Image of Mentra's founder Jhillika hugging her brother Vikram
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Jhillika’s story to founding Mentra, inspired by her brother Vikram

A story of hope and perseverance as Jhillika uncovers the hidden potential of her non- speaking autistic brother Vikram, and builds an organization focused on tapping into this neuro-exceptional potential worldwide.

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Growing up, Jhillika and her older brother Vikram would play, laugh, and always shared a deep and unfaltering sibling love.

“I knew he loved being my elder brother, and I, his little sister.”

-Jhillika

 

Although as Jhillika grew older and gained her own mechanisms for communication and socialization, Vikram never gained his. She observed that her brother was not like everyone else– he would make strange sounds even when told to be quiet. Because of his lack of speech and heavy reliance on caretakers for basic needs (like brushing his teeth and eating), his outward appearance led the world to assume Vik had the cognitive capacity of a 3 year old.

Yet, Jhillika’s childhood was one that was filled with hope. Every day her mom would sit outside therapy rooms at UCLA, UC Irvine, and Orange county school district resources where Vik would spend hours in treatment and speech therapy; with a single prayer that one day, he would be able to communicate. Even if it was just enough to get answers to simple questions like, was he hungry or was he in pain.

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When Jhillika was old enough to understand, her parents sat her down and explained that Vikram was “autistic” and “nonverbal” (which activists are now renaming “non-speaking” to demonstrate individuals are indeed verbal and it is speech that they are lacking). They were disillusioned and heartbroken when the doctors told them that there was nothing they could do about it – they said he would remain ‘unintelligent’ and non-communicative for the rest of his life. It would be years later when Jhillika would uncover, through scientific discovery at Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia, that this verdict could well be far from the truth.

Understanding the scale of people living with disabilities

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Later, Jhillika began to realize Vikram was not the only one marked for his differences. In one of her vacations to India, Jhillika’s father decided to take her family to an organization in Kerala (South India) named AMHA; an adult-living center for orphans with disabilities in India. The founder of the center whom they all called “Amma,” (means mother) devoted her life to rescuing these vulnerable and often intellectually disabled individuals who had been abandoned by their families. She gave them a loving home filled with support programs, classes and therapy with the resources she had.

 

To this day, Jhillika remembers the experience vividly. “I witnessed the most authentic personalities shine through their heartfelt smiles and words”. Uninhibited by their differences, Jhillika sat down with these individuals and spent time talking with them in her broken malayalam, learning about each of their stories. 

 

“Looking back, I realize that one day transformed my entire life.”

According to the World Health Organization, over 1 billion people are estimated to experience one or more disabilities. This corresponds to about 15% of the world's population.

After moving across the world from the United States to the Middle East, Jhillika went to middle school and high school in Dubai, before leaving for college to the United States.


“While I had the opportunity to travel to another country for an education, I wondered why my brother couldn’t have the same opportunities as me. Why was he confined to a parent-dependent life with limited ability to communicate? Why are classrooms, workspaces, policies, and societies exclusionary towards those who are different?” (Jhillika, interview with HubSpot)

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Later, through her research and advocacy, she would learn exactly how to help solve this problem for millions neurodivergents across the globe with hope to one-day lead independent, and fulfilling lives. She recognized that this was the next unmet need, and wanted to use her education and power of accessible technology to make the entire workforce accessible.

Learning about the power of Accessible Technology @ Disney

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At the age of 16, Jhillika got into college at Georgia Tech for a degree in “Computational Media” – a combination of Computer Science and Interactive Media. Her classes in User Experience Design were intriguing as she began to ponder how her brother, despite his limited ability, felt so comfortable using certain types of technologies like navigating an iPad. It was their intuitive user experience that led him to feel so comfortable with her. In her sophomore year, Jhillika watched Microsoft and Apple’s accessibility campaigns and her eyes lit in amazement as she witnessed the opportunity technology had to level the playing field for millions.

In the summer of her sophomore year, Jhillika had the opportunity of a lifetime to intern at Disney’s UX Design team. Jhillika’s manager, who was neurodivergent herself, saw the spark in Jhillika’s own divergent thinking and encouraged her to create technology to help her brother. She prompted Jhillika to follow her intellectual curiosity to solve a significant problem – Vikram's lack of communication.

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When she returned to college, Jhillika delivered a TED Talk where the overwhelmingly positive response helped Jhillika focus on what she was naturally good at - capturing human experiences and principles of design-thinking to solve real problems. This led her to create a short film to share how important it is to empower people with disabilities through accessible technology. She could have never guessed that just a year later, that would be the same video that would be watched by over 25,000 people on a big screen at Anitab.org’s Keynote event of the Grace Hopper Conference -- the largest international gathering for women in technology!

 

Pursuing autism research @ Georgia Tech

Jhillika was inspired to go back to college and conduct research on communication technologies to teach her brother to spell— that’s when she met Professor Gregory Abowd who took Jhillika under his wing at the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech to pursue research with non-speaking individuals. Eventually, this research led her to interview a non speaking autistic individual named Reece. After learning about Reece’s incredible journey, she created a short film (Link to the film) to shine a light on his own unique experience of autism. When asked what message had for the world, he typed through a letterboard this very powerful statement:

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PLEASE EXCUSE MY DEVILISH BODY. MY INTELLIGENT MIND IS FREQUENTLY EMBARRASSED BY UNCONTROLLABLE OUTBURSTS.

REECE

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This was the “aha” moment when Jhillika thought to herself, Vikram might just be intelligent too…

 

Nonspeaking individuals & Spelling to Communicate

Through this research, Jhillika learned about Elizabeth Vosselor and a therapy called “Spelling 2 Communicate” and RPM Rapid Prompting Method by Soma. Through these methods, communication partners must assume the non speaking individual has cognitive competence and is indeed intelligent. In this research, Jhillika learned that about 150 or so autistic non-speaking adults had started typing their first words and first sentences at teaching centers in Atlanta and Virginia. (You can read more about the work they do at this link: Growing kids therapy resources and I-ASC). Jhillika realized that if so many other nonspeakers were learning to type, and were indeed demonstrating their high levels of intelligence… then what if her brother is as capable as well? That’s when I shared several videos to my parents including this TEDTalk by Parisa Khosravi and this United Nations message by Payam, a nonspeaker, to convince them to fly across continents and relocate to Atlanta for 6 months to experiment with this form of therapy for Vikram.

Lo and behold, miracles do happen. Vikram at the age of 27 learned to communicate through typing on a letter-board. With each day of pointing at letters, his vast knowledge slowly came to light– from Indian Philosophy to Greek mythology to quantum physics. This moistened the eyes of naysayers who for so long were convinced that Vikram was not intelligent. Jhillika’s family felt deep joy when they realized that for all these years, Vikram was silently observing the world around him, and had a remarkable personality with so much to say; 

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As well as a whole lot of potential to someday make his mark on the world.

 

Starting a company to share this vision

As for Jhillika, through this whole journey with her family, she realized the power in using her voice to be bold in my service to the world. For this work, Jhillika was awarded the Student of Vision Abie award, where Jhillika was selected to share her story and vision on the Keynote of the Grace Hopper Conference. She shared it was an incredible moment in her life to have her family and brother sitting in the audience, watching her share her call-to-action with a room filled with technologists.

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Keynote Event at the Grace Hopper Celebration 2019 by AnitaB.org

 

By harnessing her intellectual curiosity, as well as her unconventional strengths, she started to build something that could scale and solve the repeating pain paints she kept observing. She knew she wanted to channel her career towards serving individuals with autism and different forms of disabilities that were often shut out or silenced in society. After she delivered that speech on the Grace Hopper stage, she knew she would spend every day of my life working towards demonstrating the economic value in harnessing the talents of this brilliant community.

 

The spark behind Mentra

That’s what founded the inspiration behind Mentra. Our company's name "Mentra" was inspired by the word "Mentor". Mentra was made possible through the countless mentors I had that pushed me a step closer to understanding how I could make an impact. They helped me realize that I needed to do something about the fact that my brother didn’t have the equal opportunities that I did. 


“I truly do believe Conscious Capitalism is the path to leveling the global playing field.”

Mentra’s mission is to foster the spark of potential of EVERY HUMAN BEING regardless of gender, race or cognitive ability. Through the platform’s easy-to-use interface, Mentra is designed to be cognitively accessible from the ground-up. The team is working with employers across the healthcare, entertainment, finance and tech to launch this movement across neurodivergent-friendly companies across the public and private sectors. Investment is breaking ground as Mentra is generating revenue and demonstrating the business value of companies hiring from this talent pool. Driven by holistic AI, Mentra is bringing together the ecosystem players of neurodivergents, employers and service providers to power Mentra’s accelerating movement. 

 

And we're just getting started. Now, it’s time to make this global movement. Together, we can.

#NooneLeftBehind #UntilWeAllBelong

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Join our Community!

If you're looking for a group of professionals that can help you along the journey, you can join Mentra's neurodiversity employment network.

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