Jhillika Kumar, Founder and CEO of Mentra, discusses how to create meaningful career opportunities for neurodivergent job seekers.


Intro: [00:00:00.15] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:25.14] I love a good story of how our real-life experiences can shape our career and how we serve the HR in workplace communities. To set the stage for our podcast guest on the topic, I wanted to share some information from the CDC, which was published earlier this year. It talks about the number of adults living with the autism spectrum disorder in the United States. It is over two percent of the entire U.S. adult population. In today’s interview, we will be discussing autism as well as neurodiversity. You might have heard these terms used interchangeably. My guest will be able to share her expertise and give us insights into the similarities and differences, along with the work that she is doing to help train, develop and find employment for those who identify as neurodiverse. This episode of the Workology Podcast is part of our Future of Work series, powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year, we’re investigating what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work and the potential of technologies to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. Today, I’m joined by Jhillika Kumar. Jhillika, welcome to the Workology podcast.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:01:40.95] Thank you so much, Jessica.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:43.02] Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Jhillika Kumar: [00:01:46.65] Absolutely. My name is Jhillika. I grew up on the other side of the world. I was actually, I’m born to an Indian family and grew up in Dubai. So, I had a brother who was on the autism spectrum. His name is Vikram, and he’s always been my best friend and sort of the light that guides me in, through a lot of the experiences I’ve had. So, he is a non-speaking individual. He has, up until recently, has never, never been able to speak. And so, it’s always really been a struggle for my family and I to understand him and help him as much as possible, because, for example, he’s not someone who can brush his teeth independently or go places. He always needs someone to sort of take care of him. So that has been something that has motivated me in a lot of my endeavors. And I’m excited to go into them today on this podcast and so grateful to be here.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:51.06] Thank you so much Jhillika for, for sharing your story. I think it’s important to kind of level set and talk about the why and how you got here. So, let’s talk about Mentra. What is it and how does it work?

Jhillika Kumar: [00:03:04.27] Absolutely. So, I actually, at the age of 16, moved to the United States to study in university at Georgia Tech. I left my brother, left my family. So, it was really interesting to adjust to the new culture and the new college environment. And that’s actually where I started to really dive deeper into how can I use my personal experiences, my understanding of the autism community and my technological curiosity to really build something that could enable and empower this population, especially for people like my brother and for so many millions of others. And so I started to do research at Georgia Tech, focused primarily on the non-speaking community. So how can we really build technologies that will enable individuals who are not able to communicate to use some sort of a device or an assistive technology to speak? And the same way that Stephen Hawking uses technology, would that be something we could create for the neuro diverse community, whether that’s through eye gaze tracking. And then it sort of evolved as we started to connect with the Autism Self Advocacy Network. And the common response we were getting was that there are so many neurodiverse individuals across the globe that are systemically sort of shut out of the workforce and sometimes not even intentionally. Many times there are individuals who are neurodiverse who are sort of locked out of the traditional system in which employers hire, interview and retain individuals with disabilities, especially cognitive differences. So we made it our mission to focus on this community in particular because so much of the research was going into early intervention.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:05:01.92] By 2025, there will be over 500,000 people in the United States who will age out of government support programs, who will leave colleges and who will enter the workforce. And because one of the biggest problems right now is the underemployment. So, someone who might be really, really naturally gifted at data and understanding data science or even marketing and understanding people and how to connect the dots; they are oftentimes, you know, working at grocery stores, working at jobs that they really just don’t feel fulfilled by. So that was something that we really wanted to build a technological solution around. So, we built the Mentra platform and it started with, sort of the slogan for the platform is “We are the mantra to an inclusive world.” So, we really want to bridge the different gaps that exist, both social and technical, to really bring the two communities together. So that’s where Mentra was founded. It was at Georgia Tech while we were doing research. We partnered with the ASAN community in Atlanta. We started doing research, conducting interviews, talking to people, going to panels and really understanding why is it that the pain point exists. Is it the complicated application process online? Because each one is different. Some of them might not be accessible. They might have different colors, you know, they might be structured in a totally different way each time. And so it oftentimes becomes extremely overwhelming and anxiety provoking for the community.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:06:44.01] And then, of course, the resumé black whole, which is many, is a common fate for many, which is where they don’t hear back from an employer, and then that just sort of gives them less hope for the future and sort of disincentivizes them from even entering the system in the first place. So that’s why we built Mentra, to really be a centralized platform where neurodiverse individuals can apply to, rather than endlessly applying at five hundred different positions for a role that they might not be sure that they’re good at. Instead, they apply once to Mentra. We’ve made it a really fun, intuitive process, very gamified, a lot of visuals and it’s really accessible at the core. We’ve tested it with the community several times to make sure that it’s not something that’s tedious, it’s more energizing and it has questions about what environments they work best in, what kinds of teams they want to work in. And it really gets to who they are as a human being and as an individual. And then we’ve actually been working with the data science team at Georgia Tech at building a matching algorithm. So really connecting people who would be really skilled at a certain role or really naturally gifted or talented at it and might not necessarily know that that’s a good role for them. So, the matching algorithm would essentially bring employers together with neurodiverse individuals and facilitate a match that really aligns with the individual’s strengths and passions and the companies’ environments and the culture.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:08:23.73] So for the larger vision of the ecosystem, we want to build a, not only a centralized talent pool, we want this to be a community we’re building, a digital ecosystem for the neurodiverse across the country and across the globe.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:39.60] You mentioned the term neurodiverse. For those who might not be familiar what neurodiverse means, can you kind of give us a little background and share?

Jhillika Kumar: [00:08:48.90] Absolutely. Neurodiversity is the range of differences that an individual brain function can have. And it’s oftentimes regarded as part of the normal variation in the human population, basically to say that everyone’s brain is different and might have different ways of interpreting the world, whether that’s different sensory perception or different ways of communicating and that’s especially, this includes autism, ADHD, dyslexia.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:09:22.47] So many of the different conditions of the humankind can sort of fall into neurodiversity. And oftentimes individuals who are neurodiverse really have challenges with certain types of social skills or being in certain environments around other people. So, it’s important with the community. And that’s not everyone. Everyone is completely different and not to generalize at all, but just to say that there are so many different requirements and needs of each individual that it oftentimes becomes difficult to find places where they can really thrive and environments and teams to work around that really energize them, rather than drain them. So that’s what neurodiversity is. And we’re excited that there’s a whole population across the world that we can empower using a platform like Mentra.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:20.13] Thank you for sharing, because I feel like there’s a lot of confusion. Oftentimes when we use the word neurodiverse and people say, oh, is that everyone there, everyone who has autism or everyone who has dyslexia. So, it’s important for us to kind of level set this. It doesn’t just mean only people who are diagnosed with autism or only people who are on the autism spectrum. It could be a lot of different types of diagnoses and brain and cognitive functions that are different than, than maybe you or me or others out there.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:10:57.96] Exactly. Yes.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:00.18] Jhillika, I wanted for you to talk to me about artificial intelligence and how it’s being used with Mentra. Talk to us about how it’s being used, because sometimes when we think of AI, we think about, oh, this is an algorithm that might discriminate against individuals, but you’re using this to be able to match people to opportunities. So, walk us through some of the details about the AI behind Mentra.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:11:26.31] Yes, fantastic question. Basically, there’s, a hundred percent, there’s so much bias with how employers right now filter candidates, because a lot of the times when you narrow in your search to say, you know, do they have a certain skill set, that immediately cuts out an entire group of people that might not necessarily have had that skill set; however, they might have a natural inclination for the subject or be able to learn really quickly on the job. Those are the aspects we’re trying to be very mindful of when we create this algorithm. And essentially what it is doing, in a very simplistic model, is we are connecting candidates with the most suitable job for them. And we’re also ensuring that employers get the most ideal candidate. So, really to make sure it’s synergistic between both the applicant as well as the employer. And it’s actually, we could break it down into sort of four basic steps for what this algorithm is doing. So first, we’re looking at data. We’re obtaining personal information. We’re really trying to understand what is it that, the unique skill sets that this individual brings to the table. Those are the questions I described earlier, going deep into what different environments the individual might work in best, and what culture fit works best for them. And, of course, what skills are they good at? And are they beginner level, intermediate or really, really advanced at that skill? And then we’re actually looking at matching the individual with the employer.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:13:08.18] So we’re applying machine learning algorithms to match the candidate with the job based off of all the information we have. And we’re actually changing it around. So some might call this a reverse job fair, where we’re presenting the individual or the candidate to the employer and we’re actually providing the employer with a recommendation. So what happens is an employer can go on to Mentra, sign up, access the talent pool, and they would be able to describe the role and basically have a list of people who would be the most recommended or most suitable for the job. We are calling this the “discoverability score.” So how discoverable is the individual for a certain job or for a certain type of employer? And then what we’re doing is we’re actually getting the feedback. So, you know, does the individual actually enjoy the job? Are they really feeling fulfilled at the role? We’re collecting that feedback as well as from the employer, how good of a fit they were for the role. And we’re refining and learning and building the algorithm based off of that information. So we’re trying to be as comprehensive as possible with the individual as well as the role that the employer is trying to hire that individual into.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:14:24.34] What teams are they working in? What kind of work ethic does the team have? Are they going to be in a very fast paced environment or is it more slow where there are certain tasks that are routine, because different people work best in different types of those kinds of settings. So once we get that user data, we’re, right now we’re looking at different machine learning models and we’re looking at job recommendation systems like LinkedIn and Indeed, and we’re trying to really consolidate all of the existing information to really empower the community of people with disabilities, so that someone who might be good at baking or the non-traditional jobs that you wouldn’t necessarily find right now online, someone might be good at stitching or working as a freelancer. They would be able to get matched with the best employers for them. So that is what we’re doing in terms of the AI piece and we are working with the data science team at Georgia Tech to make that a reality. And we have a fantastic data science lead on our team who’s driving this effort forward. And we’re really trying to combine our technological savviness with our empathy and our understanding for the community. So we’re not marginalizing certain populations or leaving certain people out. That’s very core to the mission of our platform and the inclusivity we want to bring.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:48.85] I think this is very important for you to be able to share because not all algorithms are created equally. And so the work that you guys are doing and the empathy that you’re building into and making considerations into this AI algorithm I think is really essential to its future success.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:16:12.82] Yes. A hundred percent.

Break: [00:16:14.71] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you are listening to the Workology podcast. Today we are talking about creating neurodiverse talent pools with Jhillika Kumar. This podcast is sponsored by Workology, and it’s part of our Future of Work series in partnership with the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology, or PEAT.

Break: [00:16:35.83] The Workology podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Learn more about PEAT at Peatworks.org. That’s Peatworks.org.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:04.73] Thank you for sharing about the artificial intelligence and the algorithm in particular. I wanted to ask you to dive in a little bit more because the algorithm is only good, as good as the information and the checks and balances that are in place. So, talk to us about how you’re making sure that the matching technology does what it is supposed to do so that the employer and also those candidates are getting what they want.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:17:33.50] Most definitely. So right now, we are collecting data from both the employer and the applicant. So when we collect that information from the employer, we’re really trying to understand, go really deep into the role and not look just at skills. So we’re looking at the environment. We’re looking at the personality or the culture fit, and we’re looking at the personal information. Where is the person located? Are they able to travel by themselves? Are they able to relocate independently? We’re really understanding all of that information. And we’re also asking the employer to rate how important that information is for them. Like some employers really, really care about the skills that the person brings to the table and are they able to match exactly what the employer is looking for. Other times, you know, there are some employers that care a lot more about the environment because, you know, if you’re working in a really crowded, noisy environment or driving a bus or a vehicle that is so important to the job, you need to be able to function in that environment. So understand the requirements of the employer to really weigh how important each criteria is for them. And we also want to make them rethink, you know, really question if someone is good for the role but doesn’t have the necessary skill set for it, could they still be a valuable asset to the team because they’re willing to learn? And something really novel that we’ve built into our profiles is we’re actually creating a video resumé so the individual, the applicant, can really express themselves and talk about why they’re passionate about the role they want to get into, what past experience or project have they worked on to demonstrate their value. So there’s a lot of depth we’re collecting from there, from the employer as well as the candidate.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:19:29.90] So both information really feeds and then the model actually takes that in, learns from that information from, that the employer is providing from feedback and the candidate and making the algorithm more inclusive. And we’re really combining the feedback from both communities.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:47.60] When we had our prep call, you talked about some of the pilots that you have been doing with clients. Can you share some of the ways that you’re helping these employers connect to the neurodiverse talent pools and some of the success that they’ve experienced?

Jhillika Kumar: [00:20:01.85] Right now, we are engaged in a pilot study. So we have partnered with a Fortune 500 employer, and we’re really working on finding individuals who would be appropriate matches for their role. And we’re working directly with another organization that helps facilitate the process for the neurodiverse community. We’re really understanding how they are conducting their assessments because it is a very sort of technical, some of the roles are quite technical, so they have to understand the skills for it. And we’re actually, we’ve been providing them with neurodiverse candidates. So we’ve focused mostly on that talent acquisition piece of reaching parts of the community that might be in different parts of the country, as well as the world, you know, who’ve found Mentra, who found the position, who applied through our application process. And then we’ve actually been working with the company to make sure that we’re building profiles that fit what they’re specifically looking for.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:21:08.90] For example, this employer really wants to make sure because it’s so technical that the individual has those technical skills, that we’ve been doing a deep dive into what skills they’ve learned, how many, you know, how much experience, do they have hands-on experience with it? Is it at an advanced level? And we’re actually demonstrating all of that information on the profile in a really clean and simplistic way. And that’s the feedback we’ve really been getting is that the Mentra profile right now, it sort of serves as a replacement for the resumé, because for this community in particular, a resumé is really looking at their past work experience, which might be limited just because this community oftentimes might not have had the same opportunities maybe in high school or maybe in college and might not have had that work experience just because of the nature of being neurodiverse. For many, that’s not all. Many of the individuals do have that past work experience, and they’re, they can talk a lot about it in their Mentra video resumé, for example.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:22:14.60] So it really varies. And we’ve made it a very clean and crisp understanding of what information the employer needs. And the other feedback, we actually received this just yesterday from the employers, was that the Mentra profile is really focused on going deep into the individual. It’s not a surface level understanding or look. If a recruiter does want to do that first level skim of a very surface level, they could definitely do so. And because the Mentra profile has a consistent structure to it, a recruiter can immediately go to the parts of the profile that are relevant to them. Whereas if someone were to really, you know, they’re looking at two different candidates to try and identify who’s really going to be the best for this job, a recruiter can go in and look more deeply at that person’s story, maybe why they’re passionate about the job. They can read more about their environments, what teams they can thrive in, and really understand those distinct factors that make each human being unique and they can decide who to hire.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:23:28.34] So it serves both purposes. It’s a systemized format of looking at profiles. And we really just wanted to sort of disrupt the way that resumés exist. The first resumé was written in the 1400s by Leonardo da Vinci. So it’s an old system and we’re trying to replace it, at least for the neurodiverse community at first, eventually for the disabilities community as a whole. We will want to replace that. So, it’s a lot more deep and all-encompassing of the different dimensions of the individual.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:58.37] I love that. And thank you for sharing, because the old way of something from the 1400s, certainly with all the technology and the resources and AI that we have now, it’s time to, to get an upgrade so that we have a reflective, not just a resumé, but like you said, a profile that is reflective of all the individual’s talents and what makes them unique and how they can fit within that organization.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:24:27.59] Exactly.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:28.58] One of the questions we’ve been asking as part of the Future of Work series with PEAT this year is, I’m asking you to get out your crystal ball and look at what the next 30 years of work will look like and what emerging workplace trends or technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on people with disabilities?

Jhillika Kumar: [00:24:48.93] That is a fantastic question. Personally, I believe that the nature of work right now is completely transforming our notion of it. Initially, where you had to go into a corporate environment, or an office space and work is being completely disrupted by the pandemic and the work from home becoming a new norm. Working from home right now has actually enabled the neurodiverse community to really succeed at their job because they are in an environment that they’re comfortable in. And this is, for the vast majority of people I’ve personally spoken to, might not be for everyone, but it’s really allowed for people to work where they’re comfortable. I have a colleague who runs on a treadmill while he’s sitting at his office table because he gets really nervous sometimes and it helps him sort of let his stress out while he’s working out.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:25:42.54] And so it’s, it’s really going to present new opportunities, I think, in the next 30 years for individuals who before just didn’t have access to a job. I mean, before the ADA was passed, people who were on wheelchairs were not able to even access certain buildings because wheelchair ramps weren’t a norm at the time. And now they’re helping everyone. They’re helping people who ride bikes, who have shopping carts. It’s just, I think that’s really the movement. And that’s something called the curb cut effect, which is that if we’re building technologies and solutions that are useful for the community of people with disabilities and help them and empower them, then we’re making the whole ecosystem and the world that we live in a better place for everyone, because at the end of the day, everyone benefits from that, that ramp today. And that’s really the, really what’s at the core of what we’re building at Mentra. And we’re doing this really slow and steady, launching a pilot first, tracking our success, collecting the metrics, see how we can do better, launching very, very strategized marketing campaigns.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:27:52.53] Because that’s really what is at the core of the platform that we’ve built is we’re making it really accessible from the ground up and we’re collecting all of the information that really matters, both to the person who’s applying for the job, what they really care about, as well as what the employer really cares about. I think Fortune 500 companies from across the world and even smaller businesses, they’re going to realize that there are individuals who are being left out of the workforce. Before the pandemic, the numbers were at 85 percent who are unemployed in the autism community. And now the numbers are going up, and these are incredibly capable and highly proficient individuals. And just as an example, my brother, who had never been able to communicate. Right now he’s actually learning how to type on a letter board, and that’s really enabled him to express himself. And also, just we’re learning about how much potential he has to be able to write poetry. He’s writing amazing…I have to look in a dictionary when I read his poems to understand what his words mean. And he’s learning data science from Georgia Tech because he retains information really, really rapidly, especially, you know, reading books and novels. He can skim through it in 30 minutes and he would have read the entire book. So, it’s just discovering how much potential lies latent within this community. I think that’s something that employers are going to discover. In fact, some employers call it sort of their own competitive advantage or their own superpower, because they’re able to really tap into that potential. So, I think in the next 30 years, it’s going to be a huge wave in that direction. And individuals who are neurodiverse and have a disability are going to leave their mark on the world, just like Stephen Hawking and Temple Grandin and all of these great genius minds, like Albert Einstein, did. I think they’re going to enter the workforce and they’re really going to bring that empathy and that deeper perspective in life understanding into the work that they do. So I’m really excited for the future.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:30:38.62] Well, Jhillika, thank you for sharing your story. I love the passion. I love how you’re putting it to work to help not just make a better life for your brother, but a better life for everyone, including those who are neurodiverse and certainly also for employers, too. So I think this is an amazing story. I can’t wait to catch up with you again soon because I know that you’re on to really amazing things that are going to change the world. I wanted to ask you, because I know people are going to be listening to this and going, wow, I need to keep up with Jhillika, too. I want to learn more about what Mentra does. Where can people go to find out more about Mentra and then connect with you?

Jhillika Kumar: [00:31:19.78] Thank you so much. This has been a great conversation. I would say that, I mean, we’re all over social media. Personally, you can find me on LinkedIn. I love to post about what’s going on with our team and with the community. And we also have a Mentra LinkedIn page. Our website is www.Mentra.me so that our design team has been working really hard on making that seamless and beautiful. So, definitely visit and share it with your friends and family, especially if you know someone who might be neurodiverse and maybe is looking for employment or even just graduating high school. And I would say if you’re looking at connecting with the team, we do have a Mentra Instagram page, we have a Twitter page, Facebook, LinkedIn. We’re trying to really push this movement forward on every platform that we can. So we’re @Mentrateam over there, and I would just like to say to sort of conclude is our mission with Mentra is we really want to tap into everyone’s potential, even outside of the United States eventually, because there are so many underrepresented communities across the world who have a disability and are really yearning to make a difference and leave an impact. And I really think the United States is, it’s, it’s always been the catalyst for a lot of the change that’s happened in the world. So I think starting here and driving this movement in this country and then hopefully the rest of the world sort of follows along. And we can make this a movement towards really making, pushing forward the disability advocacy movement and making sure our workforces, our education systems and even our, in our own households, that they’re built and maintained for everyone. And we have an equal playing field for the neurodiverse community to enter the workforce. So praying for the future of this country and thank you so much, Jessica, for this, for hosting me on your show.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:33:27.00] Yes, I really am. I am so thankful to have, to learn more about what you’re working on. And I really, I can’t wait to see what all the amazing things that you and your team are going to be able to do with Mentra. So thank you again for taking the time.

Jhillika Kumar: [00:33:43.05] Awesome.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:33:44.82] I love hearing Jhillika’s story. I’m so inspired by her and love how she is diving headfirst into her work that will literally change the world. I really can’t wait to see how Mentra’s work grows and evolves. If you’re an employer who is interested in learning more about Mentra and their programs, I urge you to reach out. You go to the show notes, you’ll be able to connect with Jhillika on LinkedIn and check out the Mentra website. Their work, I believe, will fundamentally change how we understand and hire, not just in neurodiversity but within all areas of diversity and inclusion. Their application of artificial intelligence is truly innovative. I can’t wait to see what happens next with Mentra and Jhillika’s story. This Future of Work series is in partnership with PEAT and it’s one of my favorites. Thank you to PEAT as well as our podcast sponsor, Workology.

[00:34:36.30] Are you studying for your HRCI or SHRM exams? Join our free HR Certification Study Group on Facebook. Search for HR certification study group or go to HRCertificationStudyGroup.com. Ace your HR exams with the HR Certification Study Group.