Alena founder: Seek inclusivity and a diverse team will follow – Fi5

Alena founder Image credit: Alena / UKTN

Mandana Ahmadi is the CEO and co-founder of Alena, a company harnessing computational neuroscience to decode the mental patterns that drive social anxiety.

The London-headquartered company, which is aiming to tackle the world’s mental health crisis, has created an app that analyses the mental patterns that cause people social anxiety using games that simulate real-life situations.

It then provides a personalised app-based programme of cognitive behavioural therapy to improve wellbeing. Ahmadi co-founded Alena in 2019 with Walther Doernte. It has raised $3.6m in funding.

Ahmadi has previously worked with the International Brain Laboratory and achieved her PhD in Computational Neuroscience from UCL Gatsby.

In this week’s Founder in Five Q&A, Ahmadi explains why an experienced product leader is important for early-stage startups, how people’s “preconceived notions” cause them to assume she is a housewife and not a CEO, and why inclusivity is the key part of building a diverse team.

1. What one thing do you wish you’d done differently when launching your company?

Mandana Ahmadi: In retrospect, I realise the importance of hiring an experienced product leader before making any significant moves. I was not fully aware at the time of how crucial product expertise is for realising a vision.

Although having passion, alignment, and dedication to a shared goal is essential for a team to thrive, it cannot substitute for practical know-how and hands-on experience.

2. What’s your worst pitching experience?

MA: Alena is a company with a profound scientific mission, which a few years ago some viewed as overly ambitious and unrealistic (not today though!). Despite my efforts to convince certain investors of our vision’s potential, they were unable to see the practicality of our cutting-edge mental health support solutions as a B2C offering, delivered discreetly to people’s homes.

Despite spending hours outlining the potential of our approach, they were resistant to new ideas and unwilling to deviate from the status quo. Witnessing their reluctance to embrace change was a frustrating and disheartening experience, particularly as I believed change is what they are after.

3. What’s the best way to promote diversity in the workplace?

MA: It is important to recognise that our goal should not simply be to achieve diversity, but rather inclusivity. Inclusivity entails acknowledging our own biases and limitations, and recognising that others may possess unique perspectives and insights that can lead to fresh ideas and promote growth.

Inclusivity involves seeking out individuals who differ from ourselves in terms of their views, skillsets, and life experiences, as their contributions can complement our own and make us a more complete team. In doing so, we will naturally cultivate a diverse team.

4. What’s a fact about yourself that people might find surprising?

MA: I’ve noticed that people at my children’s school are often taken aback when they learn that I’m the CEO and founder of a deep science company.

I suspect this is due to their preconceived notions of what a female startup founder ‘should’ look like, and I don’t fit the bill. In fact, many people assume that I’m a housewife, perhaps because I take great pride in managing my home and preparing meals from scratch.

I’m also passionate about gardening and have a discerning eye for the flowers I cultivate. Additionally, I enjoy laughing, which has surprised some individuals who don’t expect a CEO to display a sense of humour.

5. In another life you’d be?

MA: Even if circumstances were different, I would still want to be the person I am today. Growing up in Iran, in a society that heavily regulated every aspect of my life – from my beliefs to my clothing to my career options – never sat well with me. Instead, I turned to the world of science and international literature to find solace.

These two fields opened my mind to new ideas, allowing me to break free from societal constraints and choose my own path in life. Since my teenage years, I’ve lived each day as if it were my last, striving to leave a positive impact on those around me and be remembered as a force for good long after I’m gone.

Founder in Five – a UKTN Q&A series with the entrepreneurs behind the UK’s innovative tech startups, scaleups and unicorns – is published every Friday.