MindRight Helps Youth Manage TraumaBy Jasmine Sun
MindRight, a mental wellness startup founded in 2016, leverages AI to break the cycle of untreated trauma among youth of color by providing personalized mental health coaching over text message to teens. I caught up with Co-founder and CEO Ashley Edwards to hear her inspiration for MindRight and the potential for technology to create more equitable and accessible mental health services.
MindRight: How It Works
MindRight’s Genesis: Understanding how trauma impacts education
Edwards and her co-founder Alina Liao met through Stanford’s joint MBA/Master’s in Education program. The women shared a passion for social justice and experience across the education industry. Edwards had worked in venture philanthropy and as Director of Operations at a Newark charter school, and Liao had experience in economic consulting and operations for several schools and nonprofits.
In these roles, Liao and Edwards saw firsthand how unresolved trauma inhibited students’ ability to succeed in school. Edwards described:
“The trauma my kids were experiencing when it comes to exposure to violence in their neighborhood, poverty, living in a food desert — just a host of different forms of systemic oppression they were encountering on a daily basis. By the time they got to school, these kids were miserable. They were angry; they were hurt; they were sad; and most of that pain was in silence.”
– Ashley Edwards, MindRight Co-Founder & CEO
While so much of the edtech industry revolved around tablets and private tutors, she realized there were far more pressing root causes to educational inequities. The ability to cope positively with stress tremendously affects school attendance and graduation rates. Together, Liao and Edwards created MindRight to help create a future without inter-generational trauma, where every youth feels heard by a caring adult. These students needed human contact to process pain and express joy, and Liao and Edwards saw that technology had the potential to scale.
Youth of color can be particularly difficult to reach, so most startups focus on more “straightforward” customer segments. Barriers include mental illness stigma in minority communities, the high cost of therapy, and a lack of diversity among counselors that makes it hard for young people to relate. Meanwhile, public schools often only hire just one counselor for hundreds of students, even though mental trauma is a major factor in the “achievement gap” for teens of color.
Fortunately, Edwards and Liao were up to the task. At Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, they learned to apply the human-centered design process to MindRight. They conducted focus groups with students to understand their views on mental health and used the text service itself to solicit frequent feedback. MindRight is also backed by a diverse team of experts: in addition to the founders’ own experiences in education, they are advised by experts in psychology, social work, machine learning, and health-tech. This cross-disciplinary support is a valuable asset for a startup working in the delicate fields of healthcare and social impact.
The MindRight Market: Technology for human wellness
Technology giants such as Facebook and Apple have been forced to reckon with the impact of their products and platforms on users’ mental and emotional states. The Silicon Valley startup ecosystem has long struggled with mental health challenges, from scrappy entrepreneurs’ lack of sleep and exercise to the harassment faced by women and minorities. Movements such as the Center for Humane Technology encourage technologists and business leaders to realign “with humanity’s best interests.”
In the face of these pressing concerns, it’s no surprise that behavioral health startups have been doing better than ever, securing a record $273 million in venture funding during the first half of 2018. In June, the meditation app Calm announced a $27 million Series A led by Insight Venture Partners, and popular therapy app Pacifica launched a web service connecting mobile users to therapists. Other startups target employers that offer wellness services to their employees rather than self-help: these include Lyra Health, which raised $45 million in May, and recent YC alum Modern Health, which raised a $2.26 million seed round last June.
MindRight focuses on an underserved segment within the broader mental wellness market: teenagers, and especially those of color. To gain their trust, the service taps into a device that teens are all too familiar with: smartphones. MindRight’s trained volunteer coaches text mentees to conduct regular check-ins and are available seven days a week, 365 days a year. This proactive coaching model gives the service a leg up over pricey professional therapists or crisis hotlines. As Edwards describes, “we don’t wait for kids to reach out to us. We proactively check in with students every day, which enables us to be preventative.” After all, it may be difficult for young people to open up to a stranger in one meeting, but daily communication provides students a connection to an adult figure who shows care, patience, and that they’re here to stay.
Beyond using texting as a way to lower the barrier of entry for teens, MindRight utilizes digital tools to personalize and improve their service. These enable them to provide automated recommendations for coaches, quickly survey their users for product feedback, and provide schools with aggregate data on students’ emotional health. Additionally, Edwards explains that the team is currently working to incorporate natural language processing, which can enable real-time sentiment analysis and perhaps prescribe predictive interventions.
It seems that MindRight has achieved a key balance by leveraging the power and scale of technology while keeping human coaches as the teens’ point of contact and the final decision-maker. This combined approach has opportunities in the broader mental health and education sector, especially in response to concerns over the digital use divide and the increase in AI-driven emotional analytics for managing students.
Hearing the below testimony from one of their users, it’s clear what an impact their technology stands to provide.
Challenges & Opportunities: Integrating into existing education ecosystems
The education industry is riddled with unique challenges that often require startups deviate from standard zero-to-one philosophies. High-risk and high-reward bets may be the venture community standard, but are much more dangerous when impacting the long-term mental and emotional well-being of vulnerable youth.
For MindRight, this means persuading schools and districts—rather than the individual users—to purchase their service on a per-student fee. Targeting institutions as customers may avoid challenges faced by similar startups such as Lantern, which recently shut down their professional coaching services due to customer acquisition problems. At the same time, MindRight needs to validate their efficacy to schools with already-strapped budgets in order to reach the most vulnerable students—a difficult task in education, where long-term causation is hard to prove. Still, initial evaluations seem promising: 90% of students reported better stress management skills, and 70% continued using the service for over eight weeks. Currently, MindRight is working with current school customers to analyze long-term results.
Scott Marcum, a counselor of 16 years at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Washington, saw challenges in providing counseling in public schools and his thoughts on services like MindRight. The organization’s focus on supporting youth of color seemed a particularly salient opportunity. Marcum explained,
“Everything is centered around equity and diversity. That is on the front burner of all of our work.”
– Scott Marcum, School Counselor
With 80% of MindRight’s coaches being people of color, one of their strengths is cultural competency and the ability to relate to teens who may otherwise feel alienated.
Additionally, Marcum echoed the importance of cultivating stable adult relationships in students’ lives. However, he seemed concerned about how deep of a personal connection a text-based service could offer—especially at a time when counselors are encouraging students to put down their screens. “It’s hard for [the coaches] to build relationships unless they spend a solid amount of quality time. Unless you’re going to spend a couple hours over the course of many days a week to establish rapport, it would be really difficult to convey tone, to establish that relationship” via text. Ultimately, Marcum suggests that MindRight’s efficacy is contingent on their volunteers being committed to building long-term trust and remaining consistently available when official counselors may not be. “The more adults in these kids’ lives that we can connect them with, the better. There are too many kids who go all the way hidden, who never seek me out. The better we can get them connected, the more success we’ll have.”
Staying true to their values
MindRight is a non-profit organization, but has secured funding from major social venture competitions, funds, and accelerators: including Halcyon Ventures, Camelback Ventures, the 2016 Global Social Venture Competition, and more. They were also recognized in the Forbes 30×100 list for building one of the top innovations of the next century.
MindRight’s team members and network of volunteer coaches are committed to their core values of unconditional positive regard, intersectionality, unapologetic advocacy, transparency, and radical self-care. Edwards hopes to see their approach proliferate within the edtech industry.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll shift toward really serving underlying root problems in education when it comes to equity, when it comes to systemic oppression. Because we can have the best technology in our classrooms, but none of it matters if kids are hurting. So I’m really excited about the possibility of technology and AI for good.”
– Ashley Edwards, MindRight Co-Founder & CEO
It’s not always easy for young social enterprises to stay committed to their mission when it seems like the harder path forward. Edwards’ advice for entrepreneurs aspiring to use tech to tackle oppression is to “remain unapologetic in your work. You will lose people, you will lose believers when you take that firm stand. But it’ll help you get the right people—on your team, to fund you, and to believe in your work.”