We at Cybernews Academy met with Jhillika Kumar, a former Georgia Institute of Technology student and CEO of the next LinkedIn for the neurodiverse, Mentra. With a background in human-computer interaction, computer science, and design, this graduate spoke of her experience at Georgia Tech and how she went on to create her business.
Before starting her college career, Jhillika did a lot of research surrounding her prospective university. “My parents wanted me to get into a traditional STEM engineering degree, but I was passionate about design and wanted to understand the human psychology behind how to design certain things and create aesthetic, functional, beautiful experiences.” Jhillika was determined to find a degree encompassing her love of STEM and her passion for design. “So, I did a lot of research and looked at schools that offered this blend of engineering and STEM with a design intersection.” She recalls finding a few different options that caught her eye. “I remember looking at the University of Pennsylvania, and they had a design engineering course and a dual degree with computer science and design.” Jhillika shopped around for her dream degree, looking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Washington. “I also applied to the U.K.” However, she encountered some troubles upon applying to U.K. universities. “It is harder in the U.K. as the degrees are more economics and engineering-focused. I don’t know if I would’ve succeeded there.” So she looked around and finally found an article about a professor working on brain-machine interfaces, and this seriously caught Jhillika’s attention for various reasons.
Discovering Georgia Tech
The reason this professor caught Jhillika’s attention was because of the personal relationship she has a personal relationship with neurodiverse and disabled individuals. Jhillika’s inspiration is her brother, Vikram. He has autism and is non-verbal, but that doesn’t stop him from displaying his brilliance through technology as he writes poems and expresses his complex thoughts through a digital letter board. Vikram inspired the creation of Mentra and ignited Jhillika’s passion. She knew that pursuing an educational career had to revolve around her desire to help others. So, Jhillika found a professor using brain-machine interfaces to help wheelchair users navigate, she knew that’s where she needed to be. Jhillika then wrote about this professor and her work on brain-machine interfaces in her essay and mentioned how she would love to work in that specific brain lab. This was the winning essay, and she was accepted into that same university, the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It was awesome because that was research I’m passionate about.” Alongside her pre-established passion for accessibility and helping others, she assessed her options and found the university that fit her moral, ethical, and intellectual standards.
Alongside finding a university that matched her research interests, she relished that Georgia Tech offered an interdisciplinary degree program. Georgia Tech also offers some amazing courses, “the unique thing was that we could take courses like artificial intelligence and machine learning.” She even took a course on the health and nutrition of the body. Jhillika’s university offers a range of opportunities that helped her grow as a student and an individual. “You can experience new things and try sitting in on different classes while you figure out what path you want to take.” As an experiential learner, Jhillika learned much about herself and her passion through her individual university experience. Throughout her time at university, she learned much about herself, starting her new life away from home. “It was my first time living abroad, in a new country. I met people of different cultures and nationalities, built up a friend group, and was happy to be a part of the social aspect of college.” Despite wanting to focus on the social aspects of college, Jhillika was very focused on her academic work. Although this was her main focus, Jhillika recalls how she grew holistically once she decided to spend more time on what made her happiest, finding that perfect balance between work and her passions. “I was taking many courses, and then I realized that I wanted to slow down because there were so many other things I wanted to grow in. Not just in school, I wanted to meet my professors, do my research on the side, and participate in clubs and sports. So, I scaled my coursework back.”
Every year, Jhillika focused heavily on one aspect of college that would provide her with the transferable skills she use while building her business; internships. “I was focused on getting internships every year. So I built up my portfolio and CV through many online courses that would apply me with practical knowledge.” Jhillika did a UX portfolio creation class where she built her first portfolio. “I had all these projects from my class, which were amazing, and you can talk about your design process in these projects.” By the end of her time at university, she was immersed in the entrepreneurial landscape on campus, where she took a lot of start-up courses. “I tried to get involved with Ted X Georgia Tech and had the opportunity to intern at an incredible organization for three months. Jhillika interned at Disney, and this was her breakthrough moment when she figured out what she wanted to pursue. “There was a user who commented on the app store saying that they couldn’t watch Disney’s content because they were visually impaired and the content didn’t have closed captioning. This was eye-opening as I often watched Disney growing up, which was a huge part of my childhood.” This point was when Jhillika’s experiences with neurodiversity and disability converged, and she could see what she needed to do. “I wanted to delve into this space of accessibility and brought that back with me to college.”
From there, Jhillika sought out researchers in that field and tried to do more projects around accessibility within her coursework. “If I had an open-ended project, I would tie it back to my core mission: accessibility.” It was an amazing experience as she could include iterations of her pre-established mission into different classes. “I took a virtual reality class where I attempted to build an empathy lab,” an environment where others could experience what it is like to be disabled or neurodivergent. Jhillika also took various courses, which helped spur her start-up success. “I took a customer discovery course where I learned the core principles of customer discovery and how to seek out and understand what the world needs. You have to come up with a problem and then build a solution. That course gave me the rigor to keep questioning myself and think, “What does society need?” and go out and discover it.” Jhillika had applied for a start-up summer program, which she didn’t get into. However, she learned a lot from the process. “I learned so much just from the application process and trying to pitch an idea, this helped a lot once we were pitching to investors later on in our entrepreneurial career.” From there, Jhillika started her business and began it as her own “side hustle.” This then culminated in a full-time project that she pitched to investors. One of the investors she and her co-founder Conner Reinhardt spoke with was OpenAI’s Sam Altman.
Meeting Sam Altman
Jhillika told Cybernews Academy how she came to meet Sam Altman. After university, this young CEO wanted to move to San Francisco for a technology career “as many technologists do.” She secured a job at the Bank of America and was there for two years. Jhillika mentioned that this job moved her and co-founder Conner to Charlotte, North Carolina, a city with a small but bustling entrepreneurial community. One of the people they met in Charlotte, North Carolina, became their mentor and helped both Jhillika and Conner build a pitch deck and sent it out to his network of VCs, and one of those VCs just happened to be Sam Altman of OpenAI. The pair had a 10-minute call with Mr. Altman where he asked them a range of questions, “how are we going to monetize this, how are we going to acquire users, what’s our market strategy and all the other questions.” Once they had answered, Altman responded, “Okay, I’ll think about it.” Jhillika and Conner naturally had many questions for Sam and discovered that Altman has a personal connection with the neurodivergent movement. Then finally, Altman provided a $1 million pre-seed investment in February 2022.
Now, Jhillika is a full-time CEO of Mentra and is working on getting more neurodivergent individuals into full-time employment. She is very active on LinkedIn, raising awareness of the neurodivergent movement and developing her small but mighty business with a big mission.