02 Feb 2022

HBS Startup Anise Health Wins Second Place Overall and Best in Feasibility at Google-sponsored Mental Health Care Challenge


Alice Zhang (MBA 2022, Angel Wang (MBA 2023), and Nisha Desai (MBA 2021)

Launched in 2020, the annual John E. Martin Mental Health Challenge (JEM MHC) invites graduate student teams from around the world to explore and develop innovative solutions focused on improving the quality of and access to mental health care. The JEM MHC is organized by the Berkeley Haas Healthcare Association and sponsored by Google, with $25,000 in total prize money. The 2021 challenge specifically tasked students with developing innovative and culturally-responsive solutions to combat mental health issues in the workplace.

This was a perfect fit for students at Harvard Business School (HBS) working on a culturally-responsive digital mental health startup, Anise Health. Born out of the HBS Rock Accelerator Program, Anise Health is a digital platform offering culturally-adapted therapy and coaching for racial and ethnic minorities, beginning with the Asian American population. The team includes Alice Zhang (MBA 2022), Nisha Desai (MBA 2021), Angel Wang (MBA 2023), and Bryce Jacobson, PsyD, all of whom are passionate about expanding access to digitally scalable and personalized mental health services for minority communities.

In the first stage of the competition, teams proposed how large organizations could design and implement culturally-responsive programs and benefits to support the mental wellbeing of its minority employees. In the final round, teams expanded on their business strategy recommendations with a focus on improving the mental health of employees of diverse suppliers, (businesses which are at least 51 percent minority-owned and operated). Winners were selected by a judging panel of senior Google leaders and experts in mental health.

In the semi-final round, Anise Health recommended the integration of their services in standard company processes, specifically employee onboarding and manager training, to ease new minority employees’ transition into the company and support the career progression of minority managers. After advancing to the final round, the team proposed a scalable and affordable solution: in-app modularized digital mental health programs that are gamified and personalized to drive engagement. The team emphasized the importance of integrating such programs into the supplier onboarding process, particularly for the management of diverse suppliers, which creates necessary buy-in at the top.

“We validated that existing one-size-fits-all mental health benefits and resources, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and employee resource groups, do not sufficiently address the mental health needs of minority employees,” said Alice Zhang, co-founder of Anise Health. “This insufficiency is a problem: While minority hiring is increasing, representation is not reflective at leadership levels, which indicates talent disengagement and leakage. In order to ensure feasibility and effectiveness of our solution, we interviewed various stakeholders, developed a detailed implementation plan, and defined metrics to measure the impact of the Anise program.”

“The onboarding process is where first impressions of culture and climate are established,” commented judge Sally Spencer-Thomas, president, United Suicide Survivors International. “An organization's values become clear—what they highlight during the first few hours or days of an employee's experience speaks volumes as to who they are as a company. Having a culturally-responsive mental health resource like Anise Health lets new employees know the organization takes inclusion and wellbeing seriously.”

Anise Health was awarded best in the feasibility category and overall second place. The team aims to bring their pitches to reality, starting by piloting its services with medium-to-large enterprises.

“It is imperative that we focus on improving the quality of and access to mental health care for everyone,” said Michael Martin, Google APAC energy, regulatory, and sustainability lead and John E. Martin Mental Healthcare Challenge founder. “As we strive to build workforces that are diverse and inclusive it is critical that we offer mental health care resources that are equitable and culturally responsive. Companies like Anise Health are setting the standard, and developing resources that fit the bill.”

“The Anise team has been working diligently on developing this sorely-needed mental health product,” commented Jodi Gernon, director of the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School. “They worked hard throughout their experience at HBS and with the Rock Center to develop a solution for this vastly underserved population.”

Looking forward, Anise will move into its next phase of growth by establishing a pathway to scale with payor and employer partnerships, growing its team and preparing to launch an expanded clinical program for Asian American communities.

“We hope that as we continue to gain traction and demonstrate strong clinical outcomes, we can grow our culturally-adapted and personalized approach to service the unique needs of other communities of color as well, building a brighter and healthier future together,” said Nisha Desai, co-founder of Anise Health.

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