|By CAROLINE AOYAGI, Executive Editor, Pacific Citizen
When Julie Azuma, 61, adopted her daughter Miranda in 1988 she soon realized her child wasn’t developing as fast as the other kids. After years of doctor’s visits and misdiagnoses, Miranda was finally diagnosed with autism at the age of six.
Azuma immediately began scouring stores for toys and resources to help in Miranda’s development but was disappointed with the lack of products geared towards autistic children. She soon turned to doctor’s offices and schools for help.
With the realization that other parents of autistic children were likely going through the same dilemmas and the need to stay at home and care for Miranda and younger sister Sophie, Azuma decided to start her own business providing autism resources in 1994 called Different Roads to Learning.
“When I first started my own business most people didn’t think it would be successful,” said Azuma, a Sansei, who hoped to at least make about $30,000 a year in income. “It was frightening … I never had my own business.”
Two years ago Azuma’s business hit the $1 million mark in gross revenue. Providing a wide array of materials and resources for parents of autistic children, all with a personal touch, Different Roads to Learning continues to grow. Last year the company grossed $1.7 million and Azuma was recently featured in Inc. Magazine as part of the segment, “26 Entrepreneurs We Love.”
Different Roads to Learning (www.difflearn.com) started off as an Internet business in 1995 and a year later, Azuma produced a paper catalogue. Starting off with a total of 30 products, today the site offers a selection of over 250 items including books, flashcards, puzzles, and videos. Azuma expanded the business to include DRL Books, Inc. in 1999 and has published several books on autism.
With a staff of three, Azuma continues to work out of her New York apartment providing products and answering e-mails and letters from concerned parents. Last year, the company finally automated the business and Azuma outsourced her shipping operations.
“It’s very cathartic,” said Azuma, who currently has about 24,000 customers worldwide accessing her business. “I’m able to help the parents and they really love what we do.”
Since Azuma’s daughter Miranda was diagnosed back in 1994, the autism rate in the United States has increased dramatically. From 1990 to 1999 there was a 172 percent increase in the number of autism cases in the United States. Today, 1 out of 250 children are diagnosed with autism, making it the fastest-growing developmental disorder.
Although Miranda was diagnosed at the age of six, Azuma says children who are diagnosed early have the best chance of developing and have a higher likelihood of being able to academically enter kindergarten.
“Make sure kids are evaluated as soon as possible … they’ll make more progress,” she said. “The more intervention, the better off the kids are.”
Although there are a number of misconceptions about autism and autistic children, Azuma believes the largest is that all autistic kids are “savants.”
“Some kids are very disabled but some are not that disabled. There’s a wide spectrum,” she said.
Today, Miranda is almost 17 and lives in a group home with six other autistic kids about 40 minutes from the Azuma’s. The family visits regularly each weekend and Julie continues to be inspired by her daughter.
Recently, Azuma decided to take on a new Internet and catalogue business called the Mind and Memory Store providing various products for Alzheimer’s patients. Although Azuma says she is still in the “research stage” of her new business she has already accumulated 50-age appropriate products.
Her businesses keep her busy but Azuma is a regular volunteer in the Japanese American and Asian American communities. She is a past board member of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families and is currently on the New York Day of Remembrance Committee. Azuma’s also been a member of the New York JACL chapter for over 20 years.
As a founding member and current chair of the non-profit Asian Women in Business, Azuma regularly encourages more AAs to start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs. She’s noticed that although a number of Chinese, Korean, and South Asians have shown interest in starting their own businesses, JAs are still shying away.
“There’s something about us that holds us back a bit,” said Azuma. “I had enormous fear of starting my own business. Whether you can make it, the fear — will you be successful?”
Her advice to new business owners: keep your day job. Since businesses usually take about five years to get off the ground and start making money, first-time entrepreneurs should keep their day jobs while working on their own businesses on the side.
“There’s always room for everybody,” she said. “Entrepreneurship is the way to go. You just have to find a way to find your niche.”