Larissa is a full-time student who co-founded the start-up Impactful during her year off from Yale University. At the age of twelve Larissa was diagnosed with depression, and later chronic anxiety and ADHD. We spoke with her in order to learn from an individual who has carved out the space she needed in both academic and professional worlds, creating her own opportunities where none previously existed.
To start, can you please introduce yourself? Tell me a bit about yourself and your work.
My name is Larissa Hana Nguyen and I’m from Brooklyn, New York.
I’m studying computer science at Yale University. I’m a second semester senior, but I took a gap year to work on the start-up that I’ll be talking about.
In terms of my professional and intellectual interests, I care a lot about the intersection of social impact and technology, so I like thinking about the ways in which technology can be used for social good and the ways that we can mitigate potential societal harms of new emerging technologies like artificial intelligence.
Can you tell me about your personal experience with disability and mental health? Has your mental or physical health ever interfered with your school work or professional work?
The short answer is yes. As I mentioned before, I took a year off and part of the reason was my struggle with mental health. When I was 12, I was diagnosed with depression, then during university I was diagnosed with chronic anxiety and I more recently found out that both of these stem from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
My condition didn’t necessarily affect my academics in middle school and high school because I was always overcompensating for my executive dysfunctional issues. In high school my classes were small enough for me to work how I wanted to: sitting in a weird position, recording the lecture on my phone. Now I get official accessibility accommodation and note-taking assistant at Yale. All of my classes for my major have been with at least fifty students, and I initially had a lot of trouble learning in that environment. Because of my ADHD I experienced something called time blindness, which means I sometimes have a distorted sense of how much time I need to allot to certain tasks. During my last year I was not meeting any of my deadlines, and my dean suggested I take time off. Around this same time, I began to come up with the idea for my start-up.
What inspired you to create Impactful? What are you trying to achieve?
Impactful is an organisation that helps students use technical skills for good. And we define technical skills broadly.
I work with two other co-founders who I met through a “tech for good” fellowship. The fellowship was the first time we had all been exposed to these organisations and companies that are doing exactly the type of work we want to do (technology for social good/social impact). I talked to top professors around the world about how we can mitigate the gender and racial biases of facial recognition, processing health data to better inform vaccine roll out, and how to better distribute mosquito nets.
My co-founders and I had all wanted to apply technology to social good for years, and we wondered why this was the first time we were hearing about all of this. We had been compiling our own list of resources and jobs, but we realised that there was no large database that existed. We felt that we needed to create a resource for people to use, to lower the barrier to entry. We applied to an incubator program and got accepted. And we’ve all been working part-time on Impactful ever since.
How has your experience been working from home?
Working from home is the perfect work environment for me because I can move around. During internships in the past I would get in trouble moving around the co-working space that we were in. I wouldn’t stay at my desk because every hour and a half or so I just need to move. It helps me concentrate.
How does the more accessible way you’re currently working enable you to thrive?
It’s the only way I was able to make this work. My productive hours are very strange. I have bursts of energy during the day, I work well between midnight and 3AM. I know I’ll get it done. People might be uncertain at first, but then when they see that things are getting done they understand.
Since I’m one of the co-founders, people aren’t in the position to force me to work in the same way a neurotypical person might. We don’t see working 9-5 as a goal.
Do you have any tips for ambitious students and professionals who don’t necessarily thrive in traditional 9-5 work spaces?
You have to be your biggest self advocate. When I interview for different companies, I prioritise companies and roles where I feel that difference is accepted and celebrated, where the team trusts each other. Respect and trust are extremely important.
I use interviews as a way to try to gauge the company culture. It’s more work for me as a job applicant, but I also set up informational chats so I can ask about the work environment and expectations. I basically try to vet companies.
My preferred work style is also part of why I chose to go into computer science and programming. I love problem solving. I love being able to build something myself. I’ve found that the technology industry is more accommodating to my neurodivergence than others. All I really need is my laptop, and this allows me to be quite mobile. Working away from your desk is normalised in the tech world.
What would be your tip for employers who want to be inclusive and accessible but are not sure how?
The more neurodiverse people who are in positions of power the better. There’s a sense that when you have more accommodations or workplace flexibility it only helps a small subset of clinically disabled people. But most people experience some form of “disability,” it’s just not necessarily chronic. Pregnancy, temporary injury, etc. It’s the same thing for neurodivergence.
Everyone has days when they’re not as high energy, or their brain is’t working how it normally does. I think it’s helpful to think about workplace accommodations as something that's helpful for the productivity of everyone rather than just a few people. Anything that helps folks “with a disability” will help folks who are temporarily in a situation like those people, even if they don't have a disability.
Why do you think disabled and neurodivergent-led businesses like Patchwork Hub and Impactful are so important?
This might just be what I have to tell myself, but I think neurodivergent people usually come with a different set of skills and a tolerance for change that others may not have.
I think diversity in culture is often discussed in terms of innovation, but I think it also applies to disability. Neurodivergent people bring in a new way of working and thinking because fundamentally, we think differently. For example, it’s been proven that people with ADHD have a higher tendency to take risks and be entrepreneurs, and are often people who make change in a positive way.
By Shamsa Derrick