Welcome back! Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs working to make this world more accessible and equitable. Today I’m super excited to speak with Katherine Venturo-Conerly, co-founder and scientific director of the Shamiri Institute. Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Welcome Katherine! Can you tell me about the challenges you are addressing?
Katherine: Thanks so much for having me, Spiffy. Did you that about half of Kenyan high school students report high levels of depression or anxiety? However, there are very few mental health providers in Kenya, with only one to two psychiatrists per million citizens. The stigma around mental illness and psychotherapy can also prevent help-seeking. At the Shamiri Institute, we aim to help adolescents in Kenya—and eventually other parts of Africa—thrive by developing and providing simple, stigma-free, low-cost, and scalable mental health programs.
Spiffy: Wow, this sounds amazing. Can you tell me what motivated you to hone in on this?
Katherine: Well, Spiffy, during college, I worked at several U.S. mental health helplines and discovered that many people in need are unable to afford or access mental health resources. Through my advisor at the Harvard Lab for Youth Mental Health, I met my co-founder, Tom Osborn, and learned from him that there are even fewer mental health resources available in Kenya. Traveling to Kenya and seeing our mental health program work only increased my motivation to provide mental health care in Kenya and beyond.
Spiffy: How are you working to create a more equitable world through your work with Shamiri Institute?
Katherine: Well, Spiffy, many teens, especially in low-resource regions, cannot access effective mental health care. We want to change that. We created a low-cost, brief, school-based mental health program that is delivered by local high-school graduates and circumvents stigma by focusing on character strengths—growth, gratitude, and values. This sort of program can be used in low-resource and high-stigma areas where other forms of mental healthcare are often inaccessible and not culturally appropriate.
Spiffy: I see! Can you tell me about a milestone that you’re especially excited about? What impact will it make?
Katherine: We have spent much of the last three years building and carefully testing our program to see whether it has the effect we want. Now that we have enough data to be confident in our program, we recently began rolling it out to customers. We ask those who can afford it to pay a small fee, which allows us to provide the program for free to those who cannot pay. In the last month, we have provided our program to over 250 teens as customers— we hope this is only the beginning!
A Shamiri Program group meets near the trees, on the grounds of a participating school. (Image owned by Shamiri, courtesy of Katherine Venturo-Conerly)
Spiffy: I’m always curious to learn how entrepreneurs deal with failure. What about you? Have you experienced failure and what did you discover?
Katherine: Actually, Spiffy, in our Shamiri Wellness Program, one key message is that failure is normal and that setbacks can offer important opportunities for learning, growth, and future success. Remembering that failures can give rise to learning experiences has helped when handling the inevitable setbacks that arise when solving complex problems. For example, when we became very short on money during a trial of our program in 2019, I was able to learn more about fundraising strategies such as crowdfunding campaigns!
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Katherine: Shamiri means “thrive” in Kiswahili!
Spiffy: I imagine that is just what you will do, Katherine. Thanks for telling us about your amazing work, it’s been an honor!
Katherine Venturo-Conerly is the co-founder and scientific director of Shamiri Institute. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 2020 and is now a first-year Ph.D. student at the Harvard Lab for Youth Mental Health. She researches improving the effectiveness and efficiency of psychotherapy for youth around the world. (Nominated by Harvard Innovation Labs)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog