How Geetha Moorthy began working with children on the autism spectrum — and built SAAAC Autism Centre to serve their needs

By Karen van Kampen

 

In 1983, two days after her wedding, 23-year-old Geetha Moorthy and her family fled Sri Lanka in the midst of a civil war, landing in Canada as refugees. Trained as an accountant, Geetha worked as a bookkeeper, but one job wasn’t enough to cover living expenses. So Geetha started teaching Indian Classical dance. “That’s my passion,” she says. 

As Geetha’s dance school grew, she says, “I wanted to give back to the community that accepted us. I was so thankful to Canada.” 

Geetha choreographed dance shows for different charities and non-profits and had an opportunity to work with children on the autism spectrum. Geetha learned that many individuals had never had treatment, and she also discovered a stigma associated with autism spectrum disorder. Some parents wouldn’t even say the word autism. 

“I thought, I have to do something about it,” she says. “I can teach them a little bit of math and English in my dining room, and I can teach dance in my basement.” In 2009, Geetha taught four students in her home. Today, with the help of 30 staff and more than 200 volunteers, Geetha provides programs for more than 400 families at SAAAC Autism Centre, an 11,000-square-foot facility in Toronto.  

As founder and executive director of SAAAC, Geetha was the 2019 winner of the Social Change Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that recognizes an exceptional leader of a registered charity, not-for-profit or social enterprise that is dedicated to their unique brand of social change. The SAAAC provides the autism community resources, workshops and caregiver support while celebrating the strengths of those on the autism spectrum. “We want to see their positives and take them to the next level,” says Geetha. 

In the beginning, SAAAC helped mostly South Asian families with their own unique challenges. “The caregivers were facing a lot of barriers — from financial to language to the stigma in communities,” says Geetha. It was difficult to navigate services and information on autism for caregivers whose first language was not English. 

“They were suffering in silence,” says Geetha. People would blame the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, she says, adding that families felt “ashamed to include their children in community life.” When the SAAAC expanded to serve families outside the South Asian community, they found that common issues brought families together.  

In 2009, Geetha ran programs out of her home and in local parks. Within a year, she had 25 students with another 25 on a waiting list. Geetha realized that she needed more space as well as evidence-based therapies including occupational, language and speech therapies in addition to her arts programs. She held a fundraising gala and used the proceeds to hire a few part-time therapists. 

In the beginning, Geetha found it difficult to ask for donations. “I was very shy. I was afraid to ask for help,” she says. Looking back, Geetha encourages others not to be stopped by the same roadblock — even if you might get no for an answer.

 

“If you have faith in yourself, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” 

 

A friend offered his consulting office to run SAAAC’s free programs after hours and on weekends. Geetha created a volunteer program in which volunteers were trained by SAAAC’s therapists. But Geetha knew that she couldn’t continue to run the SAAAC while also working full-time. “If one person doesn’t 100 per cent focus on something,” she says, “it’s not going to happen.”  

In 2011, Geetha quit her accounting job at a printing company and followed her passion to help others. For the next four years, Geetha volunteered full-time and didn’t get paid until 2015. “I’m a risk taker. I believe in myself most of the time. I think, I can do this,” says Geetha, adding that her passion was her driving force. While the SAAAC faced financial challenges, Geetha never stopped believing in her vision. 

The lessons she learned? Stay focused, invest in yourself, and gain knowledge in order to reach your goal. “You never know the limit to how much you can achieve until you take the next step and try,” she says.  

In 2012, the SAAAC received charity status. The organization’s funding includes reasonably priced fee-for-service, fundraising events and federal, provincial and city contributions. In 2017, the SAAAC moved to an 11,000-square-foot facility in Toronto where Geetha and her team run a dozen free and fee-for-service programs including ABA therapy, speech and language, and school readiness. 

In 2019, the SAAAC launched The Goodness Gift, a social enterprise that supports the employment of adults on the autism spectrum, training individuals on inventory, order processing, and making and delivering gift baskets. Geetha aims to have 12 employees by year three and plans to roll out the program nationally. “We want every single person on the spectrum to be employed,” says Geetha. “They have to lead a meaningful life.” 

Looking to the future, Geetha hopes to expand some SAAAC programs globally, training teachers to work with students and creating a model that could be used in rural areas that lack materials and facilities. 

And she hasn’t given up on roots as a dance teacher. Geetha dreams of doing a Broadway show with children and adults on the spectrum, highlighting stories that connect families. “We want to focus on the challenges that the families are facing,” says Geetha, “and then focus on the strengths and abilities of the children and adults on the spectrum.”  

 

Meet Fatima Israel, the head of brand, marketing and communications for one of the ‘Big Four’ professional services firms.

Fatima Israel is an award-winning marketing executive with a 15-year career that spans tech, telecom, professional services and start-up. As the current Head of Brand, Marketing and Communications at EY Canada, Fatima brings a strategic, data-driven and customer-centric lens to lead a broad mandate focused on demand generation, growth marketing, brand management, digital marketing, social media, PR, communications and corporate social responsibility. The self-described ‘overscheduled mom to three terrific children’ holds an MBA from the Schulich School of Business, has been a judge for the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) awards for the past two years, and is working on building fluency in her seventh language. 

 

My first ‘real’ job out of university was… An immersive experience in resiliency, grit and versatility. In other words: I worked for a small business. Fresh out of undergrad, I had the opportunity to take on an 18-month parental leave cover for a Director of Marketing. The company was a fintech start-up in Toronto’s financial district, edging beyond infancy with just over 100 employees. The ambition was bold and our customers were global. 

During that time, I wore many marketing hats to drive demand for a complex portfolio through product marketing, digital marketing, marketing communications, sales enablement, events and public relations. I worked with a passionate group, from sales, finance and developers straight through to the CEO — and I loved every minute. True accountability and infectious, entrepreneurial energy were a motivating combo for me. I gained the equivalent of five years of experience in that short period, learned about the importance of culture, and saw the agile ways in which variations to sales forecasts can impact a start-up. Now, I recommend to all those I mentor to spend at least a year or two with an SMB. 

 

I chose a career in marketing because… Perception is reality. Marketing’s ability to understand that reality through the voice of the customer, cultivate perceptions through creative storytelling, and foster meaningful connections through channels and engagements that compel people to act is one-part art, one-part science. I found this juncture fascinating as I explored different avenues of business as a student. Marketing really stood out to me for its ability to: influence many areas of the business, solve complex problems (and test solutions), reinvent markets, create new categories, shape dialogue, and manage the critical brand of an organization — both internally and externally. It’s also highly data-driven, thanks in part to digital acceleration and the rise of martech. For someone like me who loves the unpredictable, and is driven by both art and science, it was — and still is — the perfect fit.

 

My proudest accomplishment is… Becoming authentically, unapologetically me. The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are. It’s been a journey, but with experience and motherhood, I fully embrace and appreciate who I am — strengths, weaknesses, faults and all — without concern of judgement. Through this growth, previous self-imposed pursuits of perfection have evolved into pursuits of excellence. Achieving the expected has shifted to embracing the unexpected, pushing boundaries and being driven by the unknown. Along the way, I stopped taking myself too seriously and allowed myself to be more vulnerable, which has enabled me to build deeper relationships with others. The metamorphosis was gradual and quiet; the result: catharsis. 

 

My boldest move to date was… Walking away. After years of working towards my next promotion, achieving it and deeply investing in the personal growth and efficiency of my team, I was approached with an opportunity to make a lateral internal move. A new group focused on healthcare, operating as a start-up within our large telecom company was growing, fast. They were looking for someone like me. 

Welcoming the unfamiliar and starting fresh — new products and solutions, a new network and a new team — can feel daunting. I was proud of what I had achieved and the relationships I had built in the existing environment, but I also recognized that I was approaching a learning ceiling in my current role. As someone who thrives on learning and being challenged, I knew this would be an opportunity to gain knowledge about a new part of our business, help scale-up growth, and apply my marketing expertise and leadership in a conservative industry. I also believe things happen for a reason so, after much thought, I pursued the opportunity because there can be no growth without the right amount of risk. 

 

I surprise people when I tell them… I was an entrepreneur. During my third parental leave in 2014, I started my own online business: Forever Frills Boutique, offering handmade, specially curated, and globally-sourced children’s and bridal accessories. Blending the roles of artistic director and business owner, I built an e-commerce enabled website; established a brand identity for the company; drove traffic through paid media, social ads and Facebook influencer groups; and grew customer loyalty through great service, listening to customers, and bringing their unique vision to life. What started as a fun creative outlet turned into a high-functioning business that I continued for three years, while balancing my full-time corporate career as a Marketing Director. There were many 18- and 20-hour days before I sold the business in 2017, but they were some of the best. When you love what you do, it never feels like you’ve worked a day in your life. 

 

Running my own business taught me… The 3 C’s: customer, connection and channel. When you understand your client — what motivates, excites and challenges them — you can differentiate your brand and connect with them on a deeper level. This builds loyalty and sets the stage for long-lasting relationships. Many of my clients became friends that I still stay connected to today. It also allows you to create omnichannel and personalized experiences, while delivering innovative products that resonate and meet unique needs. That’s relevant for any business. 

 

“Don’t be too busy to meet people. That’s where inspiration happens and where new opportunities arise. Being busy is too easy. Make time. The journey is as important as the destination.”

 

My best advice from a mentor was… I’ve been lucky to have some great mentors. Some formal, some informal, some I’ve never met. When Michelle Obama spoke the words, “When they go low, we go high,” that really stuck with me. We can’t control what others say, think or do. But we have the intrinsic ability to decide how we respond. The way we react, or even choose not to, speaks loudly to our values. We cannot take that for granted.

 

I would tell my 21-year-old self… So many things. Be all-in, commit, stay curious, connect the dots, listen and never stop dreaming — but perhaps above all, I’d say: don’t be too busy. Hard work is important. Holding yourself to high standards is important. Crossing the finish line on major goals is important. But don’t be too busy to try the road less travelled. That’s where growth happens. Don’t be too busy to meet people. That’s where inspiration happens and where new opportunities arise. Being busy is too easy. Make time. The journey is as important as the destination. 

 

My biggest setback was… Another chance to learn something new. Not all storms come to disrupt. Some arrive to clear your path. I make mistakes, we all do. That’s where learning happens. Most people won’t remember what you got wrong, just what you did to solve it or how you handled the situation. So, I choose to focus on the lessons learned, welcoming any bump in the road as a gift, and a chance to evolve. 

 

One piece of advice that I give often, but find difficult to follow, is… Balance. I’m an overscheduled mom to three terrific children and a full-time marketing executive. In my off-hours, you’ll find me gaining a new skill such as building fluency in my seventh language or garnering inspiration from a new book. There are no peaks and valleys; my life is go, go, go. The thing is: that is my balance. Most days, busy as I am, it feels just right and I secretly think I thrive on it. 

 

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I’m a huge Disney fan and a child at heart. There’s something incredibly magical about letting yourself simply be. That’s what Disney is for me and my family. The parks are where we celebrate birthdays and make memories, and no matter how often we visit, there is always something new to see or experience. And of course, there are the movies which are on auto-play in our house. The marketer in me will always be in awe of Disney’s creative genius and attention to agonizing details. The Disney empire is what my dreams are made of!

 

The future excites me because… Digital and human now go hand-in-hand. From a marketing standpoint, there’s really no such thing as B2B or B2C anymore. It’s about B2H; business to human. We’ve never had a better chance to lead with empathy, tell emotive stories, connect with audiences, and cultivate personalized and consistent end-to-end experiences. Data is a game-changer for marketers. I believe the digital acceleration of companies, buttressed by COVID-19, will help us gain additional real-time insights to deliver better products, solutions and connected experiences to customers in highly distinctive and relevant ways through scalable and measurable marketing programs. That makes me very hopeful for the future.

 

What keeps you motivated? My personal purpose is to make an impact and leave everything I touch better than when I received it. Achieving this means being motivated by driving change and transformations, challenging the status quo, building and supporting the next generation of leaders, navigating unchartered territory, and always learning. The sky has no limit — there is always room for more.