Neurodivergent individuals often have a harder time finding jobs than their non-neurodivergent counterparts. Unemployment for neurodivergent adults runs at least as high as 30% to 40% — three times the rate for people with disability, and eight times the rate for people without disability, according to UConn’s Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation.
Some neurodivergent individuals may lack the social skills necessary to go through a grueling interview process, and others may simply not have the confidence to apply.
But in fact, this population may have specialized skill sets that not only make them good candidates but also — some may argue — even better suited for certain roles than non-neurodivergent people. Some research shows that neurodivergent people can make teams up to 30% more productive when placed in the right environments.
Enter Mentra. The Charlotte, North Carolina–based startup, whose three co-founders are all autistic, is building what it describes as an AI-powered “neuroinclusive employment network.” Specifically, its tech platform leverages artificial intelligence to help large enterprises hire employees with cognitive differences such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The startup’s unique premise caught the early attention of OpenAI co-founder and CEO Sam Altman, who first invested in the company with a $1 million pre-seed investment in February 2022 through his venture firm, Hydrazine Capital. Mentra also won an AI for accessibility grant from Microsoft. Shine Capital led its $3.5 million seed round this year, which also included participation from Altman's fund, Verissimo, Full Circle, Charlotte Fund, as well as angel investors, including David Apple and Dawn Dobras.
“Diversity of thought is the key to tackling humanity's most complex challenges. The most innovative companies of our time have embraced neurodivergent thinkers,” said Altman in a written statement. “Mentra is the bridge companies have long needed to access this untapped talent pool.”
Since its launch, Mentra — whose name comes from a combination of “mentor” and “mantra” — has signed on over a dozen companies, including Harvard Business Publishing, Trellix and Auticon. The platform has also partnered with over 30 universities and more than 200 service providers across the United States. Its talent pool has grown from 300 neurodivergent job seekers in March of 2022 to over 33,000 today.
What sets Mentra apart is its approach to job fit, maintains Mentra co-founder and CEO Jhillika Kumar. The startup goes beyond keywords in résumés to match employers with talent, she said, considering factors around a person’s neurotype, aptitude, environmental sensitivities. To date, its one-year retention rate has remained at an impressive 97.5%.
Using AI to parse through job descriptions
Kumar came up with the idea for the startup while studying at Georgia Tech. She was doing research on the nonspeaking community, looking for ways to help her nonspeaking autistic brother, Vikram, to communicate. Existing tools were subpar.
After 27 years of being unable to communicate his thoughts, Vikram’s ability to learn how to type through an accessible letterboard both surprised and inspired Kumar.
“I didn't actually know for a while whether or not he was intelligent because he's very disconnected — in his own world,” she recalls. ”But over time, I realized that even though he couldn’t speak, he could use the iPad, and he was very proficient at going to YouTube and doing things. So we were like, ‘Okay, there’s clearly intelligence here.’”
One way Mentra uses AI is to parse through job descriptions to make sure they are cognitively accessible and broken down in a consistent format that is not exclusionary.
“Then we are able to use an algorithm to go through the jobseekers on our platform to identify who's the best fit based on mostly neuro type,” Kumar told TechCrunch. “One person might be extremely good at hyper focusing, very detail-oriented, very process-oriented or very strategic, and you have specific skills that map to their strengths in the role.”
Over 70% of the data Mentra collects is not collected by an Indeed or a traditional job-finding platform. It uses that holistic data to make the match between the job and the individual.
A "scaleable" SaaS model
One in every seven humans are neurodivergent, and many of them are highly under- or unemployed — still living with their parents and/or financially dependent on them.
“I began to recognize the importance of employment,” she said. “I realized what makes us cognitively unique is what makes us talented. The moment someone has to mask a dimension of their neurodiversity, they suppress dimensions of their talent.”
So she teamed up with Conner Reinhardt and Shea Belsky to start Mentra with the goal of helping companies approach neuroinclusion as more than just a DEI initiative. The team’s argument is that neuroinclusion should be integrated into the company’s infrastructure and DNA. In many cases, that may require a culture shift across teams.
“We're firm believers that all companies will be more productive if you have diversity of thought in every organization,” Kumar said. “By embracing our divergence, companies can unlock the full potential of their employees.”
It’s also proving to be a viable business model.
When Mentra first launched in 2022, it operated largely as a services organization, becoming profitable with a traditional per-hire pricing model. Despite being profitable, the team felt that that model would be limited in its ability to scale. It has since transitioned to a “scalable” SaaS model where employers subscribe to access Mentra’s talent pool and recruiting product, according to Kumar. Since that transition earlier this year, the company has brought in an additional stream of SaaS revenue, 67% of which is annual recurring revenue.
“While the enterprise focus and more economical SaaS offering could mean a longer road to profitability, we have seen strong market adoption and are actively in conversations with 40+ enterprise customers,” Kumar told TechCrunch. “Our goal is to hit $3 million in SaaS ARR by the end of 2024.”
Not just another DEI play
While Mentra has seen “strong” global demand, centered primarily in the United Kingdom and Asia-Pacific region, Kumar said the company is currently focused “on nailing the U.S. market for enterprise companies.”
The startup’s current revenue model is free for neurodivergent jobseekers, and it charges an annual subscription for enterprise companies to access the platform. It is also building out a neuroinclusion marketplace for service providers such as consultancies and training firms to provide hands-on services to companies that accompany Mentra’s core platform.
“In the future, we plan to have a similar marketplace available for neurodivergents to access tailored services as well throughout the life of their career such as bootcamps and job coaches,” Kumar added.
Shine Capital founder and general partner Mo Koyfman said Mentra is unlike any other startup he’s come across. Koyfman — who has backed the likes of Plaid and Harry's — supports Mentra’s premise that people who might have different learning styles “may spike on certain things versus other things.”
“And so actually, they may even be better for certain jobs than others. For example, in the AI world, we know that there are folks with Asperger’s, or some form of autism, that tend to be way better at data labeling tasks,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.
It’s easy to look at Mentra and label it as “another DEI play.” But to do so, he said, would be undermining its uniqueness.
“There are a lot of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives where they try and force the wrong people on the wrong jobs in the name of DEI and that to me is not a good solution, because those people will end up not doing as well at those jobs and either fail or foster resentment amongst others,” said Koyfman, whose daughter has dyslexia. “But Mentra is about getting people in the jobs that they're best suited for, and where they are the right fit for those jobs and will actually outperform their otherwise traditional peers . . . So it's a pretty big addressable market that the traditional recruiting platforms simply don't cater to specifically and I fell in love with that.”
He added: "Not only are they doing something that's good, [but they're also] doing something that is economically positive and productive for society, and finding opportunities to do both, is very, very, very, very rare."