Liz Chen and Cristina Leos
Transforming sex education through technology
Liz Chen and Cristina Leos are co-founders of the Real Talk app, a mobile app that uses real stories by real teens to convey relevant and credible information about the issues that teens go through growing up. Learn how they are improving the health and well-being of youth through this innovative learning tool.
Q & A
Tell us a little bit about yourself and the Real Talk app – what problem are you trying to solve?
Liz: I’m a former high school science teacher and taught biology and chemistry in rural Eastern North Carolina through Teach For America before starting my graduate studies at UNC. While teaching, I saw the teen pregnancy rates spike among my female high school students, while the state teen pregnancy reached an all-time low. I started to ask questions of my students and realized that, even though North Carolina has strong comprehensive sex education standards for 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students and students are mandated to receive this part of health education according to the Healthy Youth Act of 2009, many do not.
A few years later, I started working with Vichi (who I went to college with at Princeton and also did Teach For America with) and Cristina (who I met at UNC in our doctoral training program in the Department of Health Behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health) to bring access to high-quality sex education to teens who typically don’t have access to it.
Now that we’ve formed a tech nonprofit to support our efforts and launched our Real Talk app, which has been available for free in the iTunes App Store for more than one year now, we’ve learned that teens want to read and share their personal stories around many sensitive topics – not just those that are related to sex ed. Some of these topics include bullying and mental health concerns (e.g. anxiety, depression). We want Real Talk to become the app teens turn to share relatable content (i.e. stories) and access trusted online resources to improve their health and well-being.
How are you taking an entrepreneurial approach in your work – and how does that approach amplify the problem-solving capacity of your work?
Liz and Cristina: The mission of our tech nonprofit is to use design thinking to promote the health and well-being of youth of every identity. We center youth’s voices in our decision-making to ensure that our products and services are desirable as well as feasible and viable. We have worked with more than 500 teens across the U.S. to create the version of our app that is available today. We merge design-thinking principles with those of lean startups by constantly running experiments to test assumptions and hypotheses so that we can use data collected to strengthen our Real Talk app and create a delightful experience for our intended teen audience. We also have a direct-to-consumer approach to reach teens so that we don’t need to rely on adults (e.g. parents, teachers) or institutions (e.g. schools, after school programs, nonprofit organizations) to reach our end users.
What resources at UNC helped you on your innovation journey – and why?
Liz and Cristina: Many UNC resources helped us get started while we were early in our design research. Tim Flood at the Kenan-Flagler Business School provided us with valuable pitch coaching prior to our Shark Tank-like pitch event in August 2016 that helped us secure $325,000 in seed funding to found our tech nonprofit and develop our native iOS app. Additional mentors like Julie MacMillan from Research, Innovation, and Global Solutions at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Michelle Bolas and Sheryl Waddell from Innovate Carolina, along with many others across campus provided us with guidance and ample networking opportunities to share our work with the broader University community. Additionally, we met with several mentors through 1789 and Launch Chapel Hill while we made the decision to found a new 501(c)3 organization. They were able to provide us with basic information about business plans, the incorporation process and hiring best practices.
Can you talk about the importance of having a faculty mentor as part of your entrepreneurial journey?
Liz and Cristina: While we did not have a faculty mentor per se, we are deeply grateful for the support we received from school leadership at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, department leadership and other faculty members in the health behavior department. Our design-thinking training from IDEO complements our doctoral training well, and we’ve enjoyed being able to bring our real-world design-thinking experience into the classrooms of Gillings through guest lectures, brown bag lunches, and small group discussions to share with UNC students, faculty, and the broader University community. As we finish our doctoral training here at UNC, we look forward to encouraging more students to explore entrepreneurial passions with other students on campus to solve some of the most pressing issues of our generation.
What’s been your biggest challenge in getting your idea off the ground?
Liz and Cristina: Our biggest challenge in getting our idea off the ground has been identifying the best distribution channels for reaching young teens, while also ensuring we are effectively reaching the teens that need Real Talk the most. We love working with people and organizations who support sex education and are excited to share Real Talk with their teens, and we know that using technology allows us to scale our reach and impact quickly. However, it is also very important to us that Real Talk is available through other channels besides institutional partners. This ensures that any teen who wants access to our content and resources can do so, regardless of whether or not they have access to institutions that support it.
As a recipient of the Innovation Next Award, what was that experience like and how did it help further Real Talk?
Liz and Cristina: The purpose of the Innovation Next accelerator was to equip teams of three with design thinking skills in order to develop a technological solution for teen pregnancy. The accelerator gave us access to top-notch design thinking training from the world-renowned design firm IDEO, as well as ongoing technical support from the national nonprofit Power to Decide (formerly The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy). Moreover, our tech nonprofit received $325,000 in seed funding from Innovation Next to turn our idea into a reality. The seed funding allowed us to build several versions of our app so that it could evolve with what our users wanted. We were also a part of the Fast Forward accelerator for tech nonprofits in the summer of 2017. Over the course of three months, two of us (out of the three co-founders) would fly out to San Francisco for two-day trainings hosted at sites including Zendesk and BlackRock. These trainings would cover a variety of topics (e.g. media, customer service, fundraising, etc.). Our Fast Forward mentors were pivotal in helping us put together our go-to-market strategy and supported us as we launched the beta version of our Real Talk app in September 2017, just in time for Fast Forward’s culminating Demo Days where we pitched our products to potential donors. Today, we are part of Visible Connect, a 9-month accelerator program supporting ventures that use mobile technology to empower and connect people to resources, education and one another.
You were just featured in Teen Vogue! What does it mean to you that your idea is drawing national attention?
Liz and Cristina: We’re excited that our Real Talk app is drawing national attention and hope that we continue to reach more and more teens in the coming weeks and months. With more and more teens reporting experience with depression and anxiety, we want all teens to know that they’re not alone; growing up is hard. Our Real Talk app is a safe, anonymous space to read and share stories about sensitive topics and connect with credible resources.
What advice would you give to other grad students who want to hone their own entrepreneurial skills and put them into action?
Liz: I’d tell other grad students to, first, team up with other grad students who are interested in tackling similar problems and, second, to take action in the real world. The grad student teams should spend a lot of time interacting with members of the target population to better understand how they view the challenge that the grad student team has identified. This will allso them to adjust course if there is a more pressing challenge that is unearthed and should be solved. Then, the grad school students should build new skills together through resources available through UNC (The CUBE, 1789, Launch Chapel Hill, coursework) or online (Acumen, Coursera) to collaborate with their target population to co-design solutions.