Have you gone back to the office? Many of us have not. While the technology of Zoom and Teams kept us virtually connected during the pandemic, I still miss the human connection of face-to-face meetings and the energy that comes from sitting around a table to collaborate. Executive Director Laura Whitaker runs a multi-million dollar nonprofit, ESP, that serves people with disabilities and their families. Since the early age of 19 when she was tapped to lead the organization, Laura knew the unique abilities that this community possessed. She has devoted her career as a young leader and entrepreneur to raising awareness and bringing that coveted human connection to communities and businesses across the country, most recently through a mobile coffee cart venture called Java Joy.
Java Joy was born from the realization that 87 percent of adults with special needs are unemployed, yet they have abilities that the workforce wants and needs. The concept began brewing in 2017 when businesses hired the young adults, known as ‘Joyristas,’ to set up the mobile coffee cart at their local company, event or conference to serve coffee and contagious joy—even hugs—to customers, employees and board members. Their infectious joy and free cup of joe energized and engaged workforces like never before, and CEOs reported seeing unexpected rises in employee engagement, improved mental health and an increase in company morale from their time with the Java Joyristas, thus increasing the bottom line.
“One of the most powerful experiences for a CEO came when he attended a conference in Atlanta,” Whitaker explains. “Andrew Almeida was slated to speak and grabbed a quick cup of coffee from our Joyristas serving in the lobby. After experiencing their warmth, conversation and joy, he walked up on stage profoundly changed. He realized the Joyristas’ proposition was unique and more companies needed that offering to penetrate their workforce. Andrew declared that day that Java Joy would start serving at his company in San Francisco, and before we knew it, we had expanded Java Joy across the country. During that launch, some of our Joyristas experienced their first airplane ride and business trip. They spent the week serving coffee and joy to employees at Fortune 500 companies. Now Java Joy is serving in four cities with plans to expand to four more states in 2021.”
The benefits to companies engaging with adults with special needs are many, not least being the opportunity to embrace neurodiversity with a “first, not forced” mentality. In an age where inclusion should be considered an asset to businesses, the one in four Americans who live with a disability find it challenging to secure a meaningful job. Java Joy offers adults the opportunity to showcase their abilities, rather than be constrained by their disabilities. Our jobs often determine, or shape, our identity. As such, one of the most commonly asked questions one receives when meeting someone new is, “What do you do for a living?” Most adults with disabilities are unable to answer this question, but Java Joy is shifting that paradigm. And, the benefits to putting people with disabilities in the workforce are equally beneficial to society. Not only are jobs created, with training and steady income, Java Joy allows them to contribute to communities in a unique and meaningful way while experiencing value and self-worth.
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“Many of our Joyristas started this work with us as a stepping stone to go out into the world and pursue their dreams,” Whitaker continues. “But what actually began as a training program ended up being their dream job. Now, we are even seeing upward mobility as the Joyristas gain experience and move into management roles and experience travel through business trips.”
Through Whitaker’s leadership and vision of a society that values people with every ability, she challenges business leaders to view diversity through a deeper lens, extending it beyond ethnicity, gender, age, status or disability. She imagines a world where all people have the opportunity to showcase their abilities, rather than be constrained by their disabilities. The organization has recently launched Joyworks, an inclusion training program for local businesses led by her leadership team and several Joyristas.
“We are ready to bring Java Joy to every city in the nation,” she concludes. “But in the meantime, businesses must lead with inclusion, not difference. Java Joy always focuses on the positive—a connection, a laugh, a hug with a jolt of caffeine. These simple tenets, combined with reframing our efforts and vocabulary, offer more people of all abilities the opportunity for success in the workplace and a meaningful place in our communities. And businesses are better for it, too.”