Do not assume anything about someone’s neurodiversity until you talk with them first. Making predictions without having a conversation will only make things more difficult for them. The best thing you can do for a neurodivergent person that you’re meeting for the first time, whether they’re a direct report or peer, is just to talk with them and understand how you can advocate for them.
Research suggests that up to 15–20% of the U.S. population is neurodivergent. There has been a slow but vitally important rise in companies embracing neurodiversity. How can companies support neurodiversity in the workplace? What are some benefits of including neurodiverse employees? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about “Neurodiversity in the Workforce: Companies Including Neurodiverse Employees”. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Shea Belsky.
Shea Belsky is the Chief Technology Officer of Mentra, a startup that connects neurodivergent jobseekers with gainful employment. He is an autistic self-advocate focused on making the workplace, and world at large, more inclusive and equitable for the neurodiverse. Shea graduated from Cornell University in 2018 with a BS and MPS in Information Science, and lives in the Greater Boston Area.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?
Thank you so much for the opportunity! My name is Shea Belsky, I’m autistic, and I am the CTO and Technical Founder of Mentra, a hiring platform for neurodivergent jobseekers. Most people might get skeptical about me openly discussing my autism in the first sentence of an interview, but I’m not like most people. I was diagnosed with autism at a super young age, and navigated the public school system with an IEP, countless teachers and supporters, and incredible parents behind me. I attended Cornell University and graduated in 2018 with an undergraduate and master’s degree in Information Science, which is a blend of traditional Computer Science and ethics, arts, humanities, and policy as it pertains to technology. My career started off as a software engineer at Wayfair in 2019, before making my way to HubSpot in 2021. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I connected with the co-founders of Mentra, Jhillika Kumar and Conner Reinhardt. This chance interaction put me on the path towards working for Mentra full-time in 2022 after we received pre-seed funding from Sam Altman (OpenAI, ChatGPT).
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Respectful honesty. I find that it is extremely important to be honest and respectful to people when working in difficult situations. It does me no favors to be dishonest, to be disrespectful, or a combination of the two. Respect, honesty, and respectful honesty foster trust in the people that I collaborate with. I have been a “big brother” to a neurodiverse high school graduate for the Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston. Our relationship is one built on honesty and respect: When he comes to me for help or has a question, he knows that I will be honest in a way that respects him and enables him to grow, rather than getting caught up in the details or stirring in an emotional spiral.
Aggressively defending my mental health and the things that make me happy. Being a startup leader is no joke, and it involves working very long hours, stretching the limits of my knowledge, and taking on challenges that I have no experience in. Some days are full of meetings and others are wide open for me to get stuff done. This craziness is very draining, and I need to preserve outlets and my free time where possible. It’s also important for me to maintain a work/life balance for the health of my relationship. I am getting married in the fall! I maintain “No Meeting Fridays” to allow me to get work done, I proactively communicate any vacation where I don’t plan on being on my computer, and I block other times on my calendar to get some exercise.
Learning. As CTO I have to wear a lot of hats and deal with technologies, concepts, and skills that I’ve never dealt with before. Security compliance, single-sign-on, caching, so many things that are often taken care of by entire teams of people at larger organizations fall onto my plate. I strongly believe in the importance of taking time to learn, practicing what I’ve learned, and being able to teach it to others. I want to help others become good at the things that I’ve mastered!
Can you share a story about one of your greatest work-related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?
When I entered the workforce in 2019, I didn’t know how to meaningfully discuss my autism with my manager. What exactly did I need help with? What were the strengths and weaknesses that I faced in the workplace? I had to answer these questions for myself before discussing them with my boss. This was complicated by the fact that I had five separate managers within the span of a year. Each of them would have a very unique perspective on neurodiversity and how best they could support me. Just saying “I’m autistic” on its own was not going to cut it — Would they think I was like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory? Would they equate me with an autistic relative? It was impossible for me to control their initial reaction, but I knew that I could keep my personal definition of autism related to my way of working. When working on my professional development goals with a new manager, I would introduce myself as autistic and then explicitly describe my strengths and opportunity areas. Making this information explicit neutered most of the bias I would have encountered and created a positive relationship between the two of us.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
One of the biggest challenges we face as a platform is gathering just the right amount of information from jobseekers and employers. How can we ask engaging, unique questions while not overwhelming users with countless prompts and queries? We are experimenting with OpenAI’s ChatGPT offerings to parse open-ended responses from our users and automatically fill out parts of their accounts. It’s an ongoing process to refine and tweak what we need to ask for, and how we actually use this information. We’ve had promising results with some of our initial testing and are looking forward to using ChatGPT in other parts of the Mentra platform!
Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about neurodiversity in the workforce. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to include neurodiverse employees? Can you share a story with us?
Working at Mentra is one of the biggest impacts that I’ve had in this regard. Since Mentra officially launched in March 2022, more than 33,000 jobseekers have signed up, and companies such as Wells Fargo, Harvard Business Publishing, Autism Society, Analog Devices, Auticon, and others have posted job opportunities on our platform. Creating a positive environment for neurodivergent employees doesn’t stop just at hiring them — Companies need to be able to retain them and provide them with a safe atmosphere. I recently had the chance to be a panelist on a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion panel for Tech Elevator, which is an intensive training program teaching in-demand technology skills and tools. On this panel, I spoke directly to Tech Elevator staff and students on how to advocate for themselves and their peers. Additionally, I talked to the academic staff and instructors at Ultimate Medical Academy, an online medical school, on how they could support neurodivergent employees, their friends, and students. In both speaking engagements, I made a point of speaking directly to neurodivergent folks themselves to provide advice and inspiration on how they could stand up for themselves. Fostering a welcoming culture starts with everyone — the decision makers, the managers, and the neurodivergent folks themselves, and I don’t want people to feel like they’re being talked to, not only talked about.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?
When people work for an organization that makes them feel seen, heard, and understood, they feel happier about their work and feel a greater sense of belonging. I have experienced an extremely broad range of work cultures, and I’m unfortunately familiar with the sensation of being an outcast because of my neurodiversity. When my team, manager, or company neglect to make the extra effort at creating equity for everyone, those alienated people will not be motivated to work as well as they could. A healthy work culture should not stop at being inclusive: equity and belonging are two huge components of this as well. At a company where neurodivergent people belong and thrive, they can accomplish incredible feats that often outperform their neurotypical peers. Wouldn’t companies want their employees to achieve their fullest potential?
Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help include neurodiverse employees? Can you share with us how the work culture was affected as a result?
Something that Mentra has experimented with in the past has been something called a “Working with Me” or “Manual of Me” document. The idea behind a “Working with Me” document is that it describes an individual’s unique way of working specifically as it pertains to them. What are their working hours? What motivates them to get stuff done? What issues become major blockers? These have been a massive boon to Mentra — If someone works best when they can flex their hours, or if they need to pick up kids from the bus stop during the day, or work best in low-light environments, their “Working with Me” document will tell everyone about it. The “Working with Me” creates a transparent space for an individual to advocate for their needs, whether it is a function of their neurodiversity or something else going on. At the end of the day, the point of the “Working with Me” document is to gather all the information that team members at Mentra need to know about someone in order to have a great working relationship with them.
What are some of the challenges or obstacles to including neurodivergent employees? What needs to be done to address those obstacles?
One of the biggest challenges that neurodivergent employees face is stereotyping and typecasting. When speaking with teammates or managers about my being autistic, the absolute last thing I want is for them to assume that I behave exactly like the definition of autism that they are most familiar with. With minimal prompting, strangers might suppose that I behave like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory or are similar to a family member of theirs who is autistic. All it takes is for me to say “I’m autistic” — For some, everything else after those two words will be disregarded. This trope is very similar to others who are neurodivergent, where people try to categorize them in very easily understood categories based on a narrow perception of neurodiversity. Rather than making blanket projections about how a neurodivergent person will behave, seek to learn more about them as a person. Depending on your relationship with them, you may need to know more about what being neurodivergent means to them in order to promote a supportive relationship. If you’re someone’s manager, work with them to identify any behaviors or patterns that should not be held against them. Or if you’re a teammate, knowing that someone benefits from having a meeting agenda or a low-light environment empowers you to have their back if push comes to shove. But without having a conversation and trying to learn more, no one gets anywhere, and all you’re left with is a harmful label.
How do you and your organization educate yourselves and your teams on the concept of neurodiversity and the needs of neurodivergent employees? Are there any resources, training, or workshops that you have found particularly helpful?
Much of our team is neurodiverse — Mentra’s CEO, COO, and CTO (that’s me) are neurodivergent, and half of the rest of our team is either neurodivergent or is very close to someone who is. Since we spend so much time in a setting flush with neurodiverse people, we spend a lot of our time listening, collaborating, and enriching each other based on our personal experiences. The “Working with Me” document is a big component of our success. Mentra has developed our own training and learning modules for other companies to become more inclusive and equitable for their neurodivergent employees. My team and I are on a mission to empower organizations to become neuroinclusive, and we’ve developed a holistic solution aimed at doing just that. Retaining neurodivergent talent doesn’t just end at hiring, but it includes retaining them and building an atmosphere of belonging. When someone feels like they belong, the impact to the business is tremendous.
This is the main question of our interview. Can you please share five best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people who are neurodivergent?
1 . Do not assume anything about someone’s neurodiversity until you talk with them first. Making predictions without having a conversation will only make things more difficult for them. The best thing you can do for a neurodivergent person that you’re meeting for the first time, whether they’re a direct report or peer, is just to talk with them and understand how you can advocate for them.
2 . Offer upskilling opportunities and programs for neurodivergent people who need them. There are a lot of brilliant neurodivergent employees who experience a lot of challenges in areas that others take for granted. They may not know how to effectively use calendars, how to make the most of their relationship with their manager, or how to be a clear communicator. Working with them to develop these skills will be a massive boon to your organization.
3 . Provide sensory-friendly spaces, and/or accommodations to create one. Depending on the work environment, you may need to offer quiet spaces, low-light environments, smell/sound prevention tactics, and other things in order to ensure employees can feel comfortable regardless of what’s going on around them. If their work/office setting can’t be adjusted/accommodated, providing them and others with a separate space is the next best thing.
4 . Invest in an ERG (employee resource group) on neurodiversity and/or disability. Creating groups where neurodiverse people can network, find peers, share tips and tricks, host events, and aid each other will permeate a feeling of recognition and understanding. An ERG is not just a gathering space — it is a community where neurodivergent people can feel like they belong, and are supported by other neurodivergent peers and their advocates.
5 . Train managers, interviews, and other leaders on how to be neuroinclusive. If a culture of neuroinclusivity is ever to take root, it starts with the decision-makers and people in charge. Neurodivergent people, and their neurotypical peers, will have such a different work environment when their leaders “talk the talk” of promoting neurodiversity. Better yet, encourage any neurodivergent leaders in your organization to speak openly about their neurodiversity!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
“Plant the tree for the shade you will never enjoy.” I do a lot of this with my mentorship — Big Brothers Big Sisters, and I have been a mentor for Superpowers Mentorship. They’re a great organization focused on connecting neurodivergent kids (elementary school through college age) with awesome neurodivergent mentors! Mentorship is a massive way for me to motivate the next neurodiverse generation so that they can accomplish incredible things. I know that I might not ever see or be responsible for their success, but I take pride in knowing that I had a small part in their journey.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I want to create a world where everyone can achieve their fullest potential, regardless of ability or disability. It frustrates me to hear of my friends and peers being discriminated against and disadvantaged because we live in a world that struggles to understand and accept them. 1 in 7 people around the world is neurodivergent, yet up to 40% of them are either unemployed or underemployed. At such a high statistic, shouldn’t this suggest that something is wrong with the system and not with neurodivergent people? The world should be accommodating, inclusive, and equitable to the needs of everyone, and not simply to the needs of the majority.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.
While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.
Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.
Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.