Back arrow
back to all episodes
December 19, 2023
Heidi Kershaw
Tech Incubator Multiple: Empowering Entrepreneurs in Autism Innovation with Heidi Kershaw

Tech Incubator Multiple: Empowering Entrepreneurs in Autism Innovation with Heidi Kershaw

Show Notes:

In this episode, we welcome Heidi Kershaw, the CEO of Multiple, a nonprofit organization focused on funding and incubating transformative tech solutions for people with autism. Rather than focusing on cure research or direct service to families, Multiple operates as a technology incubator, supporting scalable for-profit solutions. The conversation explores Heidi's personal journey as a mother of a neurodivergent child and how that led her to her work at Multiple. The episode highlights the importance of connectivity and acceptance for individuals with autism and how technology can play a role in enhancing their lives. Tune in to learn more about Multiple's innovative approach to addressing the challenges faced by the autism community.

“If we did a better job at trying to trust one another, that we have good intentions, I think the world would look a lot different."

Topics covered:

[00:04:18] Relationship with autism mourned.

[00:08:25] Parenting a child with autism.

[00:12:23] Autism education and understanding.

[00:18:10] Nonprofits and mission-driven work.

[00:20:10] Creating a product for autism.

[00:27:09] Bringing tech products to market.

[00:32:55] Wearable for understanding communication.

[00:36:05] Safety concerns for those with autism.

[00:39:08] Receptive language development.

[00:44:05] Job programs and economic growth.

[00:47:32] Corporations supporting neurodivergent individuals.

[00:55:14] Long waitlists for autism services.

[00:59:13] Wearing a suit for acceptance.

Links mentioned:

Guest links:

Subscribe to Cause & Purpose
on your favorite platforms:

Link to YouTube.Link to Spotify Podcasts.Link to Apple Podcasts.Link to Google Podcasts.


(00:03 - 00:20) Heidi Kershaw: So much of it is about connectivity. All of the social products that I'm talking to you about today are to help create those connections that are comfortable to everybody and allow acceptance easier. I think at the end of the day, that's really what we all want. We just want to be seen. We want to be accepted.

(00:23 - 01:17) Mike Spear: Welcome to Cause and Purpose, the show about the leaders, innovators, and change agents working on the front lines to solve some of the world's greatest social challenges. Our guest today is the CEO of Multiple, Heidi Kershaw. Multiple is another one of those organizations that I really love due to its innovative approach to a well-known challenge, autism. Multiple is unique in that instead of working on cure research or direct service to families, they operate as a technology incubator, funding transformative tech that can help people with autism live amazing lives. They're a nonprofit themselves but are focused on funding and incubating highly scalable for-profit solutions and convening a community of like-minded entrepreneurs working themselves to serve the more than 6.8 million people living with autism in the United States today. We thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and we hope you do too. Heidi, thanks so much for joining us today. Really a pleasure to have you on the show.

(01:17 - 01:19) Heidi Kershaw: It's such an honor to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

(01:20 - 02:03) Mike Spear: Our pleasure. So I'm very excited about the conversation. I think multiple has a really interesting model, and I'm excited to unpack that. But I really like to start from the origin story. And oftentimes, we go back in time to people's growing up and their family. And we can go there if you'd like. But it seems to me that you come to this work really first as a mother of a neurodivergent child. I think it's hard for people to understand who don't have family members who are neurodivergent, who aren't neurodivergent themselves, or have children. And so I'd like to start by really hearing about what your experience was when you discovered that you were going to become the mother of a neurodivergent child, as well as if you could shed some light on your child's experience growing up that way.

(02:03 - 05:13) Heidi Kershaw: Yeah, sure. So I have a son named Jack. And as you said, he is neurodivergent. He does have autism. We got him diagnosed at about 20 months. There were a lot of things leading up to it. so that it wasn't too much of a surprise. He wasn't developing at the same speed as his peers. He wasn't speaking. He wasn't sleeping. He never slept. He never had good sleeping patterns. And so we got him diagnosed, and I remember calling my dad to let him know first. His response was, congratulations, because now you have a pathway forward. Now you can start figuring out the therapies that he needs, who he needs to see in order to make his life easier and better and yours as well. It was such a positive way to meet the situation because it can be difficult. It can be really difficult as a parent to get that news. But there is a pathway forward for those who have autism. We lived in the Bay Area at the time. And so the state of California is very giving and very good to families who get a diagnosis. And immediately we were placed into services. We had all different kinds of services with different philosophies behind them. I had one doctor who said to me, the relationship that you have with your son is not the relationship that he has with you. I said, what do you mean? Because my son and I, in my own mind, we were very close. And I took a lot of time to bring him on field trips. So because we lived in the Bay Area, there's so much to do. You go to Sausalito, you go to the Children's Museum, there's ships to explore. You can just take walks and see the bridge and it's lovely. And so I would make sure that we had family outings, like very deliberate family outings multiple times a week. And it was just so much fun. And so I said, what do you mean? And she said, he does not enjoy you or love you in the same way that you love him. You have a relationship with him and he has a relationship with his own mind. That was devastating to me. And so I went through a period of mourning because I believed the doctor. And so there's several months, maybe six, eight months that went by where there's no photos of us together because I was mourning. Come to find out that that absolutely is not supported by science. we did have a true relationship. It did not need to be mourned. It needed to be celebrated. As a matter of fact, there's data to suggest that those who have autism actually are able to feel more than those who are considered neurotypical, which is why they have more extreme behaviors, because they feel more, they see more, they hear more. So it's been quite a learning journey from the very first day. But my dad teamed me up for success because of his congratulations and he was like, okay, now you have steps forward.

(05:13 - 05:21) Mike Spear: You mentioned having a sibling with Asperger's as well. Had he already heard that before you had this conversation or did this come later?

(05:21 - 07:00) Heidi Kershaw: So this came later. I really dove into the science of autism once Jack was diagnosed. We ended up moving to Los Angeles and I found the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment. I was able to talk with their doctors at length about it. And because of that, I got lists and lists and lists of like, here's the manifestations of autism. We're all so very aware of the word and the label. We've heard it before, but what does it mean? What can we expect behavior wise? And so I was getting all these lists and I was like, oh my Goodness, this makes so much sense now. It makes my home life make sense from when I was growing up. My brother is absolutely brilliant, and he always has been. His hobbies at four years old, were to play the piano for an hour long after hearing a song one time, and he would be able to replicate it. Or he loved airplanes, and so he would get my parents to buy him model airplanes, and he would put them together with a soldering iron at our table at like five or six years old, and then line them up in a row, and then hang them from the ceiling, and he'd be able to name every single one. I mean, he's so incredibly off the charts intelligent, and then I'm three years younger than he is, And so I would be behind him in school and the teachers would be like, no, you've got to understand this mathematical concept because your brother does. And I was like, yes, that doesn't mean that I do.

(07:00 - 07:18) Mike Spear: Yeah, well, it sounds like from your family's perspective, it was very well equipped. I love your dad's initial reaction. I'm curious how it's been for you as a mother, knowing now that your child is autistic. How have you, I guess, adapted versus what you expected your parenting style to be like? And what's your relationship like now?

(07:18 - 15:10) Heidi Kershaw: In my own mind, the type of mother that I was going to be was going to be very similar to how my father parented me, which is he gave us a lot of room to explore who we were, to see the world, to understand things and learn things on our own. So he gave us a lot of rope, actually. And so that is what I thought my parenting style would be. And no, that is not what I've been able to apply, because my child is the type of child with autism that elopes. And so he loves cars, and he loves being in the middle of traffic. And so that little boy, even at a young age, as soon as he could start walking, would dart as close to the street as he possibly could get. We were living in Los Angeles at the time, and I would take him to the park. And all of the parks, the really big, nice parks, are built by major intersections or by major roads. And so I am on top of that child all the time. I am the helicopter parent constantly, just to make sure that he stays alive, because he is attracted to danger. If he's not, if he's not trying to run out into the middle of traffic, then he's trying to jump off of a very tall beam in the middle of the play structure or You know, he doesn't know how to play with other children, but he's fascinated by them. And so he'll run by and he'll maybe like hit them because he doesn't, he doesn't know any other way to interface. And so I am with him. All the time. And so what this has allowed me to do is to develop as a human. And I like myself now more than I've ever liked myself before in the past, before Jack came along. because he is so humanizing. You can see the very best in people when they meet Jack and they understand him. You can also see the very worst in people and how mean they can be to people who are different. And so then you have to be able to stand up for your child. And that can be tricky because in your mind, you're thinking, is this an opportunity to teach the public about how autism manifests or do I need to be HIPAA compliant and it's none of that person's business and just allow them to be rude. But if I allow them to be rude, then the next mom who's having a really hard day is not going to get the benefit of the lesson that I could teach that person right now. I'll paint you a quick picture of something that happened to us. We lived in Manhattan Beach, which is a great, it's a lovely town. You know, you're so close to the water. The weather is always beautiful. And we went to this park and there was a couple that was sitting on a bench and the woman had a Frisbee in her lap. So Jack runs over and he grabs the Frisbee and just keeps on running. And the woman became really angry about it. So she chased after him and she grabbed it out of his hands and she had some words with him. And I was like walking over to understand exactly the context of what she was saying to him. And so I said, hey, that's my child. I know he took your Frisbee. I'm very sorry about that. And she turns to me and she goes, yeah, he grabbed for it. He didn't ask my permission. And then when I called him on it, he didn't give me eye contact. He didn't say anything to me. He didn't even listen to what I was saying. And I said, I get it. He is autistic and he doesn't have words. And so he didn't know what to do. You probably scared him. Her husband was so embarrassed. He got up from the park bench and walked away. And she was like, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. I don't even know where to begin. I'm just so sorry. But that was like a teaching moment for her. And we were able to like hug it out. It took a lot of energy for me. It's very humbling. And I love my child and I don't want anyone looking at him in a negative light. And so what I ended up doing, because this was happening on a daily basis, we go to the grocery store, he's running away from me, he's grabbing all the produce. People are like, you need to be a better mom. You need to tell your child not to run away from you. And my comment would be like, oh, is that all I need to do? I just need to tell him to stop. Oh, OK. Why didn't I think about that? So what I ended up doing was creating T-shirts and the T-shirts say, autism life amplified and it has that tagline on the front and on the back it says the same thing but larger and then it has like a silhouette of a face seeing a lot of sensory around the ears and the eyes. And so I started wearing that t-shirt when we would go out. The social dynamic changed. So people understood more what they were looking at. And so there really is this component of still needing to educate people what autism is. Last week, I was reading an article in the BBC and it featured an Iraqi mother who is raising two children who have autism and they are also blind. And she had them in their school system. And the schools did not know how to cater or tailor their curriculum to the needs of her children. And so she ended up bringing them to her home and she's homeschooling them. With that being said, the public theater is still not fully educated on what autism is. And so she would bring them out. And she would be met with people who they didn't know what they were seeing. And so people were mean. People were mean to her children. They were mean to her. And so she created badges that said, be nice to me. I'm special needs. And then affixed them on the back of their t-shirts so that when they would go to the park, there would be some more understanding. And it has worked. And she created an Instagram page, which now tells the story of her family and the progression of her children to teach those who are within her network about her experience and about autism. It was an incredible story for me to read because we're living worlds away from one another. I had to make t-shirts to foster understanding. She had to create badges to foster understanding. There's so much education within this space that still needs to happen. Multiple is in a space where they can help drive understanding and education forward. And it really truly is innovation that can create the global equality that we need. Because in a place like Iraq, it says within the article that she does not receive government assistance, that there's no government programs, no government support. Within the United States, support and resources vary from state to state. States like California, New York, and New Jersey need to be held up as national models for how to treat those families. And the rest, there's opportunity there for them to progress and advance services for those families. Otherwise, people like me end up having to state hop from one to another, depending on the stage of life where my son is. And so instead of becoming dependent upon a government, a state, a larger system, innovation becomes the equalizer. And that is probably top three reasons why I'm like, I'm so excited to work at Multiple.

(15:11 - 15:14) Mike Spear: Have you connected with that mother? Yes. In Iraq?

(15:14 - 15:33) Heidi Kershaw: I did. I tracked her down on Instagram. She does not speak English. I do not speak Arabic in the Iraqi dialect, but I ended up getting an intern who's from Saudi Arabia and she understands the Iraqi dialect. And so we are meeting for a phone interview next week and I'm so excited.

(15:34 - 15:58) Mike Spear: Not to skip ahead too much, but you know, I think you're more of a creator and an innovator than you initially described in our conversations. Take me through, let's go back a little bit though. You know, you were a marketing communications professional, you're in the entertainment industry. How did you choose that career path? What led you to that type of work and what ultimately led you back to Social Impact?

(15:59 - 17:44) Heidi Kershaw: Honestly, it was like a circle of mishaps. It's not linear when you get the education that I got. So I got my undergraduate degree in communications and French as a double major. And then I went to Georgetown and I got my master's degree in anti-terrorism. And so then I needed to figure out what do I do from there. So I ended up moving to Nevada with my husband who was practicing law there. And I did communications because of a Georgetown connection. who also lived in Nevada and ran a school there. And so then I was on the trajectory of doing communications and marketing. And I did that for roughly eight to 10 years. And then I had Jackie and Jackie was a really, really tough baby and toddler. And so, um, I stopped working for three years, but during that time I was volunteering and I was volunteering with a girl's group of teenagers who were underserved in the Bay area. who needed just like a little bit of extra help to get them through high school and put them on a path for success, whatever that looks like for them. If it's college, culinary school, apprenticeship, whatever. And so I worked with a lovely woman who was connected to nonprofits in the arts space. And so she connected me to an organization that she knew called the California State Summer School for the Arts. They were looking for someone to do their marketing communications. I jumped in once Jack was a little after three. I jumped in, started doing it, and after a year, the board elected me to be their executive director. And so then after that, it was full-on nonprofit work, which definitely settles my soul well. It feels very fitting.

(17:46 - 17:57) Mike Spear: as a nonprofit leader relative to the work you did in the private sector? What are what are some of the differences and sort of unique quirks that you can point to that were surprising or maybe not, but just that we're noteworthy?

(17:57 - 19:37) Heidi Kershaw: Well, I think that typically speaking, when you've cultivated your professional life, either in the corporate world or in the nonprofit world, you're passionate, usually about whatever it is that you're doing. But with nonprofits, it's interesting because you are very You're very mission driven. And so there's a lot more emphasis on the heart and the emotions behind what you're doing instead of like in the corporate field where really the bottom line still is the most important driver. Certainly finances and the budgets of a nonprofit are crucial to sustainability and success. at the same time, the underlying aspects of the mission is what drives us forward. When I was in the arts space in California, we would have grantee gatherings with some of our grantors, Hewlett being one of them. They are incredibly generous. And so they would get us together and we would talk about what keeps us up at night. And so instead of the answer from a corporate response being like, I want to make sure that we have our budget in place, that we have the correct departments, and blah, blah, blah. The answers were always like, I want to make sure that arts education is available to every single city, every single school district across the state. And so it was all very passionate. People talk about their success by qualifying it. Everyone's a storyteller. So you want to say, I helped this person, and there were lots of tears involved. And that's how you hit your success marks, is by being able to storytell about it.

(19:38 - 20:10) Mike Spear: I love your story about that T-shirt that you made. And you'll have to send us a photo of it if you have one. It's just funny to me because it seems to be this nexus of you marketing communication. Point of it is to communicate a specific message with some of the stuff that you came to later in terms of product development and taking products to market. So you mentioned last time you designed a product to assist folks living with autism. What was it and what was your experience? creating it, prototyping it, and trying to take it to market.

(20:10 - 25:08) Heidi Kershaw: I'll tell you about the inception. I'll give you the inception story. I got to be at home one afternoon with my child who is receiving in-home therapy. He got a break. And in the middle of that break, he was watching Mickey Mouse. He just loved Mickey Mouse. And then it was time for the break to be over and he didn't want it to be over. And so he started a round of behaviors. I was frustrated in the moment and I just wanted him to give us attention. Me personally, I just wanted him to take a look at me and say, okay, like I'm going to comply. He's not verbally going to say it, but I just wanted, I wanted him to look at me for a minute. And so I made the comment, Oh, if only I could put Mickey mouse up on my face. Then he would look at me and everyone laughed. And I thought that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to create a pair of glasses that can be worn by a parent, a therapist, an aide, or a teacher who is trying to foster attention and eye contact. by providing their preferred content on the front of the lens so that the child will be compelled to look up and into my face. And so that's what I did. I talked to a bunch of different engineering firms all around the world, Belarus, you name it. I talked to them. Everyone said the same thing. Listen, what you're trying to create doesn't exist. There's a lot of VR where the image will show inside the glasses. You're trying to project something on the outside. We don't know how to do that. That's going to cost you anywhere between, I don't know, $750,000 to a million dollars even to create the prototype. I got it patented and then a friend of mine whose husband served on the board of the School of Engineering at BYU, Brigham Young University. She was like, you should shop it out to them and see whether or not their graduate students would want to try and create the prototypes for you. So I did. And I went through this whole round of interviews with them. And I met with their administrators. I met with their professors. I met with this team. And they said, yeah, we'd be happy to take this on. And so I did not pay $750,000 to a million dollars for my prototype. I paid about $20,000, which was given to me from family and friends to be able to drive this work forward. And so from that prototype and from the patents, I applied then towards This program, it's called Octane Launchpad and it works out of Orange County. And I applied to them and I said, listen, I would love to be a part of your accelerator program. And I had to go through a series of interviews and I finally convinced them to take me on and they did it to their own, to their own chagrin, they did it. And for a couple of years, it was probably like a year and a half or so, I worked with their team and they helped me to figure out how to create a budget. How do you create sustainability? What does the organizational structure need to look like? How do you get this engineered in a way that would be profitable? Because it's a hardware and a software device. And so I got through it. I graduated from the program. They invited me to speak in front of a large group of people. It was the MedTech Innovation Forum that takes place every year. And I spoke and then I got the People's Choice Award. And I'm going to show you the award right there. I didn't mind myself like this actually happened. I was just as stunned as you are. The thing is, is that I was standing on that stage with a bunch of people who are science experts. We're talking about like doctors, neurologists, and people who are brilliant at the human body. And then there's this, you know, Yahoo from Southern California whose passion project is my own son whose life I just want to make better and mine to be better too. And somehow I won it. And I won a different pitch competition at a different school in Southern Utah. And then came the time where the handoff was, we're going to introduce you to venture capitalists. I said, fantastic. So I start meeting with a number of venture capitalists and their response to me was all the same. Their response to me was, listen, what is the cure rate? If this device is used, what is the cure rate? And my response to that is there is no cure rate for autism. Autism is not to be cured. And they said, okay, then what percentage of a difference will this make to those who use it? Is it 50%? Is it 60%? I mean, so it's called autism spectrum disorder, because it is a spectrum and to some kids, it will work and to other kids, it won't work. And so I can't give you a data point of what that improvement will be. And they said, Thank you very much for coming in. We wish you the best. And my journey ended there.

(25:08 - 25:25) Mike Spear: It sounds like they weren't looking at it as an investable product. but more of a social, like a, like a donation to a charity kind of thing. Cause you, you never ask like the creator of some new beverage, like what's your curate on this or something. It's, it's more about the scalability and the viability of the product and the marketplace.

(25:25 - 26:24) Heidi Kershaw: Right. Right. Right. Yeah. And you know, even just a couple of years ago, three, four years ago, the literacy on the financial benefits for an investor looking into investing into autism was not where it is today. So investors do understand the benefits of looking at autism. But then they're really looking at, they're looking at like heart valves and how a heart valve can help heart disease. And like, what is the newest innovation within cancer and cancer treatments? And how is that going to help? And so the venture capitalists that I was looking at were really health oriented. And so that was really interesting, but there has been movement and so much of that movement, to be fair, can be attributed to Dan Feshbach, who is the founder of Multiple. He really took that on as a personal project to start workshopping investors and teaching them what the upside is to this space.

(26:25 - 26:42) Mike Spear: Yeah, it sounds like the VCs just didn't really know what to do with it, how to classify the product in their portfolio. So it's a good transition. Tell us a little bit about Dan. Tell us what multiple is. And I love the story that you tell about making the decision to make the career switch and join multiple full time.

(26:42 - 28:44) Heidi Kershaw: Yeah, so Dan is incredible. Dan has a son who is 30 years old, and he has profound autism. His name is Reed. And Reed changed Dan's life as these children do. And so Dan focused his entire professional career on developing software solutions in the classroom for kids who have special needs. He opened a school in the Bay Area for kids with special needs. And then he came to a point where he said, now I want to help early stage companies bring products to market because it is fat. The tech world moves faster than the healthcare world. And if we need to push things through the FDA, parents are not going to be getting the tools that they need to help their children for years and years and years. Tech, we just expedite everything. So that's what I'm going to do. And so he dedicated himself to building multiple. I mean, obviously multiple is personal to me, not only because of my son, but I'm also an entrepreneur. that has faced the challenges of great misunderstanding in the field. And what Multiple does is it, first of all, is a nonprofit. And what it does is it catalyzes early stage companies to get to the point where they can bring their product to market. We have three work streams. We start with a database that works very much like Crunchbase, where you're bringing in founders and they're meeting funders, and they're trying to see if there is a match. The second work stream are convenings, events, workshops. This is where Dan is able to speak to the investors about the benefits and the upsides of investing into this space. This is where he's able to speak to the founders to say, this is how you can refine your product and your plan. This is how you pitch. We take some into our accelerator program, which is a 12 week competitive program. And then at the end of that, for those companies who finish our accelerator, we then match them to investors.

(28:44 - 28:53) Mike Spear: I'm curious why multiple is incorporated as a nonprofit rather than, you know, going a for-profit sort of venture capital route.

(28:53 - 29:48) Heidi Kershaw: I think a lot of that goes back to Dan and his philanthropic altruistic heart. 33% of the founders that go through the Accelerator program are neurodivergent themselves. And then 80% on the whole of those that we take through the Accelerator are considered underrepresented. They're from underrepresented communities, which means that they are, they're BIPOC, they're female owned, they're from international areas or they're neurodivergent. And so he wants to make sure that these people who understand this space, at a DNA level are able to push their product forward with the least amount of barriers as possible. And the way to do that is to keep it a nonprofit structure where they're not having to pay anything, but we're able to tell our story and collect funding from the community who believes so strongly in them.

(29:49 - 30:12) Mike Spear: It's an interesting model because so much is talked about today with women and BIPOC founders having trouble getting through the Silicon Valley machine. So in some ways you're operating, it sounds like, as a VC, but with a pipeline strategy that's designed for a unique set of founders that are tackling a unique set of issues. Am I extrapolating too much there or am I kind of on track with it?

(30:12 - 30:37) Heidi Kershaw: No, you're absolutely right. That's one thing that I think is so beautiful about multiple is that we are cultivating these founders so that they can be successful with us. They can be successful outside once they've moved on from us, but they know the space intimately. And so what better to have a founder than someone who understands what it's like to be underrepresented.

(30:38 - 31:10) Mike Spear: Well, personal experience with an issue that you're trying to solve through venture, I think is a crucial component of the whole recipe, right? A founder who understands intimately what the problem is they're trying to solve is a huge advantage. You know, you mentioned your brother with Asperger's being very good at math. What are some of the things that you see in the founders that come through the program that are real advantages, you know, outside of the personal engagement with autism? What are some attributes that they share that make them more likely in some cases to be successful creating new companies?

(31:10 - 32:00) Heidi Kershaw: I think that they are very attuned to the actual needs that exist. And so in the creations that they bring to us, there's a lot of social learning technologies that are coming forward and they're coming forward in different ways. They're either coming in like online or in wearables and the different types of social learning hints that are given. They could only be created by someone who has experienced a deficit within a social structure. And so there is the ability to look deeply into a dynamic in a way that someone who is neurotypical cannot. They're very detail-oriented, and the learning aspect of these innovations is really important to them.

(32:01 - 32:29) Mike Spear: Multiple is not, it's not a nonprofit in the sense of like, you know, helping this unique population be slightly more successful as much as it is helping them capitalize on what you believe is a real market opportunity. And many of these folks have been funded. I think you told me, you know, at least $7 million of funding channel to these businesses. What are some of the sort of standout products and companies that have gone through the accelerator program that are entering the market today?

(32:29 - 34:44) Heidi Kershaw: I can talk about the first cohort that went through and we had nine different companies. What's interesting is, is where these are coming from. So we have some from the United States, but we have a lot from, we have one from Israel, we have Australia in here and many of them have to do with finding comfort within a social structure. One that I like a lot is called balance vibrations. Balance vibrations is like having an imaginary friend actually come to life because it is a wearable that allows the wearer to understand how someone is speaking to them. So is that someone who's speaking to them, are they being sarcastic? Are they being rude? Are they being kind? Are they making a joke? And it's sometimes difficult to understand what's being meant behind the verbal words. And so this wearable allows you to know what that is. So it is like having a friend with you on your wrist. There's gamification as well. We have one called Social Cipher. And it is, once again, online social emotional learning. And it's a series of games for neurodivergent youth. to use with counselors and therapists and educators. So once again, we're seeing this pattern of wanting to be educated, needing to be educated, and knowing that there's skill acquisition to happen. Cogniable is incredible. It is a tech-enabled autism services company, which is leveraging AI. AI is such a big word right now in the zeitgeist. And this came forward before generative AI really took a front seat in the news cycle. I'm really excited about generative AI for special needs in particular, you know, before it was used for predictive types of aid and now it helps to fill in the blank. And so it's going to be really helpful with like speech patterns and teaching speech in particular.

(34:44 - 34:53) Mike Spear: I meant to ask you with the glasses that you were creating, as well as the companies you just mentioned, what are some of the value props that you're presenting?

(34:53 - 37:10) Heidi Kershaw: I think one of the biggest value propositions that I'm seeing right now is the ability for connectivity. As far as the glasses went, they were built so that you could look at one another. eye to eye, because there's so much information that you can glean from looking at one another. And even if that means that it will never happen unless the glasses are being worn by a parent, because that's the best way to do it. Otherwise, the child won't be able to, they'll never reach that comfort level. To some parents, it doesn't even matter. Like they would wear the glasses anyway, if it meant that their child will look at them for five to 10 seconds. So, so much of it is about connectivity. All of the social products that I'm talking to you about today are to help create those connections that are comfortable to everybody and allow acceptance easier. I think at the end of the day, that's really what we all want. We just want to be seen. We want to be accepted. There's also a safety component to it because if there is ever a situation where someone with autism is having a problem, let's say they're having a behavior and they take off running, and this is an adult that we're talking about, you're going to have police involved. And if the police don't understand that the person that they're working with has autism because the social deficit is so large that they're not able to communicate in a way that is expected by the police, that can end really, really poorly. And so the social component of it is important, not only for the ability to connect human to human, but also for safety concerns. There was a data point that I read about a year ago that said 70% of those with autism will experience anxiety and depression in their adult lives. And that is rooted in not having the friendships that others who are neurotypical enjoy. It's just harder. It's just harder to connect.

(37:11 - 37:43) Mike Spear: I'm glad you went back to that because I meant to ask you earlier, and I think we just got down a different rabbit hole, but when you talk about folks living with autism and Asperger's actually having deeper emotions than the rest of us, but the perception is they don't. The perception generally, I think, is that they don't have emotion to the same degree. Where is that breakdown? Is it just in the communication? And I'm curious, you know, with your own child, Jack, how have you been able to bridge that gap and see the emotions and connect on that level?

(37:43 - 40:10) Heidi Kershaw: So Jack isn't verbal. And so many of his styles of connection happen physically. And so it is him leaning forward, so that his forehead is close enough for me to kiss and he just waits for me to kiss it. If I am upset because maybe I've had a hard day, he is the first to come over and just be close to me. And that might not mean that he's going to run over and give me a hug, but it means that he wants to stand close to me because he can feel it. He is known in the past for, if he had a caregiver who was sick, that he would hold their hand. He can just, he can feel it. He's an empath. He's not verbally able to say, I'm so sorry, what's going on? But what he can do is show that compassion physically. As his receptive language became stronger, and I'll make that differentiation really quickly. So we have expressive and we have receptive language, right? And so a lot of us, as we're learning language, our receptive language comes along quicker. When I'm learning a foreign language, for example, I dabble at French and I dabble at Russian and I dabble at Arab. Everything is a dabble. But always, always my receptive comes along much faster than my expressive language. And that's the same for this population as well. So Jack's receptive language is advanced. He understands when people aren't being nice. He understands when people are saying things that are rude. He understands when I'm defending him. And as a matter of fact, to illustrate that point, we had a situation at a school that he was at in L.A. where I had a really hard conversation with one of his aides, and he was standing next to me. And then for the rest of the day, he was really rude to that aide. He was like, mom has got my back and she's right. And then of course we have to have the conversation. Like you can be nice. Like we got it all. We got it all figured out. No more pinching. Not okay. So that's kind of how he displays it. Um, I think that they're, they're very, very adept. They're very in tune with their surroundings. It's just the way that they're able to express that back into the world might look different.

(40:10 - 40:37) Mike Spear: Just switching back to multiple for a second, you know, multiple has organizations that are going through it each with their own products and businesses and their own sort of KPIs for success. But I'm curious how multiple measures its own impact and its own success. What are the core things that you're looking at there? And how do you think about the impact that your Accelerator members are having as part of, you know, being able to be attributed back to multiple?

(40:37 - 42:11) Heidi Kershaw: That's a great question. So right now, I can report that among our very first cohort of accelerator graduates, all of them were funded and collectively they were funded to the tune of $7 million. I can report back to you on the demographics of those founders, which as I mentioned before, 33% are neurodivergent, 80% collectively. are from underrepresented communities. So that is what I'm able to report back as far as impact. This is still a very young nonprofit, and we are talking about what does impact look like for us right now. And I'm actually talking to someone who I used to work with about how to quantify impact and then to evaluate it. What I would like to do moving forward is to see how every single one of our accelerator graduates is performing past us. What does that look like? So we connected them to these investors. Where are they now? Did they reach series A? Did they fully commercialize? Is there something on the market? If it's on the market, what does that look like? What are we talking about for unit sales? How many homes have now been touched by that innovation? So that is the direction that I'd like to go in order for us to measure impact. But right now, We are entering into our third cohort of the accelerator. The second one, it ended not too many months ago, and so we haven't been able to quantify that. We haven't had our six-month mark yet. The date is early, but the opportunity is ripe to really quantify our successes.

(42:12 - 42:41) Mike Spear: Are you thinking about looking even a step further than that? These organizations go through the program, they get funded, they take those steps that you just mentioned, series A, go into market, et cetera, units sold. To the extent that the products that they're selling are doing things like what your glasses did, you know, having safety outcomes and having relationship building outcomes. Are you going to look at that stuff too, to see like that level of impact that those products are having and how that might be influenced by some of the work that you're doing in the accelerator program?

(42:41 - 45:09) Heidi Kershaw: I think that's a great question. Like where, where does the impact stop? I think that multiple is interesting because so much of what we offer is educational and training. And so it's a little bit like, like an elementary or middle school or a high school saying, what is the impact that we have made in the world? Well, let's take a look at our alumni who are now 40 or 50 years old and how much of that can we claim ours. I think that we do everything we can to set them up for success. We really are seeding them and preparing them with the ideals and the strategies and the knowledge and the content that they're going to need when they walk into any investor room. We also want them to know what kind of fractional resources are going to be needed in order to bring their product to life. And so teaching them the actual concrete step-by-steps they'll need for that product, and then eventually probably a second product, because once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur, you're probably not gonna just stop at one, you're gonna have another idea. And so what principles are we giving them that allow them to continue on for success? And so you're right, it's a really hard thing to know where to stop impact tracking. As you were talking about that, One of the things that did come to mind, though, was job programs and job pathways. Because as our Accelerator graduates are getting funded, all of a sudden, that becomes their full-time job. And if they're able to support a team, then they're actually providing economic growth for not only the autistic industry, but also for their community, their municipality, their state, and on a federal level. And so they're giving back economically. And I will say that this becomes an even more profound statistic when you look at the fact that 80%, and I've seen up to 85%, but I'm more comfortable staying within that 80% zone. 80% of those who have autism are either underemployed or they're not employed. And so for us to cultivate them and get them to a point where then they can get funded and then that becomes their full-time job and then they're able to employ on top of that, we're also solving for that problematic issue that exists right now within our country.

(45:10 - 45:35) Mike Spear: It's just such an interesting question to navigate, thinking generatively and creatively about the real impact that you're having and what you can sort of claim credit for versus share credit for versus what was done, you know, a little bit too far removed, you know, how you sort of manage that stuff, because those impacts are very real, but it just becomes, you know, a rabbit hole of things you could try and quantify. I love grappling with those questions.

(45:35 - 45:57) Heidi Kershaw: Well, and one, maybe one way to try and hone down on it is to then ask your donors or your investors, or maybe it's an and donor and investors, what is important for them? What do you want to know? What is the impact that you want to see? And then see how many connection points there are between them.

(45:57 - 46:23) Mike Spear: And I wanted to ask you about fundraising anyway. I mean, how is multiple funded? And I'm laughing a little bit about it because you mentioned, you know, how a big difference between the private sector and the nonprofit sector is funding conversations and in tears sometimes in the nonprofit space. And you have these very emotional sort of stories to be able to tell, but it's also, you know, a very left brain venture capital sort of, you know, commercial issue.

(46:23 - 47:55) Heidi Kershaw: It's such an interesting organization because I have never worked within an organization where you have donors and you have investors and they're used to two different ballgames all together. So the investors are those who want to try and make an ROI off of the companies that we are cultivating. We call those investors, and then we have our donors, and those are the ones who want to make sure that our training and accelerator programs continue without cost to those who are participating within them. We hit everyone. We use the full fundraising pyramid. We go to the individuals. We go to the foundations, family foundations, the corporate foundations, the corporations themselves. the grants. We are coming up with the collateral, since we are still somewhat new, we're coming up with the collateral material needed to hit each and every single one of those in an appropriate way, in the way that they're expecting to receive their materials. It's fun, right? I mean, it's like spaghetti at the wall time. And it's very interesting to see what organizations are truly very interested in this space. The corporations in and of themselves, that level of research to see which corporations are interested in the neurodivergent and willing to support them is something that absolutely intrigues me. Kate Spade is one that comes to mind. So Kate Spade is an early, early funder of neurodivergent programs. And they actually had an entire department.

(47:55 - 47:57) Mike Spear: You're talking about the shoe company, right?

(47:57 - 49:24) Heidi Kershaw: Yeah, yeah. Because those who are neurodivergent are really good at seeing patterns and understanding patterns, well, this is something that Kate Spade does on a regular basis. They were one of the very first companies to do that. I'll say this, Nickelodeon, so you mentioned before I worked at Multiple, I was at the Entertainment Industry Foundation, and I was at the California State Summer School for the Arts. In those two realms, I'm able to go and you know, see Sony, see Sony studios and go to Nickelodeon and Nickelodeon was incredible because Nickelodeon before this neurodivergent conversation really happened, they were bringing on board neurodivergent animators because classically speaking, there are neurodivergent talents out there who are able to line by line recreate and create in such incredible detail and with such patience. that the work continues on. And so what Nickelodeon did was it set up these nylon swings in front of a bank of windows so that when the neurodivergent artists needed their sensory break, they would get up and they would walk over the bank of windows and they would get into their nylon swing and they would swing, swing, swing, however long they needed to become Regulated and then after they were done they would go they would go back and it was such an incredible way for a corporation to facilitate Their talent.

(49:24 - 49:37) Mike Spear: I love this story. You told me last time about the decision point to join multiple It was a trip to Israel and a plane ride Can you talk about that journey from when Dan invited you to like deciding that this was going to be your full-time focus?

(49:37 - 52:40) Heidi Kershaw: You know, sometimes things just align the stars aligned the universe speaks to you I had an incredible opportunity to travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories. We stayed predominantly in Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. We were able to go into people's homes, some of whom lived in caves, and learn from their experiences what their daily life was like. And then we were able to go into different parts of Jerusalem. We went to Tel Aviv. We talked to people within the United States government to fully understand what's going on there? What is the daily experience like for so many people who live within that land and that space? And it was very humbling. It was a really, really enriching educational trip for me. And after being there for 10 days, I got on the plane to come home. It's a long trip back. It became profoundly clear to me that the mission that I was doing, working within charitable causes, the EIF, was worthy. What I was doing was worthy. Those causes were good. But they were different from what I needed to do. What I needed to do was work on behalf of those who cannot advocate for themselves. It came over me like a blanket over your head. I couldn't argue. And so when I landed, I knew immediately what I needed to do, which was to start getting my application out there. And so I started applying to all these humanitarian organizations. I wasn't moving forward on any of them. So you just, ah, why aren't I moving forward? I know that I need to make this next step. I feel it. I feel in every single cell within my body. I know that I need to make a move in order to help those who cannot help themselves. Like what, what is that? I got a call out of nowhere. from Dan and our mutual friend who said, multiple is growing, and we need someone who has real nonprofit experience to help us lead it. Would you be willing to do that? And my response to that immediately was, yes, there is nothing that I would rather do. And that is not to say that this population cannot advocate for themselves, because they absolutely can. But what I can provide to them in this space is that I do have the nonprofit experience, and I also am an entrepreneur within this space. And I understand what it's like to be misunderstood, and now I can communicate beyond that. I understand autism. I know autism. I know what is needed in the marketplace. And so I feel like I am uniquely positioned to roll this forward with them. So I do want to make that as a distinction and clarify, this is a population that can advocate for itself, absolutely. I think that I can help because I know autism.

(52:40 - 52:51) Mike Spear: I love that story. It's such a convergence of all these aspects of your life. I love it when stuff like that comes together and you start getting those random phone calls that open up the doors of opportunity for you.

(52:51 - 53:05) Heidi Kershaw: I was not expecting that. I have a friend who gets random phone calls for that kind of stuff all the time. Her name is Stacey and I was like, I know Stacey. Like that phone is not working. And then it did. So I got taught a lesson.

(53:06 - 53:15) Mike Spear: You know, we've talked a little bit about your affinity for California, but I want to bring up your move during COVID to Utah, which doesn't have a lot of those services.

(53:15 - 56:14) Heidi Kershaw: Yeah. We had the perfect concert of services. His schooling was incredible. He had a great at-home therapist program. We were able to go to the park all the time. We'd go to the beach all the time. And then COVID hit, school was taken away, and Jack was not able to access schooling online. He is not programmed for that. And so that wasn't an option for us. And due to some insurance issues that I was having through my own work, our in-home therapy stopped. So we lost our school. We lost our in-home therapy. We lost the ability to go to parks. Because if you lived in LA County, you weren't allowed to go to the parks. We couldn't go to the beach. They closed down the beaches. And so we needed to go to a place that was less restrictive because within that environment, it was so difficult. There wasn't enough structure. There wasn't enough for Jack's mind to feast upon on a daily basis. And so his behaviors really, really spiked. And so Utah has three. independent autism clinics. And we were able to get Jack into one of those independent clinics. So we pay private leave in order for him to attend it. And so he he's there, he's still there. But there is there's no state resources at all to support Jack or our family. As a matter of fact, when we moved here, one of the things that we learned was, hey, you better put your son's name on a list to receive services from the Department of Developmental, I don't remember the exact name of the governmental body, but you better put his name on this list so that he can receive services. His name will be on that list for 10 years before he's able to access anything. And he was nine. So in 10 years, he would have been 19. So all of a sudden, school services are out and and the resource cliff exists. In being here, I realized that 10 years is actually optimistic that a lot of people are on that list for 1415 years before they're able to access anything, any respite care, any financial help to the family, any type of therapy, unless Unless yeah, no, no, no, unless just period that's how it is. And so we just know like long-term it's not sustainable for us to continue being here. This intensive clinic was great to serve our purposes for right now. We're going to have to move back to California, which I'm okay with because I do love the state or to New Jersey or to New York because they take such good care of their people in order for Jack to be able to receive any type of support in his adulthood.

(56:15 - 56:28) Mike Spear: Well, we always ask a couple of closing questions. So the first one I have for you is when you're ready, maybe not retire, but when you're ready to move on from multiple, what's something that you'd like to look back and have accomplished while you were there?

(56:28 - 57:10) Heidi Kershaw: I would like to create portfolios of companies at multiple that have become commercialized successes so that it is commonplace to go into the home of someone who has autism and see a product that we helped to launch and to look around and say, look at all of these innovations that are now tools and can be used independently. I think that's what I want. I want to be able to say that I had a role to play in making tools available to everybody.

(57:11 - 57:21) Mike Spear: Outside of the stuff that you're tackling right now with regards to neurodivergence and autism, what do you think the most important causes that humanity could be tackling right now?

(57:21 - 58:17) Heidi Kershaw: There's so much injustice out there. I don't even know where to get started. There's so much injustice. I think that that really dovetails with kindness. At the end of the day, we all have a couple of things in common. We're all human. We all have a heart. We all have a brain. They're going to function differently. But we're of the same species. And we all crave love and to be understood and to have space to be ourselves. If we did a better job at trying to trust one another, that we have good intentions, I think the world would look a lot different. So my quick answer was injustice, but injustice is really the fruit of not understanding one another and not humanizing one another.

(58:17 - 58:38) Mike Spear: I think there's a lot in what you said about your interactions with other parents, for example, that is really applicable to how we treat people from different walks of life in general, with some of the divisions we have in our country and around the world. comes down to that and maybe taking a beat and trying to see the world through the other person's eyes before reacting to it.

(58:38 - 59:34) Heidi Kershaw: Yeah. My dad got a disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome when I was six. And what it does is it strips your myelin sheath off the top of your nerves, and it's really painful. You can die from it, you can become a quadriplegic or a paraplegic from it. My dad was able to regain the ability to walk, but it was very tenderly. He was a really, really fragile walker. He had a lot of difficulty getting around without crutches. But he was a farmer and he was a former FBI. He was a former track runner for the University of Nebraska. And so he wanted to walk around without crutches. But what he did so that people would be nice to him is he wore a suit every day so that people wouldn't take a look at him stumbling around and be mean to him because they thought that he was doing something that he wasn't. And so that's what he did every single day. He wore a suit so people would be nice to him.

(59:34 - 59:47) Mike Spear: Thanks for sharing that story. So now you're a little softball question here. What's next for you and for Multiple? And how can listeners who want to be involved as donors or perhaps a funder of some of these new companies get involved with your work?

(59:47 - 01:00:35) Heidi Kershaw: Check out our website, We have several stakeholders that we're always welcoming into our universe. We have our entrepreneurials, our founders, investors. We want mentors. Those who are on the top of their game, being able to help entrepreneurs advance their products and their ideas forward. We are really trying to create a community to drive forward innovation, to help those who want a better life, who are deserving of a better life. Like I said before, innovation and technology within autism is the great equalizer. And so we are looking for. talent in our entrepreneurs, talent within our investors in a curious mind, and talent from mentors. So come join us.

(01:00:35 - 01:01:00) Mike Spear: Heidi, thanks. Thanks so much for coming on and sharing your story. Really enjoyed the conversation and have learned a lot. I, you know, I love, I love everything that you were talking about with how there was this convergence of, of your work history, the importance of family and being there for your son and how that's translated into a really compelling career path that's doing so much good for others. Keep up the great work and hope to support and circle back again soon.

(01:01:00 - 01:01:08) Heidi Kershaw: I really appreciate you having me here. I've so enjoyed our conversation and I hope it continues over the course of time.

(01:01:08 - 01:01:59) Mike Spear: Absolutely. That's our show for this week, and actually, our entire season. Thank you, as always, to our guest, Heidi Kershaw, and to all the amazing guests we've featured throughout season two. You can learn more about Multiple at, and in the show notes at If you're enjoying the episode, please follow, subscribe, or leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts, and share the link with any friends or colleagues you think might find it valuable or interesting. With that, we're signing off for a while to enjoy the holidays, you're up for a new year, maybe even get a little skiing in. We already have some amazing guests lined up for Season 3, so we hope you'll join us when those episodes begin to drop later on this spring. Until then, Cause and Purpose is a production of On behalf of myself, Heidi, and our entire team, thanks so much for listening, happy holidays, and we look forward to speaking with you again in the new year.

Altruous Logo

Cause & Purpose is a production of Altruous, an impact discovery and management platform for the next generation of philanthropists. Learn more about our work by visiting

This episode was edited by Worthfull Media. Original music composed by Justin Klump of Podcast Music and Sound.

Copyright 2024, all rights reserved.

People in this episode

Mike Spear

Social entrepreneur, consultant, and podcast producer, Spear has been a member and critic of the impact sector since 2006. His work spans product, innovation, impact advising, storytelling, and go-to-market strategies. Part of the founding team at, specializing in helping social good organizations build amazing products, increase their impact, and scale.

Heidi Kershaw

My mission is to secure the safety, livelihood, and success of the global autistic community


Keep on Listenin'

Latest episodes in your mailbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Search podcasts, blog posts, people