Riley Rees Of Sofia Health: “Working out”

“Working out” our mind is as important as going to the gym to work out our bodies and should be viewed accordingly — instead of being viewed as a weakness. We use our platform to demonstrate the importance of talking about mental health to help reduce the stigma that surrounds it. We encourage our guests and audience […]

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“Working out” our mind is as important as going to the gym to work out our bodies and should be viewed accordingly — instead of being viewed as a weakness.

We use our platform to demonstrate the importance of talking about mental health to help reduce the stigma that surrounds it. We encourage our guests and audience to do the same.


As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Riley Rees.

Riley is the CEO of Sofia Health, an online health and wellness marketplace she founded in 2019. The mission of Sofia Health is to connect individuals suffering from chronic conditions or looking for mental health support to holistic, complementary, alternative, and naturopathic providers. Riley built Sofia Health because there is a gap in our health system that doesn’t address our needs holistically: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Sofia Health is a collection of practitioners who take a holistic approach to addressing an individual’s health.

Riley is also an Air Force Officer and Pilot. Her experience both personally and professionally has emphasized the importance of providing better access to holistic health and wellness. She is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and holds her MBA from the Sloan School of Management.


Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up on a farm in a very small town in Tennessee. I had big aspirations that led to a successful career in the Air Force serving in health care and as a pilot.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

At Sofia Health, we empower individuals to take control of their health.

Health does not change instantaneously. You can not turn it on and off. Similarly, a mental health condition isn’t the result of one event. NAMI research suggests there are multiple linking causes: genetics, environment, and lifestyle influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. Stressful jobs, traumatic life events, and home lives can make some people more susceptible to developing a mental health condition.

Life can be chaotic. Every day we face new challenges and are pulled in many directions. Our mental wellness is essential to our resilience in the face of these challenges. Sofia Health is a place to find the holistic health and wellness support you need to stay mentally and physically strong in order to overcome those obstacles.

We no longer want individuals to wait until they find themselves in an acute situation (panic attacks, severe anxiety, or with partially functioning thyroids, etc). So we built a platform to make it easy for people to find the exact support they need before the situation becomes severe. Today, you can find professionals in a variety of areas: holistic health, gut health, immune system, cancers, substance abuse, fitness, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, meditation, nutrition, joy-based living, Reiki, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

We are also bringing awareness to holistic health and practitioners who use the whole-person concept. It’s an industry that has been primarily siloed from mainstream healthcare. There’s a stigma surrounding holistic health that it is not as effective, but for the millions of people who employ holistic health practitioners and techniques, it is not only complementary to traditional medicine, but it also incorporates preventative measures, reducing stress, anxiety, and allowing the body to heal. A lot of people find it to be life-changing.

We want individuals to have access to providers who use a whole person approach — keeping them in optimal physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health in order to live a fruitful life, work productively, and maintain their physical and mental well being.

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

I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Sofia Health was the culmination of personal need and research.

In graduate school, I was working on a project that involved researching patients with chronic conditions. Overwhelmingly, it was clear that they were spending a significant amount of time searching for alternative solutions, practitioners, or therapies. They all wanted to feel better or heal. In some cases, they just wanted to have their condition or symptoms “identified.”

Meanwhile, I experienced the painful effects of a bulging disk. Dissatisfied with traditional medicine options, I found myself doing exactly what people in my research study had been doing: I started searching for alternative solutions.

The market for complementary, alternative, and holistic health was extremely fragmented. This culmination solidified the need and Sofia Health is our solution to help individuals find a practitioner, a service, a therapy or a product based on their symptoms and what they need support in.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

For me, the catalyst was my research, when I realized that the stories I was hearing were largely the same. While people were suffering from different problems or dealing with different issues, they were all searching for someone or something that could help them.

Until you experience a traumatic event, pain, or get diagnosed with a chronic condition you cannot even begin to understand the significant impact that alternative, holistic, complementary practitioners provide. When there is no magic pill to make chronic illness go away, you are left with the overwhelming realization that this will be with you for the rest of your life. This takes a huge toll on your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well being.

Creating Sofia Health became a necessity for me once I came to this realization. There really was no easy way to find alternative, complementary, holistic providers or a way to determine what types of modalities and therapies that are available for a particular symptom.

The interviews I conducted were also eye-opening to the disparity in care for women and minorities. There are a number of studies around the fact that women are often not listened to by their doctors or treated differently than male patients, and around the implicit bias people of color face with physicians. Sofia Health provides a tool for people to take action when it comes to their health — and for many, they may have spent years feeling helpless.

In one interview, a woman had been diagnosed with chronic seizures and migraines for 16 years. She was taking medication but still suffering. One day she went to see a nutritionist. They discovered she had a food allergy that was causing all of her symptoms. She was in tears after suffering for 16 years because her providers did not think holistically. Mental and physical health are inextricably linked, and as I have seen more evidence of this over the years, it’s helped me to understand that providing the right resources for people — and helping them uncover what they need — sounds simple. But it’s actually revolutionary for the health of millions of Americans.

Hearing customer stories like these, over and over again, “It took 5 years,” “numerous doctors,” “I was living with brain fog,” “I did all kinds of tests,” “I just wanted someone to validate my symptoms and label what I was experiencing,” — is what keeps me going as I continue to build Sofia Health.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One day I got an email from a practitioner in Zambia. She was explaining that she desperately wanted to help her family and community make better health and wellness decisions, but didn’t have any infrastructure to support a business like accepting bookings, taking payments, or communicating with clients. She is now using Sofia Health to power her business!

Sofia Health has a strong foothold in the US and until I received that email from across the world, I hadn’t thought about the impact we could make on the lives of practitioners globally. To have a global impact and support female entrepreneurs is special! We hope to be able to do even more in the future to support women’s personal journeys and help build businesses.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

The entrepreneur journey is long and having supporters and mentors to rely on for advice during different stages is essential.

During the initial stages of Sofia Health, I went to one of my classmates for help. Jennie Zamberlan is a serial entrepreneur and runs a world-class engineering company. It’s extremely hard to find a trustworthy team, and if you aren’t an engineer yourself, it can be hard to submit requirements and communicate. For many women, this is a huge barrier to starting a company.

I would not be here without Jennie’s support. She’s a friend and advisor who truly embodies the MIT motto ‘mens et manus.’ She not only helped me, but she is a mentor and advisor to other women and companies as well.

Today, our customers are cheerleaders, which is great! Practitioners will call and email to share client success stories. Each time I hear a story it makes me work even harder. Hearing the real-world implications of practitioners and clients coming together — and how it would not have been possible if they hadn’t connected on the platform is extraordinarily motivating.

Having a support system is invaluable. Every entrepreneur should build this network before jumping in!

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

One reason is how we define and use the term ‘mental health.’

Mental health and mental illness are being used as if they mean the same thing. They do not. “There is no health without mental health.” The WHO defines mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

So when we say ”mental health,” we need to be referring to our state of well-being: emotions, thoughts, feelings, ability to solve problems, work productively and overcome stressors or difficulties.

Another reason is that many struggle to understand the influences that contribute to a mental health condition.

If we can educate people on the significant role that our lifestyle plays in preserving mental wellbeing, we can proactively get the care and support we need. For example, this could mean connecting to a life coach to de-stress, working with a grief coach if you have experienced a loss, or getting a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) session to work through traumatic events before we let these normal life stressors become more serious obstacles that impede our well being.

Finally, we, as humans, live on a spectrum. Mental health, like physical health, exists on a spectrum. And it does not change overnight. Healthy individuals can still experience bad days and have pain. Likewise, those without a mental health illness can have days where we don’t feel great. Those that do have a mental illness can have great days. Our physical health, like mental health, is not like an on/off switch.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Education and awareness are essential in removing the stigma surrounding mental health and well being. It’s something many people feel a lot of shame around.

We started a series called “Ask Sofia Health” as part of our mission to increase access to care. We host practitioners who donate their time and answer questions from individuals. Almost every single guest mentions how our society is failing by not educating on mindset, mental health, and the tools and resources that are available.

“Working out” our mind is as important as going to the gym to work out our bodies and should be viewed accordingly — instead of being viewed as a weakness.

We use our platform to demonstrate the importance of talking about mental health to help reduce the stigma that surrounds it. We encourage our guests and audience to do the same.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

As a busy entrepreneur, I’ve narrowed my mental health practice down to four key concepts, but I’m always adding and changing as my personal needs and situation change:

  1. I practice gratitude. Focusing on the things we are grateful for instantly creates positive emotions.
  2. I go outside. During the day I will take a break and go outside. A change of scenery and being in the sun is calming.
  3. I make an effort to run. I need intense cardio to help control stress and it helps with sleep. For me, quality sleep is like magic. It is restorative, creates a clear mind, and I wake up with an undeniable positive energy.
  4. Sound therapy. On my list to try! I have heard great things about this as a relaxation and healing tool. I personally need to find a practitioner on Sofia Health and give this a try!

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Our minds are our most powerful assets so I like to read and listen to podcasts on mindset. If we all understood the power we hold and what we are capable of, then no one would look at mental health support through the lens of disgrace.

What we think about ourselves, what we believe, what we tell ourselves, matters. To help understand this, I would recommend reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. Her work, spanning 20 years, proves the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It determines whether you become the person you believe to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.

She discusses a fixed mindset vs. growth mindset and surmises that the traits you start with are just a starting point for development. Your potential is unlimited and everyone can change and grow. This growth mindset allows you to thrive during some of the most challenging times.

For large collections of resources, Oprah and Tony Robbins both have networks and bring in a number of great guests and speakers.

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?

There are many ways to positively impact the world, so it’s important to find the one that you are passionate about. That may take some false starts or may take you down several different paths, but the great thing about that exploration is that you’ll not only learn about yourself — you’ll leave that path better than you found it.

I suggest people make the leap, try things out, and exercise that idea. Talk to people around you. Do the research. Be passionate and bold in your execution but make sure that you are consistently listening to the needs and feedback of the people you are serving.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram

Youtube

Facebook

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