The Fund Spotlight Interview: Eric Coly of Ayana Therapy
The Fund Founder Spotlight Interview
Welcome to The Founder Spotlight where we highlight the incredible people behind the companies we’ve backed at The Fund. This week the spotlight is on Eric Coly, founder and CEO of Ayana Therapy, a telehealth platform that tackles mental illness by matching BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and intersectional communities with culturally competent therapists.
In the United States over 20% of people are living with mental illness, yet for BIPOC (Black, Indegineous, People of Color), LGBTQIA+, and intersectional communities, it can be difficult to find culturally competent therapists. Eric Coly, founder and CEO of Ayana Therapy is determined to change this by matching people from these historically underrepresented communities with compatible, licensed counselors. The matchmaking is based on a culturally sensitive questionnaire that takes into account race, gender identity, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and ability. It’s a telehealth platform that offers flexible and convenient virtual communication. They were named to the World’s Top Ten Most Innovative Wellness Companies of 2020 by Fast Company.
Eric has a background in finance and worked for many years as an investment banker. Originally from Senegal, he was also founder and CEO of Le Dessein, a fashion line invested in educating young girls in West Africa. Eric has suffered from anxiety and depression and creating Ayana has been a way for him to heal his former self. He is eager to help others overcome their own struggles and strives to destigmatize mental illness in the process. At Ayana Therapy, they believe finding the ideal therapist is a right, not a privilege.
Where does Ayana Therapy come from, both the idea and the name?
The premise behind Ayana surrounds the need to help a friend of mine. She’s a black woman who couldn’t find a counselor and was vehement about finding a black female therapist. I figured I would try to help by proposing an app that would match people with a counselor based on an algorithm informed by a culturally nuanced questionnaire. In tandem with that, I also had a rather difficult life because of my own issues with depression and anxiety that propelled a strong passion and interest for the project.
Ayana means “mirror” in Bengali, which represents reflection of your values and experiences. The thinking here is that if therapy means compassion, then compassion for marginalized communities must mean being seen, being understood, and being felt. We want to heal with humility through a non-judgmental, honest, culturally competent approach, where we don’t assume or presume who you are. We recenter our values based on the individual.
Why is Ayana Therapy going to win?
I’ve learned that - in the U.S .- services offered by a community tend to focus on the same community within race lines. At Ayana our formula is intersectional; we focus on everyone, which has made us stand out. Also, the demographics in the U.S. will change in the next 20 years and we are ahead of the game in that sense, so this is why I think we’re going to win.
What is Ayana Therapy’s “Northstar”?
We want to reach a billion people. Success to me means more than getting contracts from large attractive corporations. I want it to be inclusive and also for Ayana to be offered to formerly incarcerated individuals.
If you weren’t building Ayana Therapy, what would you be doing?
I’d say something in education, a professor; I like teaching. I'm an empath and I like seeing the light in people.