Every founder needs to be able to explain why this mission is important and personal to them. Whatever social impact you hope to make, there is a reason it’s important to you as an individual. It can feel awkward or uncomfortable sharing your personal story, particularly if it involves trauma, but by telling your story, you can find others who share your mission and want to be part of bringing your technology to life.
Inrecent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Yared Alemu.
Dr. Yared Alemu is the founder of TQIntelligence, a startup transforming behavioral healthcare for at-risk youth by using voice biomarkers and artificial intelligence (AI) to objectively quantify pediatric trauma and emotional distress in children and adolescents. Dr. Alemu has more than 20 years of experience as a psychologist, clinical supervisor, researcher, and administrator. He is an expert in digital mental healthcare and using technology to support precision and individualized treatment approaches to mental health.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
Mychildhood and early teen years were spent in Ethiopia. We grew up poor, which brings its own emotional burdens, though at the time, I didn’t think of the experience in that way, because I was a child, and it was all I knew. Looking back, poverty exacerbates the unique human experience of fear of death, groundless, belittlement and humiliation. It makes thinking about the future much more unstable and anxious.
I was a good student and an athlete, a soccer player, but school didn’t keep my interest. As a teen, there were more interesting things happening outside of the school building during the day, so I dropped out. I started using alcohol and drugs very early. For most of us who are carrying a high level of emotional distress, marijuana provides an immediate sense of relief, but this relief comes with a high cost, including disruption of age-appropriate cognitive, emotional, and spiritual growth.
That could have been the end of my story, but a few years later, I came to the United States to attend an all-male boarding school in New England and pursue both academics and soccer. Everything about the experience was an adjustment–the weather, living in a dorm setting, meeting new people who came from wealth. It was overwhelming and I didn’t have the guidance or coping mechanisms to make that adjustment easily.
One of the problems I needed to address was my substance abuse. I was lucky enough to go to a high-quality rehab when I was 18 and I have been sober for 32 years. I was also introduced to psychotherapy, which was as new a concept as any coming to this country. I am a byproduct of excellent substance abuse treatment, psychotherapy, and psychopharmacology. This experience not only impacted my personal life, but also my professional one. My choice of educational focus and current path is directly related to these early experiences.
For me, studying the voice and the clues that it gives to what is happening emotionally is about helping identify those who are struggling, even if they are not able to explain their struggles and ask for help. Particularly with children, the adults around them must recognize when there is a problem and intervene.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One of the unique benefits of being in healthcare is the ability to hear from people I have worked with only briefly and learn of their successes. A university student I interacted with when he was at the most vulnerable came to see me to let me know he was doing well.
The last time I saw him did not go well and he was enraged and threaten me. He had almost died of alcohol poisoning and the university police brought him to see me directly from the ER. I contacted his father to come to pick him up and take him to rehab.
After some time had passed, he continued to think about his behavior at our last meeting. It bothered him and he wanted to tell me that he was glad I made a difficult decision to recommend that his family get him out of school to become healthy and safe. He even brought his girlfriend to the brief meeting to introduce us. It is gratifying to see someone move from a place of distress to one where they are healthy and thriving.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Other than my family, there are two significant individuals who helped set me on my path. My first therapist Mr. Mead and the Jesuit priest at Georgetown, Dr. O’Connell, influenced me to study psychology. What I particularly remember about my experiences with them is kindness and unconditional positive regard. They created a space for me and let me grow at my own pace.
They were full of knowledge and could have given all kind of advice. Instead, they spent the time and energy to connect with me, to sit with my pain. The type of psychotherapy I practice is informed by these early experiences. It was nice to connect with Mr. Mead after he retired. Things had come full circle. The patient became a colleague and a friend.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I am not a person who shares quotes, per se. I find that people do not change with advice and quotes. If they did, the human project would be very different, with fewer mistakes and less pain. However, I can share a concept about how my personal experiences impacted my approach.
The story of TQIntelligence is fundamentally a story of Redemption, what the Northwest psychologist McAdams calls the Redemptive-Self, a preoccupation to make the world a better place. It is quintessentially a BIPOC story. One part of this journey is my initial decision to drop out of high school. I was later given a second chance and came to this country on scholarship as a Scholar-Athlete, to a prestigious boarding school in New England.
Today, I am here as the direct consequence of this opportunity that could easily have gone to another local African-American student. My life’s work to improve the quality of mental health services for kids from low income backgrounds is an attempt to pay the debt. This second chance at education, including being a recipient of high-quality mental health services, allowed me to rewrite my own story and start this journey of redemption.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
To me, there are two key traits that are essential for success: a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone and clarity of purpose. I did not have any technical or formal financial training or experience when I founded TQIntelligence. I did not have the experience of watching someone close to me forming, running, and raising funds for their company. What I did have was a clear reason why: we can do a much better job of providing affordable, quality mental health services for kids from low-income communities.
The learning curve has been steep and difficult, but I know why I am doing what I am doing and that the end result will be more than worth the effort and discomfort I experienced along the way.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?
TQIntelligence seeks to eliminate disparities in mental health treatment, which are primary sources of chronic poverty and educational underachievement. Specifically, we are using voice biomarkers — measurable signals that indicate how the body is functioning — and artificial intelligence (AI) to identify and quantify pediatric trauma, then notify therapists in real-time, while they are sitting with the patient.
The biomarkers people are most familiar with are things like heart rate, blood pressure, or the regular lab work your doctor orders. Chronic stress and exposure to trauma lead to changes in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These changes in the cardiovascular system are connected to structural changes in voice, including speed, intensity, volume, and pitch. Just as your doctor listens to your heart, we can listen to a child’s speech sample and draw conclusions about how stress is impacting them.
Our Clarity AITM platform includes the largest clinical voice sample repository with a proprietary algorithm that identifies voice biomarkers for stress and trauma. From a patient’s 30- to 60-second voice sample, we can objectively quantify emotional distress severity quickly and non-invasively.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Trauma is a poison with no taste or smell. By the time you realize you are ingesting it, it is already negatively impacting you physically and emotionally, compromising your daily level of functioning. It is crucial that therapists go beyond the words a child is using. Children struggle to share deeply about how they are suffering. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable with the therapist or maybe they just don’t have the vocabulary to explain how they feel. If you ask a teenager how they are feeling, they may shrug and say “fine” and that’s it.
For children from marginalized communities — BIPOC children, those living in poverty, LGBTQ children and adolescents — trauma, when it is not treated and managed well, can shorten lifespans and make it difficult for them to develop healthy adult relationships. These are groups for whom intervention and mental health care are urgent, but the system of care is provided by therapists with little training and limited availability. Not all therapists have the ability to spot subtle signs of distress. That’s where Clarity AITM can bridge the gap, identifying issues that novice therapists might otherwise miss.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Much of my experience is in working with children with severe trauma and high-risk youth populations. For children from low income communities who are referred for therapy through schools or family services, public agencies are often staffed with novice therapists who have large caseloads and relatively little direct clinical experience and guidance.
Many of these children and adolescents come from marginalized communities and are at the highest risk for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), the underlying cause of pediatric trauma. Inexperienced therapists, even if they have good intentions, can do further harm to these children. Often, treatment is measured only in hours spent with a client, with no accountability for therapists whose clients are not improving.
These experiences led me to question how providers quantify efficacy of treatment and to seek solutions that would support better outcomes for these children, who are just as deserving of good outcomes as their peers from families that can afford private treatment. Breakthrough technologies are often applied first to those who have the most resources and options. I founded TQIntelligence to ensure that children from marginalized communities can benefit from new technologies too.
How do you think this might change the world?
We can break cycles of generational trauma. Children with mental health issues grow into adults with mental health issues. In marginalized communities, children experiencing trauma — violence in the home, poverty, racism, exposure to substance abuse — may be cared for and surrounded by adults who are behaving as they are because their own childhood trauma has never been addressed. Even children who are not experiencing trauma directly can have psychological distress as a result of their constant exposure to adult caregivers with trauma.
We know that prolonged exposure to stress can cause physical changes in the body that lead to increased rates of disease among traumatized populations. Stress also impacts the immune system, making the person more susceptible to illness or leading to auto-immune diseases. By identifying and addressing pediatric trauma, we can help children process their experiences and develop coping mechanisms that prepare them for healthy relationships as adults.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
There is a troubling trend that we already see at the intersection of technology and mental health care, which is that greater reach dilutes the quality of the therapeutic experience. Numerous consumer-facing apps have been developed to connect people who are interested in therapy with mental health counselors, but there are limits to how the patient and counselor interact and some counselors may not even be trained therapists.
We need to make mental healthcare more accessible to those who are uncomfortable with the idea of speaking to a mental health professional, as well as those who do not have health insurance or cannot afford traditional therapy. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that poorly-trained therapists can do real, lasting harm.
As a society, we identify happiness as a commodity we chase. We think of it as a permanent state, which it is not. The goal of psychotherapy is not to make us constantly happy. It is to move a person from a state of chronic neurosis to an everyday unhappiness that is manageable. Then, there is room for happiness to come and go.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”?
I believe the five key elements to creating technology that makes a positive social impact are privacy, evidence-based intervention, cultural competence, cultural empathy, and a founder story.
If you are creating something that takes in personal data from users, you need both technological and process safeguards to ensure that the user’s information is not shared more than necessary. Whether you are removing personally identifiable information in data sets or allowing users to opt out of some portions of your program, users cannot fully engage with your technology if they have concerns about what you might do with their sensitive or personal information.
Evidenced-based interventions are important for two reasons. One, data-driven efforts are trackable and measurable over time. Two, particularly in areas like mental health, untrained lay people who are working from gut feeling and personal experience can do lasting harm to patients.
Cultural competence and cultural empathy are related, but separate concepts. Cultural competence is the ability to adapt and respond appropriately and effectively in cultural situations different from one’s own. It requires awareness of how one’s own cultural experiences differ from those of others. Cultural empathy is the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and to consider how their experiences impact their feelings and actions. Particularly when working with AI and algorithms, it’s important to train AI with diverse data sets and a clear cultural lens, and to be aware that biases can be programmed into algorithms inadvertently if people are not careful and thoughtful.
Finally, every founder needs to be able to explain why this mission is important and personal to them. Whatever social impact you hope to make, there is a reason it’s important to you as an individual. It can feel awkward or uncomfortable sharing your personal story, particularly if it involves trauma, but by telling your story, you can find others who share your mission and want to be part of bringing your technology to life.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The idea of the good life, a life worth living, is as much about giving as it is about getting.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would like to meet with former President Obama and talk with him about the work he has been doing with at-risk youth. He recognizes the opportunity gaps that exist for youth of color and how those gaps keep them from reaching their full potential. Through his foundation, he supports initiatives that build communities and allow young people to see new possibilities for their futures.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn more at www.tqintelligence.com and even take a 10-question ACE assessment to understand how your childhood experiences may be impacting you today.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.