Health Tech: Ariela Safira of Real On How Their Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness

An Interview With Luke Kervin

Luke Kervin, Co-Founder of Tebra
Authority Magazine

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Find your people. Believing in yourself is hard. Pitching a vision that the world has never seen is hard. Find the people who support you. Make time for them. You will need a community — everyone does.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ariela Safira.

Ariela Safira is the Founder and CEO of Real, a mental health care company building a new therapy model. Starting her career at IDEO, she studied, researched and developed new concepts to approach mental health care and mental wellbeing. Building on her research, Ariela joined Cityblock, founding their first behavioral health clinic in Brooklyn, NY. Ariela earned a BS in Mathematics and Computational Science from Stanford University, where the impetus for her work in mental health care began. Later, she joined Columbia’s Clinical Psychology program to train as a therapist and left the program in 2019 to launch Real. She’s biked across multiple countries to fundraise for suicide prevention. Ariela is the recipient of the 2019 American Psychiatric Association’s Innovation Award, recognized as Forbes 30 Under 30, and Inc’s Top 100 Female Founders.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I was born into and raised by immigrant parents from two very different cultures and backgrounds, Polish Catholic and Yemeni Jewish, alongside my older brother Arthur. As two immigrants from different countries, my parents needed to question everything in order to survive — from where to find the best dance classes to whether or not we celebrate Hanukkah to how much college costs in the US — and as a result, they instilled pretty relentless curiosity in my brother and myself both. I think that set me up well to innovate on pre-existing systems.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting story has been learning that everyone has a mental health story. Since starting my work in mental health care, I have been fortunate to hear so many people’s vulnerable and honest stories about their mental health — and often, about how the mental health care system failed them. It has offered jet fuel for the Real journey, a constant reminder of the intensity and scale of mental health issues in this country, and the real nuance needed to bring a solution to life.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Real’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nina Vasan, MD, MBA was originally my professor at Stanford University. As a senior, I took her graduate level course exploring innovation in mental health. From the very beginning of that course, she encouraged me to start a company — she pitched me on starting a company more intently than I pitched her on being its CMO. It took me a few years to officially found Real and Nina supported me throughout those years, from writing a recommendation letter to attend Columbia’s Clinical Psychology program to introducing me to leaders in the field. Funny enough, in the recommendation letter she wrote for me, she specifically shared that she hopes I leave schooling to start a company, which I did shortly after dropping out of the program. As an inspiring expert in the field, Nina’s support was immensely impactful to me. I’m grateful that she was a supporter of me and of Real long before Real looked like it does today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Your people matter most. Caring about my people is what brought me to founding Real in the first place.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Curiosity. The ability to identify “I don’t understand this”, to find the right people who can understand it, and to relentlessly pursue its answer is pivotal in any problem solving.
  2. Flexibility. The world is unpredictable and there’s very little that you have control over. Being able to take in new information and adjust quickly makes a difference, for innovation and also for one’s own mental health. At the start of COVID-19, Real had a very different business model than we do today. Without flexibility (and honestly, curiosity) we wouldn’t be where we are today.
  3. Belief. The entrepreneurial journey is magical because even if you have all the answers in a room, even if so much of the “logic” is there, what you really need is a passionate, emotional, certain belief that surpasses any form of logic or reasoning. This is the energy that pumps through your veins, this is what brings you from 0 to 1 to transformational change.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?

Real is a mental health care company building a new therapy model. Today in the US, our system is failing us. In the U.S. we only have enough clinicians to meet the needs of approximately 7% of the population with one-to-one therapy. What’s more, therapy costs an average of $200–250 per week — inaccessible to the majority of Americans, even though more than 50% of Americans will suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder at some point in their lives. We need a better system.

How do you think your technology can address this?

The demand for mental health care far exceeds our countrys’ supply of therapists — we need a more scalable solution, and that is exactly where technology thrives. This isn’t rocket science, we’ve seen this democratization in most other industries. Fitness is not limited to 1:1 personal training — we have gyms, we have online fitness classes, we have on-demand e-fitness classes. Education is not limited to 1:1 tutoring — we have live classrooms, we have online classrooms, we have on-demand e-learning. The list goes on. We need to bring this level of innovation and investment to health care like we have so many other industries in order to build a mental health care system that actually impacts the lives of every American. That’s what we’re doing at Real.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

While I was an undergraduate at Stanford University, a close friend attempted to take her own life. I was closely involved in her rehabilitation process. It was my first encounter with the mental health care system (and hers) and I was immediately struck by how badly broken the system is. Rehab facilities felt cold and depressing. Not to mention, how is it acceptable that someone first interacts with the mental health care system at a moment of crisis? I immediately threw myself at the problem and haven’t stopped since.

How do you think this might change the world?

Real is transforming the mental health care system as we currently know it. More than 50% of Americans will suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder at some point in their lives. And yet, it takes an average of 11 years from first experiencing symptoms of mental illness to seeking care. We need to meet people sooner in their care journeys, and we can’t leave anyone out.

Real makes it easier for people to access high-quality care far before they hit a moment of crisis. Our membership model allows folks to track our mental health monthly, and take part in a suite of on-demand and live group therapy offerings, ensuring care meets people where they’re at.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

This technology is all about making it easier to work on your mental health and make it an essential part of your daily life. I believe that Real will be the reason people live more authentic, emotionally connected lives.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

  1. Build for people. Always focus on who you are building for — people. Regardless of the industry you’re building in, regardless of whether your distribution channel is B2B or DTC, at the end of the day, your product is always going to be for people. Think of how we live, think of how we communicate, think of how we feel, and build from there.
  2. Find your people. Believing in yourself is hard. Pitching a vision that the world has never seen is hard. Find the people who support you. Make time for them. You will need a community — everyone does.
  3. The rest can’t be condensed! You have to do it live.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Life is short — do it!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Michelle Obama. No explanation is needed.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can learn more about Real at www.join-real.com, on Instagram at @joinreal or on Medium at join-real.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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Luke Kervin, Co-Founder of Tebra
Authority Magazine

Luke Kervin is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Tebra