…We have a strict moral code, and we are insanely loyal. As employees, friends, or partners, we are not going to leave our jobs or relationships for a better offer. That type of loyalty has tremendous intrinsic value. Almost all people on the spectrum don’t steal, lie, cheat, or devalue naturally. It is ingrained in us, and it is a huge asset to any person or organization.
As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn Fry. As Founder of The Neurodiversity Foundation and Chief Innovation Officer at Potentia Workforce, Shawn Fry became a successful entrepreneur after being diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 42. Shawn’s innovative approach to the complexity of healthcare data laid the foundation for his entrepreneurial company, Prevalent Health, where he hired nearly 140 employees and created his own “neurodiverse workplace culture.” Shawn found that by cultivating an environment based on open, honest dialogue, clear communication, and vulnerability, the workplace culture was more supportive and accommodating to everyone’s needs. In 2019, Prevalent Health was sold to private equity. Shawn has dedicated his life to embracing neurodiversity and the powers it unlocks through thought leadership, personal security, and self-esteem in one’s uniqueness.
During COVID-19, Shawn created the Potentia Health Registry (PHR), an information management and communications tool used to mitigate risk and provide early detection of COVID-19. He is now bringing this highly customizable solution to school systems and communities looking to reopen successfully.
Shawn is a sought-after speaker, executive, and advocate for neurodiversity. He also holds four public and two classified patents. When he is not working, he enjoys spending time with his family.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Shawn! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I was basically an outcast for most of my early life. I was very awkward, easily overwhelmed by sensory issues and poor social skills so, I really struggled fitting in with people. I spent my time reading books and learning how computer systems truly work (even more than what you would think), and seeing ways that technology could be applied to change the world that seemed obvious to me but possibly overlooked by the vast majority of people. I have been frequently evaluated since I was a child because I have a very high intellect in certain areas, yet there were processing gaps and some very basic social and life skills were absent. It made school, making friends, understanding directions, and meeting common expectations very difficult. I was also extremely naïve to sarcasm and deception as my mental processing had significant “blind spots, early on” yet I was capable of more advanced work in complex subject matters than many higher educated individuals. There was no diagnosis of Asperger’s or ASD in the late ’60s or ’70s, so I had to assimilate without any guidance. Despite my social liabilities, I found ways to provide value and communicated through my own logic and data analysis and worked my way up to be the Chief Information Officer at a regional hospital. Realizing unseen opportunities, I then transitioned to a successful entrepreneur who built several multi-million-dollar companies from scratch based solely on data analytics concepts that required no seed capital, no investors, and grew extremely quickly on their own revenue production. I sold these companies to private equity in 2019, and now I focus on helping the next generation of people with autism find their own path in life.
Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you learned you were neurodiverse? What mental shift did you make not to let that “stop you”?
One day at lunch, while working for a hospital system, I asked the Chief Medical Officer (an MD) if I should take medication for what I believed to be “ADD.” He said, “You don’t have ADD. You are an Aspie!” I was shocked and even hurt as this was the first time I ever heard of the condition, yet alone knew it applied to me. Although I initially resisted, the symptoms began to make sense and I eventually was formally diagnosed by a psychiatrist at age 42. Since that time, I have gone through considerable behavioral and clinical analysis to understand autism and adjust as best I could to my condition. During one trial, an MRI of my brain showed higher density in certain brain structures connecting the left hemisphere (cortical areas) that appeared up to four (4) times more dense than an average brain, while the fibers connecting my other brain structures are less dense than average. It was also discovered that my amygdala was smaller than average, so I am less threatened and emotional than most people. I am also more willing to take certain risks that have benefited me in many areas. The tradeoff is that I am less sensitive emotionally. So I have to compensate for what most do instinctually, with intuition and learned responses. New situations are always difficult until I understand the appropriate social behaviors, which can be learned.
I then realized a major shift in my thinking and my coping strategy. I accepted that there is no treatment for autism and became committed to the fact that there is nothing wrong with being wired differently. There were no true intellectual deficits for me, in fact, I believed I was born with “superpowers” so I adjusted aspects of my life that are more accommodating of an autistic person. Then I truly started to flourish professionally and personally and would not change how I was created for anything.
Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability?
I have four public patents on complex math and data structures and two “classified” patent applications on security algorithms that are not publicly available because they are considered “munitions” under the law and cannot be disseminated. I once took a 500 dollars investment in a computer server (used parts) and turned it into over 1,000,000 dollars in revenue in a few years without leaving my house by observing how to leverage search engine algorithms.
I then used that money to bankroll an extremely sophisticated healthcare analytics system (Prevalent Health) that revolutionized how hospitals accessed and analyzed unseen internal data that changed how they cared for patients clinically and significantly improved the overall financial impact.
Grateful for the success to this point, I founded the Neurodiversity Foundation to build a path for others on the spectrum to recognize their ability. We are a nonprofit built and run by the neurodiverse, for the neurodiverse to promote a “Strengths First” mentality instead of cataloging us by deficits. I seek to change the core of the narrative and provide autistic advocates the ability to speak from their experience and provide better pathways for others. We are redefining a highly stigmatized narrative by reframing misconceptions around autism, challenging inaccurately forecasted “outcomes” that harm a child’s self-efficacy. Our projects are evaluated through a lens of empowerment. Our approach enables individuals to feel proud of their identity rather than be limited by it.
One critical area we are focused on is working to improve the diagnostic criteria for women with autism. Currently, men are diagnosed at a 4:1 ratio due to clinical diagnosis criteria being heavily dominated by male subjects. Women are often misdiagnosed and are have a harder time arriving at an accurate diagnosis because of their guided social development and ability to “mask” their underlying traits resulting in unnecessary anxiety and depression and a failure to reach their maximum potential
To address the isolation and loneliness that deeply affect people with autism, The Neurodiversity Foundation is also developing a comprehensive friendship and dating platform to help neurodiverse individuals socially integrate and find life partners. Lifestyle preference and personality assessments will uncover neurodiverse individuals’ unique collection of powerful traits to offer within a mutually beneficial partnership. Our compatibility algorithms will find a true complementary match based on variables that scientifically contribute to long-lasting relationships.
At Potentia Workforce, we believe a 21st-century workforce is an innovative, inspired, and inclusive workforce. During COVID-19, we created the Potentia Health Registry (PHR), to help schools and communities reopen and stay open. I am proud of the work our team has done to create the Potentia Health Registry and to help our candidates find and excel in their positions during this very challenging time.
My most proud accomplishment is learning to overcome my social deficits to raise a very happy and proud family with two daughters on the spectrum and two neurotypical daughters. Those are some interesting stories that keep growing by the day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are?
Yes, there were two critical interventions by people that changed my life. My 10th-grade algebra teacher named Mr. Getz realized that I struggled with a traditional academic setting. I am prodigious in math, and I was disruptive to the class socially, so he took me down the hallway in 1979 and showed me a Wang PC with no floppy drive, no hard drive (it backed up on cassette tape) and gave me the opportunity to work outside of a traditional class setting. I was told to stay in this room by myself, and if I could figure out how to use the computer and write two computer programs, I would get an A for the class. I did. He changed my life and the fortunes of many by improvising with me before Asperger’s was ever a diagnosis.
The other was a lawyer who was on the spectrum with nine degrees, including JD, LLM, MBA, CPA, and others from prodigious schools. He heard of me through a patent process and recognized part of himself in me in the way I spoke and the divergent way I solved problems. He understood me, and I understood him. He offered me an opportunity to work in healthcare without academic credentials or experience by protecting me from traditional employer oversight and giving me total autonomy on how I wanted to approach things. Within the first month, I uncovered 1.2 million dollars in missing revenue through data analysis of their existing databases and it radically changed the fortune of his hospital and shaped my entire future. I will always be grateful to Mr. Douglass as that was perhaps the first “Neurodiversity Program.” By affording me flexibility I fostered many positive changes and led me to become CIO of that hospital and several others before turning to entrepreneurialism.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Bringing goodness and positivity is my greatest passion in life. In my company Prevalent Health, we had 140 employees over 15 years. I never realized until I was selling my company and during the due diligence process, when asked what our turnover rate was, that no employee ever quit. I firmly believe the reason is that I created a company that was good for my own neurodiverse traits and we treated all employees as if they had autism or were otherwise neurodiverse (ADD, OCD, and specifically PTSD), and our workforce environment created an extremely positive and efficient culture. People felt safe and creative, and that goodness carried over into their personal lives. Neurodivergent people do not instinctively know how to separate work and personal relationships, so the methods we use work universally and are extremely productive.
The policies we created at Prevalent Health, which were developed in partnership with clinicians and academics, fuel the work we do at Potentia Workforce. Potentia creates high paying and rewarding job opportunities for people on the spectrum globally, and we are very proud of these radically changed lives.
As I mentioned earlier, the Neurodiversity Foundation is working hard to advance testing, develop social networks, and conduct clinical and psychological research, especially in seeking an earlier diagnosis in women. Having two daughters on the spectrum has been a challenge because there are limited diagnostic criteria. I am very proud of this work.
What advice would you give to other people who have differences or limitations?
Do not let your condition be your identity. We are all worthy and capable individuals who have tremendous value if given the opportunity to develop ourselves. If traditional means are not the best path for you, then take an alternative route. I never in my life went on a traditional job interview. I worked outside those fixed expectations and produced things of value that created opportunity. You do not have to be an entrepreneur to do that. Many opportunities today can be done working from home as a writer, researcher, designer, or marketer for so many products and industries.
At Potentia, we connect the right neurodiverse candidate to the right opportunities in the right environment. I have seen our candidates adjust to new opportunities and work from home as a result of COVID-19. While neurotypical employees have struggled, our candidates have excelled, and our clients are seeing results beyond their expectations. Social distancing is a comfort zone for a neurodiverse individual. We remind candidates and companies that many different communications and working styles exist and that none of them are wrong. They just differ and all of them can be effective.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about neurodiverse people or employees and why?”
Yes, that is a great question, and people need to know.
- We are not all the same. If you meet one person on the spectrum, you meet one person on the spectrum. Our personalities vary widely. We are not all like Sheldon (Big Bang), Sam (Atypical), or Shaun (Good Doctor), (but I am very much like a combination of Sheldon and Shaun). My Aspie daughter is a tremendously creative artist. I have friends who play music and read every book on various literature types. We all have deep special interests, but they vary. It is not all video games and science.
- We have empathy and emotions, and we care deeply for people. We want to be included or at least feel invited. Sometimes our robotic nature is the complete lack of understanding of how to socialize. I NEVER knew what was expected of me or how to behave in any type of relationship (friend, parent/child/romantic, but those are funny stories for another article). We want to love and be loved just as much as anyone. Only 9 percent of autistic adults have ever been married. Only 32 percent of autistic individuals have had a romantic partner despite having a similar desire for human connection as neurotypicals. This is a tragic and overlooked emotional trauma affecting millions of good people. I am addressing this problem by creating a friendship and dating platform through the Neurodiversity Foundation.
- Just because we don’t approach the problem/situation the way you would, does not mean we won’t solve it, fix it and come up with a better solution. Quite often, our solution is one that no one expected. That is the beauty of neurodivergent thought. My team and I created the Potentia Health Registry (PHR) because we felt different questions needed to be answered surrounding COVID-19 cases. The data available is backward looking and I felt there was a need for a tool which tracked symptoms over time and emphasized forward-looking, predictive data. I am proud that PHR is doing just that.
- We have a strict moral code, and we are insanely loyal. As employees, friends, or partners, we are not going to leave our jobs or relationships for a better offer. That type of loyalty has tremendous intrinsic value. Almost all people on the spectrum don’t steal, lie, cheat, or devalue naturally. It is ingrained in us, and it is a huge asset to any person or organization.
- We have goals and career aspirations. Even though we may have challenges communicating or socializing, we all want to do our best and be proud of our work. Potentia reinforces this premise and helps our candidates not only get a job, but get the RIGHT job given their skill sets. Our STARS (Spectrum Training, Recruitment and Support) program helps individuals excel by being themselves with the right support, and our clients see outstanding results to their bottom-line results.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Never let people judge you based on definitions, and never hold what people say against them as they often do not know differently. They don’t know you, only you know you, and it is up to you to see what you are capable of in this life.”
After being called so many pejorative names as a child, “lazy, stupid, retarded” and worse, I never quit on my dreams. The life lesson that is still funny to this day happened in 1981 when my parents told me I was not capable of handling college and that “computers are toys and you will never be able to make a living.” Fortunately, it turned out they were quite wrong about me, about computers and so much. Those same computers have allowed me to provide for them, my family that includes my adopted children and many others who might have missed out had I not trusted in myself.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Of living people, probably Elon Musk. We think very similarly and want to revolutionize the world (not improve it, radically change it). I have revolutionary ideas on changing transportation systems, how to advance computer technology and how information is so limited in how it is processed, and how to power our future. There are very few who would be interested or understand that far ahead of where we are. But if you can conceive it, a neurodivergent person can figure out how to make it happen.