Q&A: Susan Reynolds, Cofounder of Mindhood

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

Dartmouth Business Review caught up with Susan to learn about Mindhood, Dartmouth’s hottest startup.

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DBR: Hi I'm Sam Zarkower and welcome to the DBR podcast from Dartmouth Business Review. It's been said that technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master. Indeed, technology is all around us. For the most part technology has made our lives easier and more convenient. However, it's addictive nature has also made it harder for us to concentrate on our goals. That's why companies like Apple and Google are stepping up to the plate and introducing tools to combat phone addiction.  

Susan Reynolds, Dartmouth ‘85 & Cofounder of Mindhood

Today we have a very special guest with us. Her name is Susan Reynolds and she is a graduate of Dartmouth College with a master’s in education from Tufts University. Susan is the founder of Mindhood, a mobile platform that is committed to helping people power down from their devices, learn technology awareness and use mindfulness practices to minimize digital distractions for professional, academic, athletic and personal success.

Today she is here to talk with us about a revolutionary new platform that'll make it a lot easier to focus on the things that matter, so let's get started.

Why Mindhood? What inspired you to start this project?

Well, it's interesting because I would say this really all started back in 1997 when I became the first director of academic technology at The Fenn School, which is an all boy’s school in Concord, Massachusetts.

And when I was asked to write a tech plan I found the Internet and I immediately saw that there was real promise but that there was also some peril. And actually reading Don Tapscott’s book Growing Up Digital, I learned then, way back then, actually, that there was a concern about what could happen with the internet becoming too distracting and too addictive.

So, at that point, I created something called ABC Legacy, which was really about finding the ways that technology could be beneficial to children as opposed to detrimental. So, that was really basically a concept that I talked about but then I left teaching and became a yoga and mindfulness teacher and it wasn't until 2014 when I actually went to a conference called Wisdom 2.0 and that was really where the tech world met the wisdom world.

So the way I describe it is the CEO of Google is on stage with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of mindfulness. But what I noticed was that in this conference they weren't really paying attention to teens and college students. So that's when I really started looking into how teenagers and college students were using technology for good but also watching this addictive nature come up. So, I spoke to schools, I spoke to parents, I spoke to teenagers but what I was really interested in was college students.

And one of the reasons why I was really interested in college students is with teenagers, high school students there is always a parent as the gatekeeper. But with college students there really is no gatekeeper. And there was a lack of technology education in schools about how to focus, and how to be productive, and for example how to stay on your academic technology and off your entertainment technology.

That's really what I was doing for four years and then two very good friends, Nancy Hamilton, who has her MBA from Northeastern University, and Lauree Eckler, who has her MBA from Babson, said we need to do something. So beyond being a solopreneur because I'm really the visionary and the idea person but really needed cofounders to look at it from a business standpoint.

And so we came up with Mindhood, which is building mindful communities on college campuses through mindfulness, digital awareness and face-to-face community.

And the reason for the face-to-face community is the fact that screen time is taking away from some of this empathic connection. And so there’s actually something called phoneliness, which is phone loneliness. So by creating mindful neighborhoods or in the case of fraternities and sororities, mindful brotherhoods, mindful sisterhoods, could we actually prevent some of the escalating mental health issues on college campuses? So, that's really where the whole thing came together. So pulling together those 21 years of experience, finding two business partners and setting up with this pilot.

Shifting gears a little bit, why Dartmouth, why your Alma mater?

That’s interesting isn't it? What I've learned from an entrepreneurial venture is you follow where the opportunities come and what happened was, I was speaking with another alumn, Jeremy Katz he’s a ’95, and he was speaking at Dartmouth’s Acceleration of Work Symposium in Boston and we were talking about Mindhood, and this concept of mindful colleges. And so Jeremy is an alum and he was in the fraternity SAE, and he said, “Why don’t you come to SAE and talk to the students?”

So that happened and then another alum George Faux is an ’84 and I call him the father of Phi Delt, so he's the president of the Board of Trustees and I was talking to George and he said, “You know, I think the brothers in Phi Delt would really be interested in this, they are actually concerned about mental health.”

So it was a very interesting entrée into this because what I really saw which I thought was really exciting about this opportunity was that I believe very strongly in the community of fraternities, I know in the past, Dartmouth has had bad press with fraternities, but so have many other schools and my belief was that there could be a shift in culture and what does mindful college look like and what does a mindful fraternity look like?

And so we continued, Lauree, Nancy and I to reach out to different connections and Lauree and I came up to Tuck, the Alumni Office, and Career and Professional Services had another Acceleration of Work Symposium. There, I met some women who were in sororities, and so it has just evolved that way and then some of the students have brought me to some of their coaches, so now we are looking at Mindhood from the perspective of the women's soccer team and the women's volleyball team. So that's really how it's evolved, in essence. And being an alum and having friends, fellow alums, other women who are alumnae, who now have students here, right? And so then, it's that connection, too.

What makes Mindhood so unique? What sets it apart?

One of the things that we have that's very unique is that we have a texting platform to reach people instead of an app. So, in essence, we come in, Lauree, Nancy and I, and speak to a group of students and really use existing evidence-based research as well as some very provocative video clips on the problems with technology particularly in the instance of digital dementia.

So, what it's doing cognitively to our brains, and the ability to memorize and the multitasking, and also appealing specifically to Dartmouth students in this stage of their career, what corporations are finding and how students are coming in not being aware of how to use their phones, how to put their phones away and also the real detriment of multitasking. And again, as I said, this is not being taught in high schools, but it's really not being taught on college campuses.

We really look at ourselves as a digital wellness company, so Mindhood is really about digital wellness; combining in-person training, with an online dashboard to support this mindhood practice.

I would say what we’re teaching is the neuroscience behind digital distraction, digital addiction and really pushing the fact that companies, technology companies, some apps, are actually creating technology that is sticky, and so it's really not our fault that we’re living in this fast-paced, overstimulating society and the importance of mindfulness is that mindfulness actually reverses the impact on the neural pathways, builds the prefrontal cortex, and calls the nervous system.

So, that education piece, we follow up with the daily texting testing. We’re measuring mood, you send an emoji in and what is your intention for the day, and then a daily challenge. And we want to make it fun, so we introduce Headspace, and that's one of the things we can do is we can support other apps. We can support other motivational speakers, for example Mel Robbins, MelRobbins.com, she is a ’90, it's really fun because she was in Tri Delta, which is now Chi Delta, and so when I present to Chi Delta, not only are we bringing Mindhood, but we’re also supporting other alums and showing what other alums are doing in the world. And Mel is an international motivational speaker, she has a book called The Five Second Rule and she's really funny.

I would say the other thing that makes us unique is that we’re not a meditation program, we’re technology with a wellness initiative around digital wellness that teaches people to be mindful about their relationships with themselves, with other people and with technology. And so offers daily challenges, for example walk across campus without your phone and look around, and things like that.

What’s next for Mindhood? What’s your long-term strategy?

What’s really next is that on September 7th we are presenting at the Tech Festival in Copenhagen, which is really fun, it's a five-day festival, where they expect 20,000 people from all over the world, which is really exciting. All types of meet ups and speakers from AI and machine learning, we are in the digital health and wellness track, and what's really exciting is that we're bringing two Dartmouth students with us, who are practicing Mindhood, are actually doing their FSP in Copenhagen, so they'll be able to come too. So that's really exciting to bring Dartmouth. And we’re really the first digital wellness program, student led, sort of a grassroots movement in the country, so that's next.

And then we are rolling out this fall in a few other colleges and hoping a national college rollout in next spring. Dartmouth has really been our focus group, a pilot, a testing ground, but it's also for me being an alumna, being able to interact with students and other alums, different departments, sports teams. In some ways I come up, I live in Concord, Massachusetts, and I spend three days here, and I just said to Nancy, I was on the phone with her and I said, “You know, I feel like a student here. Because I do my work here.

The Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network has been incredibly helpful. Jamie Coughlin, the director and I, have sat down and looked at different revenue models that then when Lauree and Nancy come up, the three of us will meet and that's really exciting too.

So eventually high schools, middle schools but we do have right now some Dartmouth families on our platform, because what I didn't mention about our platform that makes it very unique is you can see your own journaling of your own intentions and moods, but then you can see your group's mood, so you can go in and for example, Beta can see what’s the brothers in the house’s mood like this week and if you see some sad faces, people are sick, it gives you an opportunity in the house to support each other in a way that's nonintrusive in a sense because the moods are anonymous but you get a sense of the whole group.

And then another really exciting thing that we’re gonna be doing is in the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network in April, they have an annual symposium, and Jamie and I have talked about putting a panel together around digital addiction and digital dependence and what is that entrepreneurial solution? So, with Dartmouth entrepreneurs coming together, different alums in the technology field, so that's really exciting, too.

So, representatives from all different sections of the Dartmouth community have really gotten behind this idea?

They really have, and what's really exciting. I laugh, it's almost like a political campaign, because it's a grassroots campaign. And I'm really hoping that it becomes student driven. We have different initiatives in the fall. Dartmouth really sets an example. It's the first Mindful, digitally-well college. And so not really needing it be connected officially with the college, but very very well supported. It’s been wonderful that way.

Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Well, yes. I think in many ways I have had this vision since 1997. So, for example, my vision was how do we keep technology for the benefit of society and really try to minimize the detrimental aspects of it. It really took 21 years until the world was really ready for something like this, I think in some ways, almost like a premonition of this was coming, but it really I think reach a critical juncture where enough people saw it as an issue. And I think what's really exciting is that we have a solution and a lot of the talk about it has been the problem and so to be able to test out this solution at Dartmouth is really awesome.

So, I would definitely say, don't give up. Don’t give up on a vision. Keep going, I would also say, I think for me being a solopreneur was just too hard. Because there’s so many skills needed and I'm the visionary and I have the idea and I like to talk about it but I really needed my two business partners who are sort of, boots-to-the-ground, get things done, have that experience in entrepreneurial businesses, so it's a really nice triad that I have with Nancy and Lauree. So definitely that. Keep talking with people and it's never too soon to launch. So, nothing’s ever going to be perfect and pivot. And we have pivoted and pivoted, which has made it really fun.

Originally, we thought there was a mentorship piece to this, we didn't really expect the way that we've developed this texting platform, which is a really non-addictive, and quick way to get information across. for example, if we send a YouTube video, our videos don't go to the next one, the way that YouTube does or the way that Netflix does, so it stops and that's it, and a lot of our directives are to get outside it and to talk with your friends and leave your phone at home. And I guess the one thing that I think is really fun, particularly from a Dartmouth perspective is, once you have a mindful use of your technology, and put your phone down, and operate face-to-face, well then we started talking about mindful pong, you know, intentional pong, mindful partying. We have a trademarked phrase “Party mindfully” and that all contributes to this overall wellbeing of mindful college.

I love it. Well, Susan, thank you for your time, it's been a real pleasure to have you here.