Sanoma Jean, founder of Aya Therapy

Photo of Sanoma Jean

Sanoma Jean is the founder of an early stage startup, Aya Therapy, leading a team of 3 people through the first stages of development. It is a US-incorporated company, building an intelligent patient management platform to reduce burnout and cognitive load for mental health care practitioners. It leverages AI and machine learning to automate the process of clinical documentation, and provide patient insights for therapists and psychologists. Aya Therapy raised $100K in an early pre-seed round and is now raising a more formalised round for pre-seed.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
My background is in data. Before I came to the Oxford MBA program, I was working in Silicon Valley and I have six years of experience as a data engineer and data analyst where I’ve always done everything from setting up data architecture and pipelines to data science, engineering and visualisation. The last two companies in which I worked, I helped to build up the analytics practices. But I knew that I wanted to try and curate my career more directly around the domains that I am passionate about. So I came to Oxford to do the MBA to be able to take a step back, and figure out what I wanted to do next. I didn’t know exactly what that looked like yet, which is why I decided to invest in myself by coming to Oxford and getting an MBA education and taking some time to just think and strategize for my future.

Deciding that I was going to build what I’m building now was kind of a factor of finding the intersection of three key areas. One being the areas I am passionate about. I’ve always been a mental health advocate in my communities and struggled with mental health issues myself So I’ve been pretty close to the industry from the patient perspective. And the second area is my skill sets and expertise, which I mentioned, is really leveraging data to make better business decisions. Then the third area is market opportunity and in this post-covid period, mental health has risen to the surface for a lot of people. And the market is reflecting that in the mental health space. The overlap of those three areas really immediately made sense to me as the area I needed to focus on. And it kind of was one of those things where I had to just give it a go and see if it works. It’s a very day by day, week by week process.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Aya Therapy Logo

It’s a very ambiguous thing and it can mean different things to lots of people. I think for me entrepreneurship is really the act of being able to create something from scratch that fundamentally changes the way something in the world works. So, you know, that could be any space, any area, but taking something that you ideated from your own mind and bringing it to life is not easy.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
So I think finding a specific kind of risk that you take when you build something – there is market risk, there is technical risk, product risk – in an early-stage startup. All of those things are present until you prove otherwise. And so, for us, the technical risk was always fairly low because we’re more taking technology that exists and giving it a new application versus, you know, we’re not a deep tech company, we are not inventing new technology so for us the main risk that we were facing was market risk; so making sure that we were building something for a market that actually wanted it and that we were not just building a vitamin, but building a painkiller. And in that, there’s lots of different ways to get market validation, and we’ve gotten a lot of it from hours and hours and hours of customer interviews that we’ve done.

We have probably held upwards of sixty hours of interviews with professional therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists understanding the impact of their work. So we have got their feedback and perspective on how we could solve some of those problems. Having the idea in your head resonate with somebody that it can actually help is a really affirming feeling so after getting a lot of validation from customers we knew that it was something we could build and should build and invest the time and resources into.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
There are a lot of skills that you need and that lends itself to being more people who are generalists. I think somebody that is resilient is probably one of the most important things because being a founder is incredibly hard. The highs are really high, but the lows are also really low. So being able to believe in yourself, when nobody else does, to be able to back yourself, back your idea, back your company, back your people is important and you will be tested through a lot of different ups and downs and a lot of failure. And so really, to me, the top skill is resilience, to be able to bounce back from the people telling you no, or people telling you that it’s not going to work and being able to show them that it will. In addition to resilience, just the ability to be grand in your ideation and to be able to think big and take the risk.

But a lot of people are very comfortable with the status quo and they are seeking security and stability and once they find that they are happy with that, which is totally fine for some people, but I think there’s a group of people who are not satisfied with that status quo and often end up going out to be entrepreneurs or to create things, taking on this risk that most other people wouldn’t. And it ties strongly with resilience, people that are able to just kind of shoot for the moon and take on that risk and be okay with failure. That’s the only way that you’ll ever really see success as well.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I’m a jack-of-all-trades and I love working on a business from every single aspect. So, one day I might be working on something marketing-related and the next day it will be financial modelling and the next day I will be speaking to investors and I love the ability to have complete ownership over this entire entity. I think within that too, it’s just the ability to create, to inspire both the people that I’m building for, my customers, and also my team, the people that I work with everyday and just having the ability to structure the work that I want to do, and what I think are the right priorities.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There’s a lot of people that inspire me and have contributed to the way that I am today and the work that I do today. I think one of my, you know, original inspirations has always been my mother. She faced a lot of challenges and obstacles during my upbringing and she’s been incredibly resilient through it all. And to watch her go through some of the hardships that she did and still come out on the other side of that stronger and more positive, that has always inspired me to do the best I can and love myself in the process.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
We’re at a very early stage, so I think, you know, there’s been a lot of small milestones here and there that have indicated success for me. And it doesn’t have to be a big one for me to get excited about it. Over the summer, we were really really lucky enough to work with three incredible guys at Character VC and immediately upon talking to them they understood the vision that I was working towards and it was clear that they were bought into the mission I was working on as well and it was great to just have somebody believe in what you are working on. Since then, they have been incredible partners. So, I would consider a general partnership with the guys at Character to be probably one of our biggest successes so far.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
There’s a lot that has happened and there is a lot to come. I never expect to be doing this perfectly. It is always a learning process. I think one of the biggest ones is just ensuring that you create the space for yourself to think of the big picture at the same time, because it’s really easy to get wrapped up in all of the little things that need to be done. As a founder, there’s a million things to do at all times, you will never have an empty to do list. So just getting comfortable with having endless small things to do but also being able to take a step back to keep the big picture in mind nobody’s driving the company’s strategy but you.

You have to be able to constantly evaluate your long-term strategy and be comfortable with pivoting at any moment. And so I think for me, it is just making sure that I create that space for both kinds of perspectives and being able to give myself grace as well as I go through this process. Founder burnout is a huge thing because there’s just so much to do at all the times that I think founders can work themselves to death. I am building a mental health tech company, it would be ironic if I drove my own mental health into the ground while building it. So, just making sure that I prioritise my own mental health and the mental health of my team.

How have you funded your ideas?
We have received a bit of angel funding here and there from angels who are in our network and who believe either in me or the company, hopefully both.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I started ideating on what I wanted to work on the summer before I moved to Oxford. So I spent a lot of time working on this project. I mentioned the entrepreneurship project before that was a really big catalyser for being able to build the company’s foundation and plan and decide to move forward with it full time. So, Oxford was a big part of my entrepreneurial journey. One of the best things about being at Oxford at that time was just endless resources you can tap into. The Oxford entrepreneurial ecosystem is massive and has so many notable alumni names as well.

So having that kind of Oxford brand really opens the door to a lot of people and networks that can be incredibly beneficial as you work on the early stages of a company. I guess, one of the hardest things is that there is just so much to do during your time at Oxford. So I think I would have loved to put a hundred percent of my time into building my company at Oxford but I also had to take advantage of everything else that Oxford has to offer. Too much to do, enjoying all the history in Oxford, the rowing, classes, extracurriculars, and enjoying the pubs, you know, the important stuff.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I worked pretty closely with the Entrepreneurship Centre out of the Saïd Business School during my time at Oxford. The folks there are incredible and super helpful to anyone that’s looking to seek out something from the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Oxford. Enterprising Oxford is a good resource as well.

There’s an ecosystem map with the Enterprising Oxford where you can see what resources are available based on your stage and sector. Those are all great resources. In general, I would say for anybody looking to get into entrepreneurship or understand more about it, YC has a great summer school program and they put a lot of their videos on YouTube as well, so you can go and watch their YouTube videos about any topic with entrepreneurship. It’s the experts that are giving these lectures. So you’re really getting the best perspectives possible on the topics.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Definitely, I have. It’s hard to pinpoint some of the challenges that you face and say this is happening because I’m a woman or this is happening because I’m a first-time founder or whatever. But there have definitely been multiple instances where I have felt some pretty direct and honestly subconscious discrimination. I don’t think people are out there like oh this is a woman founder and I’m going to make it a lot harder for her. But I think it’s something that is innate in the way people think and there are all these studies that show female entrepreneurs will typically get asked when speaking to VCs about the risks and negatives with the company and how you are going to mitigate for this downside while on the other hand, male entrepreneurs will typically get asked about the upside, so you know, how much revenue do you expect to make, how big can this really get.

So, studies like these really highlight the need for unbiased funding and fundraising vetting processes. It’s difficult. I think at this point it’s just making sure for me that I choose the right partners and work so it doesn’t usually take me long after meeting somebody to know if I want to work with them or not. Equitable behaviour is a huge green flag.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
In general, build your network out as much as you possibly can and it is the most helpful tool that you’ll ever have. Women have this incredible superpower to create really genuine relationships with people quite easily and I think that’s a huge advantage we should use it for good and being able to create a network of genuinely supportive other women as well is really critical.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
There is good support within the Oxford ecosystem for women entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship within Oxford is still a growing space and it’s becoming a lot bigger. So, as that growth happens, it’s going to be really important to remember that women and people of colour face a lot more disadvantages in space. And so the level of support or structure that they might need is probably going to be inequitable to their peers, so keeping that in mind as space grows. We need women in decision-making seats. We need women writing the checks and making decisions on where funding goes.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?

Any last words of advice?
I think it’s really easy to say just go for it, just take the leap, and I do think it is important to have this go-getter attitude and you’ll never know if you don’t try and there will never be a right time. So I am supportive of the just kind of jump-in mentality, but there’s also a lot of risk that comes with it. So, being tactical about those risks and how you can mitigate them before you jump into this journey is important. Maybe it looks to you like a part-time job, while you’re building at your company, and that is so okay. Women tend to have less capital security in their lives than males and also historically receive much less funding from VCs or angels for a startup, so I feel it’s important to make sure you’re protecting yourself. But generally, just use your network, figure out how to deal with risk on the journey for yourself and then go for it.