Born in Kuwait, Latifah AlEssa never imagined that her life would look the way that it does now. She expected to follow the more traditional path expected of women from her family: by 30, she would be married with children and unlikely to be working.
Instead, after training as a psychologist, Latifah founded Ayadi, an online therapy platform that connects clients with qualified, vetted therapists from the comfort of their homes. Latifah spends her days honing the quality of her product, sourcing investment capital and figuring out how she's going to change the mental health landscape of the Middle East forever.
‘I was able to speak to someone when I was young and that conversation undid a lot of the cultural norms and stigmas I was familiar with. I felt validated in wanting to change the status quo,’ Latifah says. She was also inspired to launch the platform because, when her grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, she saw how difficult it was to find the right emotional support for her family.
Latifah knew that she could play a part in improving the processes available for people seeking support during difficult times. So she began looking into how she could leverage technology. She says, ‘I started thinking about how we could deliver more care to more users in a shorter period of time, as well as how we can deliver accessibility and provide a therapeutic experience on a larger scale, impacting more lives.’
Latifah credits her background as a therapist when it comes to her business prowess: ‘Being a therapist allows you to listen more than you speak. Being empathetic and able to connect with anyone I speak to has been a gift while entering the startup space.’
The biggest challenge she faced when launching Ayadi was working out how to bring something fresh to both this sector and this region. ‘Our culture in this region has a lot of nuances. There's a language barrier here. We speak Arabic, whereas most therapists on digital platforms speak English and don't have an understanding of the stigma that [the topic of] mental health holds in the Middle East,’ she says.
She also grew frustrated with the lack of uniform pricing and quality control when sourcing therapists. Latifah has solved this problem by ensuring every therapist who is accepted onto the Ayadi platform is bilingual and culturally competent, with an understanding of the region. Qualifications are fully vetted by her team and pricing is regulated.
There are currently 52 vetted therapists on board who have collectively conducted more than 4,000 sessions, bringing therapy to thousands of people. Ayadi pairs this with educational efforts to reduce the taboo around the discussion of mental health.
‘Ayadi’ translates as ‘helping hands’ – and Latifah is making sure that everyone who needs help finds the support they seek.