Mentra: Developing Workforce Skills for the Autistic Community
This fall, two Georgia Tech students have been beta-testing their new app, Mentra. Half its users are traditional university undergraduates; the other half comprises individuals from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Atlanta (ASAA) organization.
The app is the brainchild of Conner Reinhardt, a fifth-year student in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), and Jhillika Kumar, a fourth-year computational media major. The pair connected at the 2018 TEDxGeorgiaTech conference, where Reinhardt was in charge of recruiting and organizing the student speakers, and Kumar was one of the presenters.
Kumar addressed the importance of accessible technology for empowering the differently abled, and shared how her relationship with her older brother, who is autistic and nonverbal, inspired her. After Kumar spoke, Reinhardt knew he wanted to be part of developing a solution for this often-marginalized community.
The two students joined forces and in early 2019 founded a startup called AxisAbility. “I’m the how, and she’s the why,” Reinhardt said. “Industrial engineers are the people who understand how to make things happen. I’m bringing the business perspective to this project. I’m trying to think of all the different things we might want to show or realize. That’s the how. But people like Jhillika — people with the biggest ideas and who inspire true change in the world — they’re the why.”
It took a little while for them to decide exactly how AxisAbility could support individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD). From the advocacy group Autism Speaks, they learned that up to 88% of adults with autism are unemployed. Further, Accenture research shows that if just an additional 1% of differently abled people were hired by U.S. companies, the GDP would improve by $25 billion. Because of this, and because of Kumar’s personal experience with her brother, they decided to focus their initial efforts on the autistic community.
This is where Mentra comes in. Designed to help individuals with cognitive disabilities successfully develop job skills through mentorship, the app’s algorithm collects data on what job skills the mentee wants help with — such as resume writing, interviewing, or professional workplace behavior — and pairs the mentee with prospective mentors, who initially will be traditional college students. The app also provides prompts for the mentor and mentee to guide their conversations. Kumar worked with ASAA to identify which topics would be most helpful. For example, ASAA President and Mentra Outreach Director Eren Niederhoffer told Kumar that he would like to practice “communication skills, executive functioning, critical thinking, and networking.”
Reinhardt and Kumar plan for Mentra to eventually be a talent pipeline between the I/DD community and employers. “Recruiters will be able to log in to Mentra, search candidates to see their rating and what employment skills they’ve worked on, and pull their resumes,” explained Reinhardt. “We’re specifically focusing on individuals with autism right now, but we plan to expand to people with other intellectual disabilities as well.”
Throughout the process of developing Mentra, Reinhardt and Kumar haven’t forgotten their original motivation: Kumar’s brother. In fact, Kumar’s family, which is originally from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has moved to Atlanta so her brother can more easily access Mentra and other assistive programs that have been enabled by cutting-edge autism research at Georgia Tech.
“With Mentra, we are trying to create a road map for individuals with autism that will provide them with successes. We want to understand their biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses,” Kumar said. “Through the app, we’ve created a platform to facilitate that process. We’re starting with people who are currently employable, but eventually we want to assist people who are nonverbal as well, who could communicate through typing. So they might not be able to speak, but they could do their jobs via computer, which is more possible today through an increasingly digital economy.
“All of this was inspired by my brother,” Kumar added.
Mentra is a rapidly changing startup.The content in this article reflects the information available as of September 1, 2019. To learn more about Mentra and to sign up to be a mentor, visit www.mentra.me.
To see Kumar’s TEDxGeorgiaTech talk, visit http://bit.ly/2KW20rJ.
Kumar provided an update on Mentra as of December 5, 2019:
"Conner and I are really excited, as we are graduating this month and have just accepted job offers with Bank of America in Charlotte, NC. We will be working on making their technologies accessible to differently abled populations. Our work will allow us to learn about what it takes to build accessible technologies in a large corporation and how companies will be able to hire individuals of different abilities at scale. They have given us full disclosure to continue working on on Mentra and are excited to provide as much value as possible to the autistic community.
"To build out the Mentra recruiting platform, we’ve been working closely with Georgia Tech alumnus Neil Barnett (MGT 1991), who founded the autism hiring program at Microsoft. Thanks to his introduction and iterative feedback, we’ve been able to gather interest from more than 20 companies who have pledged to start autism hiring programs in 2020 -- all of whom will have a need for our service to scale these programs.
"Our next step going into next year is to launch an awareness campaign on the abilities of autistic individuals to excel in the workforce. Through crowdfunding, we’ll be able to acquire the talent that is needed to build out our service, grow our channels, and match autistic individuals with meaningful employment opportunities tailored to them.
"If you are interested in following our progress or contributing to our mission, head to Mentra.me and join our mailing list."