Naomi Allen is someone with a hankering for taking on big challenges. Like selling everything she owned before setting off on a year and a half adventure to 24 countries across 6 continents — with her husband and three small kids in tow.
Not the usual drill for an entrepreneur but it fits with the life narrative of a person with a knack for problem-solving.
Allen was part of the original team that co-founded Castlight Health, a B2B service that developed a healthcare navigation platform to let employees compare costs and quality of tests and procedures. In 2019, she reconnected with serial entrepreneur and one of her Castlight co-founders, Giovanni Colella, to discuss a new health idea that would ultimately germinate into the first behavioral health solution designed specifically to support children and families.
When Allen’s five-year-old son was experiencing acute anxiety, she found it impossible to get care through the school system. After nearly a year of trying to get him testing and treatment, it became clear that the current system is broken.
That’s when she and Colella coalesced around an idea to build a digital service that would connect children with psychiatrists, therapists, and coaches. Clearly, the need was there; as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, there has been a sharp increase in emergency room visits related to mental health for children.
That, in brief, is the backstory to the founding of Brightline, which as Allen puts it, is there to help with whatever tough stuff kids, teens and their caregivers are dealing with in their lives. Here’s the backstory to how she got here.
Q: Where are you from originally?
I was born in the Philippines at Clark Air Base. My dad had been recruited there at the end of the Vietnam War.
He was a physician in the Air Force. This was around the period when GIs returning to the US would stay in the Philippines for recuperation or medical treatment. My dad and a group of physicians later began running volunteer medical missions treating kids who didn’t have access to healthcare.
Q: Where did you grow up after leaving the Philippines?
When we came back to the US we lived in a small town in southern Georgia and then moved to Atlanta when I was 12. I grew up in Atlanta; my whole family — multiple generations, is from there. My great-grandfather was a chaplain for Emory, my grandfather was a geology professor, and my dad was a physician at Emory in their children’s hospital.
Q: Looking back, that kind of global perspective is one that most American kids never get.
Very much so. In fact, when we moved back to the US, my parents became very active with a medical mission to South India. They would go to India every summer and take a massive amount of medical equipment and supplies along with a team of 20–25 doctors and nurses with them. My mom ran all event management. A lot of my childhood was shaped around an annual cycle where they lived in India in the summers and I would live with an Indian family in the US while they were gone. One of the biggest things that shaped me was this global perspective that my parents had as well as a very personal sense around healthcare.
Q: After college, you were hired by Deloitte to work on their healthcare team. Was there an “a-ha” moment when you thought about what technology might be able to do for healthcare?
I was lucky that this became so visceral for me very early in my career. I was 22 years old, the most junior person on a team doing a massive study. What had happened was that an indigent patient had died while trying to get into the emergency room for treatment. This was in 1996 when managed care was starting to impact the way that hospitals operated. At the time, most hadn’t really figured out how to manage things like the throughput flow of patients. And so, the average length of stay was going up. Hospitals were losing a bunch of money. And so, they were bringing in consultants to help sort this out.
Q: What was your job?
I was responsible for a massive data study at a time when medical records didn’t exist. There was no electronic medical records system back then and most hospitals didn’t have any method for tracking medical records, other than paper charts. I must have spent seven months of my life trying to take all this data and code it into an Access database to make sense of the actual flow of patients throughout the hospital system.
Q: And at the time digital health, as an industry, was still waiting to be created, right?
At the time there wasn’t an ecosystem around this. And it never occurred to me that this might be an interesting career path. In my fourth year with McKinsey, they wanted me to commit to the next phase to become a partner. But doing more strategy work just wasn’t my orientation. I wanted to go build stuff. So, I moved to Bolivia for a year.
Growing up in the south, I had a real affinity for Habitat for Humanity and did a bunch of work with them when I was in high school. When I got to McKinsey, they became a client of mine. I wanted to take a year and do something positive. I called the head of global for Habitat for Humanity who I knew and said, “Where do you have the most need? Send me anywhere.”
I was in a small, rural community where nobody spoke English.
Q: At what point did you decide it was time to go the entrepreneurial route?
I remember a serendipitous meeting I had before leaving for Bolivia. I sat down with Giovanni Colella, who was an entrepreneur and the husband of a friend of mine at McKinsey. We were talking over a glass of wine, and he was like, “Hey, you should really leave McKinsey and think about starting a company with me. I don’t know what it will be, but let’s stay in touch.” And we did. After that year away, it was very clear to me once I had returned to McKinsey that I wanted to go build something — especially after my time in Bolivia. I’ll never forget that day because it was really a turning point in my career.
Q: And that led to the founding of Castlight where you did a bit of everything from business intelligence strategy to sales?
I ran sales up to about a year before we went public. And then I was asked to take over product, which was exciting for me. Within the next two years, we went from something like one product to a platform of eight or nine products by the time I left. The whole experience was super-fun.
Q: And by that point, you do what every hard-charging entrepreneur does: you pack up and leave with your husband and three kids for a year-and-a-half trip around the world.
My husband and I are very similar in terms of our passions and our values, and we always said that we’d love to travel around the world one day. When I was running product at Castlight, there was just no way we could do that because he was at a hedge fund working in Brazil, commuting from there to San Francisco. We just had a shared alignment around wanting to do it — if life ever presented the opportunity, we wanted to take that chance. So, we sold everything, parked our stuff in Texas where my in-laws live, and we just did it.
Q: OK, you survived that experience and wound up working a few years as Livongo’s chief growth officer. But Giovanni again resurfaced in your life. Talk about that sequence of events.
I had received — and was considering — a job offer to be CEO. Giovanni heard about it through the grapevine, so he knew that I was open to leaving Livongo. He told me that he knew I was passionate about behavioral health and asked whether I wanted to start a company in this space. I didn’t want to do another adult behavioral health company. There were so many of them that the market was deeply saturated, but we had an experience with my oldest son that left me profoundly moved by how broken the pediatric space was. So, we ironed out a funding amount for a seed fund and I started working on the idea.
Q: What convinced you that the system was broken?
My son had anxiety and showed signs of developmental delays. Still, he was doing well enough in class that he wasn’t getting appropriate screening and support in our school system. He was kind of below the radar. At the time, I did not know how to navigate getting him an Individualized Education Program (IEP). We called everyone and were fortunate enough to be willing to pay anything. We were put on a waitlist for even basic services and couldn’t get in. I was doing all this while we were going through Livongo’s IPO.
Q: And you had no place to turn for help?
I was losing my mind — I almost quit my job. There weren’t enough hours in the day to do all the callbacks to therapists who don’t answer the phone. I just couldn’t navigate it. And then there was the frustration around seeing your child fall behind. And we were a family living in an area that has therapists. And for me, there was an epiphany about this contrast between all the investments happening on the adult side and what was happening around children. Why was this system still so broken? I had dedicated my career to innovating in healthcare, so when this opportunity came along, I just knew this was the thing I must go do next.
Q: How did your personal experience with your son inform the way you created the company?
We wanted to create integrated medical teams that would share clinical records. So, if you’re seeing a Brightline therapist and we need to add in medical support because your child has anxiety or ADHD, they’ll work off a shared clinical record and make a shared plan. When you think about the typical instruments that are used to measure progress for anxiety or depression for adults, they’re not calibrated below the age of 13. And so, you have to use an entirely different set of assessment tools. It’s a very different set of training for clinicians to support young kids. The whole care model is truly distinctive. In the same way that pediatricians have a different set of capabilities than adult care providers, it’s very true for behavioral health as well.
Q: Did the COVID crisis force you to learn and develop new skills to help you manage your team?
Our company’s entirely remote. When we went into COVID, we were 14 people; now we’re about 215. We hired all those people remotely and then had to onboard them while building our culture and community. I think I’ve had to get much more explicit around values and intent and things that you would pick up organically by being in-person with your team. You just had to get much more explicit in terms of communication.
With high-growth companies, you must be able to manage the risk of burnout after essentially two years of heaviness. We’re the only company that has a national footprint to deliver pediatric behavioral health. I think we feel this massive obligation to serve as many families in this time of need as possible and our team works so hard because of that mission orientation and that sense of obligation.
Part of what I do as a CEO is just calibrate that intensity and make sure our folks are thinking about the long-haul marathon rather than the series of sprints that we’ve been in the past two and a half years as a company.
Q: Now to shift gears with a few final questions. Do you have a favorite book or author?
The writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. He was a Buddhist monk and activist who taught people how to meditate and integrate meditation into our daily lives.
Q: What about a favorite movie?
Q: Lastly, name the one person who has had the most influence on your professional career.
Two of them. Both of my parents.