My article for the Kogod School of Business
Kogod MBA ‘19 alumna MaBinti Yillah is in the process of developing her startup company, Ziefah Health, a mental health platform that connects Muslims with pre-vetted, licensed providers of culturally responsive care.
When someone close to Yillah had a mental health difficulty, they struggled to seek treatment due to stigma and distrust of mental health professionals; Yillah did her own research to find a solution.
“I found that my loved one wasn’t alone. Finding the right mental health professional is a common problem, especially among certain cultures,” explains Yillah. “This led me to create Ziefah Health.”
Twenty-five percent of American Muslims report suffering from mental health challenges, but only 11 percent sought help. Many American Muslims don’t trust therapists because they fear privacy breaches, discrimination, and bias. Culturally, therapy also carries an unwarranted shame in being associated with mental illness instead of being part of a regular health care routine.
Muslims, especially those of the African diaspora, have encountered unique social experiences that someone from the same culture can better understand. Experts find that the most effective care comes from a person patients feel they can trust. Mental health professionals who share a cultural understanding with their patients can provide especially beneficial care. However, Yillah clarifies that there are many layers to someone’s identity, and it’s useful for everyone to see mental health professionals whom they feel they can trust and relate to.
Being Muslim is not just about religious practice—it’s a mindset and way of life. There is a particular family culture that also goes along with being from the African diaspora, independent from being Muslim.”
“Unlike other apps on the market, Ziefah Health recognizes that the one size fits all model doesn’t work—we will ask our clients to share their priorities with us, so we can best serve them,” explains Yillah. “In addition to our app, we plan to host a bi-monthly peer support group to help young Muslims learn and practice wellness tactics to support their life-long mental health journey.”
Yillah worked with General Assembly on the Ziefah Health app. “I’m running two three-month programs to develop, nurture, and convert customers. I’m running a low-tech version of the app to refine the provider matching and vetting process, understand my client’s needs, and ultimately convert these early adapters into customers. It’s a two-sided marketplace model, so I must get the business model right. I’m also shopping for tech partners to integrate with the app. This isn’t a business that’ll be an overnight success—much groundwork is involved!” says Yillah.
Yillah’s Kogod experience equipped her with the confidence and the knowledge required to take on such an important task. She credits Kogod professor Tom Kohn’s entrepreneurship course with teaching her the foundational skills needed to create a business plan and turn it into a reality. “I was familiar with the lean startup method, but I never put it into practice until Tom Kohn’s class. Ash Maurya’s book coined this term and is still a source of inspiration and guidance.”
I received so much advice from classmates and professors like Professor Bill Bellows. He was the one who suggested creating the peer support group with the idea of providing a service but also getting insight into the needs of youth.”
“Dr. Walters-Conte, who works closely with the American University Center for Innovation, also helped me pinpoint the root of the problem I am trying to solve by doing root-cause analysis with me,” says Yillah.
As Yillah continues to work on her startup mental health app, she remembers that the life of an entrepreneur is not always easy, but when her idea comes to fruition and helps create meaningful change in the world, it will be worth the years of hard work.
“The greatest advice I can offer young entrepreneurs and Kogod students is to remain inquisitive—you really don’t know everything. Don’t assume you know what your customers want. Ask your customers many questions and lean on your Kogod network for support and guidance,” says Yillah.