Alumni Profile: Deepa Vivekanandan
While recovering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), MSE alumnae Deepa Vivekanandan noticed that there were not many measures and solutions available to individuals with PTSD and everyday stressors. Reflecting on her own experience of improved well-being after taking a dance class, she began to dream of a platform to help others achieve better health. Alongside Lettie Malan Assaf, a colleague at Google, she set off to explore the idea that would become MixLife.
Deepa sat down with me in the fall of 2020 to talk about taking the huge career step of starting a company in the midst of a pandemic.
What is MixLife?
MixLife is a platform for creative pursuits designed with the goal of mental well-being. My cofounder Lettie and I believe creativity is inherently good for your well-being, either through the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating something, or through the fulfilling process of experiencing creative flow.
MixLife strives to make creative pursuits more integrated into people's lives. We are also using popular creative activities to foster a sense of belonging and provide opportunities for friendships, which are rarer for grown ups.
We are starting off by offering what we call 'creative journeys' which are usually 4-6 week long, small group cohorts focused on engaging deeply in a creative pursuit. Some examples of recent journeys we offered include 'foundations of poetry' and 'perform in your first improv show.' We are exploring formats beyond small group cohorts in parallel with our current work.
How is MixLife different from other learning platforms?
MixLife is about bringing people together through technology so that they can form a community. The majority of the user’s time is not spent on the platform, but in creative pursuits and human interactions.We are a hybrid platform that supports the convenience of online learning and the strong bonds and connections that come from in-person interactions. While we paused all in-person interactions due to the pandemic, we are quite positive that people will naturally gravitate towards these in the future when things are safer.
At Google I was a member of the founding team that developed one of Google's earliest scaled efforts to tackle online hate and harassment. As a result, I have learned a lot about spam and abuse and how online communities can be misused. I want to apply what I learned from that experience and make MixLife a safe community, a safe space where everyone feels welcome and feels comfortable sharing their opinions and feelings without fear of being judged. I think that’s really important and something that is at the top of my mind as we design this community.
We are also very interested in using metrics to show how creativity can enhance your health. There are multiple well-being scales but we are most interested in showing measurable improvements to depressive symptoms and perceived stress scales. And we are exploring biometrics that measure different components of well-being, such as sleeping better, having a better heart rate variability, and all those indicators of stress in everyday life.
One of the things I learned at CMU is that innovation often happens at the intersection of fields. It's really interesting to see how the fields of mental well-being and arts and creativity intersect and what will come out of it.
How have you applied what you learned in the MSE to what you’re doing now?
Beyond the subject matter of the courses — which I used in my role as a Product Manager at Google — what I really remember being a distinct benefit of the program was working as a team for the capstone project. Distinct from other technical degree programs, the focus on a real-world project where you have a client with a business goal, and learn how to not only complete the project, but how to manage the team to make sure, as a team, you accomplish what you set out to achieve, and how to ask for and accept help. Those team skills, I would say, have been very helpful in both my corporate career, and as a startup founder.
When I was a student in the MSE program, there was an emphasis on agile methodologies, and that has certainly been helpful in the context of a startup where things change pretty much every week. Being able to adapt, and knowing how to have structure around madness and uncertainty, is invaluable.
After the pandemic hit, I saw people struggling even more with resilience and trying to figure out how to cope with stress. And seeing how polarized the world had become, and how stressful that is. All of that prompted me to make the decision and take the plunge.
And, to be honest, it was also childcare. There is only so much time in the day and I was limited to working on this project in the time between job and family. So it was definitely a forcing function where I had to ask myself, “if there was only one thing I could work on, what would it be? Would it be my corporate job? Or would it be pursuing this idea?” Fortunately, I had mentors at Google who told me that my conviction in MixLife was a sign that it was time to pursue that full-time.
I also, perhaps most importantly, have a very supportive spouse and encouraging parents. When you have people in your close circle who are supportive and understanding, making that big decision is a little easier.
And I think, in some ways, my journey with PTSD prepared me to make this huge leap, and to deal with the uncertainty and stress of a startup. While I was going through the more chronic phase of PTSD, the thing I learned during that process was that the basics — your family, your health, food on the table — matter the most. The rest of it, you’ll figure out. That mindset, in some ways, made the decision to leave a comfortable position to pursue my dream a little easier.