In 2016, Ryan Mundy was sitting in a room full of venture capitalists fielding start-up pitches when a thought occurred to him: None of the ideas he'd heard were geared toward solving the biggest issues in his own life.
Mundy, a Super Bowl champion in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was struggling to find a purpose after leaving the NFL in 2015. He suffered from anxiety, stemming from multiple relatives being sequentially diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and cardiovascular disease.
Mental health was on his mind — and he was pretty sure that was true for other young Black Americans, too. "I found it very troubling that I knew how to take care of my shoulder and knee, but when it came to emotional and mental health support, I was having a really rough go at it," Mundy tells CNBC Make It.
The 37-year-old says mental health in America's Black communities can be a struggle: Awareness is often low, and access to care is even lower. In 2019, only 9.8% of Black Americans reported receiving mental health treatment, compared with 19.8% of non-Hispanic white Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Eventually, Mundy decided to do something about it. In October 2020, he launched Chicago-based start-up Alkeme Health, a mental health platform specifically designed to meet the needs of Black communities. Alkeme — pronounced like "Alchemy" — has already amassed roughly 30,000 users, approximately 300 contributing experts and $5 million in funding, he says.
That's a good start, but Mundy says his company's fight is just beginning: "30,000 users" pales in comparison to the country's roughly 11 million Black millennials Alkeme wants to reach.
As a freshman at the University of Michigan, Mundy says he watched other aspiring student-athletes struggle to acclimate, ultimately going home before the academic calendar even started. In 2008, during his rookie season with the Steelers, Mundy says the locker room's standard response to mental health treatment was, "What is that? How do you do that? Get that away from me."
Today, plenty of professional sports teams have in-house sports psychologists, and high-profile athletes like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles have spoken up about the stigmas surrounding mental health. But when Covid hit, Mundy says, the teletherapy industry gravitated largely toward women, senior citizens and members of the LGBTQ community.
Black Americans, he says, were mostly left out.
Mundy saw an opportunity. Since leaving the NFL, he'd built a hefty business network — getting an MBA from the University of Miami, launching and selling a reusable straw company, and becoming the managing director of an asset management company. Those connections helped him fund Alkeme relatively quickly, he says.
The bigger challenge, he notes, was figuring out how to build a platform for a community that wasn't the most aware — or accepting — of mental health care. Leading with "go try therapy" might not always be well-received.
Instead, Alkeme's website and app provide three types of health education content: live expert panels, meditative audio clips and skill-building masterclasses. The masterclasses include lectures on combatting issues often specific to Black Americans, like microaggressions, racism and generational trauma.
"It was something I pontificated on quite a bit, because when we talk about mental health, the automatic answer is to go see a therapist," Mundy says. "I wanted to take a different approach, because stigma is a barrier for everyone."
Mundy wants Alkeme to reach 60,000 users by the end of 2022. The company is on track to hit that goal, an Alkeme spokesperson says. At the company's current subscription rate of roughly $70 per year, that would give it $4.2 million in annual revenue this year, according to a CNBC Make It estimate. (The company declined to confirm that estimate.)
It's a very modest stake in a booming market: The global mental health app industry was valued at $4.2 billion last year, according to a Grand View Research Report published in February. Well-known apps like Headspace — which "reaches over 100 million people," a company spokesperson tells CNBC Make It — and BetterHelp lead the way.
To Mundy, those apps aren't doing much to attract Black Americans, giving him a chance to grow Alkeme into a "universal [mental] health care provider for the Black community." He does, of course, note that anyone could theoretically benefit from the types of resources on Alkeme's platform.
"What's good for Black people is good for all people," he says.
Still, there's no denying the challenge of carving a niche into a well-established market. Mundy says it can be exhausting for the company's seven full-time employees — and it'd be self-defeating if his mental health company didn't follow its own advice.
"I'm always reminding my team ... we need excellent work habits, but we also need excellent rest and recovery habits," Mundy says. "Whether it be listening to an alpha wave riding my Peloton or going for a walk to clear my head, I'm always trying to find a way to decompress so that when I'm actually working, I can give my best effort."
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Alkeme Health has 30,000 users, and aims to double that figure by the end of 2022. It has also been updated to reflect a CNBC Make It estimate of Alkeme Health's 2022 projected revenue at $4.2 million.