Katie Dorn, veteran entrepreneur and former school counselor, has never seen a tougher emotional state for high school kids than these COVID-driven times of separation, hardship and anxiety.
She and her small crew at EmpowerU have spent four years developing with 35 schools and 1,000-plus students a "solution" that packages an online program with counseling support.
"We haven't made money [yet]," said Dorn, who just started paying herself what she made at a school years ago. "But this is my passion project. We've created a solution that is making a difference in building resilience. We walk with the students.
"EmpowerU delivers support at a fraction of the cost of therapy. As a licensed school counselor and therapist, I know how desperate educators are for cost-effective tools. Although most students are unable to control barriers, EmpowerU helps them navigate obstacles and come out stronger."
The results so far are enough to attract $1 million recently in equity funding from Capita3, a Twin Cities venture firm that focuses on women-led firms, which receive less than 2% of all venture capital; Minnesota-based Great North Labs and ECMC, the education-finance firm.
A recent Education Week survey indicated that 66% of high school principals are searching for effective solutions to battle escalating levels of student anxiety, avoidance and depression.
EmpowerU offers 12 weeks of daily skill-building lessons and one-on-one counseling that averages about $350 per student. That compares in cost roughly to about three sessions with a therapist.
"There's a place for therapists," Dorn said. "We just help schools reach more students every day with an online program that works for most."
EmpowerU grossed about $350,000 in revenue last year. Dorn & Co. worked with high schools, from Minnetonka to Minnesota Virtual on the credit-earning, six-unit program. Nearly 90% of students complete it. That's a far higher engagement than similar apps that don't include coaching.
Students set personal, emotional and academic goals. The online counselors help them with the strategies to overcome obstacles and make lasting change.
"Public education is burdened," said Dorn, adding that a third of students face anxiety and depression. "Traditional school counselors are overwhelmed with mental-health demand on top of other duties and caseloads. When students are burdened with mental health [troubles] they often shut down and avoid school. Grades go down and they go up on the radar of counselors. That's expensive. "
She added, "EmpowerU provides short one-on-one meetings, combined with [daily] lessons that are providing positive results. That's how we got attention and raised this venture money."
Dorn, 60, was a commercial banker in the early 1980s and then started with her sister a customer-loyalty company for banks that they sold after eight years. After her sister died of cancer in 2004, Dorn and her husband, the parents of four, adopted her sister's three adopted children as their own.
Dorn earned a master's degree in counseling and two licenses that allowed her to do clinical behavior work on a school-day schedule. She said it made her a better mom and she liked working with students.
"You do college applications and classroom lessons for all students," Dorn said. "You teach social and emotional learning. Maybe twice a year in each class per grade. I also had a cohort of discouraged, anxious kids. They were stuck. I would use Google Docs. And Google chat to check in. We did it for 30 days. It was working. It's always about developing skills and resilience.
"And teaching kids to cope and control thoughts and emotions … that's the most promising indicator of success. Resilience is the greatest indicator of post-high school success, according to McKinsey. There's so much focus on ACT scores and the 'best' colleges. Let's just help students make changes they need … and not withdraw from life."
Dorn is joined by Abby Master, 33, co-founder and chief product officer.
Master, holder of a master's in communication sciences and disorders, has worked with students struggling with anxiety and emotions.
She started the predecessor to EmpowerU with another professional who has since departed. Master said we crave connections and meaningful relationships. And EmpowerU seeks to promote good peer relationships and support networks.
At first blush, this business looks like it could be an economical approach to helping troubled high school kids help themselves to better mental health and success.