The early days of the pandemic were tough, but for Ruchi Mital, our NJ Mompreneur of the Week, those weeks and months became the springboard for helping her autistic son and other neurodiverse young adults like him seek success. When her son’s vocational learning went virtual, Ruchi got a glimpse into what life would be like without school and knew she had to do something to maintain his skills and purpose. So during the long days of quarantine, she brainstormed with friends and family to launch Unified Spectrum with a mission to establish career opportunities for the neurodiverse population. Two years later, the non-profit organization employs adults with special needs, creating customized mugs, water bottles, and t-shirts, with hands-on learning about the consumer-producer supply chain. From the start, it was essential for Ruchi and her husband to create a welcoming community and enhance the strength of each employee—they have accomplished that and so much more. Every member of Unified Spectrum’s team is part of the family, and they enjoy it so much they can’t believe they get paid for it. We chatted with this Plainsboro mom of two to find out how her best friend was key in creating Unified Spectrum, how working makes her relax, and some of her favorite NJ businesses that support people with disabilities.
Tell us a little bit about your background. I grew up in India and met my husband, Praveen Mital, there. A year after we were married, we moved to the Bay area in California for a software engineering job for him. We followed that up with a move to the east coast for his work, first living in Philadelphia and then settling in Plainsboro, NJ, where we’ve been for the past nine years. We chose Plainsboro so that my husband could commute to his NYC-based job and also so that it would be close to my day job, where I’m a chemistry teacher at Princeton High School. We’ve been married for 25 years and have two children, Sanket, 21, and Prachi, 18.
Tell us about your career background and what led you to open this business. I got my masters in organic chemistry and was thinking about pursuing my Ph.D., but when Sanket was diagnosed with Autism at 2 ½, I knew he would need a lot more of my time. I began teaching in the Princeton school system 17 years ago, and it has given me a work/life balance. But I’ve always wanted to do something for Sanket and the neurodiverse community. Sanket is very verbal, but he’s not a highly academic-oriented kid, and at his school New Road School of Somerset, he’s learning to make products. I saw how proud he was whenever he saw me wearing or using the things he made. When COVID hit and his school went virtual, he wasn’t getting any in-person vocational support, and I realized that all those skills would go away if he weren’t practicing them weekly. I knew I needed to do something for him and others who could benefit from this.
You launched Unified Spectrum amid the pandemic. Why then? During the pandemic’s early days, my good friend, Anjali Nerurker, and I would go on long walks a few times a week. She’s known Sanket since we moved here and was aware of my desire to do something for the neurodiverse community. She knew I needed another person to brainstorm ideas with and be by my side if we would make this work. She’d just left her job and was at home. She encouraged me to go for it and stepped up to be available whenever and however she was needed. Aside from my family, Unified Spectrum works because of Anjeli, her husband, all the other board members, and the parents of our team members—it takes a village!
With a full-time day job, how do you juggle both responsibilities? It really is a group effort. My daughter had just finished high school, but while in school, she talked to everyone and reached out to various clubs and teams, explaining who we were and what we did. Now that she’s starting her first year of college, she still has plans to be involved and help us grow. I’m usually responsible for processing single, group, and organization orders. When I return home after my teaching job, our team usually will work at my home from around 4:30 PM to around 7:00 PM, fulfilling any orders we have. I always need another adult with me to be on hand to help out, and it’s always either Anjeli or a team member’s parent that helps guide our team. My husband, Praveen, and Anjeli’s husband, Kshtig, also handle many backend business things like taxes, payroll, and software issues.
What has surprised you after launching your business? I’m so proud of every one of these young adults. They don’t judge each other. They support each other and respect what they each bring to the table. Like everyone else, they have so much potential if you trust in their abilities and work with their strengths. One of our employees isn’t verbal, but we know we can count on him to see all the small details—he can explain how to do certain things through hand gestures instead of verbal prompts. And because of this, some others who might get overwhelmed by verbal explanations learn faster. The moral here is that everyone can flourish—they need the chance to show what they can do.
What’s next for your business? We already work with many schools, clubs, teams, and individuals and plan to continue growing that end of our business. Still, we’re hoping to tap into corporations to get even larger orders where we can teach our team more skills and hire more team members. Those who understand our mission understand the importance of it on so many levels. I get many inquiries about teens and young adults with disabilities wanting to work for us, and with support and new opportunities, I’ll be able to hire more workers.
What do you do personally to unwind after a particularly challenging day? Running Unified Spectrum is relaxing because it taps into my creativity, and I love working with these kids. They’re so positive that it keeps me grounded and shows all of us how little we need to be happy in life. It’s empowering to work with them and see their potential, and I love how independent they are here. And though I don’t necessarily do it for stress relief, I garden and use fresh herbs and vegetables to create unique fusion foods and dishes in the kitchen. For example, I like pizza, and we’re originally from India, so I’ll look at pizza and think of ways to make it differently with an Indian influence.
What are some of your favorite NJ businesses? Some companies are more accepting of understanding kids with disabilities, and I prefer to frequent those supporting our kids. The Blue Bears, a restaurant in Princeton, really gets it. Costco is another business that’s very disability friendly, and Popcorn for the People is another that creates meaningful employment for those with Autism and other disabilities.
What are some of your favorite family activities or places you enjoy together in NJ? We love going to the beach, especially Asbury Park and Belmar. And while Praveen, Sanket, and Prachi go in the water, I prefer to take photos of them and figure out the restaurant we’ll go to afterward. We also go hiking a lot, and Mount Tammany is probably the best hike we’ve ever done. It’s somewhat challenging due to the steep climb, but the views couldn’t be more rewarding.
Please share your best advice for an NJ Mompreneur just starting. Your business should be something you’re passionate about because even when you have a lot of support, you’ll be the one doing most of the work. But when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, it feels thrilling and will be worth it.