Entrepreneurship Series: Mackenzie Drazan

Entrepreneurship Series: Mackenzie Drazan

Although you may recognize her from the covers of Vogue Italia and W Magazine, entrepreneur and Duke alum Mackenzie Drazan pioneered her own software company, MiResource, a platform that allows facilities to efficiently and effectively connect patients with therapists.  During her undergraduate career, Mackenzie was a Political Science major, obtained the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Certificate, and created the nonprofit mental health advocacy resource TEAM. FORM had a conversation with Mackenzie to not only discuss the creation of her software company MiResource, but also learn more about her story as a Duke graduate and proponent for mental health awareness.

Sawyer: I am curious to hear about your experience at Duke and how you ended up starting your company during your junior year.

Mackenzie: It’s a little bit of a sad story of how MiResource got started. I came to Duke, like most people, not really knowing what I wanted to do. Someone gave me amazing advice when I came, which was, “Don’t worry about trying to get a major done, don’t worry about trying to figure out what you’re going to major in, just take a look at the course catalog and take whatever looks interesting to you.” I took that advice and became interested in counter-terrorism studies. I took Terrorism 101 with Dr. David Siegel, and I loved the class, so I took as many classes with him as I could. When it came time to declare majors, I realized that I had finished the majority of the political science major.

In October of my freshman year, my sister Shelby passed away from depression. I was so upset that we couldn't find a way to save Shelby and I didnt understand why our doctors were not able to find Shelby the right care. I spent the next two years learning everything I could about what goes  into making an accurate mental health referral. After a while I started to realize that the reason our physical doctors were unable to connect Shelby to the right care was due to an infrastructure problem. 

Making an accurate referral requires you to track so many different data points on the therapist that change frequently. This is because in behavioral health, two therapists can receive the same training but specialize in different disorders. You can't determine their specialty just by looking at a license number, you actually have to talk to them.  To make things more complicated, therapists go in and out of different insurance networks frequently due to how challenging the reimbursement process is. And then of course there is availability which fluctuates weekly. Even if you can keep all that information up to date, there is still the added challenge of a personality fit. You could have two people that look the exact same on paper and one could work well with that therapist and one could work terribly. These are just some of the factors that make connecting people to mental healthcare so much more challenging than physical healthcare.

I realized that if you’re an organization trying to manage a list of hundreds of therapists, you would need an army of people to successfully keep the information up to date. To me that seemed like a great software application, even though my background in software at the time was a Computer Science 101 class that I did not do so hot in.

While I was learning more about how people got connected to mental health care, I had another problem that I wanted to solve. When Shelby was struggling, I had a really hard time learning how I could support her. I wanted to help her so badly but I just didn't know what to say. Overtime I learned how to be a better sister to her and after she passed away so much finally clicked for me. I wished I could have gone back and told myself all of the things I learned over time from the get-go. I wanted to create some way to tell other sisters and brothers and moms and dads everything that I had learned. I decided to create a website that could be this pocket guide to learning how to support a loved one who is struggling and that summer myteam.org was born.

Tommaso: Is there any connection between your life as an entrepreneur and life as an advocate for mental health and your career in modeling? 

M: I think everything in my life in connected one way or another. I didn’t model while I was at Duke, but before coming to Duke, I modeled full time for three years and was really lucky to have an amazing experience . But it was not easy, and I made the decision to do online school because I was missing so much regular school when I started modeling that it wasn’t going to work. Taking a different path definitely isn’t easy, especially in high school when kids can be brutally mean. I’m dyslexic and have ADHD, so school was never that easy for me when I was young. I got bullied a lot in school for being “slow” and “ugly”. Doing something totally different was scary, but I think the success that I had in modeling showed me that taking a different path is okay. It is a great thing, even though people aren’t always going to understand it at first. This confidence in being different and taking a different path is something that has had a huge influence in the decisions I have made in my life and I think has become one of my greatest strengths. It for sure influenced my time at Duke and I think also played a big part in giving me the confidence to start my company.

T: I think a good mentality to have is that you don’t need to be born an entrepreneur. It’s the cause, the mission, what you do that makes you successful, and you can’t always plan it out. I think that’s what happened to you and why you’re so successful. It comes from a place of passion rather than a business model.

M: I know that I wouldn’t want to start a company unless I was really passionate about the problem I was solving.. Starting a company is extremely challenging both emotionally and physically. One of the best parts of running a startup is that you are always learning and working on different things. However, it also means that your constantly doing things that you know you're not qualified or prepared to do but if you don't do it no one else will. This means your constantly being pushed out of your comfort zone. You have to get comfortable with “failing” constantly and not let that discourage you.

My advice to other entrepreneurs, and why I think MiResource is so successful, is that I was interested in solving a problem that I deeply cared about, so I put the time into learning everything there was from all the different perspectives - patients, therapists, care coordinators and the greater medical system. I’ve seen several companies in our industry pop up and then ultimately fail. I think it’s rooted in the fact that their founders haven’t spent the time trying to understand the problem they are solving from all angles. Everything is interconnected.

T: You were trying to solve the problem, and you developed a software as the solution. How does the business work from the software perspective? Who is your target market? To whom are you distributing the software?

M: We are a three-sided market. We have three user groups. User group 1 is health institutions. Health institutions pay for the software, to service our other two user groups, therapists and the general public. Right now the health institutions we are working with are university counseling centers. We provide counseling centers with the software platform  to be able to house and maintain information on therapists in the local community so that they can easily and effectively refer students to care in the community. These “referral coordinators” are the lovely people at the counseling centers and the clinicians who are making that connection between the student and the therapist and the community. They are figuring out the best therapists to send students to and following up with students to make sure they’re okay. 

Our platform also helps guide students through the process of searching for a therapist. We have a dedicated product development team built around improving the student experience. In addition to designing the experience for students, we also spend a lot of time making sure the mental health providers listing their profiles on our site are happy.  Making sure mental health providers keep their information up to date is a very important part of what we do.

T: Why is the right therapist so important? Why is it important to do it fast?

M: A lot of people generally think of mental health as mental illness and I want to make that distinction. 1 in 5 people will struggle with a mental illness at some point in their life but 5/5 people have mental health. We all have brains and thus all need to focus on and prioritize our mental health, whether we mentally healthy or not. You can think of it like your physical health, once you get in shape - you don’t stop working out.  The same concept applies with your mental health - Just because you might be mentally healthy doesn’t mean you stop doing things to support your mental health.  I like to take it a step further and I work with a therapist weekly because I want to be in the best mental health I personally can be in. 

If you think about it, it’s silly that we don’t spend more time focused on caring for our brains. Most people brush their  teeth at least twice a day.. at least I hope you do, but we don’t do anything for our brain at all, at least not enough of us do. And it’s so important that we do because our brain is such an important part of who we are. 

You don't have to be mentally ill to benefit from seeing a therapist. There are things that we all want to work on about our personalities and the way we interact with others or handle stressors. You might be able to work through  those elements alone if you focus a lot of time and energy into it over an extended period of time. Or you can work with a therapist, and you could change those aspects in the matter of weeks instead of years .  

Therapy has been such a great tool for myself as an entrepreneur. Being an entrepreneur can be very stressful and I have found that when I am stressed out, I am more likely to make mistakes. Going to therapy helps to mitigate the stress in my life which decreases the risk of me making errors. This is particularly important as mistakes can make or break a company in the early days and, more importantly, when your company is in healthcare, your mistakes can harm real people.  In addition to stress management, my therapist helps give me techniques to better understand and more effectively communicate with customers that I am struggling to connect with or get through to.

S: Could you speak to de-stigmatizing therapy and how you are incorporating that into some of the information on MiResource?

M: Destigmatizing mental illness is something that both MiResource and TEAM invest a lot of time into. I personally believe that a large portion of stigma surrounding mental illness is due to the fear that comes with not understanding something. This is something that we have seen happen in history many times. At one point in time people were afraid to sail long distances out of fear of falling off the edge of the earth. This fear was rooted in a misconception about how the earth is shaped. Similarly people have fear around mental illness because they don't understand it and they don't know what to do to help others. That is something that I even struggled with with my sister—I did and said so many stigmatized things that I’m ashamed of about now, but it was all rooted in a fear of not knowing what to do to help my sister. I was trying to put myself in her shoes, but it’s hard to wrap your head around mental health conditions when you yourself haven’t struggled because they are disorders of the mind. But thats okay - we don't have to understand or know what it feels like to be supportive and compassionate. This is exactly what myteam.org was designed to do, to help teach you what to do and say to be supportive. 

One helpful analogy is that if my friend fell and broke their ankle, I wouldn’t say, “You know, just tough it out and run another lap.” Because you can’t. You need help. It’s the same with mental health. It’s just that you can’t see it, which makes it scarier. Once we accept that mental illnesses are real, and there are scientifically validated techniques to treating mental illness, then it becomes a lot less scary.

T: Especially at Duke, there is a lot of talk surrounding mental health in a positive way—things are changing on campus. At Duke we have CAPS, the Women’s Center, and other places where you can seek help, but the type of help you can seek is somewhat limited. You have been here, so what are the steps that the Duke community could take to better support people who are seeking help?

M: Changing the stigma around mental illness starts with everyone one of us. Personally, I have found that as soon as you make it known that you are an emotional safe space there are so many people that will thank you for giving them the confidence to talk about their mental health with others. Statistically speaking everyone knows someone who has struggled whether that is themselves or a loved one. I think everyone has a story to tell and wants to talk about it – they just need the opportunity. 

If you are worried about someone you know, reach out to them and ask if they are okay. One of the best things you can do as a supporter is listen. Remember that your job as a friend isn't to fix them, you don't need to know the answer to their problems. The best thing you can do is encourage them to seek out professional help and love and support them.

T: I think that a lot of Duke students think that learning ends once you graduate. But you were just talking about how you took one CS class and you ended up working in software. Can you talk about personal development and growing outside of Duke?

M: I have always loved learning and am a very curious person. Duke is an amazing place because you have so many opportunities to soak up knowledge, from guest lectures and different classes to conversations with professors and your peers. But that doesn’t have to end once you leave it just is different.  

As an entrepreneur I am always learning new things out of necessity as I often find myself having to do things I have no clue where to even start, but have no choice but to figure it out because I’m the only person there to do it. I listen to audiobooks all the time and from them have learned so many practical skills about sales, communication, negotiating, and more. I also frequently reach out to my professors from Duke to help point me in the right direction when I am looking to learn about a particular topic and am so thankful for their continuous support.  

You never stop learning if you put yourself out there

Interview and Words by Sawyer Uzzell

A special thanks to Mackenzie Drazan, Founder of www.myteam.org and MiResource