Prioritizing BIPOC & LGBTQ+ Youth in Mental Health Innovation: An Interview with Erin Sietstra

Allyson Plosko, Director, Telosity, Vinaj

Since 2001, Hopelab has operated a social innovation lab committed to helping teens and young adults live happier, healthier lives. Traditionally, Hopelab has done this through an extensive product development process, but in late 2020, Hopelab expanded their work to include direct investing into mission-aligned, early-stage companies developing products to improve youth mental health.

In the following interview, we sat down with Erin Sietstra, Director of Investments at Hopelab, to learn more about the new investment initiative, what’s missing in mental health innovation, and the importance of co-creation in designing products young people will actually use.

Vinaj: What was the motivation behind Hopelab’s venture investing initiative?

Erin: Hopelab has a team of about 30 researchers, strategists, designers, and tech product managers who take products from ideation through commercial launch. A question that we've asked ourselves is how we can better amplify the expertise and knowledge inside our lab - particularly related to behavior-change technology - so that we get more, better products on the market for young people, regardless of whether they originated within Hopelab.

One way we've thought about doing this is via venture investing, supporting mission-aligned founders who are similarly aiming to improve the health and well-being of young people. As investors, we focus on mental health for teens and young adults, with particular excitement around solutions that are designed for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC youth. We generally invest at Seed and Series A, with checks ranging from $100-500K.

Vinaj: Given Hopelab’s robust capabilities, what kinds of portfolio support does Hopelab offer beyond capital?

Erin: Something we're particularly excited about, in addition to providing financial support, is providing more hands-on strategic support in the areas where Hopelab has expertise, ranging from human-centered design, to research and clinical trials, to prototype development, to user-experience testing. We also connect founders to our broader network of advisors. For example, we have connected a number of our companies to payer experts as they have navigated their first sales or built out their Medicaid strategy. As you can imagine, the founders in our portfolio are running lean teams with long to-do lists, so we often play the role of connector.

And importantly, while we believe we can add a lot of value to our portfolio companies, we're also really excited about learning from entrepreneurs who are building and scaling on the ground. We bring those learnings back to Hopelab to inform our own efforts to improve the lives of young people.

Vinaj: What do you think is missing in the conversation around mental health innovation?

Erin: I wouldn’t say this is completely missing, but I wish we talked more about health equity when it comes to mental health innovation. The Congressional Black Caucus issued a report showing the rate of Black youth suicide is increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group. Between the pandemic, increased racial conflict, and economic instability, people of color have disproportionately suffered from mental health crises this year. And long before the events of 2020, people of color have been burdened by the weight of systemic racism, which permeates many aspects of their lives.

Many BIPOC patients do not feel that the currently available mental health solutions understand them or their unique needs. And there are so many systemic barriers to mental health care for BIPOC patients, ranging from lower rates of health insurance among people of color (and therefore less ability to pay for cost-prohibitive care), to a dearth of mental health providers in urban neighborhoods, to a shortage of mental health practitioners of color, to stigma within BIPOC communities around mental illness.

While technology has the potential to address some of these challenges around access, we need to build and validate more business models that enable organizations to prioritize BIPOC patients, rather than include them as an afterthought. I’d love to see more of a conversation around how we align incentives to make health equity not just a noble social mission but an attractive business strategy as well.

Vinaj: What advice do you have for founders designing solutions for the under 18 population?

Erin: For this one, I consulted Grace Greene, who is a fantastic Research Associate at Hopelab and a Gen Zer herself. She shared the following advice, and I couldn’t agree more!

  • Co-create. Make your products and solutions *with* young people, rather than just listening to teen and young adult experiences. Collaborate, make feedback a two-way street, and don't be afraid to share your ideas back with them.
  • Be authentic and transparent. Young people can tell when adults designing solutions for them either don't have their best interests in mind or aren't actually invested in them in the way they may claim to be. From our work, we've learned that young people are super curious and *want* to know and understand our intentions. And when we don't provide that or do not share clearly, it can affect young people’s willingness to participate.
  • Recognize that Gen Z culture is not monolithic to every young person’s experience. Furthermore, Gen Z culture is often overly accentuated in how adults perceive Gen Zers lives and day-to-day experiences. Just because Gen Z culture tends to be more progressive or more likely to stand at the front lines of a protest does not necessarily mean this is how we self-define or what we do with our free time. There's more to the story. Co-create in order to seek out more insight about the person behind the culture.

Erin leads Hopelab’s work investing in organizations and companies that aim to improve the health and well-being of teens and young adults. As Director, she sources, executes, and manages investments, positioning Hopelab as both a financial and a strategic partner to entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and innovators.

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