As Mental Health Awareness Week approaches, we catch up with Melanie Okuneye, York alumna and CEO of Akoma Health – a mobile therapy app seeking to improve access to mental-health services for Africans. From interning at Barclays and Goldman Sachs, to completing an MBA at Stanford University, Melanie shares her journey to becoming an entrepreneur.
“I graduated from Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 2015 – which doesn’t feel that long ago to me, but it’s getting up there! I think the course gave me a lot of advantages in my career. You’re almost like the underdog when it comes to any one of the disciplines because no one expects you to know a whole lot in each of the fields. I would go to finance interviews, and quite often be asked to talk about Aristotle, but then also be able to speak to financial models and economic indicators. I do think it helped me bridge the gap between the multiple post uni jobs that I was interviewing for too. From consulting to law, I would have been able to go down any one of those paths given the variety of disciplines that I studied. It’s helped me double down on different ways of thinking and challenging my own thoughts, but has also expanded my horizons of what I know is out there career wise.
From a young age I had wanted to be a human rights lawyer. But while I was at York, I wouldn’t say I knew what I wanted to do. I spent the summer of second year trying out everything (so I could at least say what I definitely didn’t want to do!). I remember applying for everything from PwC, to Ernst and Young. I became such a whizz at the aptitude tests. Then I had the opportunity to pick which career path I wanted to take. I decided on Finance. I went to Barclays where I was working in their Treasury Trading group. While I found that it wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, it taught me the various functions within a bank. I also learned a lot of technical skills that made me realise I could do anything I put my mind to in the workplace. Even though I was in my third year, I graduated to do an internship at Goldman Sachs, and took a risk by turning down a full time offer at Barclays.
At Goldman I was working in the Sales and Trading division, which they call ‘Securities’. It was very gruelling. You’re rotating week after week on different trading desks, networking to get your next desk while also trying to maintain relationships with your past ones. I got hired full time into the Markets Coverage Group in London, which was basically a one-stop shop for sales, trading and investing for ultra-high-net-worth individuals and family offices across Europe, Middle East and Asia. I was essentially dealing with the top 0.01% of the world, who were incredible to learn from. I was put in meetings very soon after I joined, presenting my own trade and investment ideas to some of our largest clients. About two years later, I moved to New York, working in the same team, where I was covering clients in the Americas.
What drew me to Goldman were the similarities that drew me to PPE – that mix of the quantitative with the qualitative. You have the quantitative side of assessing a company and how strong it is financially. Then you also have the qualitative too, in terms of understanding who the CEO and management is. I loved the excitement of being in markets, and the adrenaline rush you get when macro or company specific events ensure each day would be so different. But while I felt like I was on a path to be successful at Goldman, I wanted a chance to experience what else might be out there for me”
Melanie decided to take the career change and apply to Stanford Business School in the US, where she worked with consulting company Bain and talent agency William Morris Endeavour.
“One of the things I realised when I came to the US was that you can do anything in almost any sector. Dealing with these clients that were successful from fashion, to music, to sports, I realised you could really turn your passion into something that makes you successful. Having worked in the West End as a child singer, I was inspired by the many more opportunities in Entertainment that were outside of performing.
I decided through business school that I was going to try different things. And so I started at Bain in LA, where I was working with multinational Entertainment clients. I then had the opportunity to work with Baron Davis, a former NBA player. Davis was investing in a number of companies across health, FinTech, to consumer tech, as well as a historic investment into the WNBA. I learned a lot from him. He’s an amazing person with even more amazing ideas. I then decided I’d test working at a larger Entertainment house, and started working at William Morris Endeavor. This was awesome too given the range of founders and companies that we would regularly interact with.
Between those experiences my main takeaway was that I saw so many entrepreneurs that had many skills but were mostly using their unique passions and view on the world to build companies and products that would add value to the world around them. The more I worked with founders, the more I realised that I could do the work they were doing and my dream of being an Entrepreneur became demystified. I realised, why can’t I do this?
Being at Stanford for my MBA, we had a class called ‘Startup Garage,’ where you start off with a problem that you’ve recognized in the world around you, and then you have to try to fully understand it and design a solution for it. I started to think through multiple ideas I could build in. I began in Entertainment tech, thinking about how we could help smaller artists monetize earlier in their careers, so they could commit to their craft full time much sooner. On researching the problem, we found the problem existed for a reason, and we weren’t able to find a solution that could solve the problem within the constraints of conflicting needs from various stakeholders, so I started to explore other ideas.”
“The more I worked with founders, the more I realised that I could do the work they were doing and my dream of being an Entrepreneur became demystified. I realised, why can’t I do this?”
After further brainstorming Melanie founded Akoma Health. In her own words, Akoma Health is “a teletherapy company connecting Africans and other individuals to culturally conscious mental health professionals.” Okuneye shares her startup journey…
“I founded Akoma Health to connect individuals to best-in-class clinical psychologists, and improve access to mental health services for Africans and those across the diaspora.
As an advocate of mental health therapy, mental health support was something that felt very personal to me. Given how important my identity, culture and ethnicity is to me – and how many people are underserved from the aspect of mental health – I wanted to ensure that there was culturally conscious care for those that sought after it. It was a very interesting switch and made me realise the core thing that motivates me: helping others fulfil their full potential.
In creating Akoma Health, we spoke to over hundreds of Africans in the diaspora, in Nigeria, and other parts of Africa. We found a number of issues that hold people back from getting therapy, particularly in Africa. The first issue being the perceived cost of therapy, and the misconception that therapy isn’t affordable. One solution we’re trying to provide is a consistent, competitive price.
Another challenge we found is that of quality assurance, in terms of people not knowing where to find good mental health professionals, but also ensuring all those on our platform meet a certain quality criteria. Africans have built trust with influencers that talk about mental health, but these influencers are often not licensed to provide mental health support, they are often just advocates themselves. That’s why we wanted to make sure that we have the best on our platform. Quality is really important to us, and we want to ensure adequate qualifications, years of experience, as well as empathy level from all our mental health professionals.’
“There are also a lot of misconceptions around what therapy is and who therapy is for, but across Africa we are seeing a sea change in conversations, policies and initiatives around mental health.”
“Lastly, availability of therapists poses a problem, in Africa and Nigeria more specifically. Nigeria has a population of over 200 million people, but less than 350 psychiatrists – most of which work for government hospitals and organisations. So they’re not really available for the private sector. That’s why we decided to work with psychologists who are much more available in the ecosystem. We are working on additional solutions for these constraints.
After our initial research we made prototypes and started testing with users. Once we got feedback and a strong idea of what our MVP would look like, it was time to start hiring people to build it. Then we put our MVP into the market. At the same time we started fundraising. I felt so proud that we were able to fundraise on just our idea, particularly as a black woman founder, where statistically speaking, fundraising has not been so easy. It just showed how much people believed not just in the idea, but also us as a team.
On the flip side there were some challenges in helping investors understand the landscape of Africa, as many of the investors we spoke to were not African. We had to help them understand that Africans do need mental health, and that it isn’t just a case of needing food and water. From a consumer perspective, there are also a lot of misconceptions around what therapy is and who therapy is for, but across Africa we are seeing a sea change in conversations, policies and initiatives around mental health.
We want to be a part of this changing discussion. Particularly as we think about having an added layer of cultural consciousness. We want to be able to enable the therapeutic bond between a user and their psychologist, by having as many psychologists with similar experiences as our target users, who can understand the nuance and variety of triggers that exist for their demographic. Immigrants in the diaspora, for example, often don’t have the support that they need within their family or social circles, due to, for example, not just being from a different time from their parents, but growing up in a completely different geography and culture. Speaking to hundreds of individuals in this category also highlights the need for why I need to keep building Akoma Health.”
Speaking more broadly, Melanie talks about the current issues impacting people’s mental health in Africa
“There’s definitely the ‘COVID effect’ in terms of what months of isolation, separation and monitoring death tolls daily did for people’s mental health. Although there were fewer lockdowns across Africa, and many psychologists on the continent would argue that recent elections and social unrest has had a greater impact on Africa’s mental health in recent years.”
“Six out of ten countries with the highest suicide rates are in Africa.”
“Nigeria, specifically, in 2020 experienced the End SARS protests, where protesters campaigning for their rights against police brutality were shot and killed publicly. There was a lot of anxiety surrounding March’s election this year as it was the first time that people had the chance to vote out the government that was seated at the time of the protests. Not only this, but the hopelessness following election results, financial hardship caused by staggering inflation and poor career prospects for many, are some of many different reasons why people are speaking to Akoma Health.
There’s been a lot of immigration out of African nations as well, leaving a lot of immigrants to feel alone while separated from their loved ones. I can speak to Ghana, which has had record inflation in the last year, Kenya, where loan sharks and betting companies have left citizens in dire economic straits, as well as the increases in substance abuse and suicide rates across the continent. This is really only the tip of the iceberg, where six out of ten countries with the highest suicide rates are in Africa.
These issues are in addition to fundamental issues that have existed prior from domestic violence, to postpartum depression, to mental illnesses caused by diseases such as cancer. There are very specific micro issues that have been existing for decades, and people have gone unsupported. As people develop the language to speak about their mental health problems and understand the support they can get, it’s critical that there is someone that can offer that support. That’s where Akoma Health comes in.”
Melanie shares some final words of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs…
“Firstly, I would make sure you have enough financial runway. Whether that means you need to work for a few years before you start building a company, so you are able to bootstrap your idea early on, or you need to start fundraising right away, or look to the support of family and friends.
Two is to make sure that you’re solving an actual problem, and not just building a solution. Always stay grounded in the problem that you’re trying to solve. Everything should be focused around solving the problem that you have recognised and who you are solving it for.
I also think you should be very confident in yourself and not be swayed by other people’s opinions. Feedback is important, but you have to discern the value of this feedback.
On the other hand, you also have to understand where you shouldn’t be so confident, and self aware enough to know what you are not so good at.
Overall it’s really important to have a strong network for fundraising, acquiring customers and hiring. Learn from others around you. Be vocal about where you need help. Ask for feedback so you can learn more about yourself, and of course – get a therapist!”