“What the power of awareness can do to help people” With Aneela Idnani

I have seen what the power of awareness can do to help people stop hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting behaviors by replacing them with healthier strategies. I am working with my team at HabitAware to adapt our technology and leverage this awareness to empower other underserved mental health communities to reach their full […]

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I have seen what the power of awareness can do to help people stop hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting behaviors by replacing them with healthier strategies. I am working with my team at HabitAware to adapt our technology and leverage this awareness to empower other underserved mental health communities to reach their full potential.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aneela Idnani.

Having grown up hiding compulsive hair pulling disorder (trichotillomania) in shame, Aneela Idnani is now an outspoken mental health advocate, raising awareness of this very common, yet unknown condition. Aneela is also co-founder of HabitAware. Born out of personal necessity, HabitAware’s smart bracelet, Keen, uses gesture detection to bring awareness to trancelike hair pulling, and sister conditions — skin picking (dermatillomania) & nail biting — so that people can “Retrain the Brain” from unwanted to healthier behaviors. HabitAware is partly funded by NIH & NSF research grants and is a TIME Magazine Best Invention.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thank you for this opportunity to share my story. Like many people, my “backstory” is not a straight line to innovative disruption. I am a first generation American raised by Indian-immigrant parents who ran their own businesses — together. This entrepreneurship and co-dependence felt so natural that my favorite game as a child was playing “office.” In high school, my guidance counselor accidentally placed me in an accounting class. Around that time, my father died of cancer. I doubled down on accounting because balancing T accounts brought me joy by reducing my anxiety. Accounting also provided a badly needed sense of security and safety during that uncertain time as a 17-year-old losing their father. A few years after college and working at a Big 4 accounting firm, my mental health severely deteriorating as I continued to push the pain away. Rather than ending it, I decided I would start life over. I went back to school for creative strategy and graphic design and enjoyed an award-winning career in advertising. My work with HabitAware emerged organically — as though all those years in accounting and advertising were leading up to this important work in mental health.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

HabitAware is small team founded in 2015 to help the 1 in 20 Americans hurting in hiding with body focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) like compulsive hair pulling (trichotillomania), skin picking (dermatillomania) and nail biting (onychophagia). These are trancelike self-soothing behaviors that provide a momentary sense of relief and long-term effects of negative self-image, lack of self-confidence, baldness, skin imperfections and infection. The cultural perception that these behaviors are a choice create fear of judgement and motivate people with BFRBs to suffer in silence. I know this to be true because I pull out my hair and have done so ever since my teenage years. It became my go-to coping mechanism during my father’s battle with cancer. I hid my hair pulling for more than 25 years because I was terrified of people thinking I was wrong, weird or not good enough.

Then one morning, as I went into the bathroom to get by trusty black eye pencil to cover the damage of pulling my entire eyebrow out the night before, my husband, Sameer, bumped into me, squinted, and asked “Aneela, where are your eyebrows?” In that moment, I shared my hair pulling secret and started the healing process by dropping this baggage I had carried for so long.

A few weeks later, as Sameer & I watched TV, I mindlessly pulled hairs. He gently grabbed my hand, and in that moment, I realized that if there was a device to make me aware of my hair pulling tendencies, I could gain control and learn to manage this chronic medical condition.

We experimented to confirm the hypothesis and founded HabitAware with two technical co-founders, John and Kirk, to build Keen, a smart bracelet that uses customized gesture detection technology to bring awareness to these trancelike hand movements. Our team is disrupting the way mental health care is accessed by going direct to consumer to empower awareness as the first step to creating lasting behavior change.

Our disruptive innovation is backed by research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and National Science Foundation and trusted by thousands of treatment professionals and tens of thousands of “Keen family” to serve this underserved mental health community that has been ignored for far too long.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Before Sameer and I met John and Kirk, we prototyped ideas using arts and crafts materials to confirm the hypothesis of “If I know when my hands are fidgeting with my eyebrows and lashes, can I take control of the behavior?”

One of the first prototypes I tried was a two-piece magnet system. On my right thumb, I wore a ring with a nickel-sized magnet glued to it. On my right ear, I wore a dangling magnetic earring. The idea was that the magnets would face each other such that the same poles would come close together and repel one another. That little force of repulsion was to be my cue that my hands were not where I wanted them to be. But something funny happened instead. The strength of the magnets was so fierce that rather than repelling, they attracted each other, and I wound up with two magnets clipped to my ear. Ouch!

What we learned was that this idea of awareness was powerful — and that pain was not a positive incentive for change. This funny experiment pushed us to iterate and test until we got to a technical solution that worked smoothly to produce awareness and empower healthy behavior change.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Entrepreneurship is a combination of hard work, team collaborative, luck and advice from people who have been there before.

Early on in my advertising career, I had two managers that trusted in my abilities. By throwing me in the deep end, allowing me to learn by doing and to reach out for help when needed, I was able to hone my skills as a competent client manager and digital producer. That was the best mentorship I could receive, as these skills very quickly translated to founding a company.

While I haven’t had a single mentor that has guided me on my entrepreneurial journey, our team has built a network of smart individuals that we rely on based on the problem at hand. For example, as an alumni of HAX hardware VC program, based in the electronics manufacturing capital of the world, we are able to reach out to their team for help with anything related to hardware, industrial design, supply chain and marketing. Through another investor, Backstage Capital, we received business advice from Mark Cuban.

We also have two angel investors that serve as advisors from the health realm and numerous founder friends in the Minneapolis technology community that we are supported by — and support!

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

It’s perplexing how one word can have two radically opposing meanings. Disruption can be used in the positive sense to describe “ingenious innovation” AND in the negative sense to describe “unmanageable disturbances.”

When an industry is creating negative disruption and causing more problems than it’s solving — it’s time for a positive disruption. Take the energy industry as an example. Consumption of oil, coal, natural gas and other “dirty” energies are creating health and environmental problems for our world population. We can either solve these issues by creating an entirely new industry to clean up after the existing energy industry, or we can positively disrupt the energy industry with cleaner, inexpensive ways to produce and distribute energy.

As in our case, the cost of mental health care is so high and its prevalence is so low that numerous mental health tech startups, like HabitAware, have emerged to provide affordable access and community.

We would collectively benefit more from businesses that focus on disruption to make an impact in dismantling structural cultural issues, rather than perpetuating them in the name of profit.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

The founder journey is wrought with highs and lows. Here are three pieces of advice I’ve been given:

  1. A few years ago, I heard an artist on a reality home design game show say, “my race, my pace,” when asked about his competitors. This mantra stays with me as I do my best to stay focused on HabitAware’s company vision and the needs of our BFRB community in empowering their positive behavior change with awareness.
  2. “Treat others like you want to be treated.” This golden rule from kindergarten is our customer service motto. We pride ourselves on understanding how detrimental BFRBs can be and recognize that customer service support is a way to honor our commitment to the community and help ensure that people know they are no longer alone on their recovery journey.
  3. “What you give, is what you get.” This is another childhood mantra engrained from hundreds of sunday prayer sessions at our Hindu Temple. I trust that if I give of myself, I will be taken care of. To that end, I enjoy volunteering my time to mentor high school and college students and encourage them to pursue STEM and start businesses that solve personal pain points.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I have seen what the power of awareness can do to help people stop hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting behaviors by replacing them with healthier strategies. I am working with my team at HabitAware to adapt our technology and leverage this awareness to empower other underserved mental health communities to reach their full potential.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Persistent gender stereotypes are the biggest challenge women disruptors face in bringing their innovations to market.

As an example, a prominent global CPG brand is currently hosting an innovation competition seeking “women’s health” entries for “disruptive solutions that are designed specifically for women to address…daily fatigue, stress management and menopause related symptoms (e.g., Hot Flashes, Brain Fog, Mood Swings).”

In contrast, these are the requirements for the “men’s health” category: “disruptive solutions in the areas of male physical wellness (e.g., improve muscle strength/mass, joint aches/pains, and energy/endurance), and male sexual wellness (e.g., improve desire, erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation).”

Do you see the difference in how the world sees women versus men? Women are categorized as stressed and moody while men are categorized by their physical strength and sexual prowess.

Women’s abilities are ignored, and their issues are misunderstood or solved through the lens of men. Women are pigeon-holed to found companies in certain industries and forced to jump through more hoops to prove their business idea and their ability as a founder, whereas male founders can literally put ANY idea on a napkin and get funded.

But ultimately, challenges are meant to be overcome and women are strong and resourceful, so there is no holding us back!

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Three books have had tremendous impact on my life. In my mid-twenties, after falling into the deep depression that resulted in my career shift from accounting to advertising, I read Paulo Coehlo’s “The Alchemist.” The quote that stuck with me was “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” This gave me the confidence to trust my heart and make changes in my life to seek a higher purpose and happiness.

10 years later, I read James Altucher’s “Choose Yourself” which gave me the confidence to leave job security behind and pursue entrepreneurship.

Recently, I read Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” as a way to reflect on my past pains and struggles — including childhood bullying, losing my father to cancer and suffering from trichotillomania. I came to the realization that our pain is our purpose. Rather than “pushing down” and ignoring pain, we must see it for what it is: the obstacle we must overcome to go from who we are to who we want to be.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As mentioned above, the quote, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” has been the biggest life lesson. For many years after my father’s death I struggled to understand why it all happened. In looking back, what I came to understand is that his death gave way to new life. When he was sick, I met his doctors. One of them had a daughter my age. She became one of my closest friends — and 20 years after meeting her she introduced me to my husband, Sameer. I would not have met her if my dad was not sick and I would not have met Sameer — my partner in marriage, friendship, parenthood and business — if my dad was not sick. The universe conspired to make it happen. This is why no matter how strange or uncertain life gets, I do the work to anchor my anxiety in trust.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Through personal and company efforts, my hope is to amplify the movement toward shattering mental health stigma. Our mind and body are connected, and mental health is just as important as — and impacts — physical health. A stronger focus on mental healthiness, as powered by awareness of our thoughts and feelings can drive positive, disruptive action across all corners of our culture from education to medicine to public safety and more.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find & follow my work in mental health and behavior change on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook with the handle @habitaware. If compelled, please help raise BFRB awareness by sharing my recent TEDx Talk: Overcoming Trichotillomania with the Power of Awareness.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Thank you, again, for this opportunity to share my journey as mental health advocate & “disruptive” entrepreneur.

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