Alum Ventures: YourDOST – Puneet Manuja, PGP 2014
Mental and emotional wellness is more need of the hour than ever. Being amidst this pandemic we all have experienced ups and downs, emphasizing the importance of – mental wellbeing. Puneet Manuja is Co-founder and CEO at YourDOST, a platform that provides online counseling and emotional wellness. It was an idea that was born out of personal experiences and observations.
Since its inception, YourDOST has become a well-known and trusted name among people. They are breaking stigma and myths around the subject, as everyone is entitled to good health – both mentally and physically.
In a interview with Puneet where he talks about his entrepreneurial journey, experiences and more.
Please tell us something about yourself.
I am the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at YourDOST. I am a graduate of IIM Bangalore’s MBA class of 2014. I come from a consulting background and prior to YourDOST, I worked with McKinsey & Company, where I serviced some of the top pharmaceutical and IT clients of India.
I pursued my MBA after realizing that software development was not my calling. I have worked for 3 years prior to that in the software development field with companies like Zynga and D.E. Shaw & Co.
I’m on a mission of spreading happiness, one smile at a time.
When not researching the mental well-being of employees, I enjoy watching online shows, writing poetry, and spending time with our pet Penny.
I am a Computer Science graduate (Gold Medalist) from NIT Calicut and was felicitated with Forbes 30 Under 30 India.
Can you please tell us about your venture YourDOST? How and when did you get into this space?
The idea behind founding YourDOST came from our personal experiences – mine and my co-founder Richa’s.
When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t get placed for an extended period of time despite being a gold medalist. It shook my confidence to the core.
During her undergraduate studies, Richa lost a friend of hers to suicide.
When Richa and I started our careers together over a decade ago at the same company, we noticed how stressed people were around us. Job pressure, relationship issues, confidence or self-esteem issues, etc affected almost everyone. But we realised that people were very hesitant to talk about all this with a professional for two reasons.
- There was just so much stigma around mental health. People were afraid that if others found out that they were seeking professional support, they would be labelled as ‘mad’ or ‘mental’ and that it would make them appear ‘weak’.
- There’s hardly any awareness about mental health in our country. People are not well aware of what counseling is, let alone when they should seek it.
Driven by our experiences and observations, we started YourDOST. The seeds were sown way back in 2010 when we applied to a social venture competition ISB iDiya. We were probably not able to think of it as a structured venture and hence did not win at that time.
Driven by the need to solve the problem, we started speaking to a lot of people who have taken counseling and experts who provide counseling. We started capturing those experiences anonymously in a blog (origin of yourdost). We would share real stories of people who had gone through their own share of struggles and had overcome them with some professional guidance. We actually had many readers write to us that they had been struggling with the same issues as mentioned in some of the blogposts and that it encouraged them to seek professional help themselves. We were clearly making a difference in terms of fighting stigma and spreading awareness. But here lay the next 2 big gaps that needed to be filled:
- There’s a huge lack of availability of quality mental health professional in our country and over 13.81 crore Indians go without the professional support that they need
- Quality mental health support isn’t accessible for everyone as it can get quite expensive in India. A therapy session can cost Rs 800-2,500 per session and it can take upto 3 months of weekly sessions for therapy to be effective
We had our task cut out. We put our heads together to see how we could tackle these challenges and thus YourDOST launched its emotional wellness platform in Dec. 2014 which provides access to experts (professional psychologists & coaches) and self-help tools (personality tests, learning modules, motivational stories and psychoeducational content). With 900+ experts on the platform, users can reach out to them 24×7, for guidance related to anxiety, relationships, career, academics, sexual wellness, self-improvement and more. The key aspect of this product is that people are kept completely anonymous throughout the platform.
Today, YourDOST has grown to become more than a blog and a professional help platform. In our mission to make a holistic difference in this country and the world, we are now a holistic emotional wellness organisation working with corporates, educational institutions, incubators and government agencies to help them take care of their communities’ emotional wellness. We work with them through awareness modules, self-help tools, 1on1 counseling intervention and organisation level diagnostic and reporting.
What are some programs or services offered by YourDOST? Who is it for?
We partner with corporates and educational institutions to design and execute workplace wellness and student wellness programs respectively. We are now helping over 250 such institutional clients build happier and more resilient communities. Some of them include leading corporates like BlackBuck, Capillary Technologies, CK Birla Group, UpGrad, Dr. Reddy’s Labs, Tata Consumer Products Ltd., and educational institutions like IIM Bangalore, IIT Madras, IIT Delhi, to name a few.
With a focus on enhancing happiness and resilience and also impacting the overall culture of organisations, we provide interventions at 3 levels –
- Individual Level (Self-Care) – Through YourDOST’s website/app, individuals get 24×7 instant to professional guidance from psychologists and coaches, assessments tools to help them understand themselves better, and self-help modules and training to develop skills to take care of themselves, face adversities with greater resilience and also provide support to those around them.
- Team Level (Peer-Support) – We conduct tailor-made training and programs for organizations’ leaders, managers, employees, staff members, students, etc. to help create and execute a peer support framework, and a supportive and caring team culture.
- Organisational Level (Workplace Culture) – We proactively work with organizations’ leadership through scientific analysis and data to help them understand and fill the gaps at an overall workplace level for building an empathetic and high-performing culture.
There are a tonne of other specialised programs we offer for founders, expecting mothers, layoff support etc.
Mental wellness is still an area with a lot of stigma around it. Any myths that you would like to debunk.
There are a lot of myths around this area. Some which I would like to bunk would be –
- Emotional Wellness is for all of us – You don’t need to have a serious issue or a disorder to seek support. Think of it as a gym for your mind to become resilient or an expert who can guide you through a difficult time.
- Seeking help is NOT a sign of weakness – You don’t need to be too harsh on yourself. There are times when we get into tunnel vision, an external perspective always helps. Seek help because you are strong!
One of the main focus areas during this pandemic has been mental and emotional well-being. What are your views on this?
This COVID-19 pandemic caught everyone unawares and ill-prepared. Something so drastic is bound to have a psychological impact on people and so it did.
As per a study we conducted on the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant rise in stress, anxiety, loneliness and frustration. This impairment has affected a majority of Indians severely at an emotional level.
Our coping strategies seem to be inadequate and this has led to impairment being all encompassing, affecting almost all walks of our lives, the 4 major ones being personal, familial, social and occupational.
Emotional wellness was always important but there was a need to educate the stakeholders (leaders and heads at corporates and colleges) as it’s a long-term investment where benefits are reaped over time. With this pandemic, the mindset shift has resulted in emotional wellness services becoming the need of the hour. As a result, more and more people as well as organisations are paying a lot of attention to emotional wellness.
I think that this change was long pending and is here to stay. As per the latest studies, the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may persist for many years post-pandemic.
Is there any special significance to the name -YourDOST?
Given the stigma around this, we did not want ourselves to be bracketed into a clinic or a mental hospital. So, we chose the word DOST. “Dost” in Hindi means friend and that’s exactly what we are, your expert friend who will stand by you in your time of need, a confidante who will hear you, support you and give you expert guidance minus any judgement.
What motivated you to become an entrepreneur? What has been the most rewarding experience on this journey?
To be honest, what we are trying to solve actually motivated me to become an entrepreneur. Mental and emotional wellbeing is a real issue and there is such a large gap in emotional wellness space that needs to be filled. As I mentioned earlier, this is a cause that is close to our hearts, Richa’s and mine. We started out as a blog where we would share anonymous stories of people who had had their fair share of struggles and had overcome them with the help of professional support. It proved to be quite popular, with individuals saying it pushed them to talk to a professional. This really pushed me and Richa to take that plunge and do something to create an impact in society.
The past 6+ years as an entrepreneur have had their fair share of ups and downs but it has come with some spectacular rewards particularly in terms of the difference we’ve been able to make. The very first testimonials we ever got on Facebook were – “You guys are saving lives, one of them was mine!”
Recently, Richa was at Bangalore airport, waiting to catch a flight. With her, she had her YourDOST bag with our logo on it. Someone noticed it and stopped her and said, “You work for YourDOST?” she asked. “I want you to pass on a message to the YourDOST team – you helped me so much 1.5 years back when I was going through a very very rough patch, I owe it to YourDOST.”
What role has IIMB played in your life both personally and professionally?
I get this question asked multiple times. Well, I had worked with some top firms after my bachelor’s and was already getting a pay package that rivals an average package one gets on graduating from IIMB. This is what our panel debated with me throughout my IIMB interview (after CAT). Why MBA?
I was told by the panel that MBA teaches you to calculate risks, and entrepreneurship needs that leap of faith. But my idea was very simple. I already knew that I wanted to become an entrepreneur and take YourDOST to the next level. There were gaps that I felt when we tried to pitch this as a structured venture earlier. IIMB helped me fill the gaps that I had in my skill set that was needed to be a well-rounded entrepreneur.
More importantly, it put me in the network of such amazing batchmates who pushed me to the boundaries to excel. The network and the opportunity that I got here, helped me in grooming myself and covered my basics in the right manner. I still remember and use my learning from subjects like Creative Marketing, MPPO and a lot of practical knowledge I gained by heading Events vertical for FII and organising Vista 2013-14.
Today, even in our company leadership, 4 out of 6 departments are headed by people from IIMB. There is a certain level of trust, grooming that happens here that’s unparalleled.
It has been a year since we got this amazing opportunity to sign up with IIMB to help with student’s wellness. It looks like life has come full circle. I am so happy to be able to do this and I’m so thankful to the administration for giving me this opportunity.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
One thing I always tell people when addressing a group session/ talk is – “It’s Okay to be confused.”
All stories are created in hindsight. Only experiences are built living forward.
Stick to some fundamentals which will help you navigate your life/ career smoothly.
Here are some fundamentals I live by:
- LIVE LIFE 2 YEARS AT A TIME
Whether you have long term plans or not, break your life into 2 years at a time and optimise for that. Too long is too vague and you will never conquer anything.
- DON’T GET USED TO LAVISH LIFESTYLE
Avoid big investments and expenses which assume a certain income for more than 2 years, esp if you want to do some career experiments.
- ENJOY THE JOURNEY
Finding a goal or life’s purpose is overrated. You need to enjoy the journey to it. Do not make the mistake to sit and think of your purpose, try different things and you will stumble upon one.
- NO-REGRETS MODE
If you want to do something, just do it. Do not live with regrets. To do this, remember the first 3 points.
- CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK
Do not be over-critical about every decision or outcome. If things go south, just grab a drink and play with a pet! This helps to pause the negative chatter in your mind and start fresh.
You may visit YourDOST.com to know more..