At the Intersection of Neurodiversity and Artificial Intelligence

A study in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Artificial Intelligence

India, July 28: Orchvate is a case study in understanding how diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) can become part of the DNA of a company with significant business outcomes. Remote-first Data Annotation units, equipped to deliver projects outsourced by corporates, are opening up avenues for the neurodiverse and the disabled. 

The Beginning

The idea of facilitating neurodiversity in the workplace and giving a helping hand to neurodivergent people towards gaining meaningful employment took seed with the chance meeting of the founders.

Geethanjali Ganapathy, ex- Product Manager at Thomson Reuters and neurodiverse herself, was navigating her return to the corporate sector when she met Panchali Banerjee – an organizational psychologist, who was worried about the career prospects of her autistic nephew.

Together they set up Orchvate LLP, which is based out of Bangalore. It is a for-profit social impact enterprise focusing on enhancing neurodiversity in the workplace. The neurodivergence spectrum covers those with Autism, ADHD, OCD, Dyslexia and all cognitive differences.

The Problem

The Higher education and employment scenario for neurodivergent in India paints a rather grim picture. Approximately 1 in 7 are neurodiverse (197 million in India). Around 700,000 neurodiverse students pass out of school each year. They come with unique strengths that can be beneficial to the corporate sector, yet over 80% stay unemployed.

There are three ways employment issues are currently addressed for NDs:

(1) Neurodiversity Hiring Programs of Corporates seek tech talent, which is hard to come across because the special schools in India veer away from Science & Math.

(2) Skilling programs in cottage industry-style settings geared towards vocational skills like soap making, candle making, baking, etc.

(3) Demand for tech skills has spawned an industry preying on the need of parents to see their ND wards independent.

According to Geethanjali, “Their families to keep them engaged, have them attend classes in good faith. They are stuck in an endless loop of training with no jobs, and hence no pay.”

The Orchvate Solution

Orchvate partners with corporates on paid internship programs providing end-to-end solutions. These are from inclusive JDs, screening, sensitization programs, and integration workshops to inclusive hiring and coaching. 

Eleven interns were placed at an Ed Tech startup for a 4-month paid internship, of which seven are working as permanent employees. Five of these are in the same company, earning up to 3.6 LPA. They fulfil their responsibilities while working from home in diverse roles. Three have moved into leadership roles.

The Remote-First Data Annotation Units

Data Annotation (DA), an area in the Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) space, has been identified in which neurodivergent can chart a career growth path, many of whom have minimal formal education.

Projections indicate that the global DA market will cross US$ 6 billion by 2027 with a 32.5% CAGR. “The skills that DA requires are in sync with the group’s strengths”, says Panchali. Orchvate has set up remote-first DA units to deliver projects outsourced by corporates.

In just a few months, 55 members underwent training. Twenty-three were engaged in a project for an AI startup. It was for an app that assesses the students’ attention span. 

The Wins

Orchvate’s divergent thinking has led to valuable partnerships with NASSCOM, platform providers like Taskmonk and Dataloop, and service providers like iMerit that strive to promote neurodiversity in the workplace.

It has been accepted into Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub and Microsoft Women Entrepreneur Mentorship Program. An excerpt from their press release: “As an autistic/neurodiverse individual, I am pleased to see this solution, as it’s being built for our community by our community and addresses a real need,” Dr Ian McDonald, EMEA Cloud Solutions Architect Leader, Microsoft For Startups.

Orchvate qualified as one of the top 10 startups (out of 290) at Venture Challenge 5.0 hosted by AIC of Shiv Nadar University and HCL Technologies earlier this year.

The Answer

Currently, when IT/Tech companies face sky-rocketing attrition and soaring salary packages, providing employment opportunities to the neurodiverse and making workplace concessions that help encourage neurodiversity in the workplace will only be a mutually beneficial solution. 

Orchvate can be the go-to partner for corporates and people who identify as neurodivergent. Their target for 2023 is to facilitate employment for up to 500 adults. Could they be part of the answer to problems dogging India’s corporate sector today?

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