The Black and Brown innovators solving community-based challenges for global good

An HP-supported program with MIT Solve aims to help social entrepreneurs' promising startups grow.

By Leigh-Ann Jackson — March 23, 2023

While a teen growing up in Southern California, Vanessa Castañeda Gill was diagnosed with autism and ADHD. She recalls feeling like she didn’t fit the mainstream perception associated with those conditions: She was a second-generation Mexican-American and female.  

“At the time, a lot of the stereotypes or media portrayals of autism were usually white boys who were cold, calculating, and kind of robotic – and that was very much not me,” she says. “I ended up feeling a lot of shame around my diagnosis. I hid it for six years.”

Despite those personal struggles, her diagnoses sparked her desire to help others learn.

 Co-founder and CEO of Social Cipher Vanessa Castañeda Gill.

Co-founder and CEO of Social Cipher Vanessa Castañeda Gill.

“I started tutoring at 14 to help kids in subjects I loved, both as a business and on a volunteer basis,” she says. “That really helped me gain confidence in my own strengths, skills, and values.”

Around that time, she also began listening to free neuroscience lectures on YouTube to discover more about neurodiversity.

She went on to study neuroscience at Claremont McKenna College and found an accepting, supportive group of friends who happened to share her love of role-playing video games to help them unwind. 

Introducing “Ava”

From this lived experience, Castañeda Gill started online gaming company Social Cipher in 2018. In fact, some of the startup’s co-founders were the first friends to whom she revealed her diagnoses. After a false start as a virtual reality game (that format caused sensory issues for some users), she and her gamer friends ultimately created a prototype that met all their criteria: A judgment-free space to try out social situations and emotional responses. 

RELATED: 4 organizations changing the gaming world for good


After a lot of experimentation and research, in 2021 Social Cipher launched “Ava,” an online game that helps to empower neurodiverse children by teaching them social emotional learning and self-advocacy skills, as well as building self-confidence.

In the game, an autistic intergalactic adventurer has social interactions with space pirates, while battling her self-doubt and making friends along the way. The final product targets kids in the 10-to-15 age range, but can appeal to players as young as eight up to those in their early 20s.

“Time and time again, data has shown that Black and Brown communities are under-resourced and underestimated.”

— Genesis Garcia, Officer, US Equity Community, MIT Solve

“Games offer this space where you can explore and be free with yourself without fear, judgment, or rejection,” Castañeda Gill explains. “That’s a really important safe space to have, especially when you’re neurodivergent and the world is not built for you.”

It’s the game she wished she could have played as a youngster, when she needed the most support. “Ava” is now being used in over 150 schools and therapy centers in four different countries. Among a growing list of accolades, the Social Cipher team was listed in Forbes’ “30 Under 30,” named AT&T Aspire Fellows, Facebook Global Gaming Citizens, and most recently, LEGO Play for All Accelerator Fellows.

MIT Solve as connector

To get “Ava” into the hands of more neurodiverse kids, Social Cipher applied and was accepted to the MIT Solve inaugural Black & Brown Innovators in the US program — supported by HP. The program aims to help innovators like Castañeda Gill establish mentorships and forge connections to funding and a creative network to help their promising startups grow. They'll receive culturally responsive resources, support, and coaching on top of the nine-month support program.

A character from Social Cipher's “Ava,” an online game that helps to teach neurodiverse children social emotional learning and self-advocacy skills.


A character from Social Cipher's “Ava,” an online game that helps to teach neurodiverse children social emotional learning and self-advocacy skills.

Seven members of the inaugural Black and Brown Innovators program.

MIT Solve

Left to right: Members of the inaugural Black and Brown Innovators program, Nidhi Mirani, Erica Plybeah, Lucy Stevens, MIT Solve's Genesis Garcia, Anthony Kinslow II, Ashley Barrow, Atif Javed. Social Cipher's Creative Director Stevens served as a delegate in lieu of Castañeda Gill during Solve Challenge Finals.

Clean Energy Hubs empowers underserved communities by removing financial, cultural and geographical barriers to energy efficiency, educating those communities about combating global warming and providing energy efficiency upgrades to small commercial buildings. The program’s mission is to democratize the clean energy sector by bringing women, people of color and rural communities into the profession.

MedHaul provides access to safe, cost-effective and reliable non-emergency medical transportation for individuals in under-resourced communities. The online platform streamlines the scheduling process by screening the transportation requirements of each patient and matching them with the appropriate driver.

RE-Assist is a digital platform that replaces the paper list directory in care planning in an effort to improve the transition of care from hospitals to post-acute care services. The program’s goal is to create more efficient, transparent communication between patients, case managers and service providers.

Tarjimly (which means “translate for me” in Arabic) is a mobile app that provides accessible translation services that remove language barriers between refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and humanitarian support workers. With over 120 languages offered, users can submit document translations, seek medical support and access interpretations via text and voice.

The next phase

“Ava” has come a long way since the game’s initial play tester (then a six-year-old of the same name) embarked on the first video voyage in 2018. Social Cipher’s development team — over half of which is neurodiverse — has woven real-life social-emotional elements and situations into the narrative with the help of hundreds of young neurodivergent testers, as well as counselors, mental health professionals and educators. 

The team plans to build a new mode of gameplay that’s even more accessible and increases creative expression for neurodivergent youth, with a goal of expanding their impact to 30,000 kids by 2024.

“I saw a lot of myself in [Ava the young play tester],” Castañeda Gill says. “I wanted to make sure that she would never feel or think about herself in the harmful ways I thought about myself at that age. I wanted to make sure the future would be better for her.”


Read how a new Black-owned tech ecosystem is taking shape in Tulsa.