In the Hunt: Out of Adversity, an Opportunity

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
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As his mother tells it, Cade Larson was a lively 15-month-old who loved playing peekaboo and chase with other children and was quickly adding to his vocabulary of more than 50 words, including “fish,” “bowl” and “shoe.”

But then, said his mother, Jennifer VanDerHorst-Larson, Cade got vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella, influenza and chicken pox on Oct. 15, 2001. He wailed for a few moments, then slumped into a deep sleep that lasted 14 hours. When he woke up, she said, he was a different child.

“He stopped looking at me,” Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson said. “He had lost his speech.” She believes he had a huge seizure that resulted in brain damage.

In a heartbeat, her mission became healing her son. In that, she failed. On Valentine’s Day 2002, her school district told her that Cade had the severest case of autism it had ever seen. “This is my only child,” she said. “I can’t describe the pain.”

The idea that vaccines cause autism has been widely rejected by mainstream scientists, though some doctors are investigating it and many parents of autistic children remain convinced there is a link.

But Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson, 35, had a resource for fighting back that many parents do not: She was an entrepreneur. In 1996, she had opened a Pilates studio in Minneapolis. In 1998, she had started Vibrant Technologies, a buyer and seller of information technology hardware that now has 40 employees and expects revenue this year of $45 million, up from $37 million last year.

In the five and a half years since Cade’s condition was diagnosed, Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson has thrown herself into the challenge of giving meaning to his life with all of the classic weapons of the entrepreneurial personality: superhuman energy, bottomless self-confidence, bulldog tenacity, a compulsion to be in control and a knack for spotting opportunities in even the most disheartening reversals of fortune.

In effect, she has made caring for her son and for others like him her third business.

She shut her first one, the Pilates venture, to free up time. For two years, she traveled the country, attending seminars and taking Cade to neurologists, immunologists and other specialists, until, she said, she realized she would never find the cure she was seeking. As his mother tells it, Cade Larson was a lively 15-month-old who loved playing peekaboo and chase with other children and was quickly adding to his vocabulary of more than 50 words, including “fish,” “bowl” and “shoe.”

“By then, I was running a home program for him, nine people in all: a behavioral analyst, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a psychologist, a social worker, a special education teacher and three behavioral therapists,” Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson said.

She was also running Vibrant. She said she was getting just two hours of sleep a night. “It was not normal,” she said. “It was inhuman.”

“It was the same drive you have when you start a company,” she said. “My son was my investment. I was the manager.” Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson said that her husband, David Larson, a co-owner of Vibrant, was very supportive, but “this was who I am, not who he was.”

In April 2003, she started the nonprofit Holland Center in Excelsior, Minn., for children ages 2 to 8 who have autism, including Cade, whose face is on the Web site’s home page. The staff consists of a behavioral analyst, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a special education teacher, a music teacher, two psychologists, 15 behavioral therapists and Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson as the business manager. That comes to 23 people working with 17 children.

Six months after the Holland Center was created, she was back to more traditional entrepreneurship, starting St. Croix Solutions, a technology consulting firm and provider of computer hardware. She said that she wanted her son to sprout his wings and that she realized he could not do that if she was at the center all the time.

But it was more than that. “It’s in my nature,” she said. “I saw an opportunity. My husband says, ‘Don’t start anything else.’ But it’s like a drug.” Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson estimates that St. Croix’s revenue this year will be $26 million, up from $18 million last year.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, an M.D. who founded the Boswell Group, a New York consulting firm that specializes in business culture issues, says Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson’s approach to her son’s disability is a case study in “the uncanny ability of entrepreneurs to see obstacles as challenges and to jump over them instead of being stopped by them.”

“Many mothers might react to the discovery that their child has autism with depression,” Dr. Sulkowicz said. “Jennifer didn’t because she had pre-existing resources that she could call upon to seek a solution to the problem.”

Asked how he interpreted her statement that her son became her investment and she the manager, Dr. Sulkowicz said it was ” a depersonalization of something that is extremely personal.” He continued: “It’s kind of like saying, ‘On one level, I’m not going to think in terms of mother and son, I’m going to take a half step back and approach and deal with that as a business problem. Because that way, I will be more likely to find a solution.’ That approach, in turn, has probably made her a sturdier and more satisfied mother.”

Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson said she had not decided yet what to do next. She said she might create a chain of autism centers or a foundation to help children with autism. Or both.

Her ordeal, she agreed, had made her a better entrepreneur. “It changed my perspective on everything,” she said. “It gave me more drive in looking for opportunities and challenging myself more. It has led me to think harder, make smarter decisions.”

Successful entrepreneurs do not agonize over problems. They jump in and solve them, often in ways they could never have foreseen. Ms. VanDerHorst-Larson was unable to find a quick fix to Cade’s autism. But she found a remedy.

“Today, he does speak,” she said. “He says, ‘Sit, mommy,’ and ‘Blue crayon,’ and ‘Red shirt.’ He’s not in pain anymore. He’s a social person. He makes eye contact. He’s happy.”

Written by Brent Bowers

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company