Vichi Jagannathan, SOM '17: Educator & Innovator

Vichi (SOM ’17) is the Co-Founder of MyHealthEd and Rural Opportunity Institute. Vichi and the MyHealthEd team won the Aetna Foundation Prize for Health Equity Innovation at Startup Yale in 2017.

Vichi Jagannathan
Vichi Jagannathan, SOM ‘17.
Image taken from https://myhealthed.org/

Both of your ventures seem to have stemmed from your experience as a high school teacher in Eastern North Carolina. Tell me more about how the idea came about for MyHealthEd and for Rural Opportunity Institute.

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Living and teaching in Eastern N.C. was my first exposure to a number of disparities that had been obscure to me growing up. In particular, I observed the symptoms of vast racial and urban/rural disparities in the lives of many of my students. One of these symptoms was a prevalence of unplanned pregnancy – about 1 in 5 of my female students was pregnant by the end of the 10th grade. The idea for MyHealthEd came about when Liz Chen - who taught in the classroom next door to me – and I began investigating the possible reasons for such high rates of pregnancy and learned that their access to comprehensive sex education was pretty limited. We were both excited by the potential for technology to both increase access to and reduce awkwardness around sex ed for our students, and decided to create MyHealthEd to build products focused on that intersection.

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ROI came to fruition a few years after I co-founded MyHealthEd, but it stems from the same roots. My co-founder, Seth Saeugling, also taught in an Eastern North Carolina high school at the same time that I did. He observed many of the same disparities as I did, but from a different lens as a special education teacher. We both coincidentally moved to the S.F. Bay Area after teaching and were both working in education. Through our respective jobs, we both learned about trauma and the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study and the findings deeply resonated and helped explain the disparities and symptoms we both had seen in our students. The study, in summary, states that prolonged and repeated exposure to adversity and toxic stress in the early years of life can have long-term negative impacts on how the brain and body develop in a way that can increase likelihood of many long-term challenges including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high school dropout, unemployment/job instability, incarceration, substance abuse, and unplanned pregnancy. The groundbreaking finding is that we shouldn’t be asking people what is wrong with them or why they’re making bad choices – we should be asking people what happened to them. This shift in framing resonated deeply with both Seth and I. It helped explain why sex ed. alone may not be sufficient to prevent unplanned pregnancy. It helped explain why some of our students reacted so much more aggressively than others to the same event. We both became motivated to gather resources to return to Eastern N.C. and work alongside families to create solutions and systems that support healing from trauma. In 2017 we finally created ROI to begin working towards that vision.

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First of all, congratulations on being featured in Teen Vogue about the Real Talk app coming out of MyHealthEd! Sex education is still often treated as a taboo topic. What has the response been like from students and families during this process?

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Thanks! And yes this has been a very interesting experience. One thing that has been strongly corroborated through our interviews and design work with teens and families is that sex education is indeed still a very taboo topic. Teens and adults alike often have awkward stories about the first time they tried to have “the talk” about sex, and many feel shame about the experience. And yet, what we’ve found is that both teens and adults tend to agree that someone should be having this conversation with every teen. So it seems to be less that people don’t think we should be talking about sex education; it’s that no one wants to be the one to bring it up. That is why we designed Real Talk to use real stories written by real teens. It helps create a space to both share and learn about sex and relationships without having to participate in the awkward in-person experience. Teens love it because they can access the app in total privacy and anonymity and still be confident that the information is trustworthy. And parents love it because they know their child is getting reliable information, but they don’t have to be the ones to deliver it.

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What are the next steps in developing MyHealthEd and the Real Talk app?

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We are really excited that we were able to successfully raise our $30K goal in our year-end crowdfunding campaign. With this new funding, we are able to focus on growth and impact in 2019. In particular, we’ve learned after a year in the App Store that sex and relationships aren’t the only health topics that are hard to talk about for teens. They’ve shared that they also want to be able to talk openly about mental health, anxiety, identity, friendships and bullying. So we are going to start expanding into new content areas by sourcing stories on those new topic areas. In addition, we are exploring partnerships with other content partners to begin publishing our content outside the App. The Teen Vogue article was one small example of what this could look like – stay tuned for more Real Talk content in more places in 2019.

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While MyHealthEd is focused on national growth, Rural Opportunity Institute seems to be specifically focused on helping the community in Eastern North Carolina. What led to this decision and how has the experience with building up ROI differed from MyHealth Ed?

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One of the things that Seth and I observed from moving from Eastern N.C. to the Bay Area was how much geography and place actually matters for progress. We both had the chance to learn the human-centered design process in San Francisco, and saw a tremendous amount of energy and resources going towards applying that and other innovative approaches towards the problems that ACEs and trauma can cause in the Bay Area. Eastern N.C. faces similar problems, but proportionately WAY fewer resources are allocated towards addressing them. Our vision for ROI largely revolved around connecting the resources and knowledge we had acquired in places like San Francisco and at Yale University with the amazing people and assets that we had gotten to know as teachers in Eastern N.C. Ultimately, we hope that the insights and outcomes that arise from our work will generalize and scale to other regions, but we wanted to start hyper-local to ensure that everything that we do actually leads to tangible and sustainable impact that is driven and led by the community there and persists long after our involvement.

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As ROI has acknowledge, trauma is such a massive force that it can be overwhelming to determine how best to treat it. Now that you’ve completed interviews and identified the systems that need to be involved for this to work, what are the next steps for ROI?

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The human-centered design and systems mapping work we did during our first year in Eastern North Carolina illuminated a strategy that has been vetted and accepted by systems leaders and community members alike. The strategy has three parts – a plan of attack that, if executed, will lead to outsized ripple effects and systemic shifts that will ultimately disrupt cycles of trauma and build our community’s capacity to heal, thrive, and self-determine for future generation. We are currently focused on building partnerships locally to pilot different evidence-based best practices that align with each area of the strategy.

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The first part of the strategy is to increase people’s knowledge of what trauma is, where it shows up, and how best to respond. If we do this, it will drive demand in many spaces for restorative alternatives to punishment when encountering individuals struggling to cope with trauma and stress. And finally, by providing access to environments and responses that heal rather than punish, we can support more people to re-integrate and stay in places of learning and employment, thus increasing educational and economic attainment. Long-term, these shifts will build the capacity of our community as a while to tap into “non-traditional” leaders – those who have experienced trauma and healed – to be the healers and leaders of this movement for future generations.

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Our first step against this process has been to partner with organizations in our community like the school district, law enforcement, social services, health dept., and faith communities to bring evidence-informed trainings on trauma and resilience to their staff. Ultimately, we hope to have trained individuals in every system to help make shifts from punitive to restorative.

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One other thing we are still exploring and are super excited about is biofeedback. Biofeedback is technology that can help people gain information about the health of their nervous system and stress response, and then participate in tailored breathing and meditation exercises to improve nervous system health (it’s like Fitbit but for stress). Like with Real Talk, we are excited to explore the potential that technology like this can have for democratizing access to best practices for health and wellness. Right now, biofeedback is used in elite spaces like Silicon Valley c-suites, NASA astronaut training, Olympic Athlete training, and for PTSD recovery for veterans. The technology is only now becoming widely available to retail consumers. We are excited by the idea of connecting tools like this with children and families who have experienced trauma and often are the last to get access to cutting-edge research.

Vichi (SOM ’17) is the Co-Founder of MyHealthEd and Rural Opportunity Institute. Vichi and the MyHealthEd team was awarded the Yale SOM Harley Lippman Entrepreneurial Fellowship Award (2016) and won the Aetna Foundation Prize for Health Equity Innovation at Startup Yale in 2017.

Check out the Teen Vogue article to read more about the Real Talk app.

About the author

Amy Schock

Senior Administrative Assistant for Faculty Support and Entrepreneurship