SBDC Star Client champions neurodiversity with innovative retail space

LACEY, Wash.—Sensory Tool House, a retail store that provides space to explore sensory supportive equipment and tools, has been named the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Star Client for 2023. Business owner Katie McMurray was honored at the Small Business Awards Gala on May 3 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Sensory Tool House awarded as Washington SBDC 2023 Star Client – Photo by Barbie Hull

“Sensory Tool House is a fantastic example of a business that is doing well and doing good,” said Sheryl McGrath, state director of the Washington SBDC. “Not only is Katie providing products and services that address an incredible need, but she is using her platform to advocate for creating inclusive space for neurodiversity at school, at work and in the community.”

McGrath said that Sensory Tool House was chosen as the network’s 2023 Star Client because through McMurray’s work to start and grow her business, she has demonstrated the grit, dedication and resourcefulness that define so many SBDC clients. Her business stands out for the way McMurray is expanding awareness of neurodiversity in her community and around the state. She and her staff provide neurodiversity training and consulting for businesses, organizations, and educators.  

The term neurodivergent refers to individuals whose neurological development differs from what is typically considered the norm or neurotypical. Researchers say this includes about 20 percent of population and includes autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, OCD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and more. McMurray, who earned a graduate degree in educational guidance and counseling and focused a lot of her studies on sensory processing, said the term is not a diagnosis but an acknowledgement that people develop differently. In addition to genetic differences, injuries, illnesses or trauma can also cause atypical neurological development.

Jennifer Dye, the SBDC business advisor who nominated Sensory Tool House for the SBDC Star Client award, called McMurray “a visionary entrepreneur” who has created not just a successful business, but an educational resource for an often unseen population and a blueprint for a neurodivergent workforce.

Sensory Tool House employs nine staff members, nearly all of whom are neurodivergent, including McMurray. According to McMurray, 85 percent of college graduates who are autistic are unemployed or under employed, and unemployment for the entire neurodivergent population can run as high as 40 percent.

Katie McMurray – Sensory Tool House owner

The problem, she said, is not lack of talent or skills, but lack of awareness on the part of employers.  “Once we identify employment barriers and open our businesses to this incredibly talented and skilled workforce, retention increases, productivity skyrockets, innovation increases, culture improves, the business’s bottom line increases, and the entire community benefits,” McMurray said.

“She really walks the walk when it comes to supporting the neurodivergent community,” Dye said.

McMurray said the seeds of Sensory Tool House were planted in 2020 when a friend wanted to buy a sensory swing like the one McMurray had in her home. The neighbor wanted to buy local and test it first, but that wasn’t possible. She did some research and discovered only one store that specialized in products for people who are autistic and it was in Colorado.

“When someone has sensory processing disorder, every detail matters,” McMurray said, “the texture, the smell, the color, the fit, the sound, it all matters. For some the smell of packaging may make a product impossible to use, a color could be too bright, or a fabric could be too stiff or too soft. Every person has a sensory system, it is a human condition. We all experience our senses differently, so being able to experience a product before purchase can be valuable.”

Jennifer Dye (left) and Katie McMurray (right) at Sensory Tool House in Lacey. Businesses are encouraged to stop by to learn ways to support neurodivergent employees by providing a sensory friendly workplace. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

That is when she called Dye, the SBDC Center Director at South Puget Sound Community College. McMurray had been working with Dye on a business plan for a different business, but once she started thinking about what eventually became Sensory Tool House, she knew that was the right business, even in the middle of a pandemic.

“This was my whole life coming together at once,” she said. “I didn’t know what my life was preparing me for, but this was it.”

McMurray credits Dye with supporting her vision and helping her make it a reality. “By supporting this, Jennifer has helped give voice to the neurodivergent community,” she said.

“It’s just a beautiful chain of events that we are seeing happen. The impact is far beyond my retail store.”

The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 40 business advisors working in communities across the state to help small business owners and entrepreneurs start, grow or buy/sell a business. SBDC advisors assist clients in just about any industry and at any stage of business development. SBDC services are provided at no cost to the business owner and are completely confidential.

The Washington SBDC is part of a national SBDC program known as the America’s SBDC and is managed by a cooperative agreement between Washington State University and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). About half the funding for SBDC services is from the SBA and the other half is from multiple state and local funding partners, including the Washington State Department of Commerce, Washington State University, other institutions of higher education, including South Puget Sound Community College, economic development agencies and civic and business groups.

For more about Sensory Tool House, go here.

For more about the Washington SBDC, go here.