36 Intriguing Delawareans • Ernie Dianastasis
The Precisionists office is on the first floor of a Concord Pike Building, near a bus stop. The lighting is carefully chosen, and the hangout room boasts comfortable seating. It looks like a startup, which it is.
It’s also a B-corporation, a for-profit entity driven by a social mission, creating administrative and tech jobs—first for the autistic, then disabled veterans, the hearing impaired and the visually impaired.
The attributes described above are subtle yet significant accommodations made for people with autism—about half of the first 14 employees.
Founder Ernie Dianastasis plans to create 10,000 jobs by 2025 for the disabled with a concept that has roots in Denmark, infancy in Delaware and potential across the country.
It all began in 2012 when then-Gov. Jack Markell reached out to Thorkil Sonne, founder of Denmark’s Specialisterne, which since 2004 has been promoting autistic people for jobs. Markell, as head of the National Governors Association, was pushing for hiring the disabled, and he connected Sonne to Dianastasis, who had grown the Delaware Valley operations of Computer Aid Inc. (CAI) from one person to 1,400 and was active with Easter Seals of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Dianastasis was smitten.
"I was floored about how incredibly productive and high-performing the developing disabled are," he says. "I wanted to spend the rest of my career on this. There’s such an enormous opportunity to make such a huge impact on an underserved labor force. The country, the families, the employers are ready."
So he sold his stake in CAI and got buy-in from his wife, Jen. “I feel like I’m 35 and ready to take on the world.” The Centreville resident is actually 60.
The Precisionists is starting with autism because of Specialisterne’s success, but Dianastasis intends to expand to “work across a broad range of disabilities.”
“This is the first enthusiastically supportive work environment I’ve ever had in my life,” says Michael Stat, a 36-year-old with high-functioning autism, hired as a tech consultant. “People here are so well-versed in our struggles and strengths. It’s filling this huge void to provide training and jobs.”
Says Dianastasis: “Every disability has a series of strengths.”
As Specialisterne states, “[...] autistic people will shine and generate value when welcomed and understood, and they will be challenged if unwelcomed and misunderstood.” More than 70 percent of Americans with autism are unemployed or underemployed, Dianastasis says.
The Precisionists starts new hires with four weeks of training on specialized skills for their jobs, and also the do’s and don’ts of work, social skills, emotional maturity and teamwork. All the disabled workers are first employees of The Precisionists and contracted out for temp or project work. “We nurture the early part of their career,” Dianastasis says, noting that they could later be hired by other companies, confident that they have been vetted by The Precisionists.
That vetting refers to both the people and the work. “No matter how noble the cause, it is not charity work,” he says. “We have to deliver performance.”
The Precisionists’ first contract, announced in April, was with the Swiss bank UBS, for a pilot program in Nashville. Dianastasis hopes to soon announce arrangements with two Delaware firms. He plans to have a West Coast operations center this year and five more centers running by 2018.
Dianastasis was born in Lancaster Country, Pa. His father, who owned a real estate firm, inspired him to pursue business. After earning his master’s in business administration from Lehigh University, he worked in marketing at IBM for five years. The bulk of his career—almost 32 years—was as a senior executive at CAI. He also knows firsthand about the impact of mental conditions on careers: His younger brother has obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Dianastasis still makes time to serve on the boards of Pepco, the University City Science Center, the Select Greater Philadelphia, First State Innovation, the Delaware Business Roundtable, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the Vision Coalition of Delaware and Easter Seals of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. And he’s a member of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness.