Most people are aware of the low rates of unemployment and underemployment of people with autism. Exceptional Minds seeks to change that, one career at a time. Exceptional Minds is an academy and studio preparing young adults on the autism spectrum for careers in animation, visual effects, 3D gaming and other related fields in the entertainment industry. They provide technical and work readiness training customized to help students achieve their full artistic and professional potential—comprised of a vocational academy, post graduate program, and post-production studios. Exceptional Minds and its partners are building a future where neurodiverse perspectives advance an inclusive hiring culture in the entertainment Industry. In this first part of a several part series of conversations with Exceptional Minds, ABILITY’s Priya Iyer met with Morgan Chess, head of marketing, to discuss their model and plans for the future.
Priya Iyer: Could you please give us an overview of Exceptional Minds?
Morgan Chess: We are first and foremost an academy, a vocational training program. We teach classes in animation, in VFX, in post-production. One of the things that sets us apart is our social skills training. For example, every Monday, all the classes are catered towards work readiness and working with others, social skills, etc. for each of the three years of the course. We help our students find jobs, ensure that they are ready to be part of a team and to be successful.
We also have two working studios. One is the animation studio and the other is the VFX studio. We work on amazing projects. We just finished a short for Sesame Workshop in our animation studio, and then in our VFX studio we work on Marvel films, we work with Amazon, Sony and others doing everything from the end credits to visual effects to editing.
The studios are an opportunity where our graduates work. It also serves as a next step of work readiness training. They’re professionals, they’re full-time, they’re paid, and it helps them get used to that work environment so that they can go off and have long, fulfilling careers.
Iyer: You’ve covered a lot in there. I’ll break it out. The first part is that you educate students. Do you enroll students out of high school or college?
Chess: This is a question we get a lot, so I would like to clarify. For our full-time program, you have to have a high school diploma or equivalent GED and a diagnosis of autism. We do have a part-time program and that starts younger, those are after-school and weekend workshops where hopefully students, when they graduate high school in the future, will join us full-time.
Iyer: You did mention that you pivoted to doing it remotely. Are you scaling up and looking at students nationwide?
Chess: Yes. right now all of our part-time workshops are virtual. We have students in 28 states and three countries.
Chess: It’s been very exciting to us. Our full-time program for right now is a hybrid program. They have to be able to come into class, so a lot of students move here or move with family members. We are trying to figure out how to do a virtual full-time program, with the social skills and the interaction the students need to develop in the future.
Iyer: How many students do you have in part-time and full-time right now?
Chess: The part-time is not full yet. It starts on Saturday, so I don’t have an updated number, but I can tell you that for the summer we had 208 part-time students for our summer school program.
Iyer: That’s amazing!
Chess: For our full-time students, this week we started with I believe, and I will get back to you with a final count, 37 students.
Iyer: What is your capacity?
Chess: Just about that.
Iyer: So you’re almost full?
Chess: The reason I say that in that tone is social distancing. We’re trying to keep everyone safe. Kat Cutright, our Academic Dean, has done a wonderful job of getting the school set up and the cleaning requirements completed. We don’t know what our current capacity is now.
Iyer: For sure! In the full-time program, students come usually in person, although it is a hybrid model right now. Do they come to you for eight hours a day? And do they graduate out of the program in three years?
Iyer: And you did mention that 30% to 40% of the graduates are then absorbed into the two studios you have. The others, do you help them with job placement in other companies?
Chess: Yes. That’s a big initiative for us, helping with job placement, with opportunities, whether it be internships that hopefully lead to a full-time job, or working with organizations like Netflix to make sure our job posting board is always up to date and we’re helping the students get their résumés in and put their best foot forward.
Iyer: It’s interesting that you’re incorporating soft skills training as well. How did that come about?
Chess: We started that way. Social skills are important for everyone. We do some employer education as well.
Iyer: Is it one day a week that you focus on social skills training for your students?
Chess: The course is personalized for every student. The teachers and instructors and the academic deans are fantastic at this. There is one day that’s set aside. As students need it more, there’s personal one-on-one coaching and training. Every student is different.
Iyer: How do you define success for a particular student? I’m sure if they get an internship or find a job, that’s success.
Chess: Our ultimate goal is really holding down employment and feeling fulfilled. We can work to get our students placed in a job straight out of graduation, but if they can’t hold that job, is that a success for us? That’s something we’re constantly evaluating, making sure that they’re employed. We have an alumni by the name of Xavier Romo who’s been at Marvel now for seven years.
Chess: I’d say that’s a pretty good success story! That’s not an easy job for anyone to get. He’s an integral part of the team. Other graduates have gone into similar roles, they may change, just like the rest of us, but they’re employed full-time, they’re happy, they’re doing what they want to do. That’s our goal.
Iyer: How do you keep in touch with alumni? Do they come back? Do they talk to the current students?
Chess: I will tell you, because I run social media, I think it’s so wonderful. I constantly get invited to Instagram groups where they’re sharing work long after graduation, or helping current students. It’s like a family. We are as part of our 10-year anniversary looking to some of our first and second graduating year students to start an alumni network, to help them structure that. I think that’s something you get out of a lot of universities that some people find really helpful. I think everybody’s excited about that.
Iyer: I’ll ask you one more question, and then we’ll move to the Netflix collaboration. I’m sure there is a lot more demand than you can take in. I’m sure you get a lot of inquiries from parents, from guardians, from the students themselves. What is the process for figuring out who will be part of the full-time program, the part-time program? What are the criteria that you use?
Chess: First off, I’ll just state that we’re a nonprofit. We are always constantly doing the best that we can, but fundraising is a big part of how we do that. Giving Tuesday this year will be important for us, it’s going towards expansion so that we can accomplish all of those things that we need with this new demand. But there’s a process as they vet the people who are coming in. Everything starts with (right now) a virtual tour of the school. That is done in person by our Academic Dean so that she can interact with the students and their families and get an idea of their skills, their personality, their passion. You want the student to be self-motivated. We all want them here for three years and want them to succeed.
Iyer: That’s why I think the plans to scale up are important, because then you’ll be able to accommodate more students. There’s so much demand in this space for employment of neurodiverse individuals. I think we’ve barely scratched the surface as of now. With all the initiatives around us, there’s so much more that can be done.
Iyer: We read that Exceptional Minds is collaborating with Netflix and creating a mentoring program, which is very exciting. How did this come about?
Chess: As they were starting to develop this mentoring program, our head of Vocational Initiatives Steff Farrar was an integral part of those conversations. A lot of these companies come to us, which is something we take pride in, asking, “How do you do this right for people on the spectrum?”
Steff was a big part of making sure that the students get the most that they can out of it, that the mentors were prepared to work with people on the spectrum and obviously provide them with the guidance they need.
Every person wants something different from a mentor. One person may want someone they can entrust with their career insecurities, another may want job skills help, a mentor should be many things. Steff did a wonderful job with our students in finding out what they wanted and making sure Netflix had the information to pair them with the right people.
Iyer: Will they create content for Netflix as well as part of this initiative?
Chess: Not that I know of as part of this initiative, but that is our fingers-crossed hope for the future. As I mentioned, we just created a short for Sesame Workshop. We are creating—we have a program going with _Cartoon Cartoons to create content. Our goal is to really help a lot of these students and graduates from the studio get their foot in the door with these companies and it helps if they have content to show already. That’s a big initiative of ours.
Iyer: How many of your students will be mentored through Netflix?
Chess: Right now it’s about 33.
Iyer: That’s a pretty large cohort!
Iyer: That’s a good thing.
Chess: And a few of them will be one-on-one mentored, a few of them will share a mentor. They’re working through that right now. I know a few of our students have been notified of who their mentor is at this point, but I know that Netflix is still working through that pairing.
Iyer: Tell me how the program will work. I’m very interested in this. Will it be in person or virtual?
Chess: Right now, and I think this is something that will change and adapt. It’s starting off as virtual.
Iyer: This sounds very encouraging. Have you thought about getting feedback from the mentors and the mentees?
Chess: Yes, that’s definitely part of the plan, feedback from both sides, since this is our first phase. I think success is that we do this again, most certainly. As with any mentorship program, hopefully the mentees get a mentor for the rest of their career, for years to come, somebody they trust who can help them open doors and give them guidance and experience.
Iyer: When are you launching this officially?
Chess: It’s in the works. The mentees are being chosen right now, and I know we’re just getting started. We will have more information on that soon.
Iyer: I want to talk about the future of Exceptional Minds. What other programs do you have coming up? What other things are you working on? What other things would you like to see?
Chess: As I said, we’re going into our 10-year anniversary, which is very exciting. We’re hoping, fingers crossed with everything going on in the world, for an in-person event next April for Autism Acceptance month. What we’re working on right now is more programs like Netflix and Sesame Workshop.
Iyer: Can you talk about the teams at Exceptional Minds?
Chess: We are a close-knit team. That’s one of the great things about Exceptional Minds. We all help wherever we can. We have a fundraising team that just works on fundraising. We have Steff Farrar, who’s doing vocational initiatives, we have faculty and the studios. Everyone is on the same page about what is best for our students.
For the future, at this point, we’re set up well to be structured and to grow like we want to grow.
Iyer: And the growth trajectory has been pretty steep in the last 10 years?
Iyer: It grew from the initiative of a mom to a large successful enterprise.
Chess: Like any school, it took three years for the first class to graduate. That was six, seven years ago, based on the calendar year. They’re still active. We still talk to a lot of those students, growing every year, trying to increase the ability for them to go out and have fulfilling careers.
Iyer: Your plans for expansion, other than the new space, are you looking at other states, other programs outside of animation?
Chess: In terms of physical space, we’ll stay in Los Angeles. But virtually, that’s something we’re working really hard on right now, to be able to help more people in more states. A lot of people can’t just pick up and move to Los Angeles. And if they need a parent or caretaker to come with them, that’s really hard to do. It’s a big initiative for us to be able to do more virtual classes now that the world is more open to it.
Iyer: Are you seeing employers being more open to virtual positions as well?
Chess: Yes, the world is changing, and it’s a wonderful time to be doing what we’re doing. People are calling us for roles to fill. And we can say, “Absolutely, yes! We have a candidate who would be fantastic for this role, who would love to work in this animation department.”
Iyer: You mentioned that during COVID you pivoted to virtual classes and virtual training. How did your students react to it? How did they take it?
Chess: Very well. I think everyone had a hard time with the cultural changes, everyone struggled with the isolation, everyone struggled with quarantine. But the success we had, and I think the pride we all have in our students, especially the class that graduated virtually, is that they adapted so well. The students succeeded, we were blown away by the talent and the will of all the students in the different classes.
Iyer: I’m really happy that your students took well to it and there was a graduating class during the quarantine, which is amazing. That speaks to the success of your program and how quickly you pivoted.
Chess: And our teachers made it work. We’re all so impressed and grateful for them.
The ability of these students blows me away all the time. I’ll ask students for drawings or content, things I can use on social media, and I am blown away by their talent and their ability to form this family amongst each other, and help each other and give feedback, It’s a wonderful thing.
Iyer: It warms my heart, too, when I hear that they talk together and they have a good time. What kind of students do you educate right now- it is only those with autism?
Chess: Right now it’s only the autism spectrum. I think that’s all we’ve been able to take on at this point. But who knows for the future?