Helping Those Who Need to Be Heard
Gonzaga Alum Uses Business Degree and Experience with Mental Health Struggles to Help Others
“I was in a bad place in high school – selling and using drugs. I was making terrible choices and didn’t have the support mechanisms I needed. There was a lot I wasn’t able to work through. I came to a very dark place and attempted to take my own life.”
This is the experience of Andrew Riesen (’15). A young man who could have been a tragic statistic but instead found the power of connecting with a mental health professional and now focuses his energy on ensuring others can experience that power, too.
A week after attempting to take his own life, Riesen saw a psychologist. Therapy changed his life and set him on his journey away from destruction and toward a bright future helping others.
Riesen left Oregon for Spokane, hoping to attend Gonzaga. He started at Spokane Falls Community College and after a year and a half, was admitted to Gonzaga.
“I was always interested in business and decided to study accounting and finance,” he says. After graduating in 2015, Riesen went to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers, though he ultimately discovered that financial accounting and auditing was not the right career path. After two years, Riesen joined a group within PwC called New Ventures, where he helped build an internal software-as-a-service (SaaS) incubator. As a part of that experience, Riesen learned about the “lean startup” process and co-founded Taxverse, a sales tax software startup, helping take the product from idea to revenue.
That’s when he realized that he wanted to build his own company. But about that time, Riesen’s mental health struggles started to pop up again.
“I was traveling five days a week and started to have these tremendous panic attacks,” he recalls. “My wife encouraged me to find a therapist, but it took me three months to find someone who was accepting new patients and who was a good fit.”
Experiencing what he called the pain points in the mental health system, Riesen realized what kind of business he wanted to create: A service that connects patients to mental health providers.
Given the complexities of the mental health care system, Riesen began his preparations by surveying 1,000 people looking for therapists and 150 mental health providers. Along the way he connected with Victoria Li and Faraz Milani at a mental health hackathon in San Francisco. Together, they created an app that would connect mental health providers to patients, similar to Bumble except for therapists.
One of the phrases we consistently heard in our research was ‘I wish I could be heard.’ When you finally go to therapy and feel like you’ve been heard, that’s when the release happens.
Li, a graduate from MIT who had previously worked at mental health technology companies, and Milani, a startup veteran, were a vital part in building the app that they agreed should be named Heard. Within the first week of its launch in September 2019, they served 15 mental health providers and 30 patients.
Gonzaga grad Andrew Riesen (right) with colleagues at Heard.
In October 2019, Riesen left his day job to be self-employed with Heard. More than $500,000 from angel investors funds the three co-founders and operates the business for at least the next two to three years.
When COVID-19 hit the States, the Heard team evaluated their trajectory and decided to refocus their efforts solely on supporting therapists in private practice. Not only did the pandemic create a surge in the need for mental health services, overwhelming a system that is already in short supply of providers, but therapists also had to move their practices to entirely digital formats, often with no support.
“We responded by building an entirely digital platform to support therapists with social support, client referrals and business trainings,” says Riesen. “It seems to have struck a chord with our providers and things have taken off.”
He and his team are in the process of raising a seed investment to meet the demand and build technology that enables independently practicing therapists to start, build and grow a private practice. “Our mission at Heard is to enable the most effective and efficient mental health care for as many people as possible. Equipping therapists with the tools they need is essential,” says Riesen.
Through his own mental health experiences and his business degree at Gonzaga, Riesen finds great purpose in helping others. Being able to do it as a job is icing on the cake.
“The sheer amount of gratitude I have in being able to support myself and our team, who have had equally challenging experiences with mental health, and to leverage the story of our personal experiences to help others, is super rewarding. It is an honor to work on this every day,” says Riesen.
“I lived in darkness for so long, not talking with others about my mental health struggles. Now to share my journey and work every day in service of Heard’s mission — it helps me continue pushing forward.”