Diversity has brought new meaning in the workplace

Chau Le
Chief Operating Officer,
Northwestern Mutual

In the employment world, society often overlooks individuals with disability. Having first-hand experience with kids and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), John Klemm and I approached UCLA four years ago to understand how young adults with autism experience college and transition to post-graduation employment. To our alarm, we learned that nearly 80% of college grads with ASD are not gainfully employed due to their challenges, and furthermore, there was a complete vacuum of adult services to prepare them for employment. As an employer and corporate executive, I saw an opportunity to change the landscape and envision what’s possible.

Our motivation to start an employment program for young adults with ASD was to pave the way for a very capable and talented, yet under-represented group of people. Collaborating with UCLA, our goal is to raise awareness inside college campuses, as well as highlight the opportunity for corporate employers, so that together we can improve these young adults’ employability in a diverse and integrated environment. Northwestern Mutual was a pioneer in this space. By creating jobs, a training program, and jobsite mentorship, we have helped to change the outlook of dozens of young adults. I am told most of them did not succeed or were not given a chance under traditional hiring methods. We broke through those blockers and helped them succeed here. Simultaneously, we leveraged their unique abilities to solve real business needs.

Through my involvement with PEERS® for Careers, I have seen an enormous impact on these young adults’ social skills and self-confidence. Each day, they are excited to put on their professional attire and go to a corporate workplace. They become part of a larger team who understands and supports them. They exude a sense of pride and ownership that is indescribable. We receive thank-you letters from them and their parents about what a difference this experience has made in their lives. For these young adults, the combined experience of the PEERS® for Careers curriculum and that of our employment program, prepares them for what life has to offer.

Today, this employment program is an important part of Northwestern Mutual Diversity & Inclusion initiative. A key element is appreciating and valuing this community’s unique ability and differences. We are building a culture of inclusion. It is embedded in the company’s vision of fueling a thriving and productive workplace by valuing the humanity of our people.

Knowing this keeps me committed to doing what we are doing.