SOCIAL CHALLENGE AND INNOVATIVE SOLUTION
Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism characterised by difficult social interactions and repetitive behaviour. What distinguishes people with Asperger’s disorder from those with a classic type of autism is that they don’t have a learning disability and usually have good language and cognitive skills. However, in Europe, it is estimated that less than 10% of people with autism are employed and they face prejudices and many obstacles to access the labour market.
To tackle this issue, in 2009 Lars Johansson-Kjellerød founded Unicus, a Norwegian consulting company with a staff composed of people with Asperger’s syndrome. This social enterprise taps into the strengths of people with Asperger’s –who tend to have a remarkable aptitude to focus and persist in their task, recognising patterns with an excellent eye for detail– ideal skills to provide services in testing and quality assurance of IT systems and data science services on commercial terms. Importantly, Unicus is carefully positioned first and foremost as a high quality service provider committed to customer satisfaction, rather than a job creation programme for people with an autism spectrum disorder.
KEY SOCIAL IMPACT FIGURES
people with Asperger’s employed (Q2 2019)
Consultants on client contracts in 2018
Venture Philanthropy Contribution
How it started
In 2010, Unicus had four employees with Asperger’s and signed a short-term development contract with Telenor, the largest telecom company in Norway. After one year of activity, Unicus already had a profitable business, albeit on a small scale. In parallel with these positive economic results, Unicus was generating a great return on the social bottom line, giving a stable job to people with Asperger’s and in doing so, increasing their quality of life. However the social enterprise knew it needed support to make the core business sustainable in the long run and increase the total number of employees with Asperger syndrome.
When Lars Johansson-Kjellerød contacted Ferd Social Entrepreneurs (Ferd SE) to seek support for Unicus, the Ferd team was already familiar with the positive social impact created by Specialisterne, a Danish company employing people with Asperger’s for several years. Ferd saw the potential for Unicus to generate similar social impact in Norway, whilst over time building a sustainable commercial business not reliant on financial support, benefit payments to staff or soft funding.
2010-2013: First round of support – grant
Unicus’ short term goals were to secure a permanent contract with Telenor, to scale nationally and employ 18 consultants with Asperger’s syndrome within two years. To help Unicus deliver high-quality services to Telenor, Ferd SE provided a grant of NOK 1.2m (approx. €150,000 at the time) in tranches over three years. This financial support aimed to cover the necessary operational costs, such as recruitment, PCs, training, etc. The grant was paid out on completion of milestones pre-agreed between Unicus and Ferd SE.
In addition, Ferd SE provided substantial non-financial support: adding an external board member, customer introductions, strategy consulting, coaching, operational management advice, access to the wider Ferd network etc. Moreover, Unicus benefitted from the recognition that followed after it became part of Ferd SE’s portfolio. Johan H. Andresen, Ferd’s owner and founder, spoke frequently about Unicus in the media, giving the social enterprise visibility and a reputation for positive social impact.
2013-2015: Non-financial support continues
Following the three-year grant period, Unicus had achieved both the financial and social ambitions from the original business plan, employing 20 consultants with Asperger’s and generating a healthy profit. Although there was no need for further financial support, Ferd SE continued to provide non-financial support to Unicus from 2013 to the end of 2015 as part of an alumni agreement.
2016-2019: Second round of support – equity
In 2016, Unicus reached a plateau – at around 20 consultants – and had too choose between protecting the current operations or expanding to increase the social impact. Unicus had already shown very strong social results, good finances, strong leadership, a significant growth potential, and an innovative and scalable business model. The Unicus business was no longer in need of soft funding, but rather the backing of a long-term investment partner to help implement an ambitions growth strategy.
For the first time, Ferd SE entered into ownership of a social enterprise. Having followed Unicus closely for more than six years, Ferd SE decided to make an equity investment and become a shareholder of Unicus in early 2016. Ferd SE acquired around 38% of the shares through an equity investment in Unicus, with the founder Lars Johansson-Kjellerød reducing his ownership to just below 50%. Additionally, Ferd SE nominated two board members of the company.
Following this investment, Unicus started operations in Stavanger (Norway) in 2016, Stockholm (Sweden) in 2017 and Helsinki (Finland) in 2019. The company hired national Managing Directors in Norway, Sweden and Finland, leaving Lars to focus more on business development. Furthermore, the sales team in Norway was expanded in order to further strengthen the core business.
As a result, Unicus more than doubled the number of employees with Aspergers from 2016 to 2018, and currently employs more than 50 consultants and trainees (Q2 2019).
As part of the investment agreement with Ferd SE, Unicus is continuously working to improve its impact management efforts. Unicus reports its social and financial results on an annual basis, as part of the Ferd SE portfolio report. As part of the second round of support (2016-2019), Unicus has also strengthened its internal processes, training and certification support to staff, cementing the position as a high quality IT service provider.
Impact Areas: SDG 8 and 10:
|Improvement in quality of life for the employees
||Annual employee survey:
“My quality of life has significantly improved since joining Unicus”
Scale 1(low)-5 (high)
|Creation of regular, non-subsidised employment for the target group
||% of staff on commercial client contracts in 2018
|Reduction in cost of unemployment / increase in societal contribution from a valuable resource group
||Total salary tax paid + social costs paid + avoided benefit payments less public support received per anuum
||NOK 16m (~ €1,630,000)
||NOK 13.4m (~ €1,370,000)
The staff employed by Unicus as full-time IT consultants come from a long unemployment background. By maintaining stable employment with Unicus, they manage to build independent lives. In the process, they contribute to creating positive value for the workplace, the customers, the community and themselves.
What they think
In 2019 Unicus will continue to build a strong Nordic presence, expanding on existing customer relationships in Norway and Sweden as well as entering partnerships with new customers.
The company is continually developing its impact management methodology to manage and document the social impact created as the business scales to new markets.
Looking ahead, Unicus is well positioned to pursue further expansion opportunities in Norway, Sweden, Finland and beyond, continuing its quest to provide “ordinary work for extraordinary people”.