Sisters Elizabeth and Melissa Ames wouldn’t attribute their decision to embark on their entrepreneurial journey to any one particular “aha” moment.
Rather, they say their idea was over a decade in the making – right from the time their late mother would tell them, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” A special education teacher and district administrator, she instilled in them a deeply ingrained desire to give back and make an impact.
Today, the Ames sisters’ startup, EarlyVention, is following along on their mother’s path – and directly serving children with autism. It provides parents, caregivers and special needs educators readymade activity boxes delivered directly to their doorstep – allowing them to answer a frequently asked question: What more can I do at home?
“While certainly not trying to replace autism therapists, we hope to boost interaction among children with autism, and their parents, teachers and family members,” said Elizabeth in an interview with Chicago Inno.
Consisting of six activities per box, EarlyVention’s kits are designed to be hands-on with sensory and interactive components, easy to use with instructions, and based on evidence-based approaches derived from Melissa’s 16 years of experience working with children with developmental disabilities – including her training in Applied Behavioral Analysis.
“I often had parents asking me what activities they could do at home to supplement therapy,” Melissa said. “All I could find were downloadable files which didn’t encourage human-to-human interaction, weren’t very interactive or ones that could be easily repurposed. The idea for EarlyVention’s readymade boxes has been steadily building in my head since then.”
The boxes include an interactive story, an activity guide with picture support cards, a reward chart and toy, a creative craft and visual sequence strip, as well as as well as a sensory exploration and communication board that includes textured material, such as sand, water beads, and instant snow (which is available individually as well).
The activities are designed to last a full month and are assembled in the southwest suburbs of Chicago – ready to be shipped anywhere in the country. Subscriptions – available directly on the website – cost $74.95 for one full activity box per month, and $39.95 for the sensory box, including all shipping and handling costs. While caregivers do have the option of canceling a subscription at any time, EarlyVention is considering making available a special one-time purchase option, as well.
“Parents sometimes have to wait up to a year for their child to receive therapy after being diagnosed of autism,” Melissa said. “Our kits are designed to begin simple treatment at home in the meantime. Coupled with a budget crisis forcing agencies to cut down on resources, we’re seeing customers in remote rural locations who may not have easy access to therapists.”
EarlyVention is also considering deeper technology integration into their product, with a possible app for parents to track progress of their child’s development as well as more do-it-yourself videos (such as this one explaining how to make a calming lap weight for under $15). It currently has over 50 subscriptions (not including large purchase orders from school districts) – serving children from ages 2-18 and across the autism spectrum – and has pilot partnerships set up with the Children’s Museums in Oak Lawn, Chicago and DuPage County, as well as the Indiana Research Center for Autism.
Melissa’s experience overseeing home therapy programs joined forces with her sister’s business acumen as Elizabeth completed her MBA from DePaul’s Kellstadt Graduate School of Business in 2015. An early alumna of DePaul’s partnership with Blue1647 to teach business students civic-minded code, she credits DePaul’s MBA community to have served as “a constant source of support – from funding to networking, encouraging us to validate our idea at case competitions.”
As a student, Elizabeth pitched EarlyVention at Loyola’s social enterprise competition (taking first place), underwent the startup leadership program at Future Founders, and recently won $20,000 as the “Most Purposeful Startup” at DePaul’s Purpose Pitch Competition.
EarlyVention also creates an “ecosystem of impact” by engaging adults with special needs to assemble their boxes, inspired by their aunt (who also had special needs) and who completely transformed after she found a job that fit her abilities. “We see first-hand every day how this is personally fulfilling,” Elizabeth said.
“Elizabeth and Melissa have built one of those rare companies that generates both social and economic forms of value with just one innovative business model,” DePaul University Professor Patrick Murphy said in an email. “EarlyVention constantly engages their constituency with a research-based blog and other innovative features. Similarly, our entrepreneurship program at DePaul uses the power of community in a strategic sense. For us, doing good and doing well simultaneously is definitive to our culture and inventive to entrepreneurship.”
Note: This story has been updated to reflect Elizabeth’s correct graduation year from DePaul and clarify the number of current subscribers. The errors are regretted.