While the physical impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated conversations throughout 2020, there’s another health concern that’s been quietly growing throughout the year…
With the explosion of remote work and schooling, millions of people have reported feelings of isolation and loneliness, leading to serious mental health concerns. In fact, a July Kaiser Family Foundation Tracking Poll revealed that 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus, which was significantly higher than the 32% figure reported in March.
Left untreated, these mental health issues will continue to grow. Thankfully, there is a movement of entrepreneurs and business leaders that have taken up the challenge of developing useful tools to support emotional wellbeing.
Future Founders is proud to work with two such entrepreneurs: Zariah Tolman, Founder of Positivity Outward, and Olayinka Omolere, Founder of Seren. These two young founders are part of the Fall 2020 Cohort of the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship – an 8-week founder development program run in partnership with the Blackstone Charitable Foundation and Techstars – and are using their time in the program to bring mental health and wellbeing resources to even the most remote students and employees.
We sat down with these two founders to talk about their organizations, and how they’re developing innovations to ensure we all stay happy and healthy during these challenging times.
Founder – Zariah Tolman
Montana State University
What is Positivity Outward?
Positivity Outward is a nonprofit in Montana that equips rural high schoolers with mental health resources and empowers them through service opportunities to make ripples of positivity outward. Our goal is to ultimately provide whatever tools and resources these youth need to feel confident, connected, and creative.
How do you do that?
We have an app that students can access through their school that provides a library of mental health resources, a library of community service opportunities, tools for self-reflection and goal setting, and access to mentors and professional resources. We hope to provide whatever the student needs, and help them reach the developmental outcomes they desire.
One of the other things we do is integrate research into our platform. Users fill out surveys in the beginning when they’re making a profile. And then as they go through our program, they fill out follow up surveys so that we can measure the outcomes of connection, confidence, and competence. This helps us understand their social emotional learning skills and assess their personality traits so we can determine the mental health resources that we can provide.
What types of mental health challenges do you help users tackle?
It’s very broad. Everything from wanting to set a good habit or remove a bad habit, to understanding what a healthy relationship looks like and how to develop healthy coping mechanisms to work through trauma. Ultimately, we are trying to provide anything that these kids might need and might not be able to access otherwise in rural areas, which tend to lack these types of resources.
Why rural areas?
I grew up in a town of 50 people in Wyoming, and had that personal experience of feeling like I had no way to successfully navigate my mental health struggles. I felt like I had nothing to really offer when I began college. I lacked confidence, and had a lot of problems with my self-esteem. While in college I was given these resources and opportunities. I had access to mental health care, and it wasn’t heavily stigmatized. I was able to finally learn how to take care of myself, which meant that I could put my best self into my world.
Once I realized that it wasn’t just me, that I wasn’t the only one going through [mental health challenges], I knew I needed to do something. These were problems that were affecting rural areas all across the nation. And so, I founded this organization to take on the rural disparities in access to mental health care and developmental opportunities.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to mental health?
“Cowboy Values” is what they were called growing up. We take a lot of pride in our resilience, our ability to overcome adversity, and how strong we like to be as a community. But what that turns into is a lot of emotional suppression. And if someone is having a mental health issue, it gets equated with weakness, and if they need help, that means that there’s something wrong with them.
We’re trying to show that everyone has mental health needs, and these don’t make you weak. Taking care of yourself is actually a sign of strength. A lot of the time what goes along with stigma is that people just don’t want to talk about it. It’s really taboo, and a lot of that comes from people not understanding the full extent. But when we normalize the conversation, we open up the door and we’re able to educate people on these ideas around mental health. Then people are going to be able to get the help they need, wherever they need it.
What encouraged you to apply for the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship?
As someone with absolutely no business experience, it was recommended that I go check out the Blackstone LaunchPad on my campus. From the initial idea, they’ve been really, really helpful in showing me how to actually build an organization. [This fall], Trevor Huffmaster, the LaunchPad Campus Director sent me an email about the Fellowship. He was like, “I think your organization would be a great fit.” And as a technology-based nonprofit, I thought this would be perfect.
What have you gotten out of your Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship experience?
This Fellowship has been one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done. Going through it has accelerated our growth, and really confirmed that this is what I want to do. I’ve learned so much from the workshops, and have made so many connections.
The Mentor Week absolutely blew me away. One mentor heard my idea, heard my message, and saw the vision. And she was like, “We could start meeting every other week if you want to, so that I can help you build this organization.” Meeting people who believe in this idea is so rewarding, and I don’t think I would have been able to build an impactful organization without the Fellowship.
Founder – Olayinka Omolere
University of California, Berkeley
What is Seren?
Seren takes watercooler chats online by matching teammates for spontaneous and informal calls based on their individual preferences. Seren reduces workplace isolation, and makes remote work more practical so companies can access more diverse candidates and reduce their environmental footprint.
How did you come up with the idea?
When COVID hit in March, I started looking for opportunities in the chaos. I looked for areas undergoing massive change and picked remote work because I had experienced it and understood its shortcomings.
As I spoke to my classmates about our challenges with remote schooling, I noticed a pattern. Without chance meetings in the Haas [School of Business] courtyard or around campus, my peers were finding it harder to stay connected. We were being told to “be intentional” but it felt like a ton of work, and our social interactions and circles were shrinking. I came to Haas for the culture, and I loved interacting with my friends and classmates, but I was beginning to feel isolated. And it reminded me of my time doing remote work.
What has your experience been like with remote work?
I actually worked remotely for about three years before I started my MBA. One of the things I realized in retrospect was that while I got my work done, when it was time for opportunities or promotions at work, my bosses typically wouldn’t think of me first. They would think of someone else who they had actually seen in person.
For me, remote work made it harder to get ahead because finding mentors was much harder. People would just not think of you as often. It was just so lonely working alone all day, in one room, with no interaction with coworkers. That sense of community and culture was missing in my bedroom where I worked.
How does Seren solve the remote work problem?
Seren solves the problem of staying in touch online by helping people to “bump into” each other virtually, so that brief and informal conversations can happen.
Seren instantly matches people with teammates in Slack, based on availability and interests. We are making water cooler chats better in some ways than in-person, even though we can’t quite replace face-to-face conversations… yet. With this technology, we can customize water cooler chats for individual preferences around how people like to engage, who they want to talk to, how long they want to talk, and what they want to talk about. We want to help people have better informal conversations over audio/video with colleagues, on any platform, whether that’s Slack, Teams, Zoom or the web.
What prompted you to apply to the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship?
I spoke to a previous participant of the Fellowship, and he was like, “You know, this is amazing. They will help your startup.” So that’s how I heard about it and why I applied.
Startups are hard. How do you make time to work on the business? How do you market? How do you find the first customers? The network I am building in this program is helping me with these bigger questions. It’s the connections and support that will help us grow faster than we would have otherwise.
To learn more about these two amazing young founders, as well as information on upcoming Blackstone LaunchPad programs, be sure to visit the Blackstone LaunchPad website.
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