UAE-Based Takalam Aims To Promote Mental Wellness In The Arab World By Offering Accessible Online Counseling
Takalam, which means speak in Arabic, connects individuals and entities directly with professional counselors through a private and personalized digital experience using video, audio, and instant messaging, with the option of anonymity.
Founded by Khawla Hammad and Inas Abu Shashieh in 2020, Takalam is a UAE-based online counselling platform for mental well-being. Takalam, which means "speak" in Arabic, connects individuals and entities directly with professional counselors through a private and personalized digital experience using video, audio, and instant messaging, with the option of anonymity, with sessions available in both Arabic and English.
“Our mission is to promote a state of well-being, and the pursuit of having a healthy mind by making online counseling available to anyone, anytime, and anywhere,” says Hammad, co-founder and CEO. The team also aims to break the cultural stigma around mental health through content creation and awareness campaigns and to generate social impact for the benefit of society. “A general lack of such services coupled with a high demand and need in the market is what drove us to try and fill that gap," Hammad says.
Prior to starting their venture, Hammad has held several positions in various Abu Dhabi-based government entities including Emirates Foundation and twofour54, running business development, strategic partnerships, and media and communications, while Shashieh has an established record of holding senior executive positions at both private and government entities in the UAE. According to Hammad, a main driver for the duo to make the jump to entrepreneurship was due to their personal experiences.
“We were dealing with depression and anxiety and had no convenient way to access professional support, mainly due to logistical limitations and reluctance due to cultural judgment,” Hammad recalls. “We had actually known one another for more than 12 years, and we have always been eager to create a positive impact in people’s lives. We are proud of Takalam and its ongoing impact in our communities, and look forward to expanding in service and geography, while we look to scale the business in the coming months.”
While launching a business upon the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic could have been difficult, the duo found it beneficial for their venture. “When we started discussing the idea in early 2020 prior to the pandemic, it was more challenging, due to the topic being such a taboo,” notes Hammad. “Things got a lot easier with the start of the pandemic as the need began to rise, mental health was discussed more openly, with lots of awareness initiatives and helplines being created around the world.” As downloads for mental wellness platforms began to rise during the global pandemic, the increase in adoption and renewed regulations also supported the deployment of the startup.
Hammad also points out how notable organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Economic Forum (WEF) noted that the world’s population is at risk for a mental health crisis. “Six months after being diagnosed with COVID-19, one in three patients had experienced a mental health illness, mostly anxiety or depression,” says Hammad. “The confluence of events post the pandemic we are living through, and what transpired since, is another key reason we were able to accelerate our buildout and offering, with support from key government and private sector stakeholders, and more importantly, a new personal willingness from individuals to embrace this service,” she says. “Speaking to a professional is now being viewed more like a way to exercise the mind, similarly to how one exercises their body, and the two are very intertwined as anyone who regularly exercises can tell you there is a significant mental benefit that is induced.”
So, what makes Takalam different than other wellness platforms? To this, Hammad proudly states, “It’s our cultural understanding of the nuances involved in attacking this problem. Perception and stigma play a big role in people’s willingness to seek help, and changing that dynamic is not only a matter of having a great technology or product, but rather a holistic approach centered around awareness and stakeholder engagement.” Understanding the stigma and playing a role of encouragement is crucial, says Hammad. “Being part of this community, understanding the culture, and having the ability to connect with the right stakeholders is critical.”
In terms of its tech, the platform caters to three different groups with a unique user journey, customized for individuals, employers, and mental health professionals. Ensuring that the platform is an approachable solution is vital, with the co-founders building it as one that provides a feeling of companionship, rather than the traditional clinical experience that inadvertently often causes apprehension. “The traditional model unintentionally provides an impression that anyone that needs this type of support is ‘sick,’ although what they’re facing is not a sickness in most cases, but rather could be burnout, stress, financial pressure, grief from the loss of a loved one, or a variety of other factors.”
It's no wonder that Takalam was well-positioned and had the timeliness to capture an opportunity- in fact, the team was able to deliver a pilot project for Abu Dhabi Health Services Company's (SEHA) frontline workers during the peak of the global pandemic. Since then, things came together, and Takalam has progressed from one successful milestone to another. Running with a B2B and B2C business model and a team of eight people and over 35 vetted counselors, Takalam’s partners and supporters include Ma’an, DOH Tech-Hub, Plug n Play, Zayed University, with the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development as its first client. Individuals have the option to book per session or per package, while employers get a customized journey for their employees based on needs and requirements.
Takalam is now backed by Hub71, wherein it was able to receive a generous support package of exposure opportunities and incentives. It was also selected to be participate in Hub71’s Demo Day, in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, where the team was able to receive a grant to onboard new talent. “Being in that ‘cradle’ has allowed us the benefit of expertise and networking, as well as the resources in talent acquisition which really became a force multiplier to Takalam and accelerated our evolvement,” notes Hammad. And now, the team is gearing up to propel its growth. Hammad concludes, “We are a few steps away from closing our seed round which will help us grow in the UAE and expand our presence to Saudi Arabia, where a significant interest in Takalam has been generated.”
‘TREP TALK: Q&A with Khawla Hammad, co-founder and CEO, Takalam
Do you think now is still a good time for people to follow through on their entrepreneurial dreams? What would be your advice to get entrepreneurs ready for their journey ahead?
"There is nothing called a good time to follow one's dream, from our perspective. Regardless of whatever is going on, if you have enough passion and goals, you will give it your all to achieve them. Additionally, remember that some of the best startup in today’s world were founded during the recession in 2018. Some of my tips are: Start, either by taking that leap of faith or jump of confidence. Accept and embrace failure but try to fail fast and iterate. Finally, enjoy the journey, and keep learning."
Pamella de Leon is the Startup Section Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East. She is keen on the MENA region’s entrepreneurship potential, with a specific interest to support enterprises and individuals creating an impact.