Ep. 116: From Stigma to Strength

with Hafeezah Muhammad
Episode hosted by: Kristi Ebong

June 21, 2023


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Hafeezah Muhammad
CEO, Youme Healthcare

Hafeezah Muhammad was born in St. Thomas US Virgin Islands. She is the founder of Yoüme Healthcare, a telehealth company focused on expanding access to youth mental health services across Middle America. Mental illness and behavioral disorders are approaching crisis levels with an estimated 12 million young Americans missing out on treatment each year because only 24% of clinicians accept insurance. Yoüme is one of the first pediatric telehealth companies to be accredited to all major insurance providers including Medicaid.


One thing that we all understand is love. And the one thing that we all feel equally as pain. And if we have that with the right tools, we can truly make a difference for everyone.



Kristi Ebong: Good morning. So excited to be here today, Hafeezah with you to talk about all kinds of things across life and work. And would love to maybe just start off by telling us who you are and introducing yourself to the herstory community.

Hafeezah Muhammad: Yes. Hello everyone at her story. My name is Hafeezah Muhammad. I’m the founder and CEO of Youme Healthcare. We are a pediatric mental health company that provides care to children. Who are struggling as young as five.

Kristi Ebong: Beautiful. And then tell us a little bit about your story. Hafeezah, I know you came not necessarily out of a healthcare background, right? You came from the telecom industry, and maybe a little bit about where you started and your educational background so that we have some foundation. For what got you to where you are today as an entrepreneur.

Hafeezah Muhammad: Yeah, so I’m originally from St. Thomas Virgin Island. So growing up in an island that’s, I like to say 32 square miles was very inspiring to be able. To grow in a culture that, a place that’s owned by the US but also has a culture was phenomenal. And my dad saw something in me when I was really young. Sometimes as kids you don’t believe your, what your parents tell you. So at 14 he enrolled me in college at the University of the Virgin Islands was just like absolutely a great experience. By the time I felt like, okay, like I’m still young, what do I do? I really wanna do this. But. That led me to being able to go to Columbia in New York and m mit, where I got an mba. And after graduating I loved innovation. I remember when I was young, I saw like the pager and the cell phone, and I just wanted to be able to come combine the pieces into one. I used to wanna like, why do you need two devices? Why can’t it be one? And just just like how being an innovator led me to a early career at Verizon. When I started Verizon, I like to call it a startup in steroids. And with that said, we hadn’t started delivering text messages until after I started. So to be in a part of innovation in the very beginning stages was really critical and helped shape who I am as a person. A person that who believes in. Strong leadership, innovative technologies and keep moving forward. And I like to say that being there for the years, watching the company grow the transformation from flip phones to 10 T nine text messaging to now smartphones, to now we can get messages on our Watches to have VR headset has been incredible. But while I was there, I saw that there was a need for me. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be able to help individuals. I wanted to be able to be more in the forefront of new technology, or how do I inspire the next generation of technologists? So I started a nonprofit called STEM Love. We were based in Maryland and I would work with underprivileged schools in Baltimore. And while doing that work, I saw that there was such a huge need and there was so much trauma within these kids. So no matter how hard I tried to bring those concepts of STEM to them, it would, it was a struggle because at times they were hungry. They were struggling with someone in their family that was passing away and. Just like the world had it. I got hired and I was one of the first nonclinical executive hires for a startup. They had raised a series A funding called Thrive Works. They were in operation in about 10 plus states in operation for 15 years. And a part of me coming in was to help propel the grow, and I’m gonna talk about something very personal and very sensitive. In October of 2020, my son, who was six, came to me and said, Mommy, I feel like I wanna kill myself. My heart broke. I didn’t see it coming, and I had no idea what to do next. I was an executive at this mental health company, however, my son was on Medicaid. The company didn’t accept Medicaid and didn’t see children at the time, and I kept searching for someone to be able to find care for my son. And the data is showing that majority of therapists do not accept Medicaid. And as I looked at the date, I kept seeing that there were thousands of family over the years that has been look, that were looking for care. It was ahead of Pande of the pandemic, and kids were so in the beginning of stages of struggling. And you can tell that based on the volume of calls that you were getting. And I said, I never want another parent to go through what I did. I mirrored my passion for technology and the knowledge I gained in mental health, and that’s how I started Youme Healthcare.

Kristi Ebong: Your story is extraordinary and I’m grateful for you sharing it and being so vulnerable. If none else in that, hopefully it can help more people. Follow suit and have that same vulnerability and also have the courage to seek help and look for help and know that they’re not alone in facing these struggles, whether it’s as a parent or caregiver or as an individual personally experiencing some of these mental health challenges.

Hafeezah Muhammad: Yeah, they’re not alone. And a lot of times, and the reason why I share my story is that there are people who suffer in silence. There are families who are afraid, there are families as well that have no idea what’s happening with their kids. And there’s sometimes the end cause of that, which is the wor, the worst thing that could possibly happen is that a child or a teen, Takes their lives. And this is something where I share my story to ensure that every parent can do, if you’re listening to, you’re a parent, that you can do a check-in to just ask how your child is doing. And I’ve trialed this myself where I randomly go if I’m in a drive through anywhere, I ask the person if they seem like they’re young within the age range that we usually support. Very bluntly, andex. Have you ever taught about killing yourself? And I will tell you nine outta 10 times the answer is yes. There are times where people have broken down and cried and thanked me for asking them to thank me for not making them feel that they’re alone. And this is the culture that I hope to inspire. A culture where people feel that they can be open with their struggles, that there’s not gonna be a stigma about what people go through. And this is what we bring to the table I UI is making sure that it’s a place that everyone is welcome. We like to call ourselves the United Nations of Mental Health to the point that right now we provide therapy where we integrated 250 languages. So we have translators who speak, who work in the field of. Clinical field and the healthcare field that provide translation services during the sessions so that no one is left behind because access to care is needed. And I just wanted to create that environment that everyone know that they’re welcome no matter who you are. And that’s something that we strive with, is that you, are you not your condition. And. This is our why is that you are who you are. This something that you’re going through is temporary. It’s just no. It’s just as if you had a broken leg. There’s nothing different, right? You get the compassion. You’re not afraid to share it. Mental health should be the same way. And if we are able to remove those blocks and those barriers, we can truly make a difference for society, for kids. And most important, if you’re a parent or even a non-parent, everyone knows someone that’s struggling. And sometimes you might be struggling yourself. And we have to wake up every day and we have to show up no matter what our struggles might be. And we just have to remove that stigma and to know that this is a part of life that we can get through, but now we have solutions that’s gonna help make a difference.

Kristi Ebong: It is an extraordinary perspective and I think the bravery, which with which you presented. Will be inspiring to a lot of people. Can you tell us a little bit more about Umi Healthcare? Tell us about what you do, where you started and where you are now.

Hafeezah Muhammad: So when we started two years ago, my goal was to make sure that we accept insurances that individuals like my son, Had so that we can provide equal access to care, and just by making sure the premise was equal access to care. So it doesn’t matter your background, your insurance. And now we accept 15 insurances. In less than two years, we’ve helped more than 500 families get treatment more than 9,000 sessions, but. That’s exciting. Time is such a short period of time, but we knew that just wasn’t enough. If you start taking a look at the data that’s, that are coming out in regards to the mental health crisis, you will see us continuing to escalate. So for the last two years we’ve been installed building digital therapeutics that would allow kids to re receive therapy anytime, anywhere with access to live therapist as needed through the earliest modality. Of mental health, which is biblical therapy. So we create our own content. We have remote monitoring that kids can check in every day and how they’re doing. And we’ve been in steal for two years, and I’m excited that August 1st, you guys are here way early and hopefully this doesn’t get launched until August 1st, that we are gonna be rebranded to Backpack Healthcare. We ensuring that all the tools are in one place so that we can grow and we acquired a company that operates in 27 states so that we can truly be able to start making a difference in an Im making a difference in impact. And even though it took us two and a half years to be able to build those solution that can reach the masses, it was worthwhile because we know that to build something that’s gonna last, to build something that’s gonna make a difference, you have to take the time to do it right. And that’s something that I’m really proud of the team that we’ve been able to get to this point, that we’re ready to showcase something that can change the world essentially for families and for children. And then no child ever have to be in silence because they have their incredible daily remote monitoring that they check in with in tools that they feel comfortable with, so that if we know some, something has happened, we can reach out instead of having to wait until they’re in a crisis state.

Kristi Ebong: Absolutely. It’s the level of scale that you’ve achieved in just two years. Is remarkable, especially considering that you’ve been in stealth. And so my hat’s off to you for that because you’re making it look easy and we know that it’s not easy. I wanna shift gears just a little bit because of all of the early stage healthcare founders that I have met, of which that is a big number. You don’t necessarily have the same background or look like everybody else. And so talk to us a little bit about your journey walking through the world as you, and creating that space and the leadership that you’ve taken. What do you want the world to hear about Hafeezah and what you’re building?

Hafeezah Muhammad: So you’re right, Kristy. Every time I walk into a room, I’m usually the only person that looks like me. I’m definitely always the only person to have on a jobb, and I’m definitely usually the person that doesn’t have a strong healthcare background. And what that does for me, it motivates me to know that I’m breaking on barriers and then I’m open to spaces for others to follow me. And even though I’m the one that has to make the sacrifices, and it’s very hard, I’m not gonna tell you that it’s not hard. It’s literally the hardest thing that I’ve done, I think. Even harder than hearing my son tell me that about his struggles is like the barriers that I have to know that I’m paving the way that I’m human. Sometimes you wanna give up, right? Because you’re like, this is just so hard. But then you think about that if I give up who is gonna continue this work? I have to bet on myself. And being able to have that mindset it makes me every day I think about that. If I was to give up, I’m gonna be giving up in everyone that looks like me. How do I pave the way? How do I continue to build strength? How do I continue to lead my team on the mission? And that’s what keeps me going. Knowing that. In the end of the day that if I’m always the only one in that room, at least I am there. So someone, the next person is never gonna be the, is not, they’re not gonna be the first time they’re being seen because someone has met me. And the ability to deliver strong results also comes from wanted to make a difference, but also wanted to ensure that. People see that people who look like me can build great products, can be innovators, can build strong businesses, can deliver results. And that’s what keeps me going in those times of. Of feeling like a failure or times of wanting to give up because most people don’t talk about failure. People always talk about the successes, and let me tell you, there’s been a lot of failures over the last two and a half years building this company, and there will be a lot more to come, but failure energizes me and it should energize everyone because every time you fail, you’re always one step closer to success. I take a look at Thomas Edison. We looked at the 10,000 light bulbs. Everyone hears that story, but because of him, we are having this conversation. The lights are on, right? We can have the illumination of the cameras of our screens because someone never gave up. So if I have to be the Thomas Edison of the. Underserved population or the unconventional founders, then I’m gonna do it because if he never gave up, I have 10,000 chances to keep going to ensure that I can be successful. And if I’ve only had FI five or 10, or 20 or a hundred FLA failures, I still have 9,900 more to go. And that’s how I look at life.

Kristi Ebong: Absolutely. I want to pull on the thread around. Providers in care a little bit, especially as it portray, pertains to intersectionality. And that’s something that you and I have talked about in the past and that we share, with me as the mom of three black boy and girls two girls and a boy. And. Trying to navigate the unique experiences that different people in our country and our society experience and talk to me what you’re seeing in the mental health space in terms of providers and the access of, and the supply of providers that are able to meet the needs of patients at different intersections and with different identities and different cultural nuance and challenges.

Hafeezah Muhammad: Yeah. So I will tell you that at UI, more than 65% of our therapists identify as bi pc, and it also mirrors our population where it’s more than 60% of our patient population identifies as bi pc. But at the same time, we have pa therapists who are serving these kids that might not identify. And as we started to identify the cause of the shortage of therapists, we was able to find. A data that shows that every time someone graduates to become a therapist, they have to go through three hours of post-graduate residency and get supervision. A doctor does the same exact thing, but the difference between a two is that a doctor is paid for their residency and the ones who wanna become therapists have to pay for their supervision. So what that causes is a gap. When you think about a therapist who comes from a low economic. Household that has to determine about whether or not I’m gonna continue to be a therapist to provide that support, or I’m gonna have to pay for supervision or my student loans. They’re gonna choose their student loans because they wanna maintain that credit. And identifying the root cause of the shortage has helped us to be able to bring more of those therapists within the market where we do provide our supervision and we do pay them double of what they would’ve made if they work somewhere else. And the second piece of that is that we do know the market does not mirror the mirror, the diversity of the population. So we provide a lot of training and cultural competence it or cultural humility. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter your background, but if we have the same foundations on how we can connect to people, because it’s if someone is diagnosed with a cold or the flu. A doctor can tell them no matter their background because that’s the root cause as a treatment. Mental health is also something that should be diagnosed and to be able to have cultural humility allows you con to connect. I tell this joke about like me, I’m from the Caribbean. My dad is Muslim. My mom is Christian. I live in Maryland. If I was to find someone that matches the mark of what I want, someone from the Caribbean from a multi religious household to be able to deliver care. I’m gonna tell you it’s not gonna happen because there were only five of us in the school. They’re all my siblings and guess what? None of them are therapists. So knowing like my personal experience has really helped me to get to the point of, yeah, we have to focus on cultural humility and to know that we can make a difference. And an example of that is that one of our first therapists that joined right now, she’s our Chief clinical officer. She’s phenomenal. We have an incredible case study where she has, she’s she identifies as Caucasian and she’s been helping this family that identifies as black, who was struggling, who ha every therapist has turned them down, or because of the struggles they were getting ready to enter the juvenile justice system. And the work that she’s been able to do to help support them. Someone who grew up in a more privileged environment to support these kids who were raised in, in Baltimore, since we’re based in Maryland, to the point right now, they’re A and B students. And she doesn’t have the similar background of them, but she has a culture humility where she’s been able, because of the training, the development that we’ve been able to build, that she actually saved these kids’ lives, to give them an opportunity for a better life to take them out of the system. And that’s a great case study of what it means to deliver culture, humility, and to focus on that is that, One thing that we all agree on is that we are human beings and one thing that we all understand is love. And the one thing that we all feel equally is pain. And if we have that with the right tools, we can truly make a difference for everyone.

Kristi Ebong: Every time I talk to you, I walk away with such a reverence for your work and you as a human and what you’re building. And this is absolutely up there with the same experience that I have every time we interact. I I wanna look at the broader ecosystem right now. If you were to have one wish in our industry, in the mental, behavioral health space, and you could snap your fingers and tomorrow would be done, what would that thing be?

Hafeezah Muhammad: My wish. Will be, oh, there’s a lot of wishes. Can it be the genie that gets like seven? So I’m gonna, yeah, I’ll, I wish I could get more. My wish is that there are a lot of emerging companies. There’s a lot of emerging technologies, but my wish is that how do we combine so that we can become partners? How do we partner with Congress so that we’re able to push down policies that’s actually gonna impact and make a difference? There’s a lot of red tape within the mental health and the and the healthcare space, and how do we utilize our dollars that we invest in and companies as actually gonna serve the broader good and the broader populations, because in the end of the day, True capitalism is capitalism where you do good and you’re rewarded. For doing not good. And how do we bridge the gaps? So my wish we’ll be able for more people to come together collectively, all the great innovations from multiple companies, we all start joining them so that we can create like a big bang, like the Facebooks right, the Googles. And those can’t happen without collective combinations. And in the end we can make a difference and we can really, truly. Improve the condition of the society because if we don’t get a handle on mental health, it’s gonna impact the economy because we’re not gonna have a workforce that’s stable for the future. The kids who are being impacted now is our future workforce, and we do know from economics is that if you don’t have a strong workforce, you don’t have a competitive advantage. And mental health is that key to competitive advantage. So getting everyone to work together to build something powerful. That can truly make a difference.

Kristi Ebong: Absolutely. Absolutely. How are, what are some of the current pressures that you’re feeling, and especially as an entrepreneur and with the markets having shifted the way they are, obviously markets go in cycles. And we’re in a, in a down cycle right now. I. What are you feeling right now and what are the impacts on you and how you view the progression of the business?

Hafeezah Muhammad: So the markets are very challenging in aspects of fundraising. The access to capital is definitely not the same. It usually is even harder for someone like myself who’s like in a less than 1% who get it. So some of the shifts that. We’ve started to make actually from the beginning stages and said that we know what the numbers say, that the percentage of being able to have access to capital is not there. So how do we run a business as if we’re never gonna get capital, that we do need it, but then how do we keep running the business? So what we’re focusing on right now is to make sure that we improve in efficiencies, effectiveness. How do we. Five x or 10 x the business with the current team, but also maintaining their wellbeing and their motivation. And that’s where my focus has been shifted to is that this is some, this is a company that needs to be around. It’s not a have it’s not a want, it’s a need. And that having that responsibility is very hard because I know that if I don’t make the right decisions, If I don’t make the right strategy, if I don’t bring on the right people, that if I fail, I’m failing humanity. And that is very hard every day. But knowing that if we’re able to weather this storm, we’re gonna be stronger, we’re gonna be more agile, we are gonna be more efficient, more effective, and it’s gonna make us more attractive. In the end, and that’s what I’m betting on, is the things that we’ve been doing that’s accelerating them so that we’re able to get to a point where the market turns, but then we’re gonna be ready when the market is ready for us.

Kristi Ebong: Absolutely. I wanna know more about who created this Hafeezah machine that is this equal parts of like business maven and sage emotional maturity and professionalism. Talk to us a little bit more about what was invested into you and how you view. The leadership that you’ve been given in a broader context so others can follow suit.

Hafeezah Muhammad: So I will start with. One. My, my parents, right? Because I’m a mom. Some people are parents on this. Some people never wanna have kids. No problem on there. My dad growing up, he was raised in a, in the Caribbean, and he went into the military. He went into the military Special forces. And being a part of the Special Forces, it was a mindset, those mindset skills that he instilled in us about how do don’t worry. The art of war he gave us, he gave me that book when I was nine years old. I don’t know what the hell was in there. It made no sense to me. I don’t know if we can edit this out or if we’re gonna keep it. And, but he gave it to me, right? And he was like, don’t delay. He used to tell me things, act right. But when my dad left Chicago, when he was born, he went to the military. He was in Chicago. He went back, he joined the police force. And this is very personal. I you’re never gonna see this anywhere else because I usually never share this. He was a pilot and he was arrested for drug trafficking as a police officer. Because while he came to the police force, there was things that my dad didn’t agree in, agree with, and he eventually was acquitted and he left the force and he went into becoming an entrepreneur. And then my mom became an entrepreneur. And I remember the struggles that we faced growing up with that stigma of that arrest. And someone told my dad one day that, oh yeah, you’re a nut, but a drug trafficker. No one would ever make you a cop again. And he was like, you know what? I’m gonna prove you wrong. So my dad applied. He went back to the force. He became a police officer, and right to the day of his graduation, they said that you can’t move forward because of your arrest. After he went through everything. And my dad went through a lot of challenges because of that financial challenges where the com, the businesses that we built, the struggles we were facing. Was very imminent, very difficult, and my dad never gave up, and in the end he got his job, but he became the trainer of the Virgin Islands Police Department until he retired. So to see someone like my father who never gives up, who never backs down, gives me that inspiration to have an example that this is, I could have been. A statistic, but I saw that and it’s good for us to be good examples. And then thinking about my mom. Who like started this incredible cleaning business and now it grew to something so incredible. And for her, just being confident in herself, she has this very thick accent and she has these very wealthy clients and she is so straightforward and so direct with them. So fearless. That like she walks into the room and she’s I belong here. I don’t care how much money you have or you don’t have, this is how we’re gonna move the business forward and this is what I need you to do so that you can have a good product and a good place for people to stay. And being able to see those struggles that my parents have gone through, being able to mirror that with the competence of my mom and being able to work in organizations like Verizon, who spent a lot of money in my development and leadership. It is who made me the way I am today. Every failure that I’ve gotten, like it’s hard, made me who I am today, and it never made sense. It never, ever, none of this ever made sense until these last two years.

Kristi Ebong: As a female entrepreneur and a woman in this space, a female professional, what would you tell to two audiences? One other women, both up and comers, and those who are established, and then also the non-female contingent. That meaning the seeking to be, how to be allies, how to be supportive. What would your wisdom or advice be to each of those groups?

Hafeezah Muhammad: So my advice to women. Is to support other women be the biggest cheerleader and the biggest cheerleader to women. You hire them, you promote them, you mentor them, but also as a woman, don’t be fearless. You break down barriers if you have the opportunity. Before, I never used to talk about my kids and no, it’s who. It’s a part of who I am. Who gives a shit what any anyone thinks about us? Do you know what we have to go through every day? To be able to walk into a boardroom, to be the only person, the only woman, and have to fight And just continue to be confident and be fearless. Be rootless in the pursuit of greatness, and don’t let anyone stop you from becoming the best you can be. And for men are incredible allies. I would say some of my best leaders have been men who believed in me, who supported me, who actually have hired me. And if you continue to see things within women that you wanna develop, when you’re at that table and you’re the only, there’s no woman at that table. You have to be the voice to bring the woman to the table, to be the voice, to find a woman that you can mentor. Men have a lot of mentors, but if you can find like women that you can mentor, And be able to be good at it is gonna be phenomenal. I do know there’s a lot of struggles about what does mentorship look the issues that can come with it. The scary the scariness of society. What they have about sometimes a men woman interaction is that to be fearless with that. Because if you lead with integrity and do the right thing and you’re the voice of reason. And if you know you are on that step, you are at that table and there’s no woman there either, you put an empty sheet, a seat and ask, what would that woman say? Or you be or you fill that seat with a woman and you be that voice to be able to fill that seat.

Kristi Ebong: Hafeezah, I wanna thank you so much for joining us, for sharing your story, your testimony, the extraordinary insights into what you’re building and the impact that you’re having. And thank you so much. I wanna encourage you to continue to share that story and for everyone listening Evangelize a visa story. Share what you’ve learned with others, and thank you so much for being here.

Hafeezah Muhammad: And thank you so much for having me, Kristy, and the team. It’s been an incredible opportunity to be able to share my story, and I hope, hopefully I can inspire you, but also please connect. We can stay in touch and we can keep this movement going. And how do we be stronger together as women?

Kristi Ebong: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

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