“We found that if you paint a picture of what type of performance you want, and then paint the person in that picture so they can see it, then they can achieve it.” – Vicky Westra, Owner & Founder of Artistas Café and Javámo Coffees

Vicky WestraAs you can tell by that quote, Vicky Westra brings a fresh new perspective to business – one that has the power to significantly “Change Lives, One Bean at a Time” which is the mission of her most recent soul-work (with her husband), Artistas Café.   This business is committed to helping create a world where people diagnosed with autism have an opportunity to lead independent, productive and happier lives because of employment.   Vicky’s own daughter is the inspiration for this work. 

Vicky is also owner and founder of Javámo Coffees, a small coffee distribution business she has been managing for the past 7 years.

Read on for more of Vicky’s inspirational story (in her own words) of a small business with HUGE impact.

 1.       You have an Artista’s Café at a Mercedes-Benz dealership.  How did that come about??

In 2006, I started Javámo Coffees, then in 2007, I founded Art for Autism, a 501(c)(3) organization.  My goal was to give a percentage of our proceeds from Javámo Coffees to Art for Autism, to build programs and services for those touched by autism.  Last year (2010), those two organizations came together with a unique, one of a kind Café called Artistas Café. 

I met with the general manager of the Mercedes-Benz of Tampa dealership to discuss distributing coffee to his new location, and he asked if I would give him a proposal for actually operating the Café!   Since this was not currently our line of business, I asked if he would be open to letting us employ young adults diagnosed with autism.  To my surprise, he said “yes”, and that’s how it started!  I wrote a business plan and submitted it to our local Children’s Board and was granted some seed money to get the program started.

Watch this video to see more about the Artistas Café:

 2.       What have you learned through educating /training /employing people on the Autism Spectrum, and how can we apply those learnings to our own businesses? 

The four young men that we employ at the Mercedes-Benz Artistas Café each have their own incredible talent.  Two are artists and two are writers, and they all have a desire to be productive and valued.  Three of them had never been given the opportunity for employment (statistics show an over 86% unemployment rate for those diagnosed with autism) and the other did not have successful employment because he always felt that people didn’t accept that he was different. 

I refer to them as “The Dream Team” because they all value the opportunity to work and contribute to our Café.  As a result, they take ownership of their roles and are truly present when they are there.  They typically come in early, because they are excited to get started, and then we have to tell them that it’s time to go home.  We now have one team member who helps  with writing for our social media and one helping to design some of our marketing campaigns.

As part of our company core values, we embrace diversity.  This goes beyond color, race or gender, and is more about embracing those that might think or act differently than we do.  We feel that in the long run, these different thought processes and ideas will be what makes us “different” from any other Café or Coffee company, so it is our strength.

The other philosophy that we have embraced is aligning people with their passion (it’s having the right people on the bus and having them in the right seats).  As I stated before, we are even getting our Artistas involved in other areas of our business to allow them the opportunity to grow in an area they are passionate about.  We also place more focus on recognizing good performance vs. the developmental needs.  We found that if you paint a picture of what type of performance you want, and then paint the person in that picture so they can see it, then can achieve it.  This is very different from the typical management model of spending time defining the performance or behavior we may not want. 

 3.       What have you gotten from the Big Fish Nation programs that have helped your business (along with you!) get to where it is now?

Big Fish helped me to define what  I wanted to create in my life.  I learned to set the vision for my business, then trust that the right things were going to fall into place to help me achieve it.  Sometimes we (particularly type A personalities like me!) try to control everything that happens and we get frustrated when things don’t unfold exactly as we thought they would.  It’s then easy to throw your hands up in the air and say “things aren’t working out!” … when they actually are, just not in the way we thought they would (but maybe better long term).  When I started to trust that things were going to unfold in just the right time and in the right way, things really took off! 

Coaching with my Big Fish Coach was definitely significant for me.  She really helped me to define and focus on those things that I wanted to achieve both personally  and professionally.  She truly has a gift to ask the right questions in order to get to the root of the issue at hand, and was also incredibly supportive of what I was going through and where I was at.  When I would share an achievement with her, she would celebrate right along with me, and during those times of frustration and concern, she was compassionate and caring, helping me learn the tools to keep me going in a positive way.

I really learned from the challenges and successes that other Big Fish team members shared with the group.  Sometimes, when you see someone facing similar challenges to what you are facing, it helps to see the solution more clearly.  I also just enjoyed learning about the journeys of others.  It confirmed for me that being a business owner takes time, effort, dedication and a willingness to stick with it as you grow and develop.

 4.       What bottom-line financial impact has Big Fish Nation had on your business? 

My business is now growing, expanding and profitable.  We spent time during the program discussing the importance of how to understand the financial side of our business and your own profitability, and it is so true!  I hired a bookkeeper to help me with the inputting so that I can focus more on the financial side of our business.  I truly believe the experience of doing that for myself (even though it’s one of my least favorite things) for so long was helpful in the long run.  I believe every business owner should be familiar with their books.

 5.        Your work with Autism is so important. How can we help support people with Autism?

People with autism think a little differently, and many struggle with social interaction skills and communication.  They might also take longer to process information and respond.  This can be viewed by some as odd, disengaged, stand-offish, unresponsive, etc., when none of these are truly what their intentions are.  Since people with autism typically don’t have any physical signs of a disability (like those with Downs Syndrome or physical  handicaps can exhibit), people may not understand why they are acting differently than what we consider the norm.  This is one of the reasons why this disability has been difficult for the general public to understand and embrace. 

Our mission is to “Change Lives one Bean at a Time” through training, internships and employment.  We want to create a world where people diagnosed with autism have an opportunity to lead independent, productive and happier lives because of employment. 

The best thing we can do for them personally is to try to meet them at their level and understand where they are at vs. trying to get them to think and act as we do.  This acceptance goes a long way to helping them feel included. 

For business owners, then, my advice is to consider hiring a person with autism in a role they are passionate about.  That combination could possibly get you the best team member you’ve ever had and, like our Artista’s Cafe program, it helps to put a “face” on autism.

 6.       Is there anything else you would like to share?

My husband and I have a 14 year old daughter named Gabbi, who is our inspiration for this.  Parents of typically developing children wonder where their child will go to school, who they will marry and what type of career they will have.  The common thoughts of parents of children with autism are “who will take care of my child when we are no longer here?”  Our mission is to hire as many of these individuals as possible and provide them with an opportunity to lead the most fulfilling lives they can.  The parents of our team members have all shared what a blessing this is for them.

Consider this: Autism affects not only the individual, but also the family, the community and our society as a whole.  It is estimated that by the year 2020, there will be about 800,000 young adults diagnosed with autism that will be ready to enter the workplace.  If we don’t make some changes today towards hiring them, this will be a huge financial burden on our country as well as the families that are touched.  That’s the change that we believe Artistas Cafes will make, not by just hiring these individuals, but showing the world what they are capable of!

Vicky shows us that we, as women entrepreneurs, truly do have the power to make a HUGE difference and change the world.   Let’s all keep her example in mind as we continue to build our businesses and plan a BOLD future for ourselves, our children, and generations to come!

For more information, or to contact Vicky directly, visit: