Entrepreneur from Newark lauded for bringing mental health coaching to underserved areas

Newark social entrepreneur Ashley Edwards is still surprised by the attention she and the startup she founded, MindRight Health, are getting.

The startup aims to provide mental health support to underserved communities and populations. Put another way, her team helps support the emotional well-being of urban kids through the medium they prefer: texting.

Its success helped Edwards earn a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for social entrepreneurs in 2018. This week, that success gave her a spot on two panels at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit in Detroit.

On Sunday afternoon, Edwards was on the panel, “Personal Wellness: How to Destigmatize and Prioritize Your Mental Health.” On Tuesday, she’ll be on the panel, “Managing Mental Health at Work.”

Edwards, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Yale University and an MBA from Stanford University, was recognized by Forbes as one of the Top 30 innovators of the next century. Among her other honors is recognition by the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards.

MindRight Health is part of the current cohort of companies at Newark Venture Partners. Edwards is a resident of Newark.

ROI-NJ caught up with her last week to talk about her company and her plans for the future. The conversation is edited for content and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Give us the elevator pitch on MindRight Health.

Ashley Edwards: We are headquartered in Newark and our mission is to make mental health care radically accessible and inclusive of underserved communities. What we do is provide mental health coaching over text message in an effort to prevent the number of mental health crises that underserved populations are experiencing. We’re still quite early stage, but our goal is to partner with Medicaid health plans or behavioral health providers, potentially allowing employers to provide mental health coaching as a preventative support for people.

ROI: How did you get started in this — it doesn’t seem to match your degrees?

AE: I didn’t really start my career thinking I wanted to get into mental health. I actually was working in education. I was director of operations of a charter high school here in downtown Newark. I saw how my school had hired one part-time social worker for hundreds of kids, so there was no way the mental health needs of all the students were being met.

I was fresh out of college and I didn’t have any background or training in mental health or social work, but I was able to build a really solid relationships with my students, to the point they would come in my office and just talk to me about their life and different adversities they were facing.

For me, MindRight came out of a belief that everyone should have someone to talk to. We are able to validate the feelings of kids who a lot of times feel like they have no one they can talk to.

ROI: Why text messaging?

AE: I wanted to create something that met kids where they are, which is why we went with the text messaging. I wanted to really transform what is already a safe space for kids into something that can actually make mental health support more accessible.

ROI: Is it fair to say this a modern-day version of a telephone crisis hotline?

AE: It’s similar, but there are a couple key differences. One, we’re not crisis support. We’re more like daily emotional support. Our goal is to be there every day. We actually text kids seven days a week. So, both good days and bad days. We’ve found that a lot of kids don’t even have people who they can share their joy with, as well as hard things that they’re going through. So, in our conversations, we’re talking about everything teens may talk about: relationship issues, issues in their family, how their basketball game went, to pretty serious trauma. We’re helping them navigate those emotions and get some support.

ROI: So, you’re building that relationship so that, if the time comes that they need something at another level, they have a comfort level with you?

AE: Exactly. What we’ve found is that we’re often the first people that kids confide things in when it comes to more serious issues in their life. And, since we have built trust with them, we can get them to feel comfortable actually stepping into a therapist office for the first time. Our goal is to essentially get kids therapy ready. Our approach is very light touch. By getting used to talking to us, we can push them to get other support if they need it.

ROI: When you say, ‘we,’ how big is the team?

AE: We’re still pretty small; there’s just three of us full time. But, we have licensed clinicians on staff who are the ones who are stepping in if kids need any escalated support.

ROI: Talk about your scale. How many kids are you interacting with?

AE: On a daily basis, it’s still quite small. To date, it’s been about 600 kids. Right now, we have around 100.

ROI: Are the kids all in New Jersey and Newark and Essex County?

AE: They’re all over. There’s a decent number in Newark, but we also have a decent number in Washington, D.C., because we have partnered with both high schools and a health plan there. And we also serve kids in Philly, too.

ROI: How do kids find out about MindRight?

AE: They’ll find out if we’re partnered with their high school, which will just announce this is available to all their students. Or health providers will refer people to us.

ROI: I imagine there are a number of privacy issues — and liability issues. How do you handle those?

AE: For starters, none of our coaches are texting from their personal devices, like their personal cell phones. We have a proprietary software platform where all the text messages are being delivered, and also helps to scale our service. So, coaches can support multiple people at one time.

And we’re very careful to adhere to all the federal regulations that apply to us, the main one being COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act. Because of that, you have to be at least 13 years old to use our service. And then, when we are offering our service, we are very thorough in terms of service and privacy policies. We make it very clear to the people that are texting us that we are not a medical clinical service and we don’t provide diagnoses or treatment. We’re very clear that this is not therapy over the phone. This is support and coping skills.

When people do indicate intent to self-harm, or things like that, we do operate as mandated reporters. And we communicate that to our users as well, so they know what they’re walking into. We would absolutely loop in a mobile crisis center and be on the phone with them as they call the national suicide hotline. But that’s not our scope. Kids have referred to us as mentors or life coaches. That’s our mission.

ROI: Talk about Newark Venture Partners. How did you get hooked up with them — where can it take you?

AE: I found out about NVP through a friend who was with the last cohort. I’ve been based in Newark, so I had been familiar with their support of local founders. I’m really excited by the partnerships that they have — a lot of them are directly aligned with the work we do. Some are very explicitly excited and passionate about community health initiatives and behavioral health. It’s great to be with supportive managing partners who understand how social determinants of health is not only a rising investment trend, but can make an impact on lives.

ROI: Let’s talk about scale. How would you grow this?

AE: For us, it’s really just about making sure we have the appropriate pipeline of coaches to be able to meet that need. We take pride in recruiting mental health coaches from the communities that we serve, so they can really relate to what our users are going through on a day-to-day basis.

ROI: And, finally, how important are events such as the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit for bringing awareness to your brand?

AE: It’s incredible. On one of the panels I’ll be with Roni Frank, the head of Talkspace (a telebehaviorial health care company). It’s really exciting to be seen someone with that amount of expertise and from a company that has raised a bunch of funding and is very well known. That can only help.

For more information, email hello@mindright.io.