Autonomy Works – with Karrie Pece

September 4, 2018
Alumni Stories

This blog post is brought to you by CSIS alumna Karrie Pece, Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy 2017. Karrie and the organization she works for – Automony Works – were recently profiled in CSIS Studios. Take a look, and hear what Karrie has to say (below) about her journey.


My name is Karrie Pece and I have spent the past six years running a for-profit social enterprise in Chicago, Illinois called AutonomyWorks. Our mission at AutonomyWorks is to change the way the world views people with autism. We accomplish this mission every day by building a business centered around the skills and talents of adults with autism. To date, we are one of the largest employers of people with autism in the world.

I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a social-entrepreneur, but I always knew that I wanted to make this world a better place for individuals with disabilities. From the young age of eight years old, when I inquired with my school principal to learn sign language so that I might communicate with a new student who wasn’t able to hear, I knew I was deeply passionate about advocating for people with disabilities and helping them to live their best lives. Throughout middle school and high school, I actively participated in events that included people with disabilities and I formed lifelong friendships with many amazing, unique people.

When it came time to go to college and to declare a major, I began to think about how I might one day be able to make the largest impact. I decided a business degree would provide me with the best opportunity to see the “big-picture” and to learn skills that could cross any industry. Upon graduation, I interviewed for traditional business jobs in large organizations. None of them felt quite right to me.

I decided to take a position with a local special education cooperative, LADSE, where I was introduced to the world of vocational rehabilitation. During my time at LADSE, I obtained my master’s degree in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling, and was charged with finding jobs for students with disabilities in the community. I formed relationships with local and national employers and learned how to match the needs of the business community to the skills of people with disabilities. It became very clear to me that not only should people with disabilities have the opportunity to work, but that they are a vital part of any organization.

In late 2012, I met the father of one of our students, Dave Friedman. Dave was looking to start a company based on the skills and talents of people with autism, AutonomyWorks. I joined Dave on this mission and we have worked together for the past six years to prove the idea that people with autism can bring a unique skill set and competitive advantage to the workplace.

The past six years have been the most incredible and yet the most challenging years of my life. Growing a business that is built not just for money but for mission is a newer concept and there is a lot of uncharted ground. Couple that with the fact that no one has ever successfully employed hundreds of people with autism and you are left with an incredible challenge. There are always more questions than answers and just when you think you have something figured out, it is time to iterate.

I came to a place where I knew I needed more information; I needed practical tools, knowledge, evidence-based theories, and a community of people facing similar challenges. I needed to learn more about social enterprise and what it means to be a social entrepreneur. I needed to learn how scale and measure impact across our organization. I didn’t know it in that moment, but I needed CSIS.

I hesitantly applied for the 2017 CSIS Exec Program; I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to manage the demands of running a business and completing a rigorous academic program at the same time. I had a lot of questions, and the CSIS admissions team took the time to personally walk me through all of the information and answers I needed. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that the program was the right fit for me.

The CSIS program provided me with the tools and resources needed to help take our business to the next phase of growth. Practical tools such as the Risk Analysis, Impact Management, and the Balanced Scorecard were not only useful as homework assignments, but in actually putting into practice within our organization. I have found that the tools provided by CSIS have become a means to reaching solutions. When we are stuck or challenged to think about the solution to a problem, I will often reach to get my CSIS Tool Kit and find an exercise to help.

To me, the resources are valuable because they aren’t designed to be specific to any single venture or enterprise, they are designed to provide a framework for problem solving and innovating. Where I may have once stayed stuck for extended periods of the time, the tools provided in the CSIS program have helped to accelerate action.

I found the program itself very accommodating to my needs. The workload was manageable, and the expectations of the courses were always laid out up front so that I could plan accordingly. The teaching faculty were accessible to answer questions and provide clarity. I found the real-life cases studies that were incorporated into the curriculum to be very practical and inspirational. Not only were you given knowledge and resources, but also the opportunity to see and read about how to execute in a tangible way.

I would be remiss to only talk about the academic and resource components of the program. For me, the personal benefits were invaluable. I found a community and a support system; people to rally with and behind. A community of people restlessly pursing social change. During the in-person convening, we brainstormed with each other and challenged one another to action. It was a great privilege to learn, share and innovate with over 100 different entrepreneurs from 23 different countries.

The CSIS Exec Program exceeded my expectations. I have graduated with new found knowledge, resources, community, and belief that together, we truly can make this world a better place.