Solving for People, Celebrating Trust

6 min readApr 6, 2021

Announcing Real’s Series A Fundraise

By Ariela Safira, Founder and CEO, Real

Seven years ago, I was introduced to the mental health care system through a friend’s suicide attempt. I set out to build what would become Real because I saw that radical change was needed — not just in mental health care, but in the world.

Over the past year, the pandemic brought headlines to the mental health crisis, articulating the depression stats and anxiety stories we’ve now grown numb to. But the pandemic did not invent this mental health crisis — it’s been here.

On April 7th of last year, we planned to open the doors of Real’s first brick and mortar mental health studio in New York City. We were a team of 15, with a staff of therapists prepared to offer in-person care. Just days before opening, the pandemic forced us to completely rethink our answer to a fundamental question: How do we meet people where they are to support their mental health? We quickly built Real to the People, a free digital therapy offering for what we thought would be a month-long crisis. In those four weeks, we learned how to provide quality care that actually speaks the language of people today (in what may have been the most vulnerable time in people’s lives), we innovated on a new digital membership, and we raised our second round of funding with the support of Kirsten Green at Forerunner Ventures, Amy Griffin at G9 Ventures, and Gwyneth Paltrow, alongside many of our first round’s investors, Anu Duggal of Female Founders Found and Susan Lyne & Nisha Dua of BBG Ventures. Through the summer and fall, we continued to build fast, learn, and iterate to create a product that would not just improve mental health care, but improve us, as a society.

Today, I’m thrilled to announce our $10 million Series A fundraise led by Nicole Quinn at Lightspeed Venture Partners, and joined by new investors Megan Rapinoe and Eric Kendricks, alongside continued believers in Real, Forerunner Ventures, Female Founders Fund, BBG Ventures, G9 Ventures, and SoGal.

With this milestone, I want to celebrate trust — the trust that brought us to this moment, and the trust that will continue to be the single most important factor in Real’s success. Today, I’m celebrating four key components of trust.

1. Believe in radical change over incremental change

As I reflect on Real’s trajectory, I think about the many people I pitched to who shared, This seems hard, isn’t there an easier solution? Why not just build a therapist-matching service? Why invest in experience design? Can’t you just throw therapists on video chat with psychiatrists and own the market?

There are important problems to solve in this world, and many of them don’t come with quick fix solutions. Despite venture’s goal of “looking for the next best thing”, we often just look for a next better thing. We rarely work to solve for the human problem and instead, we solve for the problems of our current system (a system that may never have been effective or equitable in the first place). When it comes to mental health care, this methodology results in a system that continues to fail almost all Americans.

We invest millions (billions!) into social apps, into fitness products, into food delivery platforms. We are willing to completely rethink how Americans eat, cook, socialize, vacation — but we don’t place that same investment in transforming mental health care.

We have to practice trust in mental health care because trial, and more importantly, error, comes with higher risk. And while it’s certainly possible to innovate ethically and effectively in health care, trust is required to even talk about change. Trust in yourself that this is possible. Trust from your investors that a far better outcome may come from a far different solution. Trust from your employees that change takes time, and time takes investment.

At Real, we’re taking twenty steps back and questioning, Was the mental health care system right in the first place? Was it set up to serve everyone? What if it looked entirely different? To bring that to life, we’re relying on a team — employees, investors, the press, our members — to trust that radical change can bring the best solution.

Early stage ideation of Real in fall 2016, working from the bathtub of a Brooklyn apartment

2. Give altruistically

We decided to spin out Real to the People when we had four months of funding remaining, and little understanding for what the world (let alone Real) would look like in two months’ time. We prioritized offering free care over defining a new business model — and for all business purposes, it worked.

We are well acquainted with a certain form of startup giveaway — the branded t-shirt, one month off of membership, free delivery — and those giveaways come with clear hypotheses for how they will correlate with financial gains. There is another form of altruism which involves seeing a human need, filling that need, and trusting that the business and people’s lives will be better, even if you can’t connect it precisely to a metric.

Knowing the market well enough that you can trust this form of instinct — that is what drives true innovation and true change. Give, without awaiting payback.

3. Believe in passion (over technical capability)

When New York City went into lockdown, Real was composed of a team of 15 people who almost exclusively built in-person businesses. That same team brought Real to the People, a digital therapy product, to life within eight days.

In early stage startups, founders are incentivized to hire those who have already accomplished the technical task their startup is building — if you’re building a delivery system for x, hire from Uber. If you’re building a streaming system for y, hire from Netflix. Startups are incentivized to hire for the delivery system, instead of for what’s being delivered. This is flawed.

Every company will face an unexpected challenge. This pandemic was (hopefully) the greatest company challenge in my lifetime, and the fact of the matter is, knowing how to upload content onto an app isn’t what saved Real; it was a deep care for people’s mental health. It was a profound understanding of human vulnerability. It was passion.

Following passion, rather than defaulting to a technical skill set, relies on trust. And that is what empowers employees to pivot and build something even better than expected.

The (growing!) team at Real, connecting over Zoom

4. Trust your people

When Real launched, the majority of the team had not met one another in person, and having tripled in size since, we continue to lean on digital relationships to bring Real to life. This remote environment means we must trust one another’s work ethic, quality, feedback, and collaboration, leaving little space for micromanagement. Real exists because of the trust we have in one another.

And now, as we begin to leave quarantine, many companies are relying on external forces — hiring consultants, relying on how other companies are evolving — to determine how they should operate post-pandemic. What we need to remember is: your company is your people. Your company is not a product or a facility — it’s people creating those products, it’s people operating those facilities — and wanting to do so in different ways. You will have employees who desperately want to work from the office again. You will have employees who desperately want remote life forever. The bottom line is, there is no answer that actually satisfies everyone equally. The solution involves asking everyone to function as a community optimizing for the community, and not as individuals optimizing for their individual lives. This requires trust, and trust doesn’t come from asking a consultant what to do at Real; it comes from asking Real what we can do to make this community work.

Moving forward

This past year, we relied on adapting and learning amidst urgency and chaos, all of which depended on trust — a mental health journey in and of itself. This Series A investment gives us an opportunity to take a page out of our own book and reflect on the pandemic — on how we functioned as a team, on the products we’ve built to date, and on how we felt throughout. We’re so grateful for those who have placed their trust in us, from our investors to our members, and we’re eager to continue on that shared mental health journey alongside you.