Education: Bachelor and master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Toronto
Length of time at current gig: 2 years
You run a mental-health startup. Did the idea come from personal experience?
It started in high school. I was a type-A personality, which meant that I was very hard on myself. At the time, I didn’t recognize it as anxiety. Throughout university, my symptoms were similar to the people I went to school with: not sleeping or eating well and being nervous. At the time, I thought it was normal. When I graduated and started to work, I realized that it was not. I talked to my family doctor and I got referred to therapy, which was a concept that I hadn’t even thought of before. I saw a couple therapists before I landed on one that I liked and that’s how it started.
It can be hard for people who don’t have anxiety to understand what it’s like.
It’s this feeling of emptiness or lack of happiness solely because you’re not feeling OK. To the outside world, you seem to have a really perfect life with school and friends, but you would rather not spend time with them. I would find so many reasons to avoid things that I usually do, and enjoy doing—even taking a vacation.
When you talked about your anxiety with other people, what types of things did they say to you?
I had someone say that I had nothing to complain about so I was just finding reasons to be nervous. I had a lot of people telling me to do more yoga—which did actually push me to do more yoga, which was a wonderful side effect. Other people would tell me to “take it easy,” which is the hardest thing for a person with anxiety to understand.
When you were looking for a therapist, was it difficult to find someone that you clicked with?
Definitely. I worked 9-5 at the time, so finding someone who could meet me at 4:30 p.m. was pretty hard. The second thing was that finding a therapist isn’t just about availability, it’s about finding someone you’re in sync with. A lot of times, people try it one time and don’t like the therapist they see and give up—but just because that therapist was not for you, doesn’t mean that therapy is not for you. The first therapist I went to was OK, the second one made me feel so much worse, but the third one was awesome and I started seeing him twice a week, then gradually less and less as things got better.
How did exactly did this experience lead to TranQool?
When I tried to encourage my friends to do therapy, people kept saying that they couldn’t afford it, it didn’t fit in their schedule, or that they tried it and it didn’t work for them. Also, people didn’t want to sit in a waiting room and feel like they were being judged. So I started to do some research and I thought that video therapy might be an alternative, but unfortunately in Canada there wasn’t that option at the time. So that’s how TranQool came about.
TranQool allows users to customize their preferences to better match them with therapists that they click with, and then connects them for video sessions. Has it been challenging to change how people think of traditional therapy?
It was initially challenging on the therapist side, because they’re used to in-person sessions. Also on the client side, they need to have internet and a laptop for the platform to work, but the convenience of it overcomes any of the problems they think they might have. One of our users put it really well. She said, “I was worried for like 10 minutes.” But she found a therapist through us and now she can still get therapy, even when she’s having a bad day and can’t get out of bed.
We started talking about therapy in relation to anxiety, but who else do you feel can benefit from these types of tools?
The reality is that we constantly wait until we are in crisis [to seek help]. So we’re having panic attacks, losing sleep, changing our eating habits, losing weight or gaining weight. That’s when we realize something is wrong. The reality is that talking to someone who is unbiased and who has no gain in your personal life gives you a perspective on how to solve problems and how to overcome barriers and cope with life’s challenges in a graceful way.
Running your own business is intense. What does your average day entail?
I usually start work at 8:30 a.m. and I leave the office around 7 p.m. to go to the gym and then I continue working from home. It’s pretty flexible, but we haven’t reached a point yet where, for the founders, it’s a normal 9-5. But it doesn’t feel like it’s too much because we’re working on something that we’re passionate about.
Given that your whole focus is mental health, how do you create balance and make sure you’re taking time for yourself when you’re working so much?
This is the biggest advice that I give to anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur: Make sure that you are strong and emotionally stable enough to withstand the challenges that you’re going to face. As a founder, you’re going to have more and more people depending on you so being able to regulate those ups and downs is very important. That’s why I try and make sure that I go to the gym at least three times a week because that’s how I stay physically and mentally strong.
What’s the best part of your average work week?
The hours we spend reading customer feedback.
What’s the worst part of your week?
Staying motivated while we’re going through numbers and Excel sheets—unless it’s our growth numbers. That’s wonderful.
Who is someone you feel who’s done a lot for mental health that you admire?
Kristen Bell. The moment she started talking about her struggle with depression, all these other celebrities started doing it too.
At the end of the day, how do you unwind?
I watch a lot of Gilmore Girl reruns. The show, not the revival. The revival I watched once and I’m never watching again. But yeah, wine and Gilmore Girls.
Meet Entrepreneur Chakameh Shafii, Member of FLARE’s 60 Under 30 Squad!
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