The Power of Telling Your Secret, with Aneela Idnani Kumar, HabitAware

HabitAware makes Keen, a smart bracelet to help manage Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs).

Aneela Idnani Kumar, HabitAware

Aneela Idnani Kumar, HabitAware at Social Entrepreneur Live, October 10

For 20 years, Aneela Idnani Kumar had a secret. She spent her life in shame and embarrassment. One day, unexpectedly, her secret came to light. This moment transformed her life, and in the process, helped thousands of others.

Aneela grew up in a somewhat atypical Indian American household. “My parents came to this country in the 1970s with $500 and one suitcase. They made their way to upper middle class. My mom broke away from tradition as a dentist with her professional practice. In contrast, my father worked primarily from a home office and was in charge of house cleaning. He also made a pretty mean chicken and rice. Both of my parents provided solid examples of making it together as self-made entrepreneurs.”

As a child, Aneela was often described as soft-spoken or shy. “Now I recognize I had anxiety,” she explains. “We just didn’t have the words for it back in the 80s.”

Aneela loved math, science, and art. She had a few close friends. However, she says “I never really felt like I fit in. I spent my alone time with the TV as my babysitter. I preferred the sidelines to the limelight.”

As an early teen, Aneela had a secret. She suffered from a debilitating mental health disorder that resulted in compulsive hair pulling. The condition is called trichotillomania, a mental health condition that fits into the general category of Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs).

Aneela Idnani Kumar, HabitAware, caused host Tony Loyd to laugh out loud.

Aneela Idnani Kumar, HabitAware, caused host Tony Loyd to laugh out loud.

BFRBs are a debilitating mental health disorder. Behaviors may also include skin picking (dermatillomania), and compulsive nail biting (onychophagia). These behaviors may result in baldness, skin lesions, and missing fingernails.

Shame, guilt, and fear of judgment prevent people from discussing BFRBs. Therefore, BFRBs share the odd combination of being common yet very misunderstood. This was Aneela’s experience for 20 years.

“I hid for a very long time,” Aneela says. “Some people think it’s a choice. It’s not. It’s automatic. It’s very trance-like.” In her third year of marriage, Aneela’s husband Sameer noticed that her eyebrows were missing. So, he asked her what had happened. “After what felt like hours of being like a deer in the headlights, I said, I have trichotillomania, which is the medical name for the hair-pulling disorder.” Sameer encouraged Aneela to see therapy, which she did. “It was super helpful,” she says.

“One day I was sitting on the couch watching TV and started pulling in my moments of boredom. He grabbed my hand to gently take it away. I just wanted to punch him,” she laughs. She turned to her husband and said, “I wish I had something that notified me, that wasn’t you.” As she said this to Sameer, “I put my fingers around my wrist. That was the ah-ha moment for this idea.”

Soon afterward, Aneela and Sameer connected with Kirk Klobe. “He tweeted about something,” Aneela says. “I looked at his profile, and it said Hopkins, MN.” Sameer and Aneela invited Kirk to join them at a hackathon put on by IoTFuse. It was there that they met John Pritchard. Together, the team developed a prototype. This prototype eventually led to the formation of their company, HabitAware, and their first product, Keen.

Keen allows users to retrain their brain by vibrating when it detects a specifically trained behavior. The vibration interrupts the behavior, brings the user into awareness, and allows them to make healthier choices.

At first, the team used 3D Printers and hand-soldered circuits to build prototypes. They found testers among their families and friends. The prototypes worked. “It gave us enough confidence, we decided to make a beta version,” Aneela says.

As they were gaining confidence, they attended an event at the University of Minnesota. The speaker was the Managing Director of HAX, the world’s first and largest hardware accelerator, based in Shenzhen, China. The Managing Director encouraged the team to apply for HAX. They did and were accepted. “That’s when we said, it’s time to quit jobs, and it’s time to move to China.” They were in China for four months.

Aneela Idnani, HabitAware

MN Cup prize winner, Aneela Idnani Kumar, HabitAware

“HAX provided us with mechanical engineering support, graphic design support, industrial design support…they were really an extension of the team.”

In another moment of serendipity, Aneela spoke at the Graveti Summit where the keynote speaker happened to be Arlan Hamilton, the Founder and Managing Partner at BackStage Capital, a VC fund investing in underestimated founders. After meeting Aneela, Arlan decided to invest in HabitAware.

More recently, HabitAware won a total of $100,000 in prizes at the MN Cup. They won $20,000 as the minority entrepreneur with an innovative business concept. This award was sponsored by the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA) and JP Morgan Chase. HabitAware also won $30,000 in the High-Tech division; and the $50,000 overall grand prize.

To sell their first products, HabitAware ran a pre-order campaign. They advertised through Facebook. “When people find out they’re not alone, they go searching for people like them,” Aneela explains. “They go to Doctor Google and Facebook, and they find one another.”

Today, people order the Keen device on the HabitAware website. They also have international distributors. HabitAware has been featured on TechCrunch, The Washington Post, Prevention Magazine and more.

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Aneela Idnani Kumar:

“My parents moved to New York in 1975 with $500 and one suitcase.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “I used to play office instead of house.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “Now I recognize I had anxiety. We just didn't have the words for it back in the 80s.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “I hid for a very long time. Some people think it’s a choice. It’s not. It’s automatic. It’s very trance-like.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “After what felt like hours of being like a deer in the headlights, I said, I have trichotillomania, which is the medical name for the hair-pulling disorder.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “I learned by doing.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “We started nights and weekends. We invested in ourselves.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “How can we leverage our brand voice to make a change?” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “If you have an opportunity to work at an advertising agency, it is entrepreneurship.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “Mentorship is something that I don’t actually believe in. It’s about building relationships with people you trust.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “Fundraising is about the dollars, but it’s also about the emotion. We have friends and family who believe in what we’re doing.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “In Minneapolis and Minnesota, a lot of people have had a hand in it.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “Be open to learning. Be open to failing. Be open to finding the lesson in the mistake.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “Every closed chapter opens the next page.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “Sometimes you have to choose, which is the greater problem?” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “I was running myself into the ground.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet “Look around and see what problems are in the world and try to solve it.” @ak310i @HabitAware Click To Tweet

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

 

About the Author
Tony Loyd is a TEDx speaker, podcast host and the author of Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs. He is a former Fortune 500 executive with extensive experience in strategic planning, talent management, and leadership development. Tony is the host of the podcast Social Entrepreneur where you can hear the stories of changemakers who are making an impact on the world.

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