Alyson’s Story:

Alyson Friedensohn is CEO and founder of Modern Health.  Modern Health offers companies a complete service for mental health support for their teams. San Francisco based, Modern Health operates globally,

Alyson started business early.  At about six, she would paint rocks with nail polish and sell them and from there she progressed to becoming a “lemonade stand warrior”, setting up wherever the rich kids were likely to buy.    

She played lacrosse both at school and at college.  This taught her to think of herself as being part of a team, if she was captain of that team on the bench or on the field.  Everything had to be done for the greater good of the team.

Her parents were a huge influence on her.  Both were doctors, her mum in primary and preventative care.  While she was still at school, Alyson’s father developed cancer.  It was serious and he had to have his bladder removed.  Going through this together as a family helped her gain resilience. This was also her first experience of therapy and it was life-changing for her.

Alyson studied Global Environmental Change and Sustainability at John Hopkins University.  She considered studying medicine and following in her parents’ footsteps, but after studying the economics of med school, she decided she wanted to make a more macro impact. She then went to work in healthcare consulting in Washington but she had never given up on her dream of having her own business. People told her she would need to move from Washington to Silicon Valley as that was the place to be. 

She took a deep breath and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco.  It was a disaster.  Within two weeks, she had run out of money and was homeless.  Her boyfriend back in Washington had broken up with her.  Alyson says it was a hard time.  She was questioning herself, her why, and her purpose.

Desperate, she called her Dad.   He told her to take a breather and remember that she was tough, she was resilient, that they loved her no matter what and there was always a place on their couch.  She recognized that support combined with her own resilience to be what would give her the part of the mental health support she needed.

That phone call with her Dad was a seminal moment for her.  She realized that most people didn’t have that safety net to move back home to their parents’ or access to therapists.  Recognizing her own need for help at that point, she had rung round therapists but found most to be booked up or far too pricey.

Many mental health providers in the US won’t take insurance cases because the funding levels are so low.  In the UK, waiting lists for mental health help continue to get longer, with people waiting for months or even years for help and an incredible 20,000 vacant posts in NHS specialist mental health services.

Alyson believes everyone should be able to have access to mental health support and this is the inspiration behind Modern Health.   When support is available for stress and anxiety in everyday life, it is preventative, and that is needed as well as help for those people who are already clinically depressed and needing psycho-therapy or medication. 

Alyson found that companies have to piece together what they need to help employees from different service providers in different areas.   There was no one providing a complete holistic solution to employers.  By 2017, Alyson was ready to found Modern Health.

Modern Health for mental health

In 2018, Alyson applied to the prestigious Y Combinator who provides funding and help for early-stage entrepreneurs.  The three-month program culminates on Pitch Day.   Alyson says that product to market fit was drummed into them but when she achieved it, she really understood why.  Since then, Modern Heath has been through Series A and B funding and raised an impressive total of $45m.

At Y Combinator, they believe that successful companies are those who have a unique insight into what the future world is going to look like.   Modern Health is an example.

Attitudes to mental health have changed phenomenally already.  Celebrity suicides have been hugely impactful and other high-profile people have talked about their own mental health issues to help break down stigmas over asking for help.

But there has also been a growth in the need.  Alyson explained the principle of the blue zones in the world, a term first appeared in Dan Buettner‘s November 2005 National Geographic magazine cover story, “The Secrets of a Long Life”.  Within blue zones, people are healthier mentally and physically and live longer. 

One of the critical factors in common is the strength of the community.   People live with their families and are part of the community, with a strong sense of belonging.   This is now unusual, with people working and living all over the world and is reflected in her own experiences of finding strength from her family.

The pandemic has put pressure on mental health across the globe and more people working at home, more engrossed in technology, where we scroll through a range of emotions at speeds we aren’t programmed to cope with.  Just before I talked to Alyson there had been the George Floyd death and strong, sometimes violent reactions to racial injustice across the world.  People are more in need of counseling for stress and trauma than ever.  The need for mental health support is more desperate than ever.

Alyson believes that physical and mental health are both equally important.  Modern Health offers self-help but also a global network of certified coaches who offer behavioral-related help for people, for example, those finding a situation at work stressful.   The coaches sometimes triage people onto therapists if they have more specific mental health issues to deal with.  The whole company is geared to ensuring people get the right care.

It is true that risk is necessary just as pushing yourself is if you are going to reach your potential.  But like most entrepreneurs, Alyson admits to paying a high price in terms of distance from family and friends and minimal social life.  She even problem solves in her dreams   It helps that her partner is on his 2nd start up a finance well-being company called Origin and there is a lot of synergy between the two companies

Modern Health is “growing like crazy”, achieving 20x growth last year, and surpassing all their competitors in the mental health space in the US and they are starting to see traction elsewhere.

Alyson’s aim is to democratize access to mental health help globally.

Alyson’s advice

Founders are. themselves, at higher risk of mental health issues.  As everyone who has ever run their own business can testify, it is an emotional roller-coaster, with extreme highs and lows.  Founders are attracted to that, but it can take a toll. 

Alyson says this is becoming more recognized in the States, with successful people, even billionaires, admitting to becoming very depressed.  There have also been some high-profile suicides among entrepreneurs, including Jody Sherman, a well-known founder of e-commerce site Ecomom and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, co-founder of Diaspora. Venture Capitalists are starting to pledge support for founders’ mental health now, which is a huge shift.

To help develop that resilience, Alyson advises that it is critical to get that strong support system around you and believing in yourself.   Usually, the best ideas are the ones that no-one agrees with because they are different so that belief becomes critical.  

You also need incredibly strong motivation that you absolutely have to do what you are doing. She saw how for her mother, it was never about the money, but all about the giving back.  

Alyson says ask yourself if you are given 10m dollars today, what would you do.  For her, it would be the same thing as she is now.  It has to feel right.

It is especially tough being a female.  In 2019, only 2.8% of all Venture capital investment across the entire US start-up ecosystem was invested in all-female founded teams.  There is a lot of encouragement for women to go into STEM, but Alyson advises it is more about doing something that suits you and your skills. 

She was nervous about starting her company, not being an engineer, but it hasn’t held her back.   She points to other founders and CEO’s; Emily Weiss, at Glossier or Catrina Lake at Stich Fix, and Sarah Blakely at Spanx, not engineers, but passionate and successful at what they do.  All entrepreneurs need to play to their strengths and refuse to fall in with stereotyping of any sort.

Alyson’s next piece of advice is to focus on the journey not the destination.  We are becoming more aware that in our everyday lives the focus on major milestones, such as getting a new job, or getting married, or buying a house, is not good for our mental health and that we should concentrate more on the moment.   

In business, we concentrate on raising this round of funding or achieving this amount of revenue. Destinations are transitory, an instant, brief moment, that does not last, or provide a sound basis for mental health.  It is the people she works with, the problems they solve, and the amount they achieve which really matters, and that get Alyson jumping out of bed every single day.

Alyson - mental health entrepreneur
Alyson – democratizing mental health

You might also enjoy reading of Keiron Sparrowhawk‘s work on the prevention of mental health issues at his company McCognition or this piece on the stress of working at home

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