The Chocolate-making company employing people on the autistic spectrum
In 2012, Mona Shah sat down with her
autistic son Ahsan to talk to him about
what he wanted to do with his life
Only 15 per cent of adults with autism are in work and many have never been given the opportunity – so the statistics were against him.
Mona, 44, said: "Ahsan, like 60 per cent of people with autism, want to work and are capable of doing so, but there is nothing for them to do. We chatted and he came up with the idea of a restaurant called Harry Specters which would also provide an opportunity for other people with autism to work too, making use of their unique talents and perspectives."
From that point the focus turned to handmade chocolates, thanks to a chocolatier course Mona completed in 2011 when she still worked for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT) – the county's mental health trust – in corporate governance.
She explained: "I have always had an interest in cholocolate but I had no intention to start a business. But I realised this would be the perfect job for someone with autism, without the need for masses of investment and training. Ahsan helped me look at lots of recipes and we had a go and it was amazing how quickly he picked it up."
From the start we have provided employment opportunities for people on the autism spectrum. Here they can be assured of a safe and supportive environment, where they have the freedom to use their strengths to grow and develop into satisfied and contributing members of society
The family then received support and funding from the School for Social Entrepreneurs, Lloyds Banking Group and Eastern Enterprise Hub, and launched in December 2012 as both a business and social enterprise from a small 'factory' to the rear of their home in Sunderlands Avenue, Sawston.
Mona said: "From the start we have provided employment opportunities for people on the autism spectrum. Here they can be assured of a safe and supportive environment, where they have the freedom to use their strengths to grow and develop into satisfied and contributing members of society. We have close links with special needs schools in the area, taking on people for work experience, apprenticeships and paid roles, as well as visits."
Jobs include making and filling the chocolates, designing and printing packaging, and boxing up products.
Harry Specters' clients include Microsoft, BT Sport and PWC who choose the company for its quality products and as a way of meeting its corporate social responsibilty goals.
Mona said: "The chocolates are all handmade, using the best ingredients with no preservatives and no flavourings. We just won the Guardian award for best social enterprise Easter Egg. As we are a social enterprise, for every £1 of profit we make, 60p will be set aside for furthering the social aims of the business, providing social activities for our invaluable employees and opportunities for their personal development."
She added: “People on the autistic spectrum are absolutely brilliant workers and it frustrates me to hear businesses expecting to be paid to take them on and not giving them a wage. They are so excited to have a job to do and all I need to do is make sure it is a quiet and calm environment which is well structured.”
Greg Hanchet, 20, of Impington, has been working with Mona for one day a week since September while completing a catering course at Cambridge’s St John’s College, Cambridge, funded by Mencap.
He said: "I enjoy the challenge of working with chocolate and I have learned a lot about what goes well and what doesn't."
Plans are in place to introduce Harry Specters to other parts of the country so more people with autism can benefit.
For more information about the company, visit harryschocs.co.uk.
The above article first published on cambridge-news.co.uk in 2014.