June 20, 2024

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Latina Founder Takes On A Growing Mental Health Crisis

5 min read

In response to the growing mental health crisis among children, Maria Barrera founded Clayful in November of 2021. This innovative platform provides on-demand, chat-based coaching for students to help them cope, filling a gap in mental health services.

By having schools pay for the service, all kids have access to support even if their parents can’t afford it. Importantly, research finds that schools are best suited to addressing the mental health challenges of students.

Clayful officially launched last November, in 20 school districts in 6 states and having raised over $7 million in venture capital. It is already delivering mental health support to thousands of youths between 8 and 18. The service is on-demand, so kids don’t have to remember appointments. It has also addressed the shortage of mental health professionals by training its own workforce.

Clayful is becoming a resource schools count on to address students’ psychological well-being.

From Tears to Triumph: Latina Builds Mental Wellness Platform for Kids

When Barrera read that 8-year-olds’ suicide rates were rising before the pandemic and accelerating during it, the article brought tears to her eyes. The pandemic posed unique challenges for children. Disrupted routines, decreased social interaction, and increased stress and uncertainty contributed to anxiety. Limited coping skills and disrupted education further compounded the impact on children.

Working for an HR platform at the time, Barrera knew mental health platforms were blowing up during the pandemic, but none were focused on helping kids cope. “I have to do something about this!” she exclaimed.

Colombian immigrant Barrera—with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford in mechanical engineering and a focus in psychology—felt her extensive experience in edtech (she was Nearpod’s first employee in San Francisco and worked there nearly six years) and academic background uniquely qualified her for solving this big challenge.

Barrera quit her job in September 2021 to focus on her entrepreneurial idea. That November, she incorporated Clayful and officially started working on a platform focused on youth mental wellness in January 2022. She talked to parents, kids, teachers, psychologists, and companies working broadly in that space.

“I started putting all these data points together,” Barrera said. What problems are other companies solving? Where is the white space? She sought advice once the data points started coming together into an idea for a company.

From just about the beginning, Barrera asked investors she knew who had a bird’s-eye view of innovation in the mental health or startup space and they helped iterate the idea. Investors asked for feedback included Reach Capital, and OVO Fund.

Inclusivity and accessibility were critically important to Barrera. She believed a platform addressing the emotional health of youth must be free and available in many languages.

In July, 2023, Barrera received a $150,000 grant and ongoing support from the Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund. In November 2023, Reach Capital led a $7 million seed round with participation from Ovo Fund, As the adage goes, “If you want money, ask for advice.” Also joining the round were Common Sense Ventures, Charter School Growth Fund, Wisdom Ventures, and Katz Amsterdam Foundation.

Clayful officially launched in November 2023, as a free on-demand, chat-based service available in 133 languages for students 8 to 18.

Focusing On Students Leads To Psychological Coaching On-Demand

Barrera believed schools are the access points for children’s mental health services. If schools provided the service, it would be free. However, school counselors often lack the time and resources to effectively support the growing number of students in need. “It was a big bet for me to say schools are going to care about this,” she said.

Working with schools would have other benefits as well, she believed. Integrating mental health coaching services through the school can reduce stigma, increase accessibility, and build trust with students. Early intervention can prevent crises and equip students with coping skills for long-term success. This support creates a positive school culture that improves attendance, behavior, academic performance, and student engagement. This holistic approach promotes supportive learning environments and positive student well-being outcomes.

In the spring of 2022, Barrera started piloting the Clayful platform. The startup uses user-centered design, an iterative design process that focuses on understanding end users’ needs, preferences, and behaviors throughout the design and development of a product or service. It involves gathering user insights through research methods such as interviews, observations, and usability testing, and then using these insights to inform design decisions.

The feedback from this research exposed a big problem. Kids don’t use calendars to run their lives. They were showing up late or not at all because they forgot. “That prompted us to rethink the entry point,” sighed Barrera. “We shifted to on demand.”

“[Difficult] feelings don’t have a schedule,” said Barrera. If you fought with your best friend, you’re being bullied, or you’re freaking out about a test, you need support at the moment. Now, young people text Clayful, and within 60 seconds, one of the 100 coaches replies in one of 133 languages.

The relationship is not with a specific coach. It’s anonymous. But, no matter who your coaches are, they know if you previously sought support and what it was about, and check in about the previous situation.

Since the first pilot, schools have been paying for the service. Clayful’s first pilot had a budget of $1 million for eight counselors. The school was only able to recruit one. There is a shortage of mental health professionals!

Clayful created a new layer in the workforce to fill the gap between those who need mental health support and the availability of professionals. Coaches can be former educators or counselors without a master’s in school psychology. They work part-time, and the company provides rigorous training.

The work is preventative: Imagine the transformation if instead of waiting for (emotional) fires to get so big you need to call the fire department, every student was walking around with their own fire extinguisher and could put out small fires as they arise.

“We wanted to come up with something that we could have available to every kid,” said Charlie Wynne, the compliance and coordinating officer at Plainwell Community Schools in Michigan. “We knew that if we just hired another counselor or something, we wouldn’t be able to get one-on-one with every student.”

Sophomore Mallory DeYoung has used the Clayful app several times. “I felt like they listened to me and understood what I was going through.”

“I know that this reaches a segment of kids that maybe would not access mental health services, or a coach, or a mentor,” Wynne said.

How are you using user-centered design to improve your product or service?

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