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Bea Arthur’s mission is to provide affordable mental health counselling through The Difference

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Licensed Therapist, entrepreneur, Founder and CEO of The Difference, Bea Arthur is your go-to woman for all things emotional and entrepreneurial. Bea has been featured everywhere from Elle to Huffington Post and on the Women at Forbes podcast ‘Office Hours’. Alpha Woman’s CEO caught up with Bea at the #movethedial conference in Toronto to talk about her mission to provide accessible and affordable mental healthcare, being a woman in the tech space and her journey as an entrepreneur.

Tell us about your company, The Difference.

The Difference is Amazon Alexa’s first therapy service. Through Amazon Alexa we can connect you to a live human therapist by phone within 30 minutes or less. We’re a customer service line for your life. It’s called The Difference because we believe the right talk at the right time can make all the difference.

Is this service available in the US only at this time?

We just launched our beta and the goal is to be in the nine countries that Alexa is available in, Canada being one of them. I’m a licensed mental health counselor by trade, with a dual master’s in Counseling and Clinical Psychology from Columbia. I’ve been innovating in the mental health tech space since I graduated in 2008.

What was your first experience as an entrepreneur?

I launched one of the first online video therapy companies at the age of 27 because I realized that, in the states at least, simply getting access to therapists is a problem for most consumers. Insurance companies make getting access to mental health practitioners challenging and stressful and I wanted to change this. The women-targeted business was called Pretty Padded Room and the tagline was “It’s a nice place to go crazy”.  I figured there was already a stigma with mental health so I thought, why not just lean right into it.

We offered simple and affordable healthcare with a new approach to paying. Instead of $200 an hour I wanted to offer people mental healthcare at $200 a month. We were very successful and saw huge demand for our service, especially with millennial women. Over time we moved away from the clinical aspects of mental health support, as we found we were helping young women with normal problems such as relationship issues, or job problems, life stuff that a lot of women are dealing with.

What I didn’t really realize is that I was actually running a tech company and as I was not exactly a tech company founder, it was a very steep learning curve. The way they do things in Silicon Valley was completely foreign to me. I didn’t know how to raise money, so I would randomly do business plan competitions on the side just to supplement my income.

One of the judges on the business plan competition panels was Jessica Livingston, who is one of the founders of Y combinator, the king-maker of startup accelerators. Airbnb and Uber went through their program, so it was suggested that we should apply because we were doing pretty well. My retort was “Who is Y Combinator”, lol. But I applied and got in. It turns out I was their very first female African American founder.

I imagine that could be a double-edged sword.

Like I always say if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have applied. In a lot of cases ignorance is bliss. I ran that company for five years. I didn’t know the language of tech startups, and while I learned the business stuff quite quickly, it was corporate stuff that tripped me up. Things like investor updates, cap tables, all of those things were completely foreign to me. When we closed in 2016 we were in 39 states 30 countries, and had done almost a million dollars in business. I’m proud of that accomplishment.

What did you learn from having to shutter your first business after 5 years?

Everything. As my mom said, just because it didn’t work out, doesn’t mean it didn’t work. I have a PhD in business now. There are a lot of things I would have done differently so I’m taking everything and applying it to The Difference. I’m one of five children so I realized early on that you have to fight to make life work for you.

Do you have any peers that are doing similar things?

The goal for a mental health professional is to ultimately end treatment so we don’t have the client retention required to scale, unlike other businesses like Uber or if AirBnB. It will be challenging for us to be profitable unless we work with insurance companies and corporations. For example, our partner Amazon is subsidizing The Difference so we are able to offer customers a $90 a month package for 90 hours. People are talking about mental healthcare so there are a lot of great corporate partnerships that I’m exploring.

It’s actually easier for me to persuade corporations to invest in cause marketing than to go up and down Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley flogging my business and not get taken seriously, or get sexually harassed again. This is how you get creative when you don’t have a lot of options.

My goal with The Difference is to democratize access to mental health support. I will always work in mental health. The integration of psychology and technology is where I’ve been able to thrive; it’s what I care about.

How do you muster up the bravery to boldly go where no other woman has gone before?

I’m full of fear! Of course I’m scared. if I wasn’t scared I would be dumb. If I feel the fear and do it anyway because that’s the only way through. Luckily for me I don’t have a ton to lose and I have great role models. My parents are entrepreneurs which helps me not romanticize the journey. When I was a kid we didn’t see my parents a lot of the time because they were working, but it paid off. I’ve learned to focus on what I need to do and not get distracted by the stuff that doesn’t help me achieve my goals.

I am fearful but also shameless. I think you need to be a little bit delusional and a lot stubborn to be an entrepreneur. I insist on my vision and in that way I can own my mistakes. For me it’s more about focus than bravery.

As a woman of colour it must be exciting to be a role model for other young women of colour, to give them a sense that they too can be successful entrepreneurs.

Oh my god, yes. I remember the first time I saw a black person who had raised VC money. This was a remarkable moment for me because up until recently, there were only thirteen black women in the entire world that had raised over a million dollars in venture capital funding, which is the standard seed size for any start-up. I’m not on that list and I’m one of the more well-known black female tech entrepreneurs!

I didn’t realize it when I started out, but there are no women in tech. The bro culture is so traumatizing that I found I was not able to re-enter the tech industry. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore. What I’m going to do every single day is help people get access to a therapist quickly and inexpensively, When I think about that, I’m happy.

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Leslie Andrachuk

As a bilingual pioneer in global digital publishing and marketing, Leslie is happiest when creating new things and inspiring her teams. She is passionate about changing biases that hold women back from realizing their true power and is grateful that at this point in her career she has the skills to make real change.

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