Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
Meha Agrawal is the San Francisco based, South Asian-American founder and CEO of Silk + Sonder: a self care and self help platform and community designed to help reduce anxiety and stress. Silk + Sonder combines the psychology of journaling – literally bringing pen to paper – with virtual community building through its app to encourage both proactive and reactive emotional wellbeing.
Below, Meha shares her inspiring story – from working as an engineer in tech to engineering a new wave of mental wellness – with us.
Tell me what Silk + Sonder is all about. I’d love to learn about the name as well.
MA: “Silk + Sonder is based on holistic and community driven models. It's part analog and part digital. On the analog side, we have these guided, evidence based journals which get delivered to your doorstep every month. They combine pieces from our narrative and cognitive behavioral therapy, and more performance oriented practices, like habit tracking, mood tracking, meal tracking, etc. The idea is that emotional wellbeing is really a combination of how you're doing in all aspects of your life, not just your mental health. On the digital side, we have a mobile app, which houses our social network for peer to peer support and accountability, various video and audio content to help strengthen that connection to self and others, and quick and fun things like daily affirmations and bingo activities.
In terms of the name, ‘sonder’ is actually a made up word in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It basically means that every passerby around us is living this life full of their own anxieties, stresses, dreams, ambitions, worries, but we think we're alone in it all. So we tend to navigate life's complexities agnostically to others, yet we experience the same emotions. Silk + Sonder is our way to add smoothness and connection to the otherwise isolating and heavy feelings that life presents us with.”
What led you to create Silk + Sonder? When did you become interested in self care, rethinking self-help, productivity, etc.?
MA: “I trace it back to my South Asian upbringing. It’s a hyper-achieving culture, all about building safety nets because your parents have sacrificed everything to be here. Growing up, my career choices were: doctor, lawyer, academic and engineer. So I started my career chasing after those gold stars. I studied Computer Science and Business at USC and became a software engineer and product manager. I ended up in New York working for Goldman Sachs, and then moved to San Francisco to work at Stitch Fix. But I built this facade – life looked amazing on the outside: I was dating a new guy, I was in a new city and the company was on the verge of going public. Yet I was waking up every day under-fulfilled and completely unhappy. Everything I had chosen to do was manifested but I felt like I wasn’t living my own story. Along the way, I discovered practices like journaling, gratitude and positive psychology. I was feeling anxious and overwhelmed but therapy was both expensive and intimidating. There was no place for me to start utilizing the research I’d been doing.
Eventually, I created a little guide for myself where I started this five minute practice that combined gratitude and what I wanted to accomplish on a daily basis, but in a very micro way. I noticed this magical shift to my emotional health. As I began to study it deeper, I realized that bringing pen to paper actually has this mind-body reaction which helps reduce anxiety and stress, improve immunity, increase memory and help heal trauma. I found myself talking about this method with my friends, who all wanted to try it. I wondered how I could integrate a community-driven approach so that it's not lonely, self navigated, boring and intimidating, but instead something where we can learn and share from each other's experiences. I started with a journal and then focused on creating a social network in which everyone would have the space to coexist alongside one another – where our backgrounds, interests, social and political beliefs may be different but we all belong in the club. Eventually, I transferred everything over to the app.”
Within South Asian cultures, there is this negative narrative and stigma around speaking about emotional & mental health and wellbeing. Is that something that resonates with you? If so, did that lead you to want to explore that side of yourself even more?
MA: “That's a great question. Even today, societally, we talk about prioritizing mental health, but we're still undergoing that shift. In terms of my own experience, mental health was stigmatized because it was silenced. When my mom would have an outburst or get angry all of a sudden, I would think she’s crazy. But now, many years later, I look back – of course she was angry, she was literally putting her husband and her kids first for so long, she’s bound to erupt at some point. And then there's this guilt factor that’s very prevalent within South Asian cultures: ‘I can't complain. I'm not allowed to feel unhappy because my life is better than someone else’s. My parents have sacrificed so much, who am I to complain?’
That being said, I see our generation educating even our parents on the importance of proactive, daily mental well being. In my family, everyone was able to articulate our emotions openly, but it always ended in my parents saying: ‘what did we do wrong?’, rather than ‘oh yeah, go see a therapist, just like you would go see a doctor.’ We’re still undergoing the shift to treat mental health in the same way we treat physical health.”
Can you tell me more about the psychology behind bringing pen to paper, and how that leads to relieving you of anxiety or helping with productivity?
MA: “Bringing pen to paper slows down your brain so that the neural receptors can fire off and you can actually process your emotions. When you're typing aggressively, you're not giving yourself the chance to actually process that feeling. Slowing down allows you to feel something physiologically and then fire up from the gut back to the brain to say: this is logically what you should do based on this very emotional reaction you're having.
The cognitive behavioral therapy piece is really about changing your thought patterns. As animals, we are always in that fight or flight mode, so it can be really natural for us to just react, but we need to undo some of that physiologically in order to be able to make sound decisions. I always call journaling active meditation – it’s a different way to meditate but you feel more productive.”
How does guided journaling work exactly?
MA: “Guided journaling is just a concept, so in our journal, we have these introspective prompts that are derived from a new theme every month, but then we combine it with habit and mood tracking, as well as action-oriented pieces. We also have Daily Rituals, led by me, which are guided audio reflections where we talk about a particular topic like impostor syndrome, or the power of posture, and we’ll combine it with guided activities, like art therapy or narrative therapy, which is a stream of consciousness focused on that day's theme. These are very much exercises that a therapist will tell you to do, but we make it a bit more digestible, easy and approachable. Where the app really comes in, is the exchange of ideas and sharing what you wrote about with others.”
What are some lessons you are trying to address or teach others about self care? What do you hope people will take away from Silk + Sonder?
MA: “Warren Buffett always talks about how we're all given one body and one mind, and that's really all we have. It's up to us to nourish it and to invest in it. I always say that investing in yourself is the lowest risk with the highest reward. And investing in yourself isn’t just journaling but also taking action from what you've reflected upon. The biggest lesson I’ve learned, and want to pass on, is that it's about the consistency of the habit – of pausing and thinking about what you need. Part of the way to discover what you need is journaling, trying out new things, giving yourself the space to notice these patterns of how you feel and connecting it back to something that you did.
As humans, we all seek belonging but ultimately, those connections are only as intimate and meaningful as the one that you have with yourself. In order to do the former, you have to first focus on the latter. That’s what I want people to take away: you're going to feel more full and whole when you understand yourself, and it doesn't need to be boring. Society tells us that spending time alone makes you a loner but really, it allows you to become more present.”
What are your dreams for the future of Silk + Sonder?
MA: “I want Silk + Sonder to be the ultimate destination for proactive and reactive emotional well being. I want it to be the one place you go to when you need to connect with yourself and others. Starting with every woman but eventually her partner and children too – as we go into this digitally bombarded world, we're losing sense of our biological wiring, and I believe that Silk + Sonder can really serve that in a multimodal, holistic fashion.”
Looking for a new way to focus on your overall well being? Check out the website to learn more.