Dani Bicknell, program manager for Headstream at SecondMuse, has a long history of working with social impact-focused startups and business accelerators. But her experience at the digital youth wellbeing program, where she works closely with entrepreneurs in its accelerator, stands out to her as something special. “We practice a sort of radical transparency and authentic relationship building I have never seen anywhere else,” she says.
This month, the Headstream Accelerator welcomed its second cohort of innovators working to make digital places more positive and inclusive for teens. To sustainably scale their apps, devices and other products geared toward youth from communities innovators tend to overlook, they will spend five months working with mentors and experts to finetune their products and business plans. But as they focus on fostering wellbeing for teens and young adults, Dani explains that the accelerator’s unique culture will prioritize their own wellbeing too.
“When I worked in business accelerators before, I felt the MO was that entrepreneurs must always be ‘on,’ and even talking about failures with others must be carefully crafted,” she says. “What was so beautiful about the first cohort is that a lot of entrepreneurs were comfortable speaking openly about their anxiety or insecurity.”
COVID hit just as the first accelerator was getting started. The timing caused plenty of anxiety, and prompted the Headstream team to be intentional about addressing founder mental health and wellbeing.
“We took the mission of Headstream and turned it on ourselves,” she says. “If we had a meeting with someone and that person seemed distraught, we would not just push through the discomfort and talk about budget and marketing plans. We spent a lot of time on issues of confidence, insecurity, imposter syndrome.”
It was a natural shift to make, considering Headstream’s larger mission, which is ultimately about improving lives. The SecondMuse program, launched in 2018, is dedicated to improving the lives of every young person in the U.S. It is pursuing this goal by working to understand and shape the burgeoning economy around digital innovation and youth wellbeing.
It’s a massively underdeveloped space, which has required the Headstream team to take a humble and inquisitive approach. David Ball, Director of Headstream at SecondMuse, describes an intensive nine-month effort to build a community and learn about the digital youth wellbeing innovation landscape before even launching the first accelerator earlier this year.
“2018 and 2019 were years of learning for Headstream,” he says. “We spent the better parts of those years exploring with our community exactly where innovation could transform the experiences young people were having as they were growing up online.”
In its ongoing research, the team has found, for example, that most social technology on the market is not designed to serve the unique wants and needs of teenage women — especially those from Black, Indigenous, Latinx and LGBTQIA+ communities. They also discovered gaps in the existing market for technologies that support meaningful relationships or critical skill building in non-traditional settings. The Headstream team has been working to fill this void in technology and information through ongoing research initiatives, including a recently-launched gamified survey that uses the wisdom of the crowd to uncover the keystone factors to impact youth wellbeing and make the internet “a more beautiful place.” It is also doing this through community-building initiatives, programming specifically for teenage innovators, and an accelerator dedicated not only to traditional business outcomes, but to the values necessary to build a just and inclusive economy.
“When we sat down with the 10 entrepreneurs in this newest Accelerator cohort, I wanted them to know that their success is tied to one another, and that the communities of young people we support are dependent on them. One or two of them succeeding by themselves will not catalyze the change that is necessary for us to transform the way we support the wellbeing of young people in this country,” David says.
Innovators selected for the second cohort are already doing important work to improve the lives of teens. They are developing solutions ranging from a smart voice journal that builds self-awareness and emotional resilience, to a platform that helps people in the LGBTQIA+ community find and book queer-competent therapists at affordable rates.
The ongoing pandemic — with all its grief, gloom and logistical puzzles — has brought new urgency to these sorts of wellness-focused innovations. Dani, David and the rest of the Headstream team are filled with optimism as they look ahead to the next cohort and to other work planned for 2021.
“2021 will be the year of scaling our work to shape an economy around digital solutions for youth wellbeing,” David says. “That means orchestrating the learnings from both our research initiatives as well as our innovation and youth programs to accelerate the development of the sector. We will support more innovations, amplify the leadership of young people, influence policy, craft a narrative for the sector, and create blended funding approaches for novel innovations.”
The work will be rooted in the same human-centered approach that has made the Headstream Accelerator stand out so much to Dani. As she puts it: “We never look at people or their ideas as just commodities to shape; we treat them as whole human beings.”