Extraordinary Leaders in Neurodiversity Inspire Change in the Workplace

On April 20, four extraordinary leaders passionate about changing the employment landscape for our neurodiverse friends and colleagues shared valuable insights and experiences.

The virtual event was the third in the "Conversations with Extraordinary Leaders" series, which was sponsored by the Neurodiversity in IT Program, a CIO Council initiative. Michael Fox, Chief Information Officer for Land, Buildings and Real Estate and co-sponsor for the Neurodiversity in IT Program, moderated the panel.  

Through a facilitated conversation and Q&A, each leader shared their career journey and inspirations for becoming neurodiversity advocates in the workplace. 

Jamell Mitchell: Ernst and Young  

Jamell has been a neurodiversity advocate at EY (Ernst and Young) for more than 5 years. Currently, he oversees the Neurodiversity Center of Excellence.

As a trusted leader and mentor, Jamell cultivated a work environment that has generated numerous job opportunities for neurodiverse individuals— and that has proven to be a tremendous value engine for EY, he said. 

Jamell's accomplishments mirror his belief that it's extremely important to highlight the inherent value that we see in the neurodiversity community.

“Everything we do is centered around our greatest assets, our people,” Jamell said.

Rebecca Beam: Zavikon

Rebecca shared her mission to level the workplace landscape for adults on the autism spectrum. As the founder and CEO of Zavikon, Rebecca has been an advocate for the underserved for several years.

“When you get that passion in your soul, nothing can stop you, and I’m very, very passionate about neurodiversity in the workplace,” said Rebecca. 

Initially, her focus was to help individuals on the spectrum gain employment in the tech industry. After receiving overwhelming feedback that not everybody wants a job in tech, she realized there was an even more significant need for support in other industries. 

“I believe that there is a job out there for everybody to apply their talents and skills in a meaningful way,” Rebecca said.

Ranga Jayaraman: Neurodiversity Pathways

Ranga shared how his passion for neurodiversity avocation in the workplace began after seeking guidance for his experience in learning to support his son’s journey through college to employment.

“As parents, most of us don’t have the kind of support that we really need,” Ranga said. 

He shared his realization that all the leadership and organizational practices that he had been a part of at major corporations are quite flawed with respect to inclusion. Upon his return to work at Stanford, he started to build a consortium. With leadership support, he was beginning to make good progress. 

“Then, something wonderful happened,” Ranga said.“I got fired.” 

No longer dividing his time, he is now able to pursue his passion in full force. 

“I no longer work for a living but live for a mission,” said Ranga, now the director of Neurodiversity Pathways, Goodwill of Silicon Valley. Neurodiversity Pathways is a key partner with Stanford’s Neurodiversity in IT Program through their Workplace Readiness programs.

Fourth Panelist: An Autistic Googler  

An autistic staff person from Google inspired the audience with her own career journey. The professional success that she dreamed about came only after she learned how to network and advocate for herself. Today, she shares her insights and advice with other neurodiverse individuals who aspire to spark their own career growth and find acceptance in the workplace. 

Looking back, she reflected on her professional struggles and the obstacles that she faced with a different perspective, acknowledging “it was really the systems that were broken and not me.”

Similarly, the support she’s found in the workplace has helped her grow into an enhanced version of her authentic self. 

“When I found the right champions and the right spaces, I could bring my whole self to work and I no longer felt autistic or weird, I just felt like me,” she said.

Those feelings of acceptance and belonging are something she tries to bring to other individuals who may be struggling. And she suggests that maybe we can all look for ways to support neurodiverse colleagues.

She advised, “Find pockets of the company where people are struggling and make yourself available as a safe space, take a firm hand and help them."

Tips to Improve Employment Outcomes for Neurodiverse Individuals

Each leader shared practical advice for hiring managers and neurodiverse job seekers. Here is a summary of some key tips to improve employment outcomes for neurodiverse individuals.

Infographic showing key takeaways for improving employment outcomes for neurodiverse individuals. Described below.

Hiring Manager

Educate Yourself

  • Attend Neurodiversity Events and Brown Bag Sessions at Stanford.
  • Watch TED Talks.
  • Join the Neurodiversity in IT Community of Practice at Stanford.

Build a Safe Space

  • Help your teams understand how to improve communication.
  • Look for what sparks an employee's interest.
  • Take a firm hand and help in areas where the employee struggles.

Lead with Vulnerability

  • Make bold statements and show the team your true self.
  • Enlist sponsorship from leaders within your organizations.
  • Feel comfortable enough to lean on the team to fill in any gaps.

Challenge the Status Quo

  • Evaluate your current hiring practices.
  • Assess bias in employee evaluations.

Job Seeker

Investigate Before You Invest

  • Research the industry and the organization where you want to be hired.
  • Interview people who already work at the organization.

Trust Your Instincts

  • Interview the manager as much as they are interviewing you.
  • Don't force the job offer if it doesn't feel right.
  • Ask: Can you be yourself in this job role?

Advocate for Yourself

  • Find a community inside or outside a company to network with others.
  • Be very diligent and resilient.

Be Yourself

  • Bring your whole self to work.
  • Don't be intimidated.
  • Systems are broken. You are not.

Learn more about Neurodiversity