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elly: An Autistic Personal Organizer

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interview organizing with empathy elly kalfus

elly kalfus is a personal organizer & coach with her business Organizing with Empathy.

She provides her services in Boston, Massachusetts, and offers virtual services to those not local to her area.

elly offers a more vulnerable perspective on what it’s like to take the risk and start your own business.

How did you think of the idea for your business? 

I was struggling with getting organized – feeling overwhelmed by all the physical stuff around me that I wanted to feel in control of and also the traumatic memories and thoughts that were cluttering my head. After helping myself, I realized it was a skill I could offer to other people, and that if it was something I needed then other people must too.

How did you fund your business in the very beginning? 

I started a service-based business meaning I go to people’s homes (or meet with them online), which meant I did not need to invest that much money in my business upfront. When I started advertising my services, I was babysitting and doing freelance transcribing work for income, and was grateful to have financial privilege that meant I could experiment with using my time in other ways to see if I could support myself through this work. I attribute a lot of this to growing up white in a middle-class family that had expendable money, so I felt comfortable taking some risks.

How long have you been running your business? 

I started offering my services to friends in 2019, and made my business official with the state in January of 2021, after losing my job to the pandemic. So, I’ve been “running” my business full-time just 5 months, and I still feel very insecure about it.

Did you have any previous experience in your field before you started your business? 

Yes and no. I grew up wanting to work in the legal system and specifically be a public defender. I worked in criminal justice reform jobs from 2011-2016, and then burned out of them. Now that i’m a personal organizer I find that a lot of the same skills are used in both – categorizing, empathetic listening, helping people figure out what they can control, navigating white supremacy and capitalism –  but I get more joy out of helping individuals in ways they can be in charge of, rather than once they’re already trapped in the criminal justice system. Broadly, I think I’ve always been an organizer, but this is the first job where it’s my actual title and my primary responsibility, and I can work with clients 1-on-1.

Now that your business has been running successfully, is there anything you wish would have done differently in the beginning? 

To be honest I am still in the beginning. I have a lot of fear and anxiety around not being able to meet people’s expectations and around getting in trouble (with the government, my peers in the field, clients, etc) and I am still figuring out how to deal with it so that it doesn’t consume my whole life. I used to feel really intimidated when people would say they started their own business so they’re working non-stop, “hustle culture,” and I just want to tell other people considering this world, that’s NOT what it has to be. That’s one way to motivate yourself, but it doesn’t work for me, so I’m working really hard to find other ways of making myself feel legitimate, and like I HAVE done the work I need to do even if it’s not “paying off” how I wanted.

When your business was merely an idea, what steps did you take to make it a reality? 

I started a Facebook page for my business and acquaintances who I never would have reached out to told me that they needed my services – that’s how I got my first few clients. I journaled and drew a lot of my ideas down so I could hold onto them tactile-ly, and I am perpetually rearranging them in my room, in notebooks and binders, on my wall, so that they will feel REAL to me. I’ve accepted that I’m a visual learner and have learned to appreciate having a printer so that I can HOLD ON to ideas that might otherwise disappear into the “computer world.” 

How has being autistic helped you succeed with your business? 

I started realizing I was autistic, or Neurodivergent, around the same time I committed to starting my business. Growing up when things made me uncomfortable, my first reaction was usually to shut down and avoid them, because I didn’t think I would be listened to if I demanded change. And I was often right, which sucked. So I never used sunglasses, or belts, or Air Conditioners, or a lot of other everyday things because I couldn’t figure out how to get them to work for me. Understanding how my brain works, and learning to accept it before judging it, has been really important for me personally and informed my business. My business is rooted in the belief that I deserve to live in a space where I feel comfortable, and so does everyone else. I used to receive a lot of shame from family around being “too sensitive,” but now I see it as what helps me connect with people and believe their realities. It’s why I chose the name empathy for my business; because I want to help clients (especially Neurodivergent clients and other groups who are often infantilized and ordered around) realize they already have all the answers they need, I’m just here to help them clarify their vision and give perspective. In my experience, being sensitive to your own needs is the ONLY way to discover what you need and make it work for you.

Has being autistic created challenges for you? If so, what helped you overcome or cope with the difficulties? 

It’s hard to know what I’m supposed to be doing at any given time. I excelled in school under the stress and fear of getting in trouble – so, I got really good grades because I just didn’t see failing as an option. Now I’m trying to be more compassionate with myself, and it’s hard (see thoughts on hustle culture above). Particularly during the pandemic, it was difficult for me to decide, “Am I working full-time on starting my business, or am I unemployed and should be applying for more jobs?” I feel very vulnerable to judgment when people ask what I do and I have to choose one of those answers. I am slowly embracing that being autistic is just who I am, and that existing in this world is a lot harder than I think it ought to be, but that it’s not my personal fault. Also, fear of dealing with Neurotypical clients and colleagues, and inability to deal with uncertainty – those have been really hard. I saw a codependency life coach the past two years (in addition to therapy, and therapeutic relationships with friends), and having dedicated space to talk about my dreams really helped me get more clarity on what I actually wanted.

What advice would you give a fellow autistic person who is thinking of starting their own business? 

I would say “Rest and trust yourself.” I follow The Nap Ministry, a business created by Tricia Hersey, and I love her. She helps me realize how white supremacy and capitalism show up in my thinking even when I’m trying to “do justice work,” and how doing things “because they need to get done,” won’t bring about the kind of change I really want. Not that there’s an answer to any of these problems, but finding people who will validate that I don’t “need to be working all the time to prove my worth,” has been really powerful. Even when it’s myself reminding myself. 

Does your business have a social media profile or a website where The Autistic Innovator readers can follow you and learn more about what you do?  

Yes – my website is www.OrganizingEmpathy.com and my social media accounts are @OrganizingEmpathy on FB and Instagram. On Twitter I’m @Organizingwith1, but I know it’s a weird name so I don’t use it as frequently. I would love to connect with more autistic people and particularly want to collaborate with other people who are excited about self determination and anti-oppression work.

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