As Thomas D’Eri watched his younger brother, Andrew, a spirited individual with autism, struggle to find a job, D’Eri couldn’t sit back and watch. He knew Andrew was at risk of losing the chance to lead the full adult life he was capable of if someone didn’t step in.
“My brother has autism,” D’Eri says. “Pretty early on, we realized we had to intervene to make a difference, and it all came to a head after I graduated college.”
D’Eri, who became interested in environmental sustainability at Bentley University in Boston, turned down lucrative careers in management consulting and finance to pursue social entrepreneurship, where he set out to dream up his own company in the hopes of turning a profit and making a difference. Less than a decade later, he succeeded.
In 2012, D’Eri and his family, who are originally from New York, traded snow for sun and launched Rising Tide Car Wash, a social enterprise built to empower young adults with autism, just like D’Eri’s brother, Andrew.
“Car washing is a process-driven role,” D’Eri says, who was named a 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30. “It’s consistent, detail-oriented work, and people with autism do a tremendous job with that. Plus, the car wash industry is a great platform to become part of a community and showcase our employees front and center. The idea is to offer a helpful service and change the conversation surrounding people with autism.”
Since D’Eri, 30, and his father, John, debuted the business in 2012, they’ve employed more than 200 individuals with autism and generated $3 million in annual sales. With locations in Parkland and Margate, the father-son duo transformed struggling car wash businesses into lively settings with loyal customers.
“Our first car wash in Parkland serviced about 35,000 cars annually before we came in,” he says. “Once we implemented our model, we brought it up to 150,000 per year. With that success, we decided to build our Margate location from the ground up.”
At either location, about 80 percent of employees are individuals with autism, and a majority of customers live within a 3-mile radius.
“It’s incredible how many people have changed their perceptions of autism by visiting our car washes,” he says. “We’re also seeing more businesses around us employ individuals with autism, including our former employees, as well.”
In addition to cofounding Rising Tide Car Wash, D’Eri and his father are also behind Rising Tide U, which offers resources and support to families and businesses interested in learning about employing people with autism. Their online course, The Autism Advantage, is the only program of its kind, offering a step-by-step roadmap for entrepreneurs looking to start businesses that empower individuals with autism. It’s the kind of tool D’Eri wished he had before he and his father jumped head-first into launching their own venture.
“Our mission is to communicate to businesses and the greater community that employing people with autism isn’t just a nice thing to do,” he says. “It’s a great business decision. We have much less turnover compared to other car washes, and our customer satisfaction is generally 50 percent higher. Our employees love being here, and they create an environment you can’t find just anywhere.”
For now, D’Eri is focused on refining Rising Tide’s car wash model and exploring the possibility of additional locations or an entirely new business concept.
“I work with my brother almost every day,” he says. “It doesn’t get much better. We’re all in this together, and we’re working to create as many jobs as we possibly can, be it through our businesses or empowering others to start their own.”