Keita Suzuki '09
Tapping into talent
By Sara Langen
Just days before Keita Suzuki '09 left Japan to begin his first year at Kellogg, his 3-year-old son Kai was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Although doctors determined that Kai was "high-functioning," the diagnosis shook Suzuki.
It also changed the course of his career: Then a journalist with NHK Japanese Broadcasting Corp., Suzuki had planned to use his MBA to enter the media management field. But Kai's diagnosis immediately shifted his focus to autism and Asperger's syndrome.
Suzuki noticed a disparity in the way autism is discussed in the United States compared to Japan, where he says the condition is widely misunderstood. For the next year, he mulled over that problem — researching autism in his spare time, and thinking about ways he could educate citizens in his home country about the condition.
Then Suzuki came across an article about Specialisterne, a Danish company that trains high-functioning autistic people to do specialized tasks that leverage their particular skills. Individuals with autism, Suzuki learned, have a heightened aptitude for thinking logically, recognizing patterns, discovering irregularities and performing repetitive processes without becoming distracted — making them particularly well-suited for jobs such as software testing, data conversion and quality control. This business model, and the notion that autism could be leveraged in a powerful way, fascinated Suzuki.
"I could not sleep at all when I first saw the article," he remembers. "I read it many times during the night and I thought, 'This is it. This is what I want.'"
At Kellogg, Suzuki partnered with classmates Seung Chul Seo '09, Thien Nguyen-Trung '09, Marc Noland '09 and Fuminari Obuchi '09 to develop a business plan for Kaien, a company that trains and places people with high-functioning autism in software companies and other businesses. In 2009, the company was incorporated in Tokyo.
Today, with Suzuki at the helm, Kaien has trained and placed dozens of people in jobs as bookkeepers, software testers and marketing researchers. Along with opening a second location in Yokohama City, Kaien is introducing an early-intervention program for teenagers.
"Ninety percent of our graduates keep working," Suzuki shares. "We hear that, in some cases, our graduates outperform people 'outside' of the autism spectrum in completing tasks that require a lot of attention to detail."
Kaien was also a 2011 finalist in the prestigious Echoing Green Competition. And despite the recent tsunami, Suzuki says the company is profitable at 5 percent, though business has slowed with sales this year around $300,000. But Suzuki's main goal isn't money — it's to change society's perception of what people with autism are capable of.
"I don't want to have concerns about my son's future," he says. "If this business model is successful, other companies will want to hire more people with autism."
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Kellogg World alumni magazine.