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This Founder Wanted to Rethink Therapy. When Coronavirus Hit, She Rethought Her Business Model. Ariela Safira built a space to deliver affordable, targeted mental healthcare. Before she could open her doors, her city entered quarantine. Here's how she redesigned her business to deliver care during the crisis.

By Stephanie Schomer

Courtesy of Real

Ariela Safira knew that mental healthcare was broken. And she had a plan to fix it.

After a friend attempted suicide, Safira saw firsthand just how ineffective the current mental healthcare system can be, and spent the next six years of her career examining every aspect of it, from the cold design of inpatient facilities to the legal and financial hurdles that come with treatment. She even earned her master's in clinical psychology.

Safira envisioned a better mental health studio, and came up with Real, a New York-based startup that would provide therapy and support to specific demographics. Its first studio would serve women and create a more accessible entry point to therapy with a $30 monthly membership model that would give clients access to an annual checkup as well as therapist-led group events. (One-on-one care would also be available for an additional fee.) Safira raised capital, built a team, and was planning to open Real's doors in April.

By mid-March, she knew that wasn't going to happen.

"We were two days into quarantine, and my team and I got on a video call to think of a new way to provide care," Safira says. "Because right now, people need mental healthcare. And meeting them where they're at means meeting them at home."

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Over the next eight days, Safira's team built a brand new digital platform to reach and serve New Yorkers. In addition to one-on-one therapy, the digital offerings would include targeted small-group salon sessions ("Pregnant in a Pandemic" and "Juggling a Career and Kids While in Quarantine, as examples) as well as large-group events ("Relationships in a Time of Quarantine" and "WTF Am I Supposed to Do With All This Anxiety?").

They launched on March 26—ahead of their original opening date—and Safira made yet another bold decision for her brand-new business: the digital services would be available for free, for one month.

"People are in crisis mode, both in terms of their mental health and their wallets," she says. "We can offer this service for free for now, and spend time thinking about what this business looks like after this month."

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The priority, she says, is making therapy available to those in need. And as the crisis stretches on, she anticipates an urgent increase in demand.

"Isolation can severely worsen a person's mental health," she says. "People in abusive relationships are having a really hard time right now, people who face suicidality are having an awful time right now, as are people with body image issues, eating disorders, anxiety. We want to help as many people as we can right now. And digital is the way to do that."

Offering Real's online services for free is doing more than supporting the health of the New York community: It's a smart business decision, too. Each woman that signs up for a service is all the more likely to become a long-term Real customer and advocate as we move to the other side of this crisis. The reaction has so far been promising: A number of salons and events are seeing waitlists form, proving to Safira that she was right about people wanting a different mental-health experience.

"Therapy is similar to the gym," Safira says. "Think about it: not everyone wants to book a private personal training session. So what we're doing is providing multiple entry points to therapists and experts that don't just rely on one-one-one therapy."

RELATED: 5 Tips for Dealing With Anxiety as a Business Owner Right Now

Safira can't say with certainty when Real's Manhattan studio will finally be able to open its doors, but she does know that this experience has already changed the shape of her business: she never planned to prioritize digital therapy, but an online experience is now part of her brand's DNA, and they're working to build a sustainable offering for a post-Coronavirus world.

"Two months ago, this may have been very hard," she says. "People were just unwilling to connect over their iPhone. But now, this platform and this crisis is bringing out a very open and vulnerable side of people, and our therapists are here for them. It's a new way to connect."

Stephanie Schomer

Entrepreneur Staff

Deputy Editor

Stephanie Schomer is Entrepreneur magazine's deputy editor. She previously worked at Entertainment WeeklyArchitectural Digest and Fast Company. Follow her on Twitter @stephschomer.

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