Founder Diaries: Dr. Sarah Adler, Founder & CEO, Wave

K50 Ventures
K50 Ventures
Published in
7 min readMar 8, 2023

--

On emotional healthcare, company culture, and Gen Z.

It’s no secret that the pandemic took a serious toll on the mental health of millions. What’s more, according to Dr. Sarah Adler’s company Wave, 91% of Gen Z is struggling with their emotional health. Tackling a number that large is a huge undertaking, but Adler — who, fittingly, also happens to be a clinical psychologist and Stanford professor — is up to the task. First up? Meeting kids and young adults where they’re at, AKA on social media.

“The barrier to entry to even seeing a therapist is huge,” she says. “Whether it’s emotional, stigma-related, cost, or availability-related. It’s a systems issue that there aren’t enough solutions for people to make the easy entry point. The system has to meet our users where they are.”

Wave is all about helping folks find some consistency in their mental healthcare routine (what Adler calls “small, light touches”), ideally moving away from irregular, acute responses that are often costly. And as far as users, Adler says they’re prioritizing groups that haven’t historically been given a seat at the “mental health table” — namely BIPOC and LGBTQ folks. Unsurprisingly, there’s a similar, intentional emphasis on diversity within the Wave team.

The company recently secured a $6M seed round to continue to increase access to better mental health support for Gen Z. On that note, let’s jump into our conversation with Wave Founder and CEO Dr. Sarah Adler.

Where in the world are you?

Palo Alto, California.

…And what are you working on right now?

We’re working on Wave, a mental health care model for Gen Z.

Describe your working style in three words.

Transparent, data-driven, and intensely collaborative.

How has your life transformed since founding a company?

Not much, actually. I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I run another owner-operator business and before Wave, I was the Chief Clinical Officer for another startup. I think the biggest change might be in the feelings of responsibility to my team in a really different way. As I said, I’m super, super collaborative and I’m a huge believer in culture, making sure that the culture that we work in is inclusive and supportive. We’re a mental health company for crying out loud! So it needs to actually meet our team where they are and make sure that there’s a culture that supports people and sets them up for success, which ultimately trickles down into taking care of our users.

Most surprising thing about life as a CEO?

I think the most surprising thing for me has been the context-switching. As the CEO, I am responsible for ownership over the vision of the company. I’m sort of de facto, from a visionary perspective, also driving product. It was really shocking to me how different the mental space and skillsets you need to drive product and fundraise at the same time. Those are two totally different areas of your brain that you need to turn on.

Team-building philosophy?

I say this to a lot of VCs before I start fundraising: I’m not for everyone. Neither is Wave. I’m not a CEO who is going to meet everyone’s needs because I fundamentally believe that, especially in healthcare, we need to be people-centered. It’s about the goodness of fit. It’s the same thing that I would tell my patients about dating. I need to have a very, very clear understanding of what the role in the company is and how this person sitting in front of me can or cannot fit it. I believe in full transparency about role expectations and I take it on myself to make sure that that is explicitly clear. Questions like, what does the job entail? What is our culture like? Really exploring whether or not being at Wave is a good fit for them, especially at our early stage. Early stage start-ups are constantly making trade-offs and ultimately can’t set everyone up for success. Not all cultures can meet all people’s needs, but we can be as transparent about this as possible. And, we strive to be as inclusive as possible.

I would also say that DEI is a huge factor in terms of our team-building philosophy. It’s very, very intentional. With our end user, we’re starting off with underrepresented populations, so LGBTQ and BIPOC folk who don’t generally get a seat at the behavioral health or mental health table. We believe that the people who work at our company need to reflect that. So when we think about that from a team-building perspective, it’s not just about diversity in hiring or including people, it’s a question of how we are supporting people from an equitable standpoint. How are we showing up to support people, being really honest about who we are, where we are, and whether or not the job is going to help set people up for success? I should also say, we are far from perfect here. The above is ripe with intention, but we also need to be continuously narrowing the gap between our intent and our action.

Wave emphasizes emotional healthcare — what makes that different from mental healthcare?

I don’t think there’s actually a difference, but when we talk about “mental healthcare”, it puts us into a little box. I think about the traditional way that we do mental health right now: you have a problem and so you see a therapist once a week or you go see a psychiatrist, and that’s the gold standard. Usually, it’s triggered by an event where something has happened and suddenly symptoms are showing up. When I talk about emotional healthcare, I want to expand the lens, moving away from an acute-phase care model. We should be thinking about it the same way we think about our dental health. There are things that we do every single day to take care of our teeth. Ultimately, that’s how we think about emotional health. How can we help you use science-backed skills to decrease your vulnerability to these acute events and make your mental health a part of your day-to-day life?

Which leads us to our next question — there are a lot of studies right now about how people are suffering from mental health problems, but not actually prioritizing their mental health. How do you convince people to take that first step?

I’d like to push back on the prioritization part. I don’t actually think it’s about prioritization. It’s a systemic issue. The barrier to entry to even seeing a therapist is huge. Whether it’s emotional, stigma-related, cost-related, availability-related, or it’s, We don’t see people who look like us or we feel like who can relate to us on the website. It’s a systems issue that there aren’t enough solutions for people to make the easy entry point. Even your question sort of reflects that — we’re like, oh no, it’s our fault. We’re not prioritizing it. But the fact is, the system was not created to make it easy to do anything about it, which is part of why we’re developing Wave and why we really want to meet Gen Z where they are, on their phones, through social media, and when they need it a real live human.

We believe if we can create a community — and we’ve created a 40,000 user community at this point — who’s following us and who is excited about the science-backed information we’re giving them, that’s a great way to meet people where they are instead of creating barriers to enter the system. So it has to be small, light touches. The system has to meet our users where they are.

Favorite part about your job?

There are so many parts that I love about my job. I’m super obsessed with product design and user feedback. We recently closed our beta and got some incredible co-design thinking with our users, which we are now applying to our product build. It’s really great to see how we’ve been able to use that to inform the next release of our product.

Advice to future founders?

I think adopting a beginner’s mindset and a stance of curiosity all the time is really, really important. From a management perspective, it allows your team to feel empowered and included. And it sort of checks the power dynamics that can come from being in charge. I think CEOs are pushed to always know every single answer because we have to be strong for our team and we have to show our investors that we’ve got everything under control. But I actually think that works against culture and against really good product design and development. Especially in healthcare, which is ultimately a mission-driven, human-centered business, you have to hold that stance, or else you will end up sacrificing your user’s well-being for the bottom line. I want to make sure that I’m modeling mistake-making and growth for my team. You don’t need to be the expert on everything.

Last question — looking to the future, how do you hope people’s lives will be transformed by Wave?

Our hope for users is simple: we want them to gain the confidence to pursue things that enhance their emotional well-being. Our loftier, bigger goal is that we want to decrease some of the burdens on the existing healthcare system so that we can prevent downstream costs. Part of what we’re doing is shifting the way people think about their mental health — Gen Z is already doing this for us — so that we can potentially avoid some of those situations where people are using emergency services or urgent care to deal with their mental health, which is actually what costs the system so much money and what makes insurance companies so unwilling to think about affording services. We’re hoping to go upstream and incorporate skills and better emotional well-being on a daily basis for folks so that they don’t need as much acute care.

Interested in more? Check out our Founder Diaries with K50 portfolio companies MIDI, Mammoth Biosciences, and Worc.

K50 Ventures is a pre-seed venture fund backing founders who are building a better future for the 99%. Across health, finance, and work, we’re committed to improving affordability, opportunity, and access. Have an idea that’s going to change the world? Reach out to us by filling out this form. For more founder-focused content, follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter and subscribe to our newsletter.

--

--

K50 Ventures
K50 Ventures

We are an early stage fund investing in founders driving affordability and access for SMBs and the mass consumer.