Launching Neurodivergent Careers, with Hilary Kokenda of Zavikon | EDB 296


Zavikon COO Hilary Kokenda discusses their work creating and facilitating career opportunities for neurodivergent individuals.

Hilary Kokenda is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Zavikon. Zavikon’s mission is “…to match qualified candidates with disabilities or those who are neurodivergent with employers who believe inclusion is the future. Zavikon is the bridge to inclusion.”

Prior to becoming a founding member of Zavikon, Hilary spent 10 years at The Walt Disney Company as a technologist supporting business solutions and processes.  Hilary’s primary role throughout her career has been to bridge the communication gap between technology resources and the businesses they support at Fortune 500 companies.

 Hilary’s career has required her to work with individuals at all levels and drive change across all types of departments.  Through her wealth of experience in the corporate environment, she has recognized the need for and benefits of diversity, and she is passionate about being a bridge to an inclusive working world. Hilary holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Mathematics/Applied Science from UCLA. 

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Note: the following transcription was automatically generated. Some imperfections may exist.   

HACKIE REITMAN MD (HR):  Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains and today, I’m very excited because we’re going all the way out to California, Southern California. We’re going to welcome Hilary Kokenda, who is the co founder, and the Chief Operating Officer of Zavikon, which she’s going to tell us all about. And I’m particularly excited about because Zavikon is where the rubber meets the road. It’s about those of us with different brains gettin jobs and careers, Hilary, welcome.  

HILARY KOKENDA (HK):  Thank you. It’s so nice to be here. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.  

HR:  Well, we appreciate having you and now why don’t you tell us about yourself and Zavikon better than I just did.  

HK:  Okay. So, um, I’ll start with, I’ll start with myself, and then kind of segue into, into Zavikon. So I come from a very traditional corporate America background, I like to say I went to college, and then the consulting bus, drove up to graduation, I jumped on it, and went and got that, that typical consulting training, did that for a few years, and then moved into into business and in technology. So I worked for Fortune 100, fortune 500 companies. As you know, as like an IT tech manager, I did a lot of hiring over the years, I managed a lot of teams. And, um, you know, didn’t really know about this, all of neurodiversity. And I, you know, I was, I am neurotypical myself, and, you know, just probably was, was ignorant, if I’m being real about that. And then I, my, I had a niece who was born, she’s now 22, but she was born with a seizure disorder, and resulting in cerebral palsy, quite on the extreme end of the spectrum for cerebral palsy. So over the last 22 years that the the world of disability became a big part of my life. And then, gosh, now, like four or five years ago, my daughter was diagnosed as neurodivergent. So she has what’s called Irlen syndrome, which is one of a lesser known diagnosis. It’s how her her brain processes colors. And it causes, it affects her depth perception, and her ability to, to see words and to read.

So my, my kind of, my world became bigger in that I started to understand neurodiversity. I had seen disability, and you know, the ups and downs and what’s available, and the and the needs, and the where that where there’s great resources and where there’s not as many great resources. I had known Rebecca Beam Zavikon founder and CEO for many years. In fact, she was a recruiter who had placed me at my last the job that I had was currently at. And we were talking, I can tell you, for those of you who know Southern California, I was on the one on one stuck in traffic driving to work, I can still picture it, I can even tell you like approximately what off ramp I was at at the 101. And she called me and she had been working. She had helped found the company called mindspark, which was really at the forefront of the autism at work movement where they trained individuals, autistic individuals, how to do system testing, and then instead of companies outsourcing offshore, they would outsource to mindspark for system testers. So she had been heavily involved in that. And then when they were purchased by a German company, she ran the US operations. She was the CEO of the US operations for about three years. She was heavily heavily in this space. And she told me she felt like there was a gap in the market. And that gap was that the her business model was hiring or was contracting out autistic individuals, but companies actually wanted to hire them. They wanted to bring them in, they wanted to be more integrated. They wanted to improve their corporate social responsibility. They wanted to hire these individuals. And she recognized her background in recruiting that there had never been there, that there wasn’t a case company that she knew of that filled that space.

So she did come up with this idea and wanted to do it. And she was telling about me and I’m sitting in traffic and, you know, I, we were getting my debt, we were in the middle of getting my daughter’s diagnosis, and it was just it all, you know, like the perfect storm. She said, but I don’t want to do it alone. And I said, Well, this would be a dream come true for me. And she said, Let’s do it. And here we are. So we founded Zavikon, legally, in 2020. Unfortunately, there were some things going on in the world that affected starting a business in 2020, is a global pandemic. So I like to say we really opened our doors in 2021. So we’ve been around for about two and a half years, our our mission is to place neurodivergent individuals and those with disabilities and career oriented meaningful jobs. The vision we have is to address the unemployment and underemployment rates for this community, which are really bad as Hackie, I’m sure you know, you know, autism alone, I hear different numbers from different studies. But usually, it’s usually upwards of 80% of autistic individuals are unemployed, which is mind boggling to me. And, you know, it’s not just a social issue, it’s an economic one, if we employ only 1% More of these individuals, the GDP could get a boost of up to 25 billion. So this is something that we all have to be a part of, I believe we all have to work to improve this issue. And it’s going to benefit everybody directly. And indirectly, it’s just why it’s just so important. So as far as Zavikon that is our mission, it’s a little crass, but we say butts and seats, that’s That’s our mission. We do tend because it’s our background, we both come from corporate America, we have found that we have more success, more connections in kind of those a little bit more, you know, office jobs, kind of corporate America jobs.

There are also there are organizations out there that do that have been more established and do a much better job of, you know, people that want to work in a grocery store or retail or things like we can do that. But we found that our wheelhouse is those more office type jobs, we do it in a supported manner. And this is where we’ve learned so much in our short two and a half years, we have come to strongly, strongly believe that. And the Zavikon model is based on it, that it needs to be individualized. And it needs to be hands on AI chat, GBT, all these things are fantastic. And they can enhance, but they don’t take away human interaction. Because it’s so important. And it’s everybody’s different. And you have to have that human touch, to understand what somebody needs, and to help create the supportive environment that where they can grow and thrive. And, you know, achieve as much as their as they’re capable of achieving at with anybody really. So we do support from obviously, we help with the job search. We support through the interview, negotiations, onboarding, and then we provide a career coach for the first 90 days of employment for acclamation. It’s not a job. Coach who shadows and sit next sits next to the person. It’s a coach who checks in, gets ahead of any potential issues, helps them figure out communication protocols, advocates for any accommodations or success factors they might need, and lays that groundwork for the long term success and independence.  

HR:  Does the job coach also give the employer the support they need to provide the accommodations?  

HK:  Absolutely. And that yes, so that as an that starts even farther back, so yes, we believe that it’s two sides. We believe that it’s not just the employee, it’s the employer and coaching them both, so that they can both understand each other better. And both have, you know, both generalized and individualized tips and tricks on communication is where we have found the most the most success. Now, we do cater it, because we understand coming from it again, I was a hiring manager, I was in their shoes for 20 years. So I understand people get busy, they don’t have time. So we do cater the cadence to the individual. So if a hiring manager says, I’ll give you an hour a week, well, we take it. And, you know, we meet with them. And we, you know, we just whatever comes up, we coach, we have things that we you know, talk them through that we plan on, of course, but a lot of it is what’s going on what’s happening, how did this work? How did that work? And just getting them, you know, giving them a sounding board, and getting them helping them figure out how to navigate this relationship.  

HR:  And you’ve developed some good partnerships with different organizations, you want to talk about a couple of them and how you interact with them, like the person who introduced us Judi Uttal?     Yes. Yeah. Judi’s a gym. So we have done it. We’ve done a lot of work building community partners. So Judi Uttal, She is president of the Orange County Asperger’s Support Group out in Orange County, California. And we actually did a career club with her. But Rebecca, my business partner had known her for quite a while several years, and we had met with her told her what we were doing, and she’s been fantastic. She helps us market sometimes when we’re looking for a particular talent or skill set. And then we did this career club together, she reached out to us and she said, I want to get together a group of people from the Orange County Asperger Support Group, and you know, they’re in there have them all be in the process of looking for a job and, you know, build a little bit of a community and a support group where you can talk about what they’re going through what we’re what’s worked, what hasn’t. And then we can come in. And, you know, develop a curriculum and talk about how to search for a job, how to interview how to what to do once you get the job. So we did, it was over the course I’m going to get it wrong, but it was like eight to 10 months, we met, we met once a month. And it was really great. So we did that.

We’ve also partnered with a lot of organizations out in California state run organizations, all the California Regional Centers, Department of Rehabilitation, which goes across all all states, it’s often called, it’s called different things in different states. But Voc Rehab, Department of Rehab, depending on where you are, we will talk to anybody. We have said from the beginning, we don’t have any shame, we will partner with anybody who’s willing to partner with us because we firmly believe it takes a village. And none of us knows better than any of the other because, again, it’s individual and we may be doing something, and maybe I’m not connecting with an individual for whatever reason, well, Shoot, maybe I can reach out to Judy and she has an idea and she connects back with that person and we can, you know, work things together. It what matters is the success of the individual how we get there, we wait. I say we don’t care. I mean, we care but we don’t care as long as someone gets the support they need to start you know, building their career because it affects you know, perfect everything and self esteem and how you feel about yourself. And you know, it’s it’s huge.  

HR:  Is my understanding, correct that you’re filling some roles in the Orlando area and for the audience in that area can you tell us about the positions?  

HK:  Yes. So we are really excited about these positions in Orlando. It’s a very, very large company. I’m not going to disclose the name on the podcast, but you everybody knows the name and Um, they are doing some incredible work. We’ve been, this has been a long adventure with them, but they’re doing it right and they’re being thoughtful, and they want to be a very supportive input environment for this population. We’re doing training with them as a whole, we’re doing a whole program. And they’re starting with five positions in the Orlando area. In technology. So we’re gonna bring on, I’m gonna kind of there’s detailed job descriptions. So maybe at the end of this, we can, we can tell people how to contact me if they want more information. But we’ve got three positions that are very, like data oriented, data analytics, data visualization, database administration. So all things data, if anybody is interested in a position around data, we’ve got some amazing opportunities, it’s taking data, and using data to make business decisions. So it’s really at the forefront of what I believe, is going to be a career. I mean, there’s already data scientists, there’s already great careers in data. But I feel like this is an area that’s doing nothing but growing, the more we become reliant on AI and data and all these things, people that understand this and can build a career in this are in great position.

So three positions centered around data. One position that is a support analyst for an application. So Application Support Analyst calls come in troubleshooting, you know, fixing outages, working with vendors, again, a job where you can come in with just without any professional experience, and get that first entry level job foot in the door, and start building a career. And then the fifth position is somewhat similar. It’s a kind of configuration manager or a configuration analyst, where you’re going in doing system administration, configuring an application, and doing support. So all of these are like incredible building, building blocks to for a career in technology. So if any of this sounds interesting, please email info And Zavikon is spelled pretty much like it sounds Zavikon. So Reach out to me and say I’m interested in you know, one of the technology jobs in Florida, and we will reach back out and we will talk to you about it. We’ll give you you know, obviously there’s more details to be had. But we’ll go through the details, we’ll get an idea of where you know, you may fit, and we’ll talk it through and we’ll see. It’s it’s an incredible opportunity. It really is. We’re just beyond excited.  

HR:  Can you share a couple of your success stories at Zavikon?  

HK:  Yes. So one of the things we found is that and this is not a you know, super controlled study or anything but the candidates and the participants that come to us over 80% of our, of the individuals we work with cite the interview as their biggest barrier to employment. So we do a lot of work on the interview. We call it a supported interview. We coach interviewer and interviewee. So that’s, that’s the background on this. We had an individual come to us. And he wanted to be an actuary. Brilliant mathematician, like brilliant. And he had graduated with a math degree from college. And I don’t know I’ll give a little bit of a background on an actuary because some people know what they do and some people don’t. But they generally work for insurance companies. They do a lot of number crunching and algorithms, figuring out how to, you know essentially what our insurance is going to cost us. So there’s there’s a there’s a science to it. And people who are actuaries there’s all these exams to get certified to show that you can Do this, generally people pass the first exam, not always, but generally, when they’re in college, so if you’re there a math major or you know something in that family, usually through your college, you can get information and take and take the first exam. So you get that support. And then after that, they generally again, this is general, but they’ll get into an actuarial program. And then the company that they work for will support and sponsor and help them pass subsequent exams, because there’s exams that actuaries can take throughout their career. There’s many, many exams.

So we met this individual, and he wanted to be an actuary. He had graduated with a math degree, like I said, and he had passed his first exam, which was all great. And then he started interviewing, and interview after interview after interview, and he couldn’t get past the first interview. So it’s a testament to his grit and determination. He kept taking tests. So he would interview and he was dedicated. And he would study for these tests on his own. And he started passing them, which is in I mean, it’s amazing accomplishment. When we met him, he had passed four exams. Crazy. And I’m a shortly thereafter passed a fifth exam. So we got talking to him. And he just, you know, his dream was to be this actuary. And we said, alright, well, we’re gonna help you realize this dream. And as we got to know him, we realize that he has some processing whereby, when you’re, when you’re speaking with him, he will take a pause. So and it can be a long pause. So I mean, from, you know, my background, and having done many, many interviews, I could see where that it could if you didn’t know, it could derail an interview. Easily, because, you know, if I’m interviewing somebody, and they don’t answer, I’m thinking, Okay, well, he doesn’t know the answer. Or maybe I need to, you know, maybe I need to rephrase. So I would rephrase. And then the processing starts all over and makes the pause even longer, right. So, um, we, you know, we worked with him and practice, obviously, but this just the way that he communicates, he takes pauses. We cut across almost any insurance company that we could reach across the United States. And we sent emails, we had him put together a video profile of, you know, introducing himself talking about his dream, he did an amazing job with that. And we weren’t really getting responses.

And we knew that there was a particular CEO of a very large insurance company who had a son on the spectrum. So we maybe you could call it a little stalkerish. We like to say we call it scrappy. But we started, we started, we emailed him. And then he wasn’t responding to the emails. So we actually wrote a snail mail letter, like signed it, put a stamp on it, and sent it in the mail. Which doesn’t happen so much these days. So we like whatever we can do to get to get his attention. And then we didn’t hear and we were really, we were a little deflated. And we had taken a picture of the the letter before we sent it sounds like you know what, let’s take a picture of that. So we took a picture of the letter and sent another email and said, I don’t know if you got it. Well, we got a call back. We got a meeting. Rebecca met with him he was fantastic. He brought in the Chief Actuary and got this gentleman an interview. So we we coached both the and this is what we call a supported interview. We coach not just the interviewer be but the interviewer and said, Listen, he’s gonna pause, give him give him that beat. Let him pause. And I promise you if you can just give him the pause, you’re going to be so impressed with the answer. So they did did. And he was able to get through either two or three rounds of interviews. And it makes me cry. He now is in one of the top actuarial programs in the United States. And all it took was somebody to just open their mind for a minute. And allow somebody the space to take a pause. And he’s gonna be the best actuary they’ve ever had. So that’s what it is, it’s just, you know, being human for a minute. And understanding that we all bring different things to the table and you know, embracing it.  

HR:  What do you find is the single biggest challenge, just getting your foot in the door?  

HK:  Our single biggest challenge is getting for sure. We talk to a lot of people, and we get a lot of positive feedback of, Oh, I love what you’re doing, this is so great, and almost like, you know, pat you on the head and good job, and then they move on. So, um, I believe that there’s definitely, like, awareness has improved, I believe dramatically. So the three A’s like awareness, acceptance, is, is coming along. And the third one is action, and it’s the action where we run into that wall. It people are apprehensive, here’s another A, for whatever reason, they feel it, maybe they feel that they aren’t knowledgeable enough, and they don’t feel like they would do a good job. People, you know, worry about unfortunately, you know, the HR risks, and, you know, am I going to put myself in, you know, put myself at risk, you know, liability wise, which is all very, very sad, but it, it does feel like things are improving. But we need what we need more people like the CEO of that company to be to say, Okay, let’s just do this. And the other thing that we found, is those that are taking action, sometimes, you know, is bigger than my stomach sort of situation where it’s like, let’s make this whole huge program, we’re going to do this or do that. And that’s beautiful. That’s fantastic. But the time that it takes to launch something like that is, is can be yours. And a lot of times what we want to say is just hire one, hire one. And we’ll, we’ll support we’ll train, we’ll give you what you need. But hire one and guess what happens? It starts growing organically. The big programs are fantastic. Don’t get me wrong, I you know, but getting that at it’s that action, because they want the big programs, but actually implementing it and starting it. It just takes a lot of time. Where as just the one and then people in, you know, other parts of the company, you know, work gets around. This is working for you, you have this great employee, well, I want to do it. So just inspiring people to action.  

HR:  What would you say to someone out there who’s looked for work, had a bad experience, they’re neurodivergent and they’re worried about trying again? How would you say to them?  

HK:  Um, you know, it’s hard. First, I would say, that sucks. I’m sorry, because it does. And, you know, it just, it’s hard. But, you know, so cliche, we learn more from our failures and our successes, right? And try to take that experience and try again, and maybe try, you know, get it. There’s nothing wrong with getting help. I do talk to some individuals who feel bad about, you know, getting extra assistance from someone like Zavikon. There’s no There’s no shame in that. I mean, everybody is it’s no different then, you know, using a family connection or a friend connection to get a job for anybody else, right? That’s, that’s, you’re using whatever leg up you can get. And we’re gonna, we’re gonna provide some support. So I mean, all I can say is just as hard as it is don’t give up. There are resources out there to help. And, um, let’s kind of try to figure out what, I don’t know if anything went wrong, but you know, where things unraveled. And let’s, let’s try to understand, because it’s, you know, it’s like anything, there’s always two sides to a story, right. So it could have been an unsupportive environment. Maybe it probably was. And maybe there are some little things not masking, not hiding who you are, but some techniques or things that that the person can do to help themselves be more successful. Because two way street always.  

HR:  How’s your daughter doing?  

HK:  She’s doing great. Berlin, so she’s, there’s some pretty there’s some really good interventions with Irlen syndrome, she wears these tinted glasses. And it it really it, it takes away that it helps she has depth perception when she wears. While she’s doing, you know, sports or whatever, she wears goggles. So she has that perception now. And she once we intervened with the glasses, she’s she’s caught up to her grade level, she was probably two to three years behind in reading because she wasn’t able to see the words because the words move around. And so she’s been able to catch up with with the intervention and you know, extra help.  

HR:  How old is she now?  

HK:  She is 12  

HR:  Oh, great age.  

HK:  Yeah. So yeah, that was, we she’s, we’re very lucky in that the intervention for Irlen syndrome is pretty straightforward.  

HR:  And after I get off, I’m gonna Google Irlen syndrome and learn more about it.  

HK:  It’s not as it’s yeah, it’s not as well known. It’s not as well known. I think there are more people out there with it and have been diagnosed because it’s fairly new, or a new, new, new information, new discovery about it. But definitely do the dude google it, but Google the images. And you can see there, it manifests differently for different people, but you can see like, what they see when they try to read but a lot of them get misdiagnosed with dyslexia. And then they do the interventions for dyslexia, but it doesn’t work. Because it’s not addressing the root cause.  

HR:  One more time if people want to get in touch with you, how do they do it?  

HK:  Okay, the best way is just to email our general mailbox. For any reason for any reason, if you want to partner like I said, we have no shame. We partner with anybody who wants to partner with us at If you’re interested in the technology opportunities, job opportunities in Orlando, just say email And heard about jobs in Orlando, I want more information and we will reach you and we talked to everybody who reaches out to us. Sometimes it takes a beat for us to get around to all of our emails. But we will. We will talk to you we will have a human connection. Even if it’s over zoom, we will have a human connection because we believe in that.

This is California we were awarded a grant from the state of California and the Department of Developmental Services. It’s amazing grant. And it’s really helped us open doors. Because what it’s done is it’s it’s subsidizing the support costs for us to come into a business and help. The main target was like small to midsize companies who don’t have diversity, equity and inclusion budgets. But it can even be departments within larger companies where there’s types of positions where they say well, we don’t have support costs for those types of positions. But we are also so any individual I know you’re in Florida so I don’t know how many people will be reaching here but if someone is a California Regional Center client, they are automatically eligible to be part of this program. It subsidizes our costs. And we are also co enrolling people in what we call a paid internship program for the state of California. And companies are able to get an individual for approximately six months where the state of California covers their wages. So this has been for us, you know, that action piece that we talked about, where get inspiring people to action? Well, it’s giving them a chance to kind of try before they buy for a cent, I mean, essentially little to no cost. And it’s really been opening some doors. So it can be remote work. So if a company is outside of California, and they’re willing to let somebody be in California and work 100% remote, they can also take advantage of this.  

HR:  Well, Hilary Kokenda, the organization is Zavikon you do so much for so many. And thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here at Exploring Different Brains and we hope you’ll return.  

HK:  I would love to that would be great. Thank you for having me.