Pittsburgh's People of the Year 2023: Business | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh's People of the Year 2023: Business

Heather Conroy is building an employment pipeline for disabled Pittsburghers

click to enlarge Pittsburgh's People of the Year 2023: Business
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Evolve Coaching co-founder and executive director Heather Conroy poses for a portrait at the Museum of Illusions

Heather Conroy has run Evolve Coaching for more than a decade, providing job coaching services and support to autistic, disabled, and neurodiverse job seekers, college students, and artists. She has plans to make Pittsburgh “autism’s most livable city,” transform the region’s workforce, and open a coaching inclusion center in Garfield — “the next physical manifestation of Evolve’s big vision.”

“I want people to be in community with neurodivergent folks,” Conroy tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the unemployment rate is twice as high for people with a disability. Research shows that up to 85% of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed.

“That’s just so unacceptable, especially because we walk beside these people every day,” Conroy says. “It’s really important that that number shifts.”

A native Pittsburgher, Conroy began her career as a social worker and therapist, thinking she would ultimately become a psychologist. Working in support services, she saw autistic and neurodivergent students from Carnegie Mellon University, and found they were often facing a workforce with inequitable hiring practices, and that she wasn’t able to provide them with all the resources they needed.

“Those students were graduating from this prestigious school, who did really well by them,” Conroy tells City Paper. “But at the same time, they weren’t prepared for employment.”

Along with co-founder Joe Farrell, Conroy launched Evolve Coaching, which has since supported more than 700 clients, growing year over year since 2015. The organization also works with universities, employers, and community groups to raise disability and autism awareness and foster inclusive workplace practices.

Evolve has largely operated out of co-working spaces, where, as Conroy points out, it’s sometimes difficult to provide privacy and create an optimal sensory experience for clients.

Slated to open in 2024, the Evolve Coaching Inclusion Center at 5025 Penn Ave. will be a fully accessible three-story building. A first-floor public gallery will showcase neurodivergent artists’ work year round. The building will also house Evolve’s permanent offices, a hybrid-capable conference room for inclusion training, a media lab with paid job opportunities, and a “unique” independent living training space equipped with a kitchen and laundry facilities.

The building’s renovation and ambitious mission have attracted statewide attention, with Pa. Rep. Jessica Benham (who is autistic) recently taking a tour.

To Conroy, there are only win-win outcomes for the region’s businesses; thousands of people are needed to fill Pittsburgh’s job gaps, which have only grown since the onset of COVID.

“There is definitely a need for both autistic people to be employed and for employers to find new people to work for them,” Conroy says. “So let’s just figure this out and work together.”