This Entrepreneur Shares Why You Shouldn't Be Afraid of Being an Outsider
Roberta Scherf, CEO of PrioHealth, company focused on helping people with autism, says that her unique perspective is the reason for her success.
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
When Roberta Scherf’s daughter Rowan was young, she struggled with language. But her good grades made it tough for Scherf to convince her school district to evaluate Rowan for Autism Spectrum Disorder.
After Rowan received an autism diagnosis, Scherf knew that there was work to do to help her daughter and others like her. So she put her researcher hat on and read up on every aspect of ASD and cognitive neuroscience. “All of my work came out of needing to create an opportunity, basically needing to create a lifeline for myself and my daughter,” Scherf recalls to Entrepreneur.
Out of that drive for answers came the idea for Scherf's 12-year-old company, PrioHealth, and a program called MeMoves, which uses music, patterns and movement to help teach children and adults like Rowan to calm their nerves and make connections.
Today, the patented system is used in more than 5,000 schools districts, therapy centers, hospitals and homes in the United States and Canada.
“The thing that I'm happiest about is the fact that it's changing so many people's lives,” Scherf says. “I continue to have a lot of what I call two Kleenex box days where stuff is so amazing and remarkable in terms of the changes that we're seeing in people's lives that it still makes me excited to wake up the next morning.”
Scherf shared her insights about the power of curiosity, the importance of an off-the-beaten-track perspective and why you should never count yourself out.
Can you tell me about a time that you needed to create an opportunity for yourself or others? How did you approach it?
In 1992, I gave birth to who I think is the most amazing daughter in the world. She was born on the autism spectrum and 1992 was the first year that autism spectrum disorder appeared as a term in the literature. It was also before many girls with autism were diagnosed correctly. Rowan was struggling with language and social interaction [and she was] so overwhelmed by every piece of sensory information in the environment that she just couldn't function and no one could tell me why. No one could tell me how to help her effectively.
One of the challenges was that I kept getting glimpses of this really incredibly little girl but just couldn't get her out. That's when I started to learn everything I could about autism spectrum disorders. I studied body cognition, music therapy, behavioral cognitive neuroscience -- everything I could learn about the role that the nervous system and our body plays in our health and emotional well-being. I ended up 20 years ago working on the very first version of what would become MeMoves. [With it,] she went from a child who couldn't hold a single letter in her head to someone who was able to read words and sentences and chapter books and able to effectively communicate with people around her.
What was at stake for you in this moment?
[The doctors all told] me not to expect too much, that she probably would never learn to read.
But Rowan’s somebody who is just completely present now. The change in her was so great. She's now 25-years-old. She is hilarious and brilliant and wonderful. She's high functioning Asperger's, she's working part time as a vet tech. She became fluent in Japanese. She's finishing her degree. MeMoves changed her life, it gave her a life and that gave me my life back. And I thought OK, so there's something here and I need to do something with it. I started working on this tool to help Rowan, which helped me, and it ended up helping countless people all over the world.
What personal traits or strategies do you rely on to create opportunity for yourself and others?
What saved me and what helped Rowan was that I am incredibly curious. I mean I will suck up every piece of information that is out there. I am really passionate. I will fight to get things done. And I'm very persistent. I just do not give up.
[A few years before Rowan was born] In 1989 I was leading a pretty normal life. We lived in rural Wisconsin and on one of the coldest nights of the year, I was seven months pregnant with my first child and my husband and I went to bed one night and our house burned down. The fire inspectors actually classified it as an unsurvivable fire. But we all made it out. It was miraculous.
But I also ended up then with a panic disorder, agoraphobia and PTSD and it was really difficult. I could have gone forward and lived the rest of my life kind of managing my trauma through medication and talk therapy. But I didn't want to do that. I wanted my life back. For me the way to get back was to start investigating my own nervous system, which almost 30 years ago was sort of difficult because we had a tenth of what we know now. But I dug in. Then that [research] led to the other place I needed help in a big way, which was [with Rowan].
When you experience a setback, what do you do to keep going? How do you get unstuck?
What I've always done is to look at the impact that my work has been having on other people. I call it my Frank Capra, "It's a Wonderful Life," moment. So on the days when it seems really too hard for me to keep going I think about all of the people whose lives have been changed by the work. And I think about how I have to keep going.
People who want to advocate for themselves don't know always know how. What are actionable steps they can take to make themselves heard? What steps do you take?
Find allies and connect with people. Affiliation is really important. Find someone like yourself. Find someone who is working on some of the same things and build relationships. You can move from there. One voice can be really strong but a chorus is usually stronger, louder and more beautiful.
Has there been a counterintuitive or surprising way you've opened doors for yourself?
Being an outsider seemed to me very counterintuitive but it turned out to be a gift. When I started working on this stuff the biggest challenge that I had was that I didn't come from a university setting or research background or a corporate setting. But I discovered this thing, it's a term called the Einstellung effect. [Basically] you've got somebody who's an accomplished expert who really knows all these things. But the body of knowledge and their processes of work actually prevents them from seeing a new path.
You've got these people who have been so hardwired into their silos that they absolutely [think they] know what the outcome is going to be. So for me one thing that I have been really grateful to have and to use is that I have frequently come to look at things from the outside, because of that I see things really differently. In one way it's sort of good to always have that childlike perspective.
Was there a blind spot that you had about leadership and opportunity you worked to change within yourself?
The biggest blind spot I had about leadership was that I never felt like I was a leader or could be one because I didn't ever set out to do this. I had this brilliant life plan, which was completely different from where I am now. I didn't ever see myself as someone who could develop, who could travel, who could speak [and hold workshops].
Over the past 20 years that I've been doing this, I would say that is one of the biggest blind spots I see, especially in a lot of the women that I am working with and come into contact with. They listen to the no's. "No, you can't do this." "No, we haven't done this before." "You can't try that." And they believe it. If you agree with people who say you can't do something you've lost already and you've failed. So by trying, even if you fail, you're not any worse off. You have to give yourself a big yes and just go forward.
Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.