Joy Ippolito, PhD, Social Impact Investment Director at American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, isn’t your typical venture capital investor. Prior to her current role, she spent almost 20 years in policy, research, and practice aimed at supporting young people, their parents, and communities. Her expertise and extensive experience have given her unique insights into the challenges young people currently face and the immense opportunity to prepare society for a better tomorrow by investing in young people today.
We interviewed Dr. Ippolito to learn more about her perspective and the Institute’s healthy youth development thesis. In addition, in the following interview, we discuss what she looks for when deciding whether to invest in a company, the non-financial support the Institute provides, and why investing in youth mental health is important and long overdue.
Vinaj: Can you talk about your Health Youth Development thesis?
Dr. Ippolito: The Healthy Youth Development thesis has been a core focus since we launched the Institute in late 2018. Our thesis acknowledges that investing in young people—from birth through young adulthood—is one of the areas where we can have the greatest positive impact on society. Mental health is a key component of the thesis, as the ability to feel healthy in our hearts and minds is just as important as feeling healthy in our bodies. And often, the two are unconsciously connected, as decades worth of research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has taught us. We are committed to supporting young people, either directly through programs and innovations that target their mental health or by supporting their parents, as we know that healthier parenting supports healthier youth development.
Vinaj: Why is investing in adolescent and young adult mental wellbeing important to you?
Dr. Ippolito: I entered my career in venture capital after having spent nearly 20 years engaged in direct clinical practice, research, evaluation, education, and policy work across urban, suburban, and rural contexts. I have seen firsthand the negative impacts to society when we do not support the health and wellbeing of young people. Many of the issues that we see in our school and communities today tie back to the lack of supportive services responsive to the needs of today’s youth. Young people have an incredible amount of resilience, but we cannot dismiss the toll that the pressures of society have on their lives. It is important to invest in preventative solutions, such as those focused on early social-emotional skills, as well as those that are direct interventions, such as innovations that help youth with their anxiety and depression.
Vinaj: What types of things do you look for in founders and their companies when deciding whether to invest?
Dr. Ippolito: Because the Institute’s mission is to close equity gaps in the United States, it is important for a startup to have a social impact mission baked into their model. This can sometimes be tricky in mental health, as I believe it is the great equalizer and impacts all people irrespective of age, gender, income, and geographic location. However, access to culturally competent mental health services is not equal for all and so our diligence takes into consideration whether an investment could inadvertently maintain or even widen an existing gap. We look for founders who understand these challenges and offer creative business solutions that are sustainable, scalable, and can help close these gaps.
Vinaj: What kinds of portfolio support does your firm offer besides capital?
Dr. Ippolito: We have a great platform team supporting our portfolio companies! Because we invest in early-stage companies, we find that many founders need marketing tips or help with their social media. We have a dedicated team that helps to tell the stories of our founders and their companies, which we then help to amplify. Since many in our portfolio are also first-time founders, we have been increasingly finding ways to connect them with other companies in our portfolio and/or advisors within our parent corporation, American Family Insurance, or from our own extensive networks. Having a support network as a founder is so increasingly important. As a fund that invests in mental health, we are also working towards supporting the mental health of our founders and ensuring they have access to the necessary resources to prevent burnout for themselves.
Vinaj: What do you think is missing in the conversation around mental health innovation?
Dr. Ippolito: We simply do not have enough trained mental health professionals in this country to meet the needs of children, adolescents, and adults. It is too often an undervalued and underpaid profession and one of the first sectors to experience budget cuts. We can solve some of these challenges by investing in innovations that have some AI or scripted component, but we cannot totally innovate our way out of the mental health crisis either, as there will always be some human component to it. I worry about the burnout of those doing this work, especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing asks put on those who work in direct practice. If we do not address the burnout risk, there will be a domino effect in that there will not be enough people to do the work and those who stick around will have less time and energy to commit to innovation.
Vinaj: We’ve seen high valuations and competitive deals within mental health. What is your take on the current state of investing at the Pre-seed to Series B stages within mental health? Do you think the market is overheated or are the valuations justified?
Dr. Ippolito: A focus on investing in mental health has been long overdue; the pandemic finally forced us to confront it. While some valuations have been higher, they are justified if the product or service can offer success that is measurable—be that a decrease in anxiety and depression or an increase in feeling connected and supported. Unlike many consumer products, mental health is deeply personal. Getting it wrong by rushing to market without safety protocols in place, such as how to respond if someone is suicidal, can have dire effects on human life. The need for mental health companies is not going to go away as we return to some sense of normal post-pandemic; if anything, the needs will only increase as people confront some of the traumatic events of the last year plus, making evidence-based solutions all the more pressing.
Dr. Joy Ippolito is a Social Impact Investment Director for the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact. She has nearly 20 years of policy, research, clinical practice, and graduate teaching experience in mental health, urban education, child welfare, juvenile justice, and supporting healthy families and communities. She is passionate about guiding venture capital investments in companies that support healthy outcomes for young people and their families. She has previously worked in university and state government settings and holds several advanced degrees, including a doctorate in human development and education from Harvard and master’s degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago.
Telosity is a Vinaj fund focused on investing in Pre-seed and Seed-stage companies improving mental wellbeing for 10 to 24 years old. Learn more at Telosity.co.