We are thrilled to introduce two inspiring entrepreneurs in this week’s rocket(s) of the week: Ashley Edwards and Alina Liao, the two Co-founders of MindRight. Millions of inner city youth suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Ashley and Alina work hard in building a text messaging platform that helps them recover.
Before graduating with an MBA and a Master of Education from Stanford, Ashley served as founding Director of Operations of the first “blended learning” charter school in Newark, NJ and worked in venture philanthropy at Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. Additionally, she developed innovative school models in Bangalore, India. Alina also holds an MBA & Master of Education from Stanford and served as Vice President of an economic consulting firm in Washington, DC. Besides that, she mentored low-income youth through volunteer work and led community service at the business school.
We sat down with Ashley and Alina for a conversation about their mission, the process of starting a company and the personal lessons they learned along the way.
What is your start-up MindRight, and why is this an important product?
Our mission is to help at-risk youth recover from trauma. MindRight is a text messaging service that helps youth manage traumatic stress and build positive coping skills. Our texts are grounded in cognitive behavioral therapy, an evidence-based practice for overcoming chronic stress, PTSD, and depression.
How did the idea of MindRight come to be? How did you identify the problem you wanted to solve?
We wanted to take on the problem of untreated trauma in marginalized communities. This came from our personal experiences working with youth who have suffered through traumatic experiences, including losing friends and family to gun violence and experiencing neglect. The National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network estimates that one in three inner-city youth suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), yet most cases go untreated. In the average urban high school, there are 500 students for every counselor and 2,000 students for every school psychologist. Up to 90% of all youth incarcerated have experienced trauma. Trauma is an invisible epidemic keeping so many of our youth from reaching their full potential. This problem is an underlying factor for other challenges, such as the Achievement Gap and the School to Prison Pipeline.
We knew we were tackling one of the most intractable problems out there. Because untreated trauma in marginalized communities is such a large, complex problem involving many different systems (from education to child welfare to criminal justice), we spent a lot of time talking to people in our target population to drill down to a narrower “pain-point” that we could address. Counselors repeatedly told us how heartbreaking it is to know that they can’t reach every student. From students, we heard things like: “You’re just supposed to live this way,” “there’s no help,” “smarts won’t stop [people] with guns,” etc.
What is your vision for the product? Where do you go from here?
We’re driven by the belief that every child has potential, no matter what adversities they live through. Our big-picture vision is to become leaders in building resilient communities. We envision a world where every community has a social fabric such that no child “falls through the cracks.” This means fundamental resources that all kids need to thrive are accessible, and different systems communicate with each other effectively. We want to make sure the “at-risk” child who “makes it” is not the exception but rather the expectation. By showing the world that kids who face the most extreme circumstances can thrive and become leaders, we can change how people view and invest in historically marginalized communities.
What has been the most surprisingly difficult part of the entrepreneurial process?
Ashley: Balance. While you are working on a startup, the other parts of your life do not slow down or get easier just because you decide to start a company. Life happens, and it’s important to take the time to develop a support system outside of your startup.
Alina: Just because I’m driven by doing something I love doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to get tired. I’ve had to be more disciplined about making sure I still get sleep and take care of myself so that I can bring my best self to my work.
Being an entrepreneur takes a lot of grit and determination. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs when they hit those tough spots?
Ashley: Remember the ‘why.’ At the end of the day, this work isn’t about us, our crazy long hours or tough weeks. It’s about the people we serve. Focus on the impact and let it carry you through your low moments.
Alina: Accept that tough spots are part of the journey. It’s like what I would tell myself in gymnastics — each fall is one less fall I need to do to learn a skill. Each injury is a chance to take a step back and reflect. Don’t fight the tough spots. Go with them, and trust that you’ll come out each one stronger, wiser, or braver.
What have you learned about yourself during this process?
Alina: I’m more ok with uncertainty than I thought. I have no clue what my life will look like two months from now, and I’m ok with that. What matters more is that I know the vision Ashley and I are working towards. I trust we’ll adapt to hurdles and find a way to keep moving forward no matter what.
Ashley: Similar to Alina, I have, for the most part, always had a high-level plan regarding my professional career. Work a couple of years, go to business school, start a business, etc. However, now that I am an entrepreneur of a quickly growing startup, plans for the future can change every month. Instead of operating on a plan, I’m operating on a mission. I’ve found that to be much more freeing.
It isn’t easy to be co-founders and work well together. How do you make it work?
We’re 100% honest with each other. We build in structures, including monthly “co-founder Introspection” meetings where we have open, frank conversations about how we’re operating as a co-founding team. We review our division of responsibilities and discuss what’s working and what can be improved. We also appreciate each other’s skill sets, strengths, and effort. We each hold ourselves accountable to our individual roles and responsibilities. These attitudes and practices have allowed us to build a solid foundation of trust.
At the core of our co-founder relationship, we have shared values. Our motto is “shared pain, shared glory.” We believe in:
Hustle: We get shit done
Humanity: We recognize every person’s humanity
Hope: We believe no child is “too far gone”
Self-care: We take care of ourselves
Growth: We’re always learning
Transparency: We communicate openly
What has been the most rewarding moment for each of you so far?
Ashley: One of my former students was one of our first users. When I first met him years ago, he was depressed and suffered from PTSD-related symptoms from constant exposure to violence. He’s now been using our service for over five months, and his emotional health has completely transformed. He has a newfound sense of hope in his future. It has been a great joy to see the positive impact our service has had on him.
Alina: I love it when our students have “breakthrough” moments. One of our students would often get caught up in “worst-case thinking.” After weeks, one day, they told us that they caught themselves doing “worst-case thinking” and asked themselves, “How likely is that, really?” They implemented a textbook CBT-based skill that we had been teaching them! Another student experienced bullying one day and told us they were thinking of skipping school the next day. We helped them work through this. Not only did they still choose to go to school, but later on they were able to identify positive sides to this experience, building their resilience. There’s nothing like seeing individuals grow from our service.
Both: It has also been really exciting to see our impact reflected in early data. Since using our service, 100% of our users who indicate a high risk of having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or have high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) scores have shown positive changes in their psychological wellness. We have a 90% retention rate among these users. Overall, 100% of our users have indicated that they feel they have improved in managing stress since using our service.
We’ve received the following feedback from our users:
“It’s the only space available without judgment.”
“It’s giving me a lot of tips on my anger & emotions at the tip of my fingers.”
“I don’t get as mad as I usually do.”
“Some people shut down like I would’ve. The app helps me get back up again.”
The work you both are doing is incredibly important. How can our readers and community help out?
We invite you to join us in helping our youth heal. We are a nonprofit, and our work is largely supported by generous donations.
There are two easy ways to donate: 1) Visit our website here, 2) Checks can be made out to MindRight, Inc. and mailed to 641 S Street NW, 3rd Floor, Washington, DC 20001.