Empathy is one of the most important tools not just for spurring good entrepreneurship, but for enriching the lives of ourselves and those around us. To help more people access ways of understanding and expressing empathy in their daily lives, Vanessa Gill worked to create Social Cipher, a venture that seeks to use a gamification process to to teach empathy.
ABERMAN: We’re excited to have you, because Social Cipher is a great example of the kind of company that can really make a difference. Tell us a bit about Social Cipher: what it’s about, and how relates to your own life journey.
GILL: It starts with, actually, me and my story. So, I was raised by a single mom, and she raised my sister and me all on her own. That was fantastic growing up, I had a really good childhood. But what was really tough was, around the time that my mom lost her job, when I was 14, I was also diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. As I had gotten my diagnosis, I just was very ashamed and bitter about it, and that was just because of the fact there wasn’t really representation around. It was mostly male-centered.
And because of that, I thought, well, if I’m not supposed to have feelings, if I’m not supposed to engage and have empathy with people, then why even try? I’m not going to engage, not even focus on that. So, I sort of shut off my emotions for a little while. And that worked, and I was able to just ignore this conundrum of human connection. But when my mom lost her job, it started to get tough. I was one of the only people there for her support. I realized that I needed to have that empathy, and I needed to show it to her.
A big misconception about the autism community is that we don’t have empathy. And that’s actually not true. We actually feel empathy just like anyone else. In fact, sometimes more than typically developing people. It’s just the expression of that empathy is where things get a little foggy. So, I just remember being in my mom’s office with her, as she was just staring at this computer screen full of bills that she couldn’t pay. I wanted to do something. I remember looking around the room, and trying to find some kind of logical solution to her pain. But I couldn’t find anything, and it was frustrating, and it made me want to explode, and I just wanted to help in some way, but I couldn’t.
And you know, of course, the logical and easiest thing to do would have been to just go up to her, give her a hug, and tell her everything was gonna be OK. But I just could not find the words and the ways to do that. So, the next day, I ended up asking her to help me train my social skills. But without the money and time for therapy, she and I had to get really creative.
So, we turned every one of our outings into this new social puzzle. So, we would go out and have these conversations with people, and she’d have me report back and say, all right, what did this facial expression mean? What did this tone of voice mean? How did this work? We would connect that with music, which I was able to extract a lot easier, emotionally, than a human face. And we would put that together with movie scenes.
So, I created this sort of mental database in my head that I could play back and use in any social situation. And over six years of me just practicing and learning social skills like it was another language, I sort of looked back. I was a junior in college, and I was just sort of zoning out on my college reading.
And I thought about how far I had come, and how loved I had become, and just how much more confident I had become in myself. I wasn’t ashamed by my diagnosis anymore. I realized that it was the superpower that allowed me to connect things the way I did. But then, I looked back, and I thought about all of these other kids that may not have had the resources and the time and money, just like I did. I thought, what about them? And so, that’s kind of how Social Cipher began.
ABERMAN: And it’s a social venture, and now you have this gamification, this technology that, it sounds like you’ve taken the years that you and your mother worked together, and you’ve reduced it to something that anybody can access. Is that right?
GILL: Yeah, exactly. So, we found that there were three needs in the autism therapy community that weren’t being met. One of them was retaining engagement outside of the therapy office, for these kids. It takes a lot of parent and child effort, outside the office, to retain the things they learn in therapy. And if that’s not an engaging thing, these kids don’t feel comfortable, and they don’t feel ready to learn. The other thing was empowerment. So, giving these kids the self-determination to use their social skills, and their newly learned things in the outside world, and giving them the representation they need to be able to say, hey, I know these people with autism, they’re doing great. That means I can do great too.
ABERMAN: So, as you take a look at this platform, and you think about it, how do you look at people who have the innate ability to feel empathy, and don’t use it?
GILL: In business, especially in business, a lot of the time, many people in the world could be using a whole lot more empathy. I think our direct work with kids and families in the autism community, and being able to build trust with them, being able to see how they live their daily lives and what daily frustrations they face, helps us make a game that actually meets these families’ needs. We’re not just going to a moot point, and creating this fake thing for a fake solution for a fake problem.
I think it can help you be more productive in your business, understanding the needs of your people, just for the sake of understanding them. There’s so many rewarding moments I have, where my interviews of families and parents turn into these 45 minute things, where we just talk about, you know, am I being a good parent? Is everything okay? And me just sort of reassuring them. The fact that you care, and you’re empathetic, is what is direct going to drive these kids, and ultimately make them successful. You are doing fine. And that’s just such an incredibly rewarding thing, that I would never really be able to get without being empathetic with people, and being able to express that empathy.
ABERMAN: You know, I love that you’ve taken all this energy, and you’re doing a social venture, and I love what’s going on over at Halcyon, where I know you’re working their program. What’s the biggest difference between a for-profit and a social venture?
GILL: I think the biggest difference between just a normal for-profit and social venture is, when times get really tough, when your team has trouble, when profits aren’t too great, and when things are just kind of spiraling out of control, when you are at the bottom and just hitting rock bottom, the thing that brings you back up, and keeps you moving, is these kids. It’s these people that you’re working for. It’s the things they’ve said to you. Like after a test, we do these little puppet shows, and I remember one of the first little girls we tested with told us she loved us so much, and that she was just so happy. And those smiles, just remembering that, that’s what gets you out when things are just horrible.
ABERMAN: As we think about Social Cipher, we think about your life journey, you’re a great example, I think, of an entrepreneur who takes personal experience, brings it together to work a problem, and then with your passion, you’re actually making a material difference in tens of thousands of people’s lives. Vanessa, it was great having you on the show today. Thanks for joining us.