Dirk van Meer: Doing business successfully with autism

Appearances are deceiving. And that also applies to prejudices. For example, about Dirk van Meer. Among other things, he’s an initiator of CORE, a large student team focusing on complex, circular issues. As an entrepreneur, he focuses on sustainable innovations and is a winner of awards such as the Rabobank Inspiration Award. Must be a ruthless salesman, you’d think. Someone who pursues his goal full force without any doubts. But nothing could be further from the truth. Dirk is introverted and has asperger’s, a form of autism. And his heart doesn’t lie so much in the commercial side, but in creating a more wonderful, inclusive society.

Text Ilona de Baar
Image Vincent van den Hoogen

Recently, Dirk was on stage at 24 Uur in Bedrijf. Speaking about his path as an entrepreneur, and all the challenges it entails. From the moment he was stamped as ‘autistic’, to the first team he had to lead. After his talk, we briefly spoke to Dirk about his motivation, passion and inspiration…

Dirk, what drives you?
When I was diagnosed with autism at a young age, I had already noticed that I looked at things differently. The advantage here was that I could see how society deals with inclusivity. This made me aware of what I would definitely do differently myself. This motivation has also led me to hire team members that work on completely different inclusivity pieces. Topics I’ve got a blind spot for myself. For example, internationals on the team, gender distribution and multidisciplinarity in terms of background studies.

Imagine that your life, in some parallel universe, had turned out differently. What would you do if you hadn’t done this?

I’ve babysat a lot in my life. I’ve babysit for more than 52 kids. I like children, I resonate with them. So probably I could have done something along those lines. For example, as a primary school teacher. Maybe at a kindergarten.

That’s very different to what you’re doing now! Or maybe not?

It’s very similar. In my role, I’m primarily a teacher, then a coach and ultimately also a CEO. At the end of the day, you’re just collaborating with others. With an open mind where I don’t exclude anything.

Do you think inspiration emerges from passion or irritation?

Ha ha, both. My father builds work trucks. He’s part of the ‘old guard’. So if something isn’t going well, he comes up with a solution. Sometimes it’s a suitable solution and sometimes duct tape is the answer. These solutions to the problems start with irritation, because he is annoyed by what is happening. A lot of other projects he does, or the things I do with CORE, for example, are actually solutions where the inspiration comes out of a passion to become more sustainable. I think it just stems from how you identify problems.

As soon as you think: ‘Here’s an opportunity to tackle something, then you’re talking about motivation. Irritation can be a way of identifying a problem that you’re not approaching in the right way. And I also see passion as a way of identifying problems. I don’t know anyone who is passionate about something that is already perfect.

Take, for example, people who sail. They are passionate and constantly improving their own skills. Because they think: this isn’t good enough, I want to set a faster time. That’s where the motivation and inspiration comes from. So does inspiration emerge from passion or irritation? My answer is both. It arises from a lack of something.

As an autistic person, what did you miss most when you were working for an employer?

To put it bluntly, a bit of understanding. I think we shouldn’t just ignore our disabilities or personal challenges. Employers should ask if they can help and offer options and opportunities. Because regardless of the label you carry; motivation and drive can help you go far.

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