This is a post by our founder and CEO Obi Felten on leaving her role at X and starting Flourish Labs, originally published on her personal blog.
Today is my last day at Alphabet, after 15 great years at Google and X. I’m setting up Flourish Labs, a startup combining cutting edge mental health science and technology to foster flourishing and good mental health. Our mission is flourishing minds for all. We are building a future where nobody is held back by mental health problems, where everyone can be their best self and achieve their potential.
Poor mental health is a huge problem for our society that has been exacerbated by recent events. The pandemic and social injustice especially affected young people and people of colour. The number of people reporting depression or anxiety symptoms in the US is now 31% of adults, 33% of Black adults, 35% of Latinx adults and 49% of 18-29 year olds, according to the CDC’s mental health survey in May 2021.
Flourishing minds for all college students
Flourish Lab’s first mission is focused on college students: no student left behind by mental health problems. Sadly that is not the case today.
40% of US college students – around 8 million – suffer from mental health problems (Healthy Minds Study). Over 40 percent of students with a mental health diagnosis drop out of college (National Academies report, 2019). Suicide is the number 2 cause of death among students, with 28,000 attempts a year (Healthy Minds study, CDC, Taub & Thompson, 2013).
With students returning to college campuses this fall and 70% of college presidents stating that mental health is one of their top concerns (ACE survey), now is the time to make a difference for millions of students. Studies demonstrate that improving student mental health can increase academic performance and graduation rates (Healthy Minds/ACE report, 2019). Investing in student mental health makes good economic sense too: 30 students who stay in college for 2 more years at $20k/year tuition yield $1.2M in tuition revenues that would otherwise be lost, and their lifetime earnings increase by $3m (Eisenberg et al, 2009).
We are launching a pilot in August for the 2021/22 academic year. If you are a college that wants to improve the mental health of your students and are interested in taking part in our pilot, please get in touch. We are prioritising community colleges and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) for the initial launch.
We are looking for donors to help fund our non-profit partners, including Active Minds whose founder Alison Malmon has joined our advisory board. If you are a foundation, family office or individual excited about seed-funding innovation projects at the intersection of mental health, education/college success and diversity/equity/inclusion, I’d love to talk with you. All donations will go directly to colleges in our pilot and to our non-profit partners.
To learn more about Flourish Labs and get in touch, please visit flourishlabs.net.
Moving on from Google and X: Thank you and I love you
A few weeks ago I wrote about love being a competitive advantage. I’ve loved my time at Google and X because of the projects I worked on, but most of all because of the people I worked with. I’m grateful to my managers and mentors who propelled me, to my team members who taught me so much (especially the engineers who patiently explained complicated physics, chemistry and AI to me), to my peers who shared their journey with me.
I fell in love with Google at first sight in 1999, when an eToys engineer showed me a new search engine that actually worked. I fell in love again in 2005 when I sat in the lobby of the newly opened Google London office, watching bright-eyed Googlers bustling with a sense of urgency and purpose. They had lava lamps and colourful bouncy balls, just like eToys! I felt a sense of belonging instantly. My first interview was with Lorraine Twohill, a formidable Irish woman who ran the European marketing team at the time and is now the CMO of Google. After our conversation she said, “We’re going to hire you, you’ll be great at Google. Now you need to convince another 14 people that this is the case.” I thought she was joking, but that’s exactly what happened. 14 interviews later I found myself in her team as Google’s first consumer marketing lead in Europe.
I joined Google at a time of explosive growth. When I started, there were around 5000 Googlers globally and 150 in London. We hired people, launched new products and opened offices at breakneck speed. In the marketing team, I had brilliant mentors in Dan Cobley and Yonca Brunini Dervisoglu who fused creativity and data. I worked on inspiring projects: Teaming up with British Airways for a campaign featuring Google Earth. Rolling out Google Maps in dozens of countries across Europe, Middle East and Africa. Launching Android and Chrome, growing them to hundreds of millions of users. Learning how to make posters and TV ads to complement our online campaigns. Taking Streetview to the small German village of Oberstaufen. Turning the Google homepage into a canvas for children’s art with Doodle4Google. Creating April fool jokes that might someday become real products. As my 20% project, I founded Campus London, Google’s first space for entrepreneurs.
I loved marketing, and at the same time I missed building products and working with engineers. When Megan Smith, a mentor and great connector, introduced me to Astro Teller in 2012, I was curious. Astro worked at GoogleX which the New York Times had called “Google’s lab of wildest dreams”. He told me about self-driving cars and other, still secret projects: internet from balloons, delivery drones, a contact lens that measures glucose in your tears. I loved the audacity and potential for impact. I asked him practical questions: Is it legal to fly balloons over countries? Are you going to partner with mobile phone companies? Do you have a business plan for any of these projects? Astro raised his eyebrows and said, “Those are good questions, why don’t you come over and help us answer them.”
Two months later my family and I moved to California for a new adventure. In my nine years at X, I kept my job title of “Head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world”, but I changed roles three times – a testament that people as well as projects can pivot at X.
I started as one of the first non-engineers at X with an undefined role and broad remit to ‘de-risk everything that’s not tech’, including product, marketing, legal, policy, operations and business planning. I hired leaders for many of those functions, transforming X from a pure engineering team to the multidisciplinary team it is today. In my first year I mostly worked on Wing, a drone delivery service, and Loon, expanding internet access worldwide with balloons. When Loon took flight in New Zealand in the summer of 2013, I couldn’t travel to the launch site with the team because I was about to have a baby. I had a bet with the engineers about who would launch first. My daughter came 10 days early and Loon was 10 days late, so I won.
In my second chapter, I ran early stage projects. My team and I incubated projects like Mineral, Foghorn, Chronicle, Dandelion and Malta. Many didn’t pan out. I became an expert on how to deal with failure and how to kill good things to make room for great ones. I loved learning about everything from computational agriculture to carbon-neutral fuel chemistry, VR, cybersecurity and energy storage, but running a portfolio was not my highest and best use. I am more of a scuba diver than a snorkeler; I love going deep on one project rather than spreading myself thin over several.
In my third incarnation at X, I got the opportunity to go deep on a topic I was passionate about: mental health. I started Project Amber with a small multi-disciplinary team of neuroscientists, hardware and software engineers, machine learning researchers and med-tech experts. We explored how to use brain-based biomarkers and machine learning to better assess depression and anxiety. At the end of 2020, we open-sourced our EEG technology, published our ML methods and shared insights from our user research with clinicians and students. (See this blogpost for more detail and links to materials.)
My career has moved from strategy to product to marketing to leadership roles, from ecommerce to consumer tech to moonshots. Now I am bringing all these experiences to my next chapter, focusing on mental health. I can’t wait to see where this takes me. If I have learnt one thing in the past 25 years, I know that my path won’t be linear.
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