By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller
“I don’t think there is anything more challenging than a nonprofit startup,” Mark Fairbanks said with a laugh.
The co-founder of Islands of Brilliance (IOB) certainly knows about the challenges of this unique type of organization.
Mark and his wife Margaret Fairbanks are the trailblazers at the helm of the nonprofit startup that delivers creative programs for autistic students. Margaret serves the organization’s CEO, with Mark in the role of Executive Director.
“We’ve been one of the only organizations in the country that’s doing this,” Mark said. “We’ve been pioneering the use of what we call creative technologies, and we see that they spur self-confidence, they foster self-determination, and they create pathways to employment for autistic individuals.
“Creative technologies are anything from an iPad, iPad-based software like Procreate or Stop Motion Studio. We use large parts of the Adobe Creative Suite. We use 3D programs like Blender and Autodesk 3ds Max. From a coding standpoint, we use programs like Unity and Unreal Engine,” he said.
Experience with these technologies not only provides an opportunity to be creative, but it also teaches skills that help students in the job market. Fairbanks said the unemployment rate is 83% for adults aged 18-27 who are on the autism spectrum. He hopes technology-rich programs, like Islands of Brilliance, can decrease that number.
“In our workshops, students start as early as age 8, because we want to give them a longer runway to develop, not only these skills, but the critical social-emotional learning skills that are really important,” he said. “Whether it relates to employment or just integration into the community and creating independence and agency for them.”
The inspiration for the launch of Islands of Brilliance is a personal one.
“The origin story is that our youngest son, Harry, was identified at the age of three on the spectrum,” Fairbanks explained. “My wife Margaret and I had a similar experience to many parents in that, in addition to the diagnosis, we were given a dire prognosis of what he was and was not going to be capable of doing. This is before the age of three and we just flat out rejected that.”
The family noted Harry’s passion for the children’s fiction character Thomas the Tank Engine and leveraged that passion into learning opportunities. He was soon hitting developmental milestones and exceling far beyond the doctors’ assessment of his abilities.
It was when Harry was eight years old that Fairbanks discovered technology provided Harry an opportunity to shine in new ways.
“I started to notice how much he was using technology,” he said. “Most of it was consumption. He would watch stop motion stuff on YouTube, but he’s posted in the threads. He was having conversations with other users and that was fascinating because he might struggle in person with his peers. That technology was a level setter.”
It was Harry’s interest in technology that sparked the idea for the nonprofit startup. Fairbanks, a visual artist with a professional background in design, recalls the day where the idea for Islands of Brilliance began.
“I was working on a project in Illustrator and Harry asked, ‘hey Dad, can I try that?’ So, I literally gave him five minutes of instruction and just left them alone to play with it,” he said. “Then a half hour later he’s calling me saying, ‘Come see what I did.’ He’s drawn Percy, this character from ‘Thomas.’ And he’s used tools I hadn’t shown him how to use, so he’s intuitively figured out the interface to make what he wants.”
Mark and Margaret, who by this time had earned a master’s degree in special education, talked about Harry and his engagement with technology.
“I said, what if we use (autistic kids’) subject matter, interest and expertise and paired them with a mentor using this design software? They could create projects, posters, whatever. What kind of special ed support would we need around that?” Mark said.
The conversation that ensued set the groundwork for Islands of Brilliance.
In 2012 the team hosted a workshop at Discovery World that paired students and mentors for an afternoon of technology-based activities. They considered this event their minimum viable product.
“It worked! Not only did the kids love it, but the mentors loved it because they kind of geeked out together,” he said. “We matched them based on similar subject matter expertise. They saw how knowledgeable the students were and how fearlessly creative they were. It was this unique bond, and to this day, the mentors talk about what an impact this experience has on them.
“Now here we are, 10 years later, with different layers of programming. We survived COVID by pivoting to virtual and have grown the program through that. I always say it’s a uniquely Milwaukee and Wisconsin success story and there’s really not another program around that is like ours because we start so young.”
Fairbanks is no stranger to entrepreneurship. He was the co-founder of the design firm Translator and served as the Entrepreneur in Residence at the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“I don’t think patience ever gets talked about enough in entrepreneurial endeavors,” he said. “A lot of stuff focuses on success, but what about the times when it hasn’t gone so great? I think we were always fueled by what was great because we had this constant fuel of the wealth we feel from the community. You can see the impact of what you’re doing, and that keeps you going. For us, it was the impact of what we were doing that helped get us through the times when it was more challenging.”
The organization used “lean launch” principles to begin IOB. While the organization does have an annual fundraiser and receives foundational grants, the team focuses on earned revenue to fund growth.
IOB has teamed with a number of nonprofits in Wisconsin, including the Down Syndrome Association of Wisconsin, to provide innovation solutions to workforce challenges in the state.
“This is a coalition of organizations that work with individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities to lift the tide for individuals with differing abilities,” he said.
The partnership between the organizations received a state grant, which will allow IOB to expand their reach.
“This is an amazing opportunity,” Fairbanks said. Right now, we are in planning and strategy modes. We’re going to be hiring more people and it’s about scaling what we do. Each organization is going to be scaling what they do to impact the most people … we’re really excited about it. The fact that (we are) making this part of the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) conversations, because too often neurodiversity as an umbrella is not included and now it’s being talked about — it’s like, okay let’s move from talk to action! This is really about awareness, discussion, and action.”
Fairbanks is confident the IOB programs can provide opportunities to lower the unemployment rate for autistic adults.
“Let’s start looking at talent gaps through the lens of how do we integrate autistic individuals into the workplace and ‘how do we prepare to work?” he said. “How do we prepare them for the workforce and how do we prepare the workplace for them?”
Islands of Brilliance is well-positioned to support its plans to scale itself into a national program. In addition to the Workforce Development grant, the organization is a finalist in the Wisconsin Innovation Awards contest and the program is the subject of a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The study, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, focuses on the impact of creative technologies on neurodiverse students. The academic research that comes from this study will likely put Islands of Brilliance into the national spotlight.
To learn more about the many ways IOB is providing opportunities for neurodivergent Wisconsinites, connect with them here.