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How A 21-Year-Old, Award-Winning Entrepreneur Is Taking On Mental Health Issues For Gen Z And Millennials

Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Today’s True Leadership”

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As many of us have heard and read, the mental health state of millennials and Gen Z is challenged, and many are facing more anxiety, depression and other mental health issues than previous generations. But millennials are also changing the discussion about mental health as well.

For instance, in a 2015 study conducted by America University, findings revealed that millennials are more likely to discuss mental health than their parents or grandparents. And as more people speak out, the stigma surrounding mental illness is beginning to lessen.

The study shared this:

“Despite the stigma, however, most respondents have seen a positive change in their generation’s ability to discuss and access mental health care. Nearly three in four respondents agree that millennials are ‘much more open to addressing mental health topics than older people,’ and more than eight in 10 respondents agree that resources for mental health are better now than when their parents were young.”

But there is still so much work to do on this front.

As a former marriage and family therapist, I worked for several years with adults, children, teens and families experiencing depression, anxiety, drug addiction, substance abuse, domestic violence, suicidality and more, and when we are experiencing these challenges, we can feel very alone, isolated and afraid.

One individual who is tackling this issue head on in an inspiring and empowering way is Ananya Jain, age 21. She is the founder of FullCircle LLC, and has been awarded by the Swiss Government, the President of India, the Royal family of the UK, and various other organizations for her work in entrepreneurship and research. She is a materials engineer from Georgia Tech, a graduate of the Grand Challenges Scholars program, and has been awarded the highest institute award for entrepreneurship, the “Genius award,” and The President’s award there for her work with FullCircle.

This year, Jain was the recipient of The Diana Award, one of the most prestigious international accolades a young person can receive for humanitarian work, and is bestowed annually by the royal family in the UK by Prince William and Harry in memory of their mother, Princess Diana. This year, Jain received the award for her work at FullCircle LLC in mental health.

Jain founded Georgia Institute of Technology’s ‘FullCircle’ in 2017, with a mission to find more resilient ways to harvest renewable energy. Since then, their mission has expanded to tackle mental health concerns, stigma and lack of resources amongst students. Jain and her team have created a mental health video game, with more than seven countries including the USA, UK, India, Canada and others to build new technologies and tackle government related legislation, and most recently are looking at how they can support students affected by Covid-19 through technology. Jain also uses her own voice and personal experiences to inspire others. Her TEDx Talk How Creative Thinking Saved My Life is a fascinating look at how she adapted to survive life’s challenges, and how igniting and sustaining the creative spark inside of us can enrich everyone’s life experiences.

Here’s what Jain shared:

Kathy Caprino: Research has shown that the current generation is more open to talking about mental health than previous generations. But major bottlenecks still exist in terms of our society’s acceptance of the realities of mental disorders and challenges to mental health. What are you seeing as the bottlenecks?

Ananya Jain: It’s true that Gen Z consumers are more open to talking about mental health issues. The counseling and psychiatry systems are facing a supply chain issue: as more people from my generation seek help, they want newer, more effective solutions. Sure, there’s a surge in demand for mental health services, especially because of Covid-19, and because of a decrease in stigma—but the counseling industry has yet to fully adapt to these shifts, and adopt more innovation.

Simply put, it’s in the mental wellbeing services’ best interest to reach consumers in newer, better ways while combining traditional therapy and diagnosis approaches. That unique intersection is where FullCircle comes in.

Caprino: From your view, what are the benefits of having an engineer look into this mental health problem?  Others might say it’s more of a policy or activism issue.

Jain: While policy and advocacy work is important, engineers are uniquely positioned to solve human problems like mental health pandemics: these problems are just as complicated (if not more) as building rockets and researching quantum dots.

I started FullCircle LLC to bring solutions that I would like to use myself. We’re making this mental health app for people my age: for Gen Z, by Gen Z. Right now, mental health services and apps are very clinical and boring: my team and I wanted to make metal health cool.

And as engineers, we went crazy with using the latest tech in the app, including sending virtual hugs as haptic feedback through the phone, and using digital phenotyping algorithms to improve mental health detection accuracy.

The royal family in the UK—Prince William and Harry—took notice of our work and gave us The Diana Award earlier this year, in memory of Princess Diana. Through our work, we hope that more engineers see that it’s possible to apply skills to make great products for society, even outside of working for the Big 4 tech companies.

Caprino: How do you make hiring decisions, and what is the philosophy for leading the team?

Jain: My co-founder—Ankit Kukadia—is an aerospace engineer and I’m a materials engineer, and we’re working on a mental health tech startup. Clearly, educational background is not how we make hiring decisions at FullCircle. We generally look at how much someone talks versus how much they get done daily—that metric has worked really well when we finalize new hires. We also observe how much clarity they create in their role even when things are chaotic for the team. The third thing is being a decent human being, which is a hiring principle we have now learned not to sacrifice for the sake of talent.

Right now we have designers, animators, and neuroscience, psychology, computer science majors working on our team and are based in three countries. Being multidisciplinary and multinational as a team is amazing because that means that collectively, we are always working 24/7. When the UK team sleeps, those in India and the U.S. are up and vice versa. Scheduling meetings across three time zones can be a pain but we have a good laugh about who yawns the most in a meeting.

Caprino: It seems as if you have many exciting choices in front of you about what you could be focusing on in your life and work. Why this, and why now?

Jain: I didn’t see anyone in tech doing much about innovating for improving student mental health, so I just thought I’d do it myself. I’ve also been fairly open about my own struggles through my TEDx talk.

Being an immigrant female tech entrepreneur from a single parent family is enough of a struggle. The odds are stacked against me, I will most likely fail.

And I’m fine with that. I’ll know I did everything I could and got more people to think deeply about the issue. Even if we only go that far, that’s still a victory for my team and me.

Caprino: What’s next for FullCircle and you?

Jain: We’re in talks with two major U.S. universities to implement FullCircle’s app for their students. We’re looking to partner with more universities to bring the solution to as many students as possible across the world. Our team takes data and privacy management very seriously. I’ve never been one to want to “move fast and break things”— it’s just not my style. So we’ll go slowly and steadily on the surface, but we’re paddling furiously underneath as we plan to scale.

For more information, visit FullCircle. To explore a partnership or other aspects of collaboration and support, contact FullCircle.

To build a more rewarding career and greater leadership success, read Kathy Caprino’s new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss, and join her Amazing Career Project online course this season.

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