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Just over a year ago, Daniella Pierson took a deep breath and clicked on a Zoom link. The 25-year-old still couldn’t quite believe who she was about to interview — much less on something as intimate as mental health. But when the other windows popped up on her screen, she relaxed. There was Mandy Teefey, the producer known for the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, wearing sweats in her bedroom. And then there was Teefey’s daughter, Selena Gomez, cozied up on her couch in a snuggly blanket.
The interview — for The Newsette, a trendy Gen Z newsletter Pierson started five years earlier in college — had been made possible by a series of fortuitous connections. And maybe because it was explicitly planned to discuss mental health, the conversation got deep fast. Teefey opened up about her ADHD and anxiety. Gomez remembered how the press jumped on her when she started speaking out about self-doubt and self-esteem: “I got so angry that my story was twisted.” Pierson was compelled to share that she suffered from OCD, something she’d never admitted publicly — in part because of stigma in the Hispanic community she came from. There was some kind of magic between the three women. Looking back, Gomez says, “It’s one of the moments I felt closest to my mom — us coming together to talk about something we each have experienced in our own manner. It was wonderful. And then to be understood by Daniella was even better.” None of them wanted the conversation to end, so they decided…it wouldn’t.
Early next year, Pierson, Teefey, and Gomez will launch WonderMind, a media company focusing on mental health in a way that has never been done before. In a heated mental health startup market, crowded with wellness apps and therapy platforms, WonderMind is going after a more deeply rooted, society-wide obstacle: stigma. The founders’ goal is nothing short of normalizing mental health and making it cool to talk about. “We wanted to create something outside the box that gets into the dirt of what could really help people,” says Teefey, who is heading up WonderMind’s creative content.
Rather than taking a medical or preachy tone, that content will be filtered through the lens of lifestyle and entertainment. It will roll out with a podcast network and daily articles filled with tips, resources, and interviews, and follow with a line of innovative tools for mental fitness. It will also bring in revenue through corporate partnerships and development of intellectual property — books, essays, and podcast episodes about a wide range of related topics — into potential TV series and films for the Hulus, Netflixes, and Universals of the world.
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“I believe that media plus product equals ecosystem,” says Pierson, who is co-CEO with Teefey. “And we have big brands already expressing interest in advertising and being partners of ours. We’re excited to build a lucrative business. Because the best way to ensure that society pays attention to an issue is to make money from it. That’s how true movements are made.”
Experts agree the idea has real promise. GIMBHI, which analyzes and supports the mental health startup space, predicts VC investments for 2021 will more than double the $2.3 billion in 2020. (WonderMind has raised seed funding from strategic investors.) With telehealth and digital therapeutics getting most of the funding, Shivan Bhavnani, GIMBHI’s founder, thinks a mental-health-focused content company is ahead of the game. “The big problem with apps,” he says, “is that engagement is very low. But what do people do regularly? Consume media. As we further recognize the effect of media and technology on our mental health, I think this will become a very big area.”
If anyone is aware of media and technology’s effects on our mental health — both good and bad — it’s Selena Gomez. With 269 million followers on Instagram, the 29-year-old has the kind of celebrity that often eclipses the human being at the center of it. But Gomez has fought hard not to let that happen, at no small cost.
This year she topped the charts with her first Spanish-language album, Revelación, while executive producing and starring in both HBO Max’s Selena + Chef and Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, alongside Steve Martin and Martin Short. But back in 2016, when Gomez was on tour for her Revival album, she started having panic attacks before going onstage. She had grown up in the public eye, getting her first break as an actress on Barney & Friends at age 7, and then on Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place at 14. But as a teenager, her singing career and all that went with it flung her to new heights in the pop star stratosphere. The fame swept in like a category 4 storm of scrutiny — with fans so hardcore they went by “Selenators,” and critics just as vicious. They picked apart every intimate detail, every inch of her body, relentlessly. On tour, the panic attacks kept coming, so she canceled the rest of her shows and checked into a facility to get treatment for her mental health.
Gomez also shut down her social media accounts. She says Instagram “would just make me feel like, Wow, um, I’m a piece of shit. And I don’t look that good and I don’t feel that good.” Ironically, though, social media was where her fans were amassing. At the time she left Instagram, she was the number one most-followed person on the platform.
“There was a huge release of no longer feeling like I’m in this tiny phone where people are saying the most hateful things,” Gomez says. “Why would I fill up my days with that? I also started to realize this entire world of people was living an unrealistic life. They were perfect and beautiful and happy all the time. But once I closed the app and glanced up, I was like, Wait a minute. I’m going to talk to this cashier about my drink, and I’m going to talk to this person I ran into. It’s about having a human connection with people.”
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When she reappeared in November 2016 to accept a trophy for Best Female Pop/Rock Artist at the American Music Awards, she tearfully told the audience what she’d been through and announced her new take on social media. “I don’t want to see your bodies on Instagram; I want to see what’s in here,” she said, gesturing to her heart. “I’m not trying to get your validation — nor do I need it anymore.”
Going forward, Gomez was determined to reclaim her narrative. She signed back on to Instagram with a mission to show it like it was. The following year, when her lupus (in remission now) required a kidney transplant and her friend Francia Raisa became her donor, Gomez posted selfies from the hospital. Last year, when she revealed her bipolar diagnosis on Miley Cyrus’s live Instagram show, the clip predictably went viral. “It’s gonna be with me for the rest of my life,” she says of the anxiety and depression, “and that’s OK because now I’ve worked with a psychiatrist and a therapist, and I spend time taking care of that part of my health.”
Gomez has made the issue central to her personal brand, including her cosmetics company, Rare Beauty, which she founded in 2019 and last year announced would raise $100 million for mental health services in underserved communities. “Once I understood what was happening in my mind, I gained a sense of purpose,” she says. “Anything I’m a part of — whether it’s with Puma or another deal — has to have an element that’s charitable or in the mental health space.” Meanwhile, she became more strategic about her influence, producing projects like Living Undocumented. (Her father, Ricardo Gomez, was born here to parents who immigrated from Mexico, and she is named for the Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla.) She also began expressing her opinions on social media, whether defending women’s reproductive rights or criticizing Facebook for its role in the Capitol riot and spreading disinformation about COVID-19. “Over the years,” she says, “I feel like I’ve gained this confidence in myself — not like, Oh, I look pretty. It’s confidence that I know what I’m talking about.”
Now that hard-won confidence is what Gomez is bringing to WonderMind, where she’ll be helping with content behind the scenes. “Something I’ve always tried to do in my career is make sure I lend my voice to places where it matters,” she says. “And I have to give my mom credit for that because she taught me everything.”
Image Credit: Cara Robbins
Mandy Teefey was adopted and grew up in a rough part of Grand Prairie, Texas. When she got pregnant in high school, “that’s kinda just what you did,” she says. “There were a lot of gangs, a lot of violence. I lost a lot of friends, was exposed to drugs, and yeah. If I was the same person I was 20 years ago, I’d probably be in jail because that was my path.”
She had her baby at 16 and managed to graduate high school but had to put aside college to raise the child. “I just worked my way up by learning as I go,” she says. In fact, Teefey was starting to find her passion for storytelling — acting in plays and interning for a film festival where, at 24, she started producing promos and commercials.
Then, when Gomez was 7, she spotted an audition announcement for Barney. “We went and stood in line, and the rest is history,” Teefey says. By the time they moved to Hollywood in 2006, Teefey had produced a number of projects and planned to do more. But it wasn’t easy. “You automatically get that ‘momager’ title, with a negative connotation that you’re living vicariously through your child,” she says. “That couldn’t have been farther from the truth, because I didn’t want to be famous. I wanted to tell stories. But [the assumption was] I only got to produce because I’m her mother. It took a long time for people to even take my notes seriously.”
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A turning point came with 13 Reasons Why. One day Teefey was in Barnes & Noble when a book cover with a little girl on a swing caught her eye. It was a novel about a high school student who dies by suicide and leaves a box of cassette tapes for the people she felt played a part. “Selena’s fans would write about bullying and how they wanted to die,” Teefey remembers thinking. She had lost people to suicide, and no one talked about it. As soon as she could, she flew the author, Jay Asher, out to L.A. She took him to dinner at Rock n Roll Sushi on Sunset, where she and Gomez charmed the film rights out of him.
But it took Teefey eight years and a lot of fight to get it made. Originally, she pitched the project with Gomez, then 17, in the lead role. “Everywhere we’d go, they’d say, ‘Really, a Disney kid with suicide? Do kids want to talk about this?’ I was like, ‘Yes, kids want to talk about this.’ ” By the time 13 Reasons Why finally came out in 2017, it was a Netflix series, not a movie, and Gomez was an executive producer, not a star. The series was controversial. Advocacy groups complained it was too graphic and warned it would give kids ideas. (Some studies did find a rise in youth suicides after its airing, though it’s impossible to pin that on the show.) Others said it was sensational. But the show was a hit, and calls and texts to suicide hotlines spiked — a sign that more people were asking for help. In schools and at home, adults were talking to kids about teenage suicide. “We took a stance,” says Teefey. “We did it loudly. And it really did make a change in the conversation of mental health.”
But during the show’s run, Teefey’s own mental health history caught up to her. “For the first time,” she says, “I just hit the ground and was like, I can’t get up.” She checked into a facility and discovered she’d been misdiagnosed as bipolar. Her difficulties were related to unresolved trauma from childhood that triggered her emotions; she also had ADHD, and when her brain was overstimulated, it would freeze. She has since learned skills to cope. “One of my favorite tricks I learned,” she says, “is if you’re very angry at someone and can’t let it go, blow up a balloon, draw their face on it, and pop it — sometimes you have to do it a couple of times. But let me tell you, that works.”
Image Credit: Cara Robbins
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Pierson was learning all about leveraging influence to grow a business. In 2015, as a junior at Boston University, she discovered a clever, benignly deceptive way to build readership for her newsletter, The Newsette. “I’m not proud of this,” she says, “but it’s definitely how I started getting to a few thousand subscribers.” Pierson would find friends from high school on Facebook, then reach out to their new friends in college and say, “Hey, I’m interning for this really cool newsletter company. In order to become an ambassador, you just have to get 10 friends to sign up, and you can put it on your résumé.” She knew no one would respond if she said it was her company — because who cared about a random college student? Her ruse worked. “It was a high,” she recalls of watching the subscriber count climb. “It was like I was robbing banks.” When the first links for affiliate marketing brought in $1,000, she knew she had valuable readers — they were buying what she was writing about.
But her senior year, things started falling apart. Pierson failed a class project after the other students complained she was spending too much time on The Newsette. If she didn’t get her GPA up, she’d be kicked out. Until that point, she’d never told anyone about her OCD. Pierson’s mother had grown up poor in Colombia. “Especially being Hispanic,” Pierson says, mental health wasn’t a thing they talked about. She’d only figured out she had OCD from watching a film in high school. “It’s really a curse,” she says. “I’d be saying goodbye to my mom and a hundred intrusive thoughts would come into my mind: What if she has a car crash? Or jumps off a cliff? Or dies? The only way to quell them was to do a ritual. It made me operate at, like, 50 percent.” Senior year, it overwhelmed her. “One of my rituals would be, I have to look under the bed before I go to sleep and repeat that until it takes away the uncomfortable feeling. But it wasn’t going away. I would get so frustrated that I’d bang my hands on the floor until they bled. One night my boyfriend looked at me and was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ ” He found her a doctor, and she started taking Prozac. “It completely changed my life.”
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After college, Pierson tried to raise money but failed. In retrospect, that was lucky, she says, because she built the newsletter through brand partnerships and learned what made readers click: a compelling subject line with a mix of trends, news, shopping, and a Q&A with a notable woman, ideally one with a large social following. One day in 2018, she got a message on LinkedIn from Sandra Campos, then CEO of DVF, Diane von Furstenberg’s company. She went in for a meeting and impressed Campos so much that she was taken to meet the boss on the spot. “Diane von Furstenberg was sitting on the couch, and she said hello in that voice,” Pierson recalls. “I knew at that moment, If I don’t stand out right now, I’m going to blow the biggest shot of my life. So I looked her in the eyes and said, ‘Your brand is all about female empowerment. What is more female-empowering than letting a 23-year-old woman with her own business do this for you?’ ”
The Weekly Wrap, DVF’s newsletter in partnership with The Newsette, grew out of that meeting. It launched in September 2019, and since then, von Furstenberg has opened many doors for Pierson, including to Amazon, which has partnered with The Newsette on advertising and storytelling campaigns for its platform. With 500,000 subscribers, The Newsette is on track to bring in $40 million in revenue this year.
And as it turned out, Campos had also helped Gomez launch her first apparel and lifestyle line, Dream Out Loud, nearly a decade earlier. A big admirer of Teefey’s work, Campos suggested her for a Q&A in the Weekly Wrap and introduced her to Pierson. They hit it off, and a year later, Teefey pulled her daughter in for the three-way Zoom.
Image Credit: Cara Robbins
At WonderMind, Pierson sees huge opportunities to partner with other brands. “With The Newsette, I wanted to make it about women,” she says. “I wanted companies to feel like investing in women’s equality initiatives was good for business. So we’re trying to do the same thing here. We’re trying to make mental health good business for the partners we work with.”
WonderMind’s founders say many of their products will be informed by treatments that have helped them in their own mental health journeys. “We want to offer the tools I was offered in a facility that cost $1,500 a day,” Teefey says. “Thank God my insurance covered it, but not everybody has access to that.” One tool they’re planning is a journal with exercises that “help you in an entertaining way,” says Pierson. “Not like, ‘Write five things you’re grateful for.’ Doctors and wellness experts will help us create exercises that feel fun and cathartic.”
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Down-to-earth interviews will be an important part of its daily content. “We’ll talk to prominent psychiatrists and therapists who charge a thousand dollars an hour, and share their resources,” says Pierson. “We’ll also interview celebrities and ask them questions most people don’t ask. We want to be that place where people feel comfortable to talk about the things under the hood.”
Teefey will be hosting a podcast with all kinds of guests — not just therapists but politicians, teachers, athletes, experts on the brain, and celebrities. “Bill Burr, for example,” she says. “He’s a comedian, and all his stand-up is about how men push things down. So I want him to come on.” As for choosing IP to develop for movies and TV, Teefey’s guiding ethos will be what feels real. “With content that’s sensitive,” she says, “the key is authenticity. Not everyone is going to like everything you do. You’ve just got to accept it. Because if we don’t face these issues and hear each other out, we’re not gonna make progress.”
Gomez agrees. Looking back on 13 Reasons Why, she still thinks the most important thing was letting the light into the room. “These problems, whether you want to ignore them or make them pretty, are very real,” Gomez says. “And we showed how you can prevent it, how you can maybe talk to somebody you think is lonely. It started a conversation, and it’s a conversation you and I are still having now.”