All Jose Rodriguez wanted was a good grade.
As a junior at The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center High School in Providence, RI, Rodriguez did what he always did when assigned a school project: He thought about his little brother, Joel Rodriguez, who is autistic, and what he might do to make his life easier.
For this particular school project, Rodriguez was tasked with creating a business or product for his NFTE (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship) course. If he could think of something that would bring attention to autism in the school setting, while also scoring an ‘A’ for the gradebook, Rodriguez could count that as a win.
He’d actually go on to win a whole lot more.
Knowing that fidget toys are proven to help people like his brother focus in class while reducing distractions for those around him, and knowing his brother’s tendency to lose and misplace even the most important implements like his reading classes, Rodriguez came up with simplest of ideas: a t-shirt with a fidget toy built in.
The idea went on to win first place in the 2020 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, beating out 15,000 other budding entrepreneurs from across the country. With the $15,000 in seed money, Rodriguez launched Tasium, a line of fidget-infused apparel for people on the spectrum and their families.
The win also secured Rodriguez a full-tuition scholarship to Babson College, one of the top undergraduate entrepreneurial programs in the United States.
Today, Rodriguez is a sophomore at Babson as well as CEO of the company he founded. In the span of just a few short years, Rodriguez and Tasium have been featured in magazines, on national news programs such as Inside Edition, and in outlets like the Boston Globe. He was honored at center court by his beloved Boston Celtics, and invited to speak to a room full of CEOS at the Ernst and Young Strategic Growth Forum.
He’s using the lessons in his business classes, as well as the network and resources available to him at Babson, to build a company with both profits and purpose.
“My whole focus is creating a major impact for people on the spectrum, and genuinely improving their quality of life,” he tells Poets&Quants. “This is my life’s work.”
In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, Poets&Quants caught up with the budding CEO in between his classes. We talked about his plans for Tasium, balancing his responsibilities as student and CEO, and the remarkable journey that started with a school project and the hope for a respectable grade.
Tell me about the relationship with your brother, Joel, while growing up.
My brother is just about 18 months younger than me, so we grew up literally learning life together. We learned how to tie our shoes together. We learned what our favorite colors were together. We learned everything we did in life together. I understood pretty young that he wasn’t like me, that there was something different about him. I didn’t know what it was called as a child, but I always had that understanding.
Because of that, I was always an extension of my mother in a sense. I advocated for him and went to meetings with his teachers at a young age. You know, because sometimes in the school system, you have to stay on top of people. So I was always that for him.
And then, obviously, I always had that parental protective feeling of an older sibling. But it was a little more pronounced because of the situation. I wanted to make sure that no one was making fun of him or putting him down, but I also wanted to make sure he’s thoroughly understanding his school material, which is like an extra step that most older siblings don’t take. So, we had the strongest bond.
Where did the idea to make a shirt with a fidget toy attached come from. Was there, like, an ah-ha moment?
I went to a project-based high school, and every time we had to come up with a project, I created it around autism to better understand my brother. I wanted to learn how to better help him, his support system, and how we can set him up better.
When I was 16, in my junior year, I was a teacher assistant at an elementary school. For one project, we had to create a project that either benefited our community or the school itself. So, I created a pamphlet on how to better help those with autism in school settings. In my research, I learned that the most practical way to help someone on the spectrum in the school setting – outside of making sure that the material is put in a way that’s easier for them to understand individually – is to allow them to have fidget toys. Fidget toys are scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety while sharpening focus.
The next trimester, I joined this business course, and I had to create a business that would apply everything I learned to something tangible. I wanted to create something that would benefit someone, and the first person I thought of was my brother.
At first, I wanted to create autism awareness clothing. My teacher was like, “Ok, that’s cool, but there’s a bunch of that everywhere. Why don’t you do something that benefits his daily life, something that improves the quality of his life?”
So, I started to think about what would happen if we implemented fidget toys into my brother’s life. A couple of things would happen: Either he’s going to lose them, or he’s going to forget where he put them. Like my brother wears glasses, he needs them to see, and he loses them all the time.
Growing up, my brother always fidgeted with his fingers which is not productive. You can’t be in class during that time, trying to take notes and pay attention, while fidgeting with your hands. Fidget toys are not only more discreet, but also more productive. For him, he needs the outlet to be able to relieve his stress, to be able to focus. So I wanted to implement a way that he would always have that tool available to him.
I looked up and noticed a banner that had these metal grommets you could slide string through in order to hang it. I asked my teacher, “Hey, can we put that on a shirt?” Then, I Googled, “fidget toy keychains” and we got a few. And then, I clipped them to the grommet in my shirt.
It really was like a series of thoughts. It was like, “he’s going to lose the fidget toy.” “How would he not lose it?” And, I was already thinking of clothing, so I was like, “Why don’t we attach one to clothes?”
I was thinking about it casually, but now thinking back on it, it was such a cool moment. I wasn’t putting pressure on myself to create something new. I was just answering the questions.
How did you come up with the name, Tasium?
So, I called the concept fidget infused clothing. And then I was like, “Well, I gotta name the brand.” So I took the word “autism” and scrambled the letters to make “Tasium.”
What was your teacher’s reaction? Did you recognize it was something special at the time, do you think?
She was proud because she saw how her pushing back on my initial idea drew me to think deeper. She encouraged us to be innovative, to think of something new and different.
The business course that I was taking was called NFTE – Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship. NFTE has an annual Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge, and that’s all just fancy words for Baby Shark Tank. Basically, there’s 15,000 participants that compete for $15,000 in startup funds across the entire world. Because we had a class of like 30 kids, our school was going to submit three applications to the national challenge. So, we had to pitch our ideas to be able to get to the national competition. We called it the fish tank before the shark tank.
And I ended up being one of the three selected.
And then you went on to win the national competition as well.
When my teacher told me that she believed in me, it lit a spark. That was all I needed to hear. So, this was all through COVID when everyone was at home and taking online classes. It was me and her, the only two people on the entire campus from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., day in and day out, working on the pitch, working on images and how we’re going to convey the messaging and making sure the numbers make sense. On top of that, and on top of high school, I was working full time. I kind of went into it thinking I had nothing to lose, but I was going to try my best to win.
And then, you know, in the competition, they just started cutting chunks in half. We started off with, you know, 15,000 pitches and they cut that immediately to 30. Then they went from 30 to 15, and then it was down two three and then down to two. But, as they cut lower and lower and as we got close to the finals, I was still in the competition. And, by the grace of God, I went on to win.
What was that moment like?
They actually caught it on video. I couldn’t believe it. Once they said, “from Providence, Rhode Island,” I just looked around. I thought, “This is real.” It was so surreal.
My uncle took a video of the moment, and also took some pictures and put them up on social media. I live in a small state, but the entire state was attentive to it. It went viral within Rhode Island. From there, we went on local news and then the Boston Globe wrote an article.
And it got better because I found out that NFTE, the course that I took to win this competition, has a full tuition scholarship to Babson College, which was the only school I wanted to go to, really because of its entrepreneurship program.
How important was the scholarship to you?
I didn’t grow up in an affluent neighborhood. I didn’t grow up with the opportunity to just go to any school. Financial aid was very important.
Through this whole business journey, I started to understand finances more, and debt. I was very cognizant of not putting myself in a lot of debt that I would struggle to pay back. Ultimately, I was going to go to a school that gave me the most money, but in my heart, I knew that if Babson accepted me, I would take every dime available to me to make it happen.
One, the ROI on the school is great but it’s also perfect for what I want to do.I went to a small high school, I live in the smallest state in America. I love the setting of Babson, I love the community of Wellesley. And, I love that it is the No. 1 school for entrepreneurship.
And, you’re the first in your family to attend college, correct?
I’m the first of my immediate family. My aunt uncle did, but out of my immediate family, I’m the first to attend college and on the way to being a college grad.
Tell me what’s going on with Tasium now.
Right now, we are expanding. Over the last two years, we’ve helped over 2,000 families with children on the spectrum. We’re helping them on two fronts: One, with the issue of fidget toys being too easy to lose. Then also, some people aren’t even aware of how beneficial fidget toys are for those on the spectrum. Through the publicity we were able to receive, we were able to reach a lot of people and show them that this is a product that might work for your child.
Now we’re taking the same way we created fusion infused t-shirts and we’re putting them on hoodies and crew necks, and making sweat pants to match. We’re also going to create an apparel line for families, friends, and allies.
How are you balancing running this business with all your studies and other responsibilities as a college sophomore?
(Laughing) I’m not. It’s a lot of long nights, early mornings. A lot of sacrificing when it comes to my social life. I still have friends that I meet when I can, but it is like every ounce of my time is important because if I’m not doing my business, then I’m studying. I always have relationships back home that I want to keep up with; I want to make sure my brother’s doing well. My sister, my mom, my girlfriend, my aunt.
I’d say schedules are important, because I’m married to mine. Prioritizing commitments is another one. I’ll spend an entire Saturday just doing everything for the upcoming week, so that I’m available during that week, outside of attending classes, for Tasium and other commitments.
What lessons from your classes or resources you’ve accessed through Babson have been the most valuable?
I think the relationships that I’ve built here have been the most valuable, obviously with students but more so with professors who have lived this life and have walked the walk. If I’m overwhelmed, or I don’t know how to fix a logistical issue, I know that I have people who can help and who know what they’re talking about. I have some professors that I’m on a text basis with, and they help connect me to other experienced entrepreneurs for more advice and opportunities.
For example, my marketing professor is Lee Gustafson, and his class is about developing an effective ad, conveying messages in the best way for people to receive them. That is very relevant to my work with Tasium. And, because April is Autism Awareness Month, he connected me to a person at NBC news in Boston that he knows to see if they wanted to share my story. He made no promises, but it worked out because of the relationship he built.
How does your brother feel about Tasium shirts and the company you’re building?
He loves it. He talks about it all the time. He’s like a billboard, he walks around and talks about Tasium all day every day. In his high school, they played our Inside Edition interview and other news stories, and he’s just like, “That’s my brother.”
And he’s a big reason why I don’t think, no matter how hard the times get, that I could ever stop. He’s so invested in it, and I can’t let him down. He continues to inspire me every day.
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