As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change the World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Aneela Idnani. Aneela is Cofounder & President of HabitAware. HabitAware created its Keen smart bracelet to help people “Retrain the Brain” from unwanted behaviors, like hair pulling disorder (trichotillomania), compulsive skin picking (dermatillomania) & nail biting to healthier behaviors. Having grown up hiding her hair pulling disorder in shame, Aneela is now an outspoken mental health advocate, raising awareness of these very common yet unknown conditions. HabitAware is partly funded by a research grant from the NIH and was named a TIME Magazine 2018 Best Invention.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a first generation American, I grew up seeing my two immigrant parents work together at their own business endeavors. My mom practiced dentistry and ran her own practice and my dad traded products from / to overseas. We are Indian Sindhis and are descendants of the “business class.” As such, I grew up feeding my creativity with various art projects and playing “office.”
My career path has taken a lot of twists and turns. I started in accounting, because I loved the way T accounts just balanced. For someone with anxiety, it was very calming! However, three years into working at a top audit firm, I found myself craving a creative outlet. I left accounting to travel and then continue my studies in art direction, copywriting and creative strategy. I then spent 6 years in top ad agencies in NYC and Minneapolis — learning more about entrepreneurship than one could ever imagine.
Today I am a co-founder of HabitAware (habitaware.com) helping people around the world take control of debilitating disorders that I suffered from since childhood.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Growing up I always knew I wanted to help people. Who knew that my own mental health problem would be the avenue to do so! My entire life — from the ups to the downs — have led up to this moment and I wouldn’t trade any of my past hardships because it might mean HabitAware would not exist today.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
My “Big Idea that Might Change the World” is our company, HabitAware. We help people harness the power of awareness to create positive behavior change. HabitAware was born out of necessity. It solved my personal 20-year struggle with compulsive hair pulling disorder, a mental health condition known as trichotillomania.
A few years ago, my husband caught me without eyebrows. In this moment I shared my hair pulling secret and explained that it was the way I coped with stress, anxiety and boredom. I also shared how trance-like and automatic this soothing mechanism was for me. I just didn’t realize until the damage was done. Then, one day as we were sitting on the couch watching tv, he grabbed my hand. He had noticed I was pulling. I turned to him and said “I wish I had something that notified me.”
Fast forward to today, he, myself and two technically inclined friends built Keen by HabitAware. Keen is a smart bracelet that uses custom gesture detection to bring “keen” awareness to these body focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). These behaviors include hair pulling, as well as skin picking (dermatillomania), nail biting and thumb sucking. BFRBs affect 1 in 25 Americans, but because of the stigma, many hide like I did.
Now, our Keen bracelet is reviving HOPE! Keen connects to a mobile app for a 30-second gesture training process. When Keen senses a match to the gesture trained, it sends a vibration — a gentle “hug” on the wrist — reminding a wearer of where their hands are. This power of awareness is critical to making healthier choices.
With consistent practice, one can leverage the awareness Keen creates to retrain their brain and take control of these behaviors. We are helping thousands of people around the world in this endeavor and it so exciting to bring this community together! We are not alone anymore!
How do you think this will change the world?
Keen’s innovation has the opportunity to create real world change. The need for mental healthiness is finally being acknowledged by Western society. The mental health conditions we currently treat — hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting — negatively affect the lives of 20M Americans and 70M People in other First-World countries. As we adapt Keen to help people with other mental health conditions, we can help even more people. The power of awareness that Keen provides helps people overcome disorders that consume physical & mental energy. When our Keen family takes the effort to build their awareness with Keen, they are able to overcome these debilitating conditions. They are able to free this energy & translate this energy into their own “keens”, their own ways to change the world. In this way, Keen’s ability to change the world is exponential!
The biggest drawback we have seen so far with our idea is people thinking Keen is a magic bullet. The reality is the power of awareness requires a readiness to change and effort to practice noticing and choosing healthier strategies so that over time they become more permanent in one’s life.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
When we first started out, we weren’t sure our idea would work. And then very rudimentary prototypes started helping me heighten awareness of when my hands started grazing to my eyebrows. We took still very premature prototypes to a conference held by the major non-profit for this mental health community, www.bfrb.org. There, kids, parents and psychologists’ eyes just lit up! That was when we knew we had to quit our day jobs and make this a reality. Immediately we could see the excitement of this group of people who had for so long felt alone and ashamed, FINALLY have something created just for them! Our mere existence as a tool to help people overcome BFRBs is proof that this community of sufferers exists and matters!
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Ironically, to lead to widespread adoption, we need the power of awareness! More than likely readers either have one of these BFRB conditions or know a loved one who is suffering in silence. We need more people knowing about these conditions, and our solution. In sharing stories from our BFRB community we are shattering shame and stigma.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
5 things I wish someone told me before I started are:
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
The biggest weakness is not in saying “I don’t know how to do that…” The biggest weakness is in saying “I don’t want to take time to figure that out.” To “future proof” your career, never lose your curiosity, or desires for learning, trying new things and solving problems.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
If I had a million dollars, I would invest in HabitAware. There are big things happening in our space of mental health technology and I believe we are at the forefront of helping people make true, lasting, positive behavior change.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
It has taken me 30 years to develop my life philosophy. The essence is, what I put out into the world, with my thoughts and actions, I will receive. For a lot of my life I was stuck in a vicious cycle of hair pulling and negative self-thought. It fed my decision making and led my life path. The power of awareness of my hand movements has transcended to the power of awareness of my thoughts. I am happier because I believe good things are in my future and because I know that even if something bad happens, it is happening to bring me out to a better place than I was before.
When I was 17, I lost my dad to cancer and now 20 years later I am at peace with his death because I understand now that his sickness led to so many great things in my life — including meeting my best friend and then meeting my husband through her introduction!
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
My most important success habit is visualizing it! I create vision boards and take time each day to see my goals coming to fruition. By training my brain to see my future success, it is noticing opportunities each day to get me there. Visualization also helps me focus on identifying the smaller steps I need to take to make my goals reality.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Our traction and impact speak to the power of “Keen” awareness. Our mission extends beyond helping those in my own BFRB community. If you can see the potential, the HabitAware team would love to talk.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me at @habitaware on most socials! Thank you for this amazing opportunity to share our life changing work and shatter mental health stigma.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.