José Rodriguez Jr. ’25 always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. In high school, he enrolled in a business class and thought maybe he would be a clothing designer. But, then he thought about the potential market—kids like him.
“If you’re wearing Tommy Hilfiger, why would you want to buy my brand?” he says. “I needed a twist.”
That twist came in a flash of inspiration while thinking about how he could help his brother, Joel, who is on the autism spectrum, manage his anxiety. “I found out that fidget toys are huge in autism,” he says. So, he decided to design a T-shirt with interchangeable toys attached so they wouldn’t get lost.
Rodriguez pitched the concept to a national youth entrepreneur competition, beating 20,000 other entrants and winning $12,000 in prize money to patent, manufacture, and promote his clothing line. Next, he was featured as one of “People’s Teens Changing the World,” a magazine piece that led to even more press and a few “videos that went viral,” he says.
The company he created, Tasium, an anagram of the word autism, sells the T-shirts for $25 and is doing well, but the first-year Babson College student says he’s motivated by a lot more than pure profit.
His brother, Joel, 17, is “one of the reasons I get up in the morning,” Rodriguez says. “I grew up doing everything with my brother. We tied our shoes together, we walked to the barbershop together, we played basketball together. I attended his IEP (individualized educational plan) meetings, even in grammar school.”
Rodriguez—who hails from a part of Providence, Rhode Island, he describes as “low-income”—was awarded a full scholarship to Babson. He will be the first person in his family to attend college.
“It’s surreal,” he says. “I’m new to entrepreneurship, and (Babson) is the big leagues.” Getting into Babson, he says, “is a testament to my hard work, but also to the people who have invested in me all my life.”
The road to Babson began in 2019, Rodriguez says, when he was a junior at The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence. The Met School, as it’s known, has an entrepreneurship program called E360. There’s an application process to get in, and Rodriguez says he received a lot of encouragement from his driver’s ed teacher, who also taught in E360. Once Rodriguez was admitted, his teacher also helped him bring his clothing line idea to life.
“I saw a banner with a grommet and I was all like, ‘How do I do that?’ And, my teacher said, ‘Don’t worry; we have a machine.’ ” Rodriguez punched a hole in the corner of a T-shirt then fitted the hole with a metal grommet through which a fidget toy could dangle—similar to a key chain with a plush smiley face or squeezable cube at the end.
At the end of the E360 program, students have the opportunity to enter a national youth competition sponsored by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). But first, students make a two-minute pitch in front of a panel of judges in a process that is modeled after “Shark Tank.” The Met’s version is called “Fish Bowl.”
Studying entrepreneurship, including “learning the entrepreneurial mindset, learning what a business plan is and how to do an elevator pitch,” Rodriguez says, “opens a door to that part of your brain some people don’t know they have.”
Rodriguez says he practiced his pitch all day, every day throughout the pandemic because he knew the competition was going to be stiff. “There were 20,000 other students who wanted the money.” Rodriguez won, but he says, “For me, it was never about the money.”
What does motivate him is improving life for his brother and others with autism. As he likes to put it, “You can’t put a price on quality of life, and if you can improve someone’s quality of life, it’s priceless.”
“It’s surreal. I’m new to entrepreneurship, and (Babson) is the big leagues.”
José Rodriguez Jr. ’25
He also feels like his relationship with his brother and his clothing line has given him a certain responsibility to correct misperceptions about people with autism, but it’s one he relishes. He is quick to point out that he doesn’t view his brother as disabled. “He just thinks differently,” Rodriguez says.
Though he may think differently, his brother—like most teens—wants his clothes to reflect who he is, but not in a way that marks him as “disabled.” Rodriguez’s line “right now is just a shirt,” he says, but he has plans to branch out into hoodies and sweatshirts.
And, after that? “My dream is to sponsor the Special Olympics and become Nike for the special needs community. This is my passion,” he says, “and it comes straight from my heart.”
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