Keith Wargo of Autism Speaks On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative…

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Keith Wargo of Autism Speaks On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

If we properly prepare companies big and small to hire, train and retain neurodiverse employees, we can incentivize the market to ensure neurodiverse inclusion in the workforce becomes a reality across the country. That possibility is what makes me optimistic about the future of inclusion, and it’s one of the areas that we’re working focused on at Autism Speaks.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Keith Wargo, CEO, Autism Speaks.

Keith Wargo joined Autism Speaks as president and CEO in October 2021. In this role, Mr. Wargo is responsible for the overall leadership, administration and management of the organization. This includes leading the strategic vision for the future and ensuring the organization is fulfilling its mission while measuring impact and results.

Mr. Wargo brings a unique and diverse background to Autism Speaks with 30 years of business building experience at leading global financial institutions including Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, BMO Capital Markets and Mizuho Securities. Over the course of his long and successful tenure, he developed a proven track record of building effective teams, partnering with an array of stakeholders to tackle complex issues and helping to grow and scale multifaceted businesses across multiple industry sectors.

In the year before joining Autism Speaks, Mr. Wargo merged his business expertise and personal values when he became an owner of Monarch Cypress, an industry-leading amenity manufacturer and supplier with a mission to employ autistic individuals.

Mr. Wargo and his wife are parents of two adult children, one of whom has autism. They have personally witnessed the positive impact that Autism Speaks has on enhancing the lives of people with autism and their families through research, advocacy, supports and services.

Mr. Wargo holds a Bachelor of Finance degree from Boston College and earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“Strength to Strength” by Arthur Brooks has been very impactful for me over the last few years. The book focuses on how to leverage the key attributes of your character to position yourself to be successful and happy in the “second half” of life. I find myself reflecting on a number of the lessons of that book in my life and embracing the necessary shifts in mindset to realize my fullest potential at this point in my career and life. I highly recommend it; in fact, I have given over 20 copies of it to friends this year.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

John Wooden’s words, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching,” have always resonated with me, guiding both my personal and professional life. At Autism Speaks, our work affects hundreds of thousands annually, most of whom I’ll never meet. This reality deepens my sense of responsibility.

As a parent of an adult with autism, I intimately understand the challenges and victories of this journey. Whether it’s staying abreast of the latest developments, engaging with donors and partners, or visiting schools and clinics, I dedicate myself fully to this cause. I believe that paying attention to the ‘small stuff’ — which, in truth, isn’t small at all — amplifies our impact as an organization and reflects my commitment to the community we serve.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as the ability to make positive change through humble passion. I believe passion for what you are doing is a prerequisite for great leadership. People look to leaders who deeply believe in what they are doing; that’s who they want to be with. At the same time, I firmly believe that the asset of humility, to listening before speaking and seeking to raise others up, is a leadership skill that has gone out of favor in today’s society and business world. I think the two together are a potent combination.

At Autism Speaks, we embody this dual approach of passion and humility: our passionate drive enables us to be visionary, while our humility ensures we remain collaborative, inclusive, and receptive to a diverse array of perspectives and ideas.

In the last several years there has been a greater push around diversity and inclusion. Coming from the for-profit world into the non-profit space in the last several years, how have you approached this shift differently or how has it impacted your work differently?

Transitioning from the for-profit sector to leading Autism Speaks, I’ve embraced the shift towards greater diversity and inclusion with a blend of transparency, collaboration, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. In the nonprofit space, this approach takes on a deeper meaning, as we’re not just serving a market but a community with diverse and pressing needs. My leadership style involves actively listening to our team and the autism community, constantly asking how we can do better. This ensures that our initiatives are not just best-in-class, but also genuinely impactful, catering to the varied and urgent needs of those we serve.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

At Autism Speaks, our employees on the autistic spectrum excel in roles spanning multiple departments, like marketing and communications, services and supports, and science. Their perspectives and experiences have helped improve our overall company culture as we foster greater collaboration and understanding.

Creating a supportive environment that allows autistic people to thrive and encourages company success goes far beyond recruitment. This is where inclusive training programs come in. Whether in person or online, these programs should offer accessible guidance on fostering great inclusion, promoting acceptance among co-workers and empowering autistic employees to become successful and supported in the workplace. I’ve seen this type of program work firsthand through Autism Speaks’ Workplace Inclusion Now (WIN), a set of online training courses developed by an advisory committee of advocates from the autism community and diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) leaders.

Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Diversity in all its forms is important for organizations like Autism Speaks. We are an organization dedicated to celebrating, advancing, respecting, and valuing diversity — specifically neurodiversity. A diverse executive team representing different backgrounds, experiences, talents and viewpoints are critical to fostering innovative thinking and creative problem-solving. Otherwise, of course, you end up with a group-think mentality.

We also need diversity in leadership to better represent and understand the communities we serve — whether someone is autistic, or they are a parent of an autistic child, or they are a sibling of an autistic family member, or a caregiver of someone with autism, or an advocate for inclusion more generally — for us at Autism Speaks, diversity in their connection to autism is what gives us the capacity to see this issue from all sides and ensure we develop the most comprehensive action plans to uplift and advocate for the autism community.

Can you share your “3 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.

This past October was National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which gave me a reason to reflect on our broader society, equity and inclusion. And in that vein, here are three steps to building a more inclusive workforce:

Shake up the recruitment process: Autism impacts communication, hindering neurodivergent individuals in traditional hiring, including job searches, résumé writing, and interviews. These processes are often overwhelming and stressful. Employers acknowledging these challenges can offer alternative interviews, allowing autistic candidates to demonstrate rather than describe their abilities.

Leverage training and embrace diversity: Inclusive training programs are essential for workplace support of autistic individuals. Programs like Autism Speaks Workplace Inclusion Now can help employers enhance accessibility, promote diversity, and empower autistic employees, including those from marginalized groups, for better workplace integration and well-being.

Adopt flexible work environments: To support neurodiverse employees, offering flexible hours, tailored workspace modifications, and remote work can boost comfort and productivity. Flextime accommodates unique productivity patterns and reduces commute stress, while remote work allows for a controlled, familiar environment. Personalized workspace adjustments like adjustable lighting and noise-cancelling headphones help minimize stress, enhancing performance and conveying respect for neurodiversity.

We are still going through a challenging period for disabled and neurodiverse individuals and see low employment and representation rates. What makes you optimistic about the future of inclusion in the US? Can you please explain?

A study by Accenture, American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN reported that companies that actively seek to employ people with disabilities outperform businesses that do not. Their revenues, net income and profit margins were all higher. At the national level, their analyses revealed that U.S. GDP could get a boost of up to US $25 billion if more people with disabilities joined the labor force.

If we properly prepare companies big and small to hire, train and retain neurodiverse employees, we can incentivize the market to ensure neurodiverse inclusion in the workforce becomes a reality across the country. That possibility is what makes me optimistic about the future of inclusion, and it’s one of the areas that we’re working focused on at Autism Speaks.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

This answer might come as a surprise, but it’s Bruce Springsteen. Hailing from New Jersey, I’ve been a long-time fan of his music and have had the pleasure of attending 98 of his concerts and even shook hands with him a few times. I am a big fan of his music because of his ability to story tell, whether about love, youth, the need to forge a new path, or loss. He is a master storyteller.

What blows me away, though, is the man’s ability to stand in front of 80,000 people for three hours and have them have this feeling of connection or being part of something larger. I suppose Taylor Swift has a similar effect, but I might be too old to fully appreciate it. I would love to have lunch with Bruce. I have a hunch he would resonate with the concept of humble passion.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn for to learn about our work at Autism Speaks, our latest advocacy efforts and leadership insights. For broader resources and information, I recommend visiting For those interested in engaging with us on social media, Autism Speaks is on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and TikTok, offering a diverse range of content from the latest in autism research and policy to community support and awareness initiatives.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Keith Wargo of Autism Speaks On 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.