Maria Barrera: CEO Clayful – What it Takes to Build a Start-up in the Mental Health Space

“In the startup world, thickening your skin is crucial. Rejection is inevitable, but it’s important not to internalize it as a reflection of your worth.”

– Maria Barrera

Prompted by a heartbreaking New York Times article highlighting the alarming increase in suicide rates among eight-year-olds, Maria Barrera, CEO of Clayful Health, offers her perspective on navigating the challenges of founding a startup in the mental health space. Often best described as a pressure-cooker, the start-up arena presents unique hurdles. Fueled by her mission, Clayful focuses on providing preventative mental health coaching to students, aiming to address the root causes of mental health issues before they escalate.

Debbie & Maria dig into:

✓ Defining & reframing the concept of ‘work shaming’.

✓ Challenges of building a remote team culture while striving to maintain connection and collaboration.

✓ The importance of prioritizing personal well-being amidst the demanding startup environment.

✓ 3 Practical recommendations for founders entering the start-up arena.

About our guest, Maria Barrera:

Maria Barrera is a Stanford-educated engineer and founder & CEO of Clayful. She is committed to addressing the youth mental health crisis. Born in Colombia and understanding the pressures of adversity, she leverages her experience from her pioneering role on Nearpod’s founding team to create impactful solutions in education.

Through her tireless research and collaboration with a diverse team of experts, Maria developed Clayful, offering accessible, preventative mental health resources to families of all socio-economic statuses. Her dedication to training a diverse mental health workforce and establishing partnerships with schools has already impacted thousands of students across the country.

Helpful Links:

Follow Maria on LinkedIn

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman

Hello everyone. How has your week been? I am recording this on a Friday morning, the end of a really intense week. Now that the full year is in swing and flow, the holiday glow is a distant memory. It shines somewhat muted.  I’m already starting to hear people talk about the mental emotional load that they’re feeling encroaching on them and how their intentions that they’d set for the new year about keeping things in better balance and harmony are just kind of flying out the window. So, before I welcome my guest to the more formal part of today’s recording, I want to talk about mental wellness in the context of our work lives. If I reflect back, it seems that 2020, the onset of the pandemic was also the onset of massively increased awareness of mental health issues in the workplace, at schools, at home, with our kids, ourselves, people were really suffering all around us.

And it felt like for the first time, it was a topic of conversation that was unavoidable. And for the first time. People started to become more willing to talk about mental distress, anxiety, depression, burnout as a topic of conversation that was no longer in whispers. But as I discovered myself, those of us who have been privileged enough to afford mental health support and therapy and have therefore become comfortable talking about it, we’re actually in the minority and it’s kind of like a bit of an echo chamber.

2020 was a pretty horrific year for me personally. And I only just managed to keep it together due to my incredible support team of professionals, my EMDR therapist, my executive coach, my relationship counsellor, my meditation teacher. I know it sounds all a bit pushy, but I recognize that this was a huge privilege and I decided that I needed to offer mental health support to the Jack Hammer team as a company benefit.

I assume that the only obstacle to taking up therapy of some sort was cost and time. And I was fully committed to providing both. So, at the beginning of 2021, I announced my somewhat hastily cobbled together and actually pretty poorly thought through, but very well-intentioned mental health benefit to the Jack Hammer team and I received, I think, zero uptake. Two months later, I added some additional bits and pieces around ensuring confidentiality and sourcing recommendations for really great therapists. Still very little uptake, but there were a couple of nibbles here and there. A few months later again, okay. A few more people, but it took many, many presentations of the offer and eventually I like put this ultimatum deadline that sounded a bit like use it or lose it until everyone who wanted and needed mental health support had actually signed up. And through that process, I realized actually how much stigma and suspicion employees have around taking up mental health benefits.

Even with the promise of confidentiality, they’re still concerned about being seen as unstable, unwell, not resilient, flaking out, depressed, whatever, and that this might affect their employment status.  And it took a lot of normalizing. By me and a lot of in practice proof to demonstrate that this really was an active support and in no way affected my judgment of them. 

And so I’m actually, I’m kind of proud to say that we’ve continued with this benefit for our team. It’s become a very normalized, de stigmatized topic of conversation. People talk about their therapists and their therapy in conversation. So that’s pretty cool. So, I think one of the positive spinoffs of the pandemic, which brought mental health issues front and centre is that many more people were open to taking up therapy.


The downside now is that there are not enough trained therapists out there in the world globally. And this is where my wonderful guest for this week’s episode of On Work and Revolution comes in. So let’s go, roll music.


Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of work. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman. I’m CEO of Jack Hammer Global, a global group of executive search and leadership coaching companies. I’m also an advisor to venture backed edtech founders. And for those of you in edtech who are hiring, we have launched a fractional leader offering. I’ll put a link in the show notes. 


My main mission with all of my work is to help companies and leaders to create amazing workplaces where people and ideas flourish.  Which is why I am so happy to have as my guest today, Maria Barrera, who is founder and CEO of Clayful. So Clayful came on my radar a short while ago when they announced in the media about their recent fundraise with some top venture investors in the edtech space, which in the current market, is a feat in itself, but it’s actually no wonder that Clayful attracted investment capital.  Clayful offers accessible preventative mental health resources to families of all socioeconomic statuses with the intention to address the youth mental health crisis in the US and we’ll learn more about this in a bit. Now to introduce you to Maria.


Maria was born in Columbia. She’s a Stanford educated engineer and she formed part of the founding team of Nearpod before founding Clayful in 2021, which to date has already impacted thousands of students across the country. And today we are going to be talking to Maria about what it takes to build a startup in the mental health space and about walking the talk about work life balance and mental health in the context of startup life, which we all know can be really, really unbalanced and intense. A huge welcome to you, Maria.  


Maria Barrera

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me for that amazing introduction. 


Debbie Goodman

Okay. So first of all, what brought you to the mental health space to begin with?  


Maria Barrera

I’ve always been interested in psychology, even though I did my degrees in engineering. My, let’s say elective time was spent learning about child psychology and child development and my free time is always spent watching, you know, TV shows that have to deal with psychology. So it’s always been a hobby of mine, but really it was this, this article and the New York times about the rising suicide rates in eight year olds ultimately. Yeah.  That ultimately really changed my life, frankly, that, that moment when I read that I’m like, how is it that we’ve gotten to a point where eight year olds not only know what suicide is, let alone carry on with that,  it broke my heart and it made me realize I needed to do something about it. 


Debbie Goodman

Goodness. That really is a thud in the heart. So, tell us more about Clayful and the offering and how it helps to address this, as well as more issues in the mental health space.


Maria Barrera

When I first started getting into it, I really, my first approach was really, Hey, let’s learn about this space, right? Let’s understand what’s going on. Why are we in this situation? And where are the opportunities to help and, and build something that can really make an impact. And fundamentally what I found is that it’s, there’s a supply and demand problem.  So as we look at that and we see, okay, there’s not enough mental health professionals, which means that waitlists are, you know, two months to six months to two years, I’ve heard. It’s insane. Right? And that also means that costs are skyrocketing right now. You’re paying $200, $250 an hour for therapy.  And that means that a lot of people, a lot of young people in particular who need the support aren’t getting it. When I start talking to clinicians, they tell me there’s so much you can do from a preventative standpoint before a young person even gets to talk to me.


So, putting all these pieces together and realizing, okay, there’s, there’s a big opportunity here and there’s a gap to be filled and we started Clayful. So Clayful works with schools. And schools help us both on the financial aspect, as well as the distribution, right? Like creating awareness to provide preventative, so helping kids before they reach a breaking point, mental health coaching. So it’s not counseling, it’s coaching. And the idea is that, hey, everybody can use a coach, right? You and I probably have coaches who we work with on an ongoing basis to help ourselves be better leaders, better, better moms, better parents, better family members, better sisters, right?

Like, there’s so many ways in which we can continue to level up our skills professionally and personally. And how can we give our young people that opportunity as well,  and not only provide support when something quote unquote breaks.  So that was really the vision behind the company and what’s been really powerful, is it resonated with our school leaders.


Debbie Goodman

Yeah, I mean, I know that. So, my kids are high schoolers and I know that they do these SOS days and they do a lot of social emotional well-being and I guess that’s all part of the sort of the quest for intervention and preventative work. But we know that that is just a drop in the ocean. So, It’s really great to hear that there’s enough openness to really taking this on and for school leaders to be putting their money where their mouths are and actually paying for this kind of service. So now let’s go a little bit behind the curtain and dig into the paradox that we spoke about, which is that startup life is not a walk in the park. Okay. It is highly pressurized. It’s a total grind. There’s no work life balance. And a lot of the time we just under, you know, I talk about we, I’ve just launched a new offering myself. So I’ve just been in, I am currently in startup mode too. So I remember what it’s like, where it’s just like, there’s just too much to do, too little time and everything that you intended to do with your own sort of looking after yourself, just gets parked to the side, put way down on the priority list and you just end up in the state of pressurized pressure cooker, anxiety and exhaustion. So how do you handle this paradox considering that you’re promoting mental wellbeing? 


Maria Barrera

I think about that a lot, as you can imagine, there’s so many different aspects of it. The first thing that comes to mind is I am so motivated and so driven by this crisis. Right? Like there are young people every day who are suffering a lot and who are taking their lives and taking others’ lives. And there’s so much pain and suffering in our world. And if we can make a difference, like, and we are making a difference every day. Like we get that feedback from students, then it’s all worth it. So there’s this layer of we’re working hard for a bigger purpose that’s bigger than ourselves and really tackling one of society’s biggest problems that really drives, you know, it’s kind of like the fuel that gets you up in the morning. So that’s a big part of it.  The second part is really trying to be intentional about what are the things that you’re willing to sacrifice, for that greater good and where are the things that really, really, matter to you where you’re not right? So, for example for me I love sleeping. If I don’t sleep, I become a zombie and I am not a nice person to be around. My family will attest to this.  So, I designed my schedule and my life so that I can get enough sleep. And that means in my calendar, I will actually put like early morning like I have a sleeping block and I also motivate or inspire a team to do the same, right?


So if there are things that really matter to them, like they need to take that walk out and get some fresh air, do that for yourself. If you need to really take those two hours when your kids get home to connect and fill your cup with that familial connection, like please do that, right? So it’s like being in tune to, okay, what helps fill your cup and what’s going to help you be the best, you know, on the field and off the field so that we can do the best work because the, because the kids deserve our best work.  


Debbie Goodman

Well, first of all, I think that you putting sleep as your priority and not glorifying the lack of sleep is a huge step in the right direction. I sort of grew up thinking that I, I know, I remember saying, I’ll sleep when I’m dead. I kind of glorified the fact that I only needed sort of four or five hours of sleep to just keep on going and going. And when I was in my twenties, that was one thing, but not so much later on and I think that, you know, when it comes to normalizing certain types of behaviours, it has to come from the leader. Everything else will flow and yes, it is a startup, but if you’re saying these are my priorities and your priorities don’t have to be mine, we don’t have to have the same priorities, but I’m really being out there. I’m coming out as somebody who needs their sleep. And so therefore you guys put in your priorities and taught in order to maintain a level of balance.


I think that’s really the key to it all. Honestly.  You worked in a startup previously at Neopart and I know that I learned a lot of my own lessons about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do in my own company through the, you know, through my first, my first formative work experience, I learned a lot out of that, and I’m curious to know, what did you take out of that that you’re like, I’m never doing that, or I really want to try and enhance, you know, this or that. We’re keen to know what you’ve, what you’ve left behind and discarded and what you’ve sustained.  


Maria Barrera

I joke that the Nearpod was my startup bootcamp,  right? You get to see all the good, the bad learn a ton and really go through, you know, the ringer in some ways.  I think like the, the  areas that really resonate with me is like being so in tune and aware of our user, right?


At Nearpod, it was all about the teacher. Really thinking about what is best for them. How do we build a product for them? Like now we do that a lot for our students and for our administrators. What Nearpod did well too, is we, we kept that user feedback loop really present both  at the teacher and administrator level. And that means like you mentioned earlier, it’s like actually being schools, being able to pay for a service like this means you have to know how they pay for it, why they pay for it, what’s their need, what, you know, every single stakeholder has a reason why they would be interested or not interested in what you’re offering, really understanding that and feeling really connected. You know, like one of the things that I remember during interviews, anyone who would in any way, like talk down to teachers or disrespect the important work that they do, It was an automatic no. Right. So really keeping that voice of the customer and like connection to our user, again, like drives that impact in so many ways and helps us feel like, Oh, these are the 15 000 students that we’re supporting, they’re not just data points. They’re like real people and real humans. And like they are kids, right? So that key, I learned a lot of that from Nearpod and we’re very much aligned with that.  Nearpod, so it was also a, this was pre pandemic. We had a hybrid team, so some people were in the office, some people were remote and to think about, talk about the things that, you know, I kind of left behind, I wasn’t a huge fan of the hybrid culture. It created sort of second class citizens in some way, right? Like you had people in an office, some people in an office forging deep relationships, some people far away that weren’t really able to get that same access to either connection or information.


So kind of levelling the field for everybody. I find that to be really, really important. So when we, you know, trying to do events with the whole company and bringing everyone together in person to forge those relationships, but other than that, it’s really all remote based.


Debbie Goodman

you’re fully remote?


Maria Barrera

We’re fully remote.


Debbie Goodman

Yeah, okay. I was curious. I thought you brought everybody into the office. That would have been a surprise move. Yeah, I mean, you really have pointed out one of the biggest issues around hybrid that we absolutely are seeing the data on now is that those who come in and where it’s not structured in, in a specific way will definitely have access to career advancement, greater opportunity, relationship development, learning, putting people who working remotely definitely at a career disadvantage. So although they feel like they have more flexibility, it’s not necessarily always in their best interest and it’s really, really tough to manage. So very cool to hear that you decided to take the leap and equal the playing fields or remote, but still nevertheless bring people together periodically for the work that requires in-person interaction. 


Maria Barrera 

And it’s, it’s hard, right? Like building culture remotely is hard, it’s a different type of hard. 


Debbie Goodman

Yeah. It’s so much more intentional. I mean, I speak to a lot of people who are firm believers in that it is impossible to build culture remotely and others who really believe that if you put the intentionality around it, you will be able to do that and do it extremely effectively. But it just takes more thinking. 


Okay. I want to switch now to a term you used. Previously in our conversation, which I was really intrigued by, and I thought I knew what you meant, but I want to clarify you use the term “work shaming” and I want to know what you mean by that.


Maria Barrera

So I do a lot of work with Stanford’s entrepreneurial programs, particularly working with some of the junior seniors who are thinking about what their careers are going to look like and I remember having a conversation with one of them around like, they’re really interested in startups, really interested in entrepreneurship. And they were doing an internship, but they were working really hard and their friends were shaming them for it, right? So it was this like, Oh, why do you have to work so hard? Why are you working so hard? Like you don’t need to work that hard. Like, why are you essentially sacrificing your life for work? And she was really struggling with that because she feels so connected and so much, there’s so much value in her work, and it’s, in a lot of ways, like a reflection of her. It’s not that it fully defines her self-worth, but it’s a big part of it, right. And she’s very passionate about it and feeling shame for working on something that she cared about was really, really, hard. So, this is something we talk about too, because of our remote environment. Like when I was at Nearpod, we had an office in San Francisco, so I was connected with other sort of young professionals that were also interested in startups and who were also excited about the grind and like working hard on something. And when you have a remote team in areas where the startup world is not as well known, they’re like, Oh, wait, I clock off at 3, 4 pm and like, I’m done. Why are you still working? And it’s really hard for people to sort of get their minds around why you would want to continue working when if working feels like it’s always a value detractor instead of a value sort of builder or creator.  So, it’s again, something we’re thinking a lot about and like, how do we help our team members create a community of people who are excited about work as a value creator and a value in their own lives versus always like something that’s a negative.


Debbie Goodman

Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, we went through that era last year or the last couple of years of the quiet quitting  generation where that seems to have also faded away for some, some reason or another, I think it was a sort of a term that’s got a lot of media attention, but really the idea that people were giving too much of themselves to their organizations and not getting enough in return.


And that unequal quid pro quo was, which was, was driving the idea of sacrifice and I think when you have optimal engagement, people who love what they do, and they feel like they really are getting rewarded, not just financially, but also through so many other ways, what an amazing gift. I mean, I personally have always loved my work in the various iterations that I’ve had. It’s such a huge part of my identity. I get so much satisfaction and I love the people I work with. And I nevertheless have also heard throughout my life and career Oh, you’re too driven. You work too hard. And particularly as a woman, you prioritize your work over your family, your children, your friends, your etcetera, etcetera. And that can really be a source of shame and guilt. The moment a woman gets into the family phase of life, it’s just constant guilt and to then hear that from sort of, you know, acquaintances and friends that you’re sort of prioritizing something that you might actually really love and feel like you’re having such a huge impact in and nevertheless feel bad about. That’s a real pity.  So, I do like the idea of bringing this to light and being able to talk about how we can have work as a really robust, thriving, exciting part of our lives as we would any hobby, as any other relationships. Granted, there is the unhealthy edge to that and I guess that’s what we’re, you know, we want to watch out for. So I like this conversation very much and I’m going to use work shaming in in a few more of my conversations in the upcoming weeks. 


Okay. So, you’re clearly engaged with a lot of people in the startup world, people who are emerging into that. What recommendations do you have for founders, who are entering the startup world now where it’s particularly tough to raise money. It’s a harsh environment in all sectors. And I actually read an article in Insider magazine a little while ago, maybe a few weeks ago, which said that one of the biggest issues arising with venture backed founders is, for 2024, is going to be an overwhelming mental health issues due to just the ongoing pressure and constant avalanche of challenges that they’re going to encounter. So, curious to know what you would say to somebody who says, Oh, I’m excited to get into, to be an entrepreneur. Can’t wait.  


Maria Barrera

I have three things that come to mind.  So the first is there’s a lot of really interesting things happening in technology across the board, right? You’re seeing the rise of AI, you’re seeing all these different capabilities. 


Focus on a problem, not just a technology, right? Like I dove in and it’s like, there’s a big problem to solve.  How do we do that?  I think when you do that, you’re more passionate about the work that you’re doing because you can more easily connect to the user. And you’re more likely to build something that can create real value, right? So that would, that will help you build a better business because there’s a, there’s a real need, right? Otherwise it wouldn’t be a problem. So I talked to a lot of people like, I just want to start a company. I just want to start a company. It’s like, why?  Don’t start a company, solve a problem.  And then if the problem is big enough, you will have to start a company because like you can’t keep it to yourself. 


Right, so that’s the first.  The second is kind of going back to our general conversation around like really think about what matters to you. And what are let’s say like your non negotiables as you go through a really hard period, right? Especially that sort of  phase of, you know, think of like a ball of yarn, like everything’s all over the place, right and you’re sort of trying to figure out what’s next and where the next step is going to take you. It’s gonna feel like three steps forward, five steps back and it’s messy and that’s okay.  Think about the things that you won’t let go of. So, whether like it’s sleep that matters to you, whether it’s like making sure that you have time for your family, your friends.  That will again fill your cup in different ways and It can be hard to prioritize that when you’re like in a stuck moment, so really making a conscious effort. So I am not going to cancel these plans or I’m not going to not do this thing that I committed to. Committing to that with yourself, I think is really important when you’re in that muck. 


And then the third thing is really,  I mean,  this isn’t the most unique one, but like, get used to rejection, right? Like not everybody is going to like what you’re building. Not everybody’s going to resonate with the problem that you’re trying to solve and that’s okay. You don’t have to convince the whole world that what you’re doing matters. You just have to convince the people who care, right? And like, whether it’s the investors that see it and want to give you the money or whether it’s the people that you’re solving the problem for, there’s a lot of people who it won’t resonate with and that is okay. It can be really, really hard to take that and it could feel really personal.  And when you realize, you know what, there just wasn’t a connection here. Like move on, go to the next thing, but don’t internalize that in a way that harms you and makes it feel that you’re not good enough because that then creates those negative cycles.


Debbie Goodman

Yeah. I think that last one is probably the like really, really good advice. I see for myself, I come up with a great idea. I put all the strategy together, the plans, start with execution and things are never going to go in a straight line. And as many times as I have done this, I have launched many offerings and many new ideas and many new businesses and it’s still that moment of is somebody going to like it.  And invariably they’re going to be some who are not interested. It’s not for them, but it’s your baby and so people take it really, really personally. And we’ve all just got to get. You know, if you’re going to get out there and, you know, put yourself out there in the, in the world, part of it is just thickening your skin and just letting it go and moving on and so great advice there, Maria. Lastly what are you particularly excited about for 2024? What can we expect to see from you and Clayful? 


Maria Barrera

I think 2023 was such an amazing year and we went from, wait, what is it that you’re building to like, Oh my God, this is amazing. Like, how do I get this and how do I get this for my students?


So in 2024, we’re really growing our team to be able to support more of those amazing educators and amazing students across the country.  So really seeing the, I guess, execution of this go from my co-founders and I brain, to a small team to now an even larger team. And seeing the passion that comes from that and seeing the different points of view and the different ideas that come from building out the team.


That’s really, really exciting to me. It also will help me get more sleep, which we’re happy about too.  The most important thing is really the impact that Clayful is having.  We’re starting to see data on the increases in attendance, decreases in anxiety and depression symptoms and for a you know, quote, unquote, simple solution, right? You get to connect with a coach in 60 seconds. It’s just so powerful to see the impact that we’re having in, you know, every single one of those 15 000 students. So hoping to get that to, you know, 10 X this year.


Debbie Goodman

Okay. Well, I am going to hope that for you too, because there is a massive problem that needs solving and sounds like Clayful is on the path to doing that. So thank you for the work that you do. Thank you for your team and the work that they do. And thank you for joining me today. This has been a fabulous conversation and best of luck for an amazing 2024. Thanks, Maria.


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