“If you ever meet someone who is starting a business—especially a woman—while having a family, give her a round of applause.”
Rachel Cox, founder of Airapy
Rachel Cox is the founder of Airapy, a platform that connects patients with mental health professionals who may not necessarily have established office spaces. Here she talks about the shortage of mental health professionals throughout the U.S., the importance of taking all feedback—good and bad—to heart, and balancing work with family responsibilities as a female entrepreneur.
What was your initial vision for Airapy?
I came up with the idea of Airapy two years ago. I was trying to find a new therapist. I had to find a place close to my house because I had a three-year-old and a newborn and I was on maternity leave. The group practice closest to my house was booked and they wouldn’t let me just get the next available appointment. They said they only book two weeks in advance, and to try them again in two weeks. I did that twice and they never had availability and I gave up.
But imagine if you’re someone who is really in a more dire situation that’s like, “Alright, today is the day I’m going to look for a therapist!” And you hear, “No, we don’t have availability.” Well, what would you do? A lot of them would give up. I was of good financial means and I had computer access and I had high literacy and I had high technology knowledge, and I still couldn’t find someone. So, especially for people who don’t have access to all of those things, it’s difficult.
What drew you to that vision personally?
I’m a big believer in therapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy. I’ve had mild anxiety and depression on and off. I was looking for a new therapist and I wasn’t able to book, and that kind of got the wheels spinning on my mind. I started looking around and realized that there’s nowhere where you can just make an appointment with a new therapist. I started reading about the shortages: Over 55 percent of U.S. counties don’t have any mental health professionals. For many different reasons, now there’s not enough care to go around.
My first thought was, “Oh, if a physical therapist can do house calls, why can’t a mental health therapist?” Then I discovered that there’s already a thing called “walk and talk” therapy. And this is what I have to reiterate in my pitches: We’re not inventing this. This has existed for decades. We’re really just facilitating and promoting something that has already existed for many years. There’s also data out there that amongst younger generations, there’s less stigma around mental health. And they’re more open to new ideas and innovations. Anecdotally, when I explain what Airapy is, younger people go, “I would love to do therapy in a coffee shop!” So that’s my hope, that they’ll kind of be our pathway into the mass market.
I had the idea 18 months ago, and then I just sat on it for 6 months. I’m a Temple alumna and I got an email that I could pitch to get seed funding from a female-oriented seed fund. It gave me the incentive to throw this idea together and solidify it. I put together the pitch and they gave me a little money to do research.
I did a bunch of research and started reaching out to therapists on LinkedIn. I InMailed as many people as I could for a month. The people who emailed me back were interested and then we had a phone call—that was the moment when I knew I had a really good idea. The first person I talked to was a therapist about to get her license, and she said, “This is amazing.” It was for her. I don’t know of any other businesses that have been built around the needs of new therapists.
Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
Obviously losing money. We can all think of really great companies or really great ideas that still failed. It’s not always about how good the idea is; it’s sometimes about the people involved or the execution, so of course in the back of my mind I’m paranoid that I’m sitting on this pile of gold, this amazing idea, and I might ruin it by just making a misstep. It’s a lot of fear of failure. I have a degree in entrepreneurship, but it’s really on paper. I haven’t actually done it.
What has been your greatest struggle in founding Airapy?
Having a family. A lot of the networking business opportunities are happy hours and morning events—just things I cannot do. I schedule phone calls with people at 9 p.m. or I try to meet them when my younger son is napping between 1 and 3 p.m. on the weekends. Now I’m like, “I wish I had started this business before I had kids. That would have been easier.” If you ever meet someone who is starting a business—especially a woman—while having a family, give her a round of applause.
What has been your greatest triumph in your founder’s journey thus far?
The highest point was just starting to find therapists who—like the five therapists we have—are so into it. I consider them my partners. I’ve had lunch with all of them individually. One of them—Cecily White—she reached out to me. She heard about Airapy from a coworker. She had all of these ideas. And I said, “Do you want to join the team?” So now she’s the Clinical Director.
What has been your biggest sacrifice?
It’s just a lot of stress, a lot of uncertainty and stress. Stress in my personal relationships. You’re stressed because of something you’re doing with the business and you take it out on the people who are close to you. Part of the reason why I want to run my own company is just so I can spend more time with my kids. You’re losing time with them in order to spend more time with them.
“If you don’t empathize
with your customer, then
why are you starting a
Rachel Cox, founder of Airapy
Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
I think in general, this is why there’s a lack of knowledge about entrepreneurship in this country and we need more entrepreneurship education. High school students should learn this. There are so many people who could start their own businesses. There’s some data like, if you know someone in your life growing up who runs their own business, you’re 50 percent more likely to start your own business. But if you don’t see that in your world at all, it’s this alien thing.
That’s how I grew up. No one close to me ran their own business. I’d always wanted to start my own business. And then I got the opportunity to go get this degree in entrepreneurship and really learn all about it. But really anyone can do that. Anyone can read all the entrepreneurship books. All the resources are online or at the library. Anyone can do that and learn how to run a business.
There are some people you talk to and say you started a business and they go, “Oh my God, that’s so exciting! I wish I could do that!” But there’s a lot of people who just go, “Oh, that sounds like a risk. What are you going to do?” I would say that it’s exciting to talk to people who think it’s exciting, and it’s a little unnerving to talk to people for whom it’s just a really scary idea and don’t understand why anyone would want to leave the comfort of a regular job.
Has anyone in your personal life been a constant source of support?
My parents and husband are very supportive. I graduated from Fox [School of Business at Temple University], and there’s a big network there. I’m always getting emails for events, trainings, lectures. Ellen Weber in particular has been great. She’s a faculty member at Fox and she runs the Innovation and Entrepreneur Institute at Fox. I’m there a lot and she’s always willing to give advice. The SBDC [Small Business Development Center] at Temple is really helpful. The Philly Startup Leaders have been amazing.
I guess my answer is the Philly startup community. I’ve found everyone to be so helpful. Like, I had a silly social media problem the other day. I posted on the Slack page, and someone jumped in and explained to me how to do it. Little things like that are peppering my life enough to keep moving forward.
Tell me about your work-life balance.
Work-life balance is not that bad. The time that I have to work on Airapy is emails during my lunch break or a brief phone call during my lunch break, and then phone calls or sometimes conference calls after 9 p.m.
I don’t want to overburden my husband. My kids are so young that being alone with the both of them for more than a couple hours is actually quite an ask. One is only one-and-a-half and one is four-and-a-half. They want to do different things, so it’s hard because they’re different levels. The weekends are just kind of stressful because sometimes I’ll have to have a meeting with someone or meet a therapist and I have to schedule things close to my son’s naptime so that my husband isn’t left with both of them.
It’s just a minor stress of having to always keep these things in mind. Because my husband takes on extra work, then I try to give him extra time to himself. It’s never even, but you always just have to at least attempt to do trade-offs.
Did you ever come close to giving up?
Every job that I’ve had, I always find myself getting anxious and wanting to take on more things. So for a while I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll get into politics,’ and I joined my local civic association and I was working with them, but that was kind of frustrating because it’s hard to get things done. Then I went to business school, and so that filled up a lot of my extra time and my extra energy. And then I graduated, so I was like, “Now what am I going to do?” If I wasn’t doing this, I’d have to be doing something else. I always need something else that I’m working on that’s getting me excited.
Last summer in August—I don’t remember why—but I was starting to feel despondent about the whole idea. I felt like there was a wall I would hit with therapists where I was trying to go to meet-ups of therapists, but if you say, “Hey, I’m starting a business,” they’re like, “We don’t allow commercial interests in these groups.” I thought no one was going to take me seriously unless I have a therapist on board and I couldn’t find a therapist. So I was just going to give up.
This is when my husband said, “What’s wrong with you? Why would you give up so easily?” And I was like, “Fine, fine! I won’t give up!” And the thing that I was going to do next was start reaching out to people on LinkedIn. I was like, “I might as well just start InMailing them to see if they want to use the platform.” I got back from this family vacation, started going on LinkedIn, and that’s when the people that responded to me loved the idea. I basically hit a point where I was going to give up, he yelled at me to not give up, and then the next thing that happened was this ray of sunshine that came through.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
Listen to feedback. One thing that I know I’m doing right is every person I encounter who learns what Airapy is, I say, “What do you think?” I solicit feedback from everyone I talk to. And all of that is in my brain or written down somewhere.
I’m passionate about user experience. You really have to empathize. So I guess there’s two things: Listen to all feedback, even if it’s bad, and don’t dismiss it. People have been willing to talk to me, email me, jump on a phone call for 10 minutes. Once you have their ear, people love to talk. They love to give you their opinions. And then the other one is to have empathy. Try to put yourself in the mind of your customer. If you don’t empathize with your customer, then why are you starting a business? I think that having empathy for that person will drive you in a way that other reasons won’t.
This interview has been lightly edited from an in-person conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.