Ashley Edwards: Innovatively Destigmatizing Adolescent Mental Health

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Ashley Edwards is Founder and CEO of MindRight Health. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur and serves as East Coast Impact Chair of the Global Forbes Under 30 community. Ashley has also been featured in Fast Company, Inc, Huffington Post and recognized by the Tribeca Disruptor Awards, the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards and ELLE Impact Awards for her leadership in social innovation. Before MindRight, she served as Director of Operations of a high school in Newark, New Jersey. Ashley holds a Master of Business Administration & Master of Education from Stanford University, where she was a recipient of the Miller Social Change Leadership Award. She graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor’s in Economics. Ashley is a proud resident of Newark, where MindRight is currently headquartered.

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VINAJ: Tell us a bit about founding MindRight Health. What inspired your journey?

ASHLEY: I would say my inspiration came from both personal experiences and work experiences. Personally, I’ve had my own challenges with depression and anxiety and my own journey in mental health that led me to seek care. I’ve experienced firsthand how limited access to mental health care can be, especially if you’re a person of color in the U.S. looking for culturally responsive services.

I can also step away from that experience and look at all the privilege I have when it comes to having health insurance and being able to afford certain services. When I go to my work experiences, working in education here in Newark, New Jersey, working as Director of Operations at a high school, I have been able to see the toll of intergenerational trauma on my students and on the ground in the communities I serve. A lot of my students were exposed to violence, surviving poverty on a daily basis, being exposed to mass incarceration, yet we didn’t have a state-wide support system that was designed to provide systemic support to underserved communities, particularly communities of color. I just saw kids coming to my school after their friends had been killed or their parents had been incarcerated, but we had one part-time social worker for hundreds of students at my school.

"When it comes to innovation, I don't think something is really innovative or disruptive, if an equality lends is not applied to it."

I knew these problems didn’t exist just where I lived, so it was important for me to do what I could to contribute to a solution where we can provide daily emotional support to every kid and to help them feel seen and heard. I’ve seen what happens when there are no interventions or support. You end up having kids who go through the school-to-prison pipeline or encounter various other problems in life with their health or education or end up on the streets because they can’t find a job, and it’s due to the root cause of unaddressed trauma. After seeing that, it’s something I couldn’t un-see. So, I went to business school with the intention of starting a venture that could address this problem.

VINAJ: What are the biggest challenges in providing a service/solution for youth mental wellbeing?

ASHLEY: The landscape of mental health services can be fragmented and lacking in diverse representation. Frequently all of those organizations are not communicating which can be a challenge. I also found a big challenge has been having to destigmatize mental health. Also, this leads to bridging to other services. Another challenge to add is the current national conversation about mental health – suicide and drug addiction. Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing as much change -- just talk. And that talk is often not strengths-based, especially when describing the mental health needs of communities of color. Our kids are survivors and we need to reflect that in the narrative.

VINAJ: What do you think is missing from the conversation in youth mental wellbeing for MindRight Health’s target population or in general?

ASHLEY: Mental health is a helping field but full of power dynamics. A therapist can ask questions but not share if asked the same questions. Young adults may be forced to go to therapy but cannot be forced to speak. It’s important to honor a young person’s agency and self-determination in their healing process.

We chose to create an intervention reaching kids every day and to work with a population that has often been failed by adults repeatedly in their lives. Our communities have a high barrier of distrust, which is valid given the historical inequities experienced. It’s hard to ask someone at day one to confide in you. You have to earn it. It takes checking in on them every day. They may not open up until the third month, which is okay. We are ready when they need our support. MindRight provides a level of continuity not readily available in other aspects of their lives. They need time to get comfortable.

The importance of a reliable continuum of support was our first thought in designing MindRight as a 7 day/week service. We acknowledge that the current system is broken, so our goal is to design a new system inclusive of the needs of our communities.

Case studies show underserved youth go to a church pastor or grandmother, so our communities already support an informal peer – coaching model, making it an easier pitch to our young people.

VINAJ: What are some challenges you’ve noticed as a female founder of color?

ASHLEY: Oftentimes I have felt as a black woman founder, people really wanted to support or help me but didn’t provide transparent feedback. That did not end up serving me because I did not grow from it. There is not really a space where founders of color can speak our voice, share our actual experience and hold investors accountable. A lot of investors are driving conversations on increasing diversity in the field, rather than founders of color driving those conversations.

Another thing to add, we have seen a really big funding gap, and here I want to say how grateful we are for Vinaj’s support. Oftentimes there are large funding gaps at the pre-seed stage, and a lot of people with a great vision don’t make it to the next step because they don’t have access to friends or family with funding. What needs to be done in the ecosystem as a whole? What could help feed the ecosystem as a whole? We need more opportunities for mentors for underrepresented founders, maybe someone who has managed a larger budget or has experience with other areas of leadership needed for growth and success. When it comes to how people/investors can support youth mental health, if funders/investors were connected to legal counsel and have help to navigate legal issues in particular or other specialties needed to be a successful start-up, more ideas could take flight.

VINAJ: What does innovation mean to you, especially as a woman leading a startup?

ASHLEY: When it comes to innovation, I don’t think something is really innovative or disruptive, if an equity lens is not applied to it.

VINAJ: What would make the biggest difference in the ecosystem of investors, foundations, large corporates that would enable more impact at scale?

ASHLEY: We need more investors to be brave. We’ve heard this a lot, and there’s merit to so much liability in mental health. Schools didn’t want to partner early on because they thought if we revealed situations to them, they would be liable, and they were reluctant to take that on. Investors were concerned over liability. Worst case scenarios definitely exist, but the alternative of not being brave or taking risks is leaving kids at status quo, where we are losing lives every day due to mental health challenges. Fear makes us think we are reducing harm but we actually are enabling harm if we do not take action.

VINAJ: What advice do you have for other people interested in creating a startup?

ASHLEY: Keep going – be persistent

VINAJ: You were recognized by Forbes 30 under 30 program. How has that affected the work you are doing?

ASHLEY: Before the recognition, I was doing the same work; but Forbes added a lot of credibility. This has increased the PR and branding around the work at MindRight. It opened our network of partners. It’s both awesome and discouraging – I think about all the amazing unseen, frontline social impact leaders who also deserve recognition.

VINAJ: With COVID-19 reshaping the workforce, MindRight has been ahead of the game by working remotely. How do you engage a remote coaching workforce?

ASHLEY: We have really loved having a remote workforce. We have routines set on a weekly basis and operate in two-week sprints. We review what went well and what we can accomplish. We are always talking together on Slack. We have been remote for a while. We do a lot of video calls – always video to build connections. We do get together as a team. Also, we are very detailed with documentation and have a robust project management system.

VINAJ: What has been the biggest surprise in building MindRight?

ASHLEY: Even though I founded MindRight, I am continually surprised at how young people are sharing over text messages. They are texting paragraphs. These kids largely don’t have people asking them how they are feeling. We are and they have this opportunity to unload what they have been carrying for years. It’s a privilege to be that person who they feel they can finally trust and open up to.