inviting mom and dad and whoever that parent support group is or family support, to come learn about who we are, who SEI is, what we're doing, and answer those questions about Autism at Work that maybe they're not getting from their child directly. But to just let them know, this is about your child as an individual. We're here to support them, here to succeed, here to make them as successful as possible. But your young learner has now become a young adult in the workforce and also set those appropriate boundaries so that they can be independent and successful.

Al Chiaradonna: Both of your comments at the end there just again, remind me of how important it is for us to question what we do and how we do it. Why is it that with certain neuro diverse issues, we haven't broken the ties of parents, with their kids, but in other areas we have? The question to me is, is that right? Meaning, is that just artificial? Isn't it true that every employee has a family? What does that look like? What if all employees got to bring parents work or sibling to work just to appreciate what it is they talk about, laugh about, cry about, complain about at home? To me, that just would be such a fresh perspective. 

 Two last questions. One, how do you deal with this stigma? People talk about a stigma. It's unfortunate that things carry labels and people have perceptions. But you've turned that misfortune into some level of fortune here and that you're saying no, no, that's not right. We can do something about it. Let's put it into action. But how do you deal with it? How did you deal with it?

Krista Deguffroy: I think some of it takes a lot of patience and perseverance because I don't think that the stigma comes out of a place of harm. I think some people may have interacted with one or two people on the spectrum. If you look at how the media portrays the neuro diverse, it's either a mental health issue or it's something like they're a savant, like the Rain Man or Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory. That's not how the spectrum usually plays out. 

 I think in AAW or Neurodiversity at Work is you start to become an ambassador so that there's a wide variety of what this looks like. There's no autistic profile, right? It's people first, it's an individual who happens to be on the spectrum. But it's not autism coming to work, right? It's Joe or John or Amy or whomever coming to work, and they're just learning differently because of this. I don't know for you. For me, I definitely do struggle sometimes with wanting to always change the perception of what that looks like. But you take it one day at a time.

Alicia Peracchia: For me, I think that ... Maybe it's because I have less of a personal connection to it. I don't know. But I'm very logical. So I try to tell myself when we have anybody engaged with about Autism at Work, that's good. I don't care if they're saying bad things or why do you think you can do this. Why would you think this is a good idea? They're engaged with us. So for now, because we're in such the baby stages, any engagement is good engagements and opportunity for us, which we take every time we can to explain to them like, you don't know what you don't know. So just hear us out. It's going to be okay. 

 If you're not ready to be involved, that's okay too. Right, right? So we're early enough that we have the luxury of taking all of those opportunities while we're building the program, I think as we get down the road and we're doing more, we have more programs that can be open to criticism is when we're really going to be challenged in those ways. We'll have to take a step back and say, are we doing this the right way? Are they right? 

Al Chiaradonna: It's interesting because you're right. If you took the negative connotation away from an idea like stigma, you would say identity. People will feel better about that because they have things that they identify themselves with. It seems like what the two of you are saying is as ambassadors of it, you've dropped the judgment in any way. You focused on anyone who raises their hand and wants to learn, I'm going to educate.

 Then you're hoping, I think we all are, that the best of people shines through it. That once they understand it, of course, they get it. Then they say, "Oh yeah, of course, I'm no different actually because I have idiosyncrasies that make me stand out as an individual versus others. You're telling me we're going to celebrate that. How could that be a bad thing?" When you step back and think about the journey, what one or two results were each of you most proud of? I know the journey is not finished. But at this stage, what are you most proud of?

Alicia Peracchia: I'm proud of our community here. I mean, you're talking about the stigma, but I would say that the stigmas were turning around, and people are raising their hands. They're excited to be involved. Every opportunity we have, we have plenty of people raising their hand to help us. We have people in line on waiting lists, to take job shadows for discovery weeks. So I'm proud at how excited people are here, and how we've given people the opportunity to say, "Hey ..." Well, we haven't had anybody disclose yet. 

Krista Deguffroy: Yes, we have.

Alicia Peracchia: We have?

Krista Deguffroy: Yeah.

Alicia Peracchia: Maybe to you, not to me. Anyway, we're giving people the comfort to say, "Hey, I'm different. Can I benefit from this?" Or to say openly to their co-workers, "Hey, I have children that are different. This is really exciting for me. Come to this event," or whatever, right. So it's just like you said, it's removing stigma for people on the spectrum, but also for all neuro diverse or any different ability that anybody has. I would say, overall, the company seems to be embracing it.

Krista Deguffroy: So we had a discovery week, discovery week so those employment readiness boot camps I was talking about. We had a discovery week in June. There was a gentleman there that we really liked, I desperately wanted to find him a home. But the timing just didn't work out. I got to see him on Friday, and he's landed a full time position with SAP. For me, that was like the culmination of all the work that we've put in. It doesn't mean that it has to be here at SEI that person that we've poured resources into lands. But that individual is now succeeding at another company through their Autism at Work Program. I just couldn't be prouder that we were able to be part of his journey.

Al Chiaradonna: Yeah, it's really interesting. I mean, I think I learned a lot as a participant in it. Then of course, there's things I didn't know in how it worked. There's small things you see, like how important space actually is and thinking about what space looks like. You said earlier about the sunglasses, like it doesn't sound like it's a big thing. But you realize, yes, in certain instances it is. We make it bigger than it has to be because we're trying to prevent in some ways. Oh, go ahead.

Krista Deguffroy: I was going to ... We throw words like accommodation on to it. When it's not a medical accommodation, it's just making somebody's job easier for them. That means wearing sunglasses, that means popping in earbuds, it doesn't need a medical accommodation. It's just treating other people like humans first.

Al Chiaradonna: Yeah, I think instead of seeing the bad in a situation, it's seeing the possible. To me, it's so crazy. Why shouldn't he even wear sunglasses at work? Why can't you have headphones if you're not being rude and you're not in class? But I think sometimes we're so caught up in the world that we grew up in, that those things that are so odd to someone else seem so normal to us. What makes this process healthy to me is it causes us to just stop and ask, "Is that normal? Should we do that? Does it benefit anyone?" That to me is a great result no matter what.

Clearly the program is doing things far greater than that. But I think after this conversation, the one thing that it makes me appreciate is it shows what family means at work in actions, not words. So a lot of people want to differentiate themselves based on their culture. Culture is the way you treat people at work. This truly makes a difference for all of us in how we think about treating people. Thanks, ladies. It's been awesome, so far. I mean, I'll judge you later after I hear the recording.

Alicia Peracchia: Oh no.

Al Chiaradonna: No, just kidding. It was great.

Announcer: Thanks for joining us again. To hear more from Al Chiaradonna and his team, make sure to check out and subscribe to the Front and Center Blog on SEIC.com. Stay tuned for more conversations with members of our community. Until next time, be well. Of course we hope you'll meet us back at the Intersection soon.

In this episode, Al Chiaradonna, Senior Vice President of North America Private Banking, talks with Krista Deguffroy and Alicia Peracchia, the co-founders of SEI’s Neurodiversity@Work Program. Expanded from the Austism@Work program, this initiative seeks to increase neurodivergent populations in employment and includes both full-time and internship opportunities. One program highlight includes “discovery weeks,” where prospective interns focus on employment-readiness, collaboration, resume reviews, business shadows, case studies and a reverse career fair—all focused on the skills each candidate brings.

Enjoy Episode 8.

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