Founder Spotlight: Lawrence Wang of MyGolana, Advocating for Mental Wellness Within Our Reach

By Gianna Abao

People feeling isolated are likely to also feel increased stress and anxiety, leading to a dire mental health state. However, these quarantine measures were necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19. With the lack of interaction, the majority of people have been facing a mental health fallout due to the coronavirus pandemic. To combat this issue, MyGolana, a mental wellness online platform offers convenient and cost-effective counseling solutions to extend its reach to those who are seeking mental health consultations remotely. 

Techshake recently had a conversation with Lawrence Wang, the CEO and founder of MyGolana, to learn more about the company’s cutting-edge solutions to alleviating the mental health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can you tell me something about yourself?

Last year, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. I had been involved with a number of startups there over the years. Actually, one of my partners and co-founders is also from there - Denny Roja. On April 2, 2019, I moved to Manila. permanently  to start MyGolana. I brought with me two suitcases, my backpack, and  the idea for starting this company. But probably the most important thing — I had experience creating different startups before. But I had never started a business in a foreign country before, so it was quite challenging for me. But, almost everyone in the business, tech, legal and academic communities here speaks English. So that was a huge advantage in starting a business here in Manila.

The name MyGolana is interesting. Can you share how you came up with the idea of creating MyGolana?

For a long time, the company did not have a name, and despite everyone trying to think of a nice name, nothing sounded quite right. Because I love to go camping, I have a t-shirt which I used for my pajamas that says the word “ANALOG” at the front side. And then one morning, I got up and was brushing my teeth, and when I looked in the mirror what I saw was not “analog” but “golana”. It hit me that GOLANA should be the name of the company. It's a reminder that although we are a digital and an online platform for mental health, at our core, the most important factor for addressing mental health issues is human interaction, or an analog solution. We also did some research before we got the name, and Golana turned out to be an ancient Hebrew term which means “refuge”. This also symbolized MyGolana as a safe place where you can talk to someone about whatever is on your mind. So MyGolana is your safe place, where you can be yourself.

This idea for an online platform for mental health education and counseling had been on my mind for many years. I’m an engineer and a technologist by training, but back when I was in college, I was heavily involved all four years with our peer counseling group for other college students. I became very  dismayed that in subsequent years, the mental health crisis got worse and became an epidemic. The costs of therapy and counseling became much more expensive, and it seems like people are getting even less access to good mental health resources. And while the social stigma associated with mental illness has decreased, it’s still there in most countries. I spent a year doing research, talking to people/experts, thinking about what to do. Then one day, while hiking in the Berkeley hills, I had this sudden epiphany that the solution to the mental health crisis was in the Philippines, and that Manila was the only place in the whole world where I could do this business. So I left the US and moved to Manila to pursue my dream.

Mental health has been one of the pressing issues worldwide. What are the challenges you have encountered while growing MyGolana and how did you overcome them?

To start any tech business, you have to solve different challenges in technology, business, and in life. You can’t overcome these challenges alone, so you need to find co-founders and build your foundational team. The technical challenges led me to partner with a world-class team of talented system architects, software developers, led by our other co-founder, Pradeep Bhanotha, who helped to build out the vision for MyGolana. Pradeep has been leading advanced IT research organizations for years in Manila  I also had to hire counseling and admin staff and to train them. I met a very talented senior admin operations manager, Ms. Epie Magsino, who had previously worked at both Citibank and Amex in Manila. Another co-founder, Denny Roja, then introduced me to our other co-founder, Paolo Villonca, who was the CEO of Ignition Innovation. 

I was also fortunate to find a great CPA and accounting firm and legal counsel,  to learn how to set up a business in the Philippines. I was very grateful that English is the business language here. For legal contracts, the agreements are written in English. But there are differences of course like all the things to do with the BIR and being prepared to dealing with many different cultural aspects. A lot of the paperwork still has to be processed manually and it’s not easy to get systems online. As I have mentioned, there's been a lot of natural disasters recently and I was also not used to the climate. I’ve said that all these challenges were difficult, but they were made much easier, because I have met a lot of friendly and supportive people. 

You have mentioned that you worked as an engineer, how did you go about with the  transition of growing a business tackling mental health? 

I am a computer chip engineer by training. For the first 10 years of my life, I actually made computer chips, and then I got into more customer-facing roles back in the 90s when the internet first happened. That’s where I launched my first business which was an online directory for computer chip manufacturing. No one had ever done that before. I learned about starting a business online, how to market products online, the other aspects of building an online business, and how to raise financing. This is my fourth startup company. Denny Roja, who’s a Filipino-American, is my partner. He’s also based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been with me in three of the four startups. He has also seen all of the highs and lows. Since he’s a Filipino, he was shocked and surprised when I told him that I was moving to Manila for this startup. He couldn’t believe it. We laughed at the situation. Obviously, he’s been a big help. He’s been with me through everything, and we’re having a lot of fun doing this together. He still has a strong network here in the Philippines, and he introduced me to a lot of his friends. That was extremely helpful to me.

In your opinion, what kind of impact has MyGolana had on wellness and mental health awareness?

I think, especially with the COVID-19 crisis, all of a sudden there's much more need for access to online mental health resources. We’re trying to teach people that mental health is not something you have to be ashamed of. It’s just like physical health. You go to the doctor every year for a check up. It should be normal. It should be accepted for people to have a mental health check up too. We encourage people to share their stories because we find that everyone on this planet has a story. Actually, one of the most rewarding parts of what we are doing is we get to help people everyday and learn about people’s stories. Everyone has an interesting story. Some of those stories are on our Facebook page. You really realize how amazingly resilient people are. They just need a little help now and then.

What are the things that you are proud of? Can you share some milestones? 

The interesting thing about startups is that everyday is an adventure. Every day you are making a breakthrough like when you have to hire people. You have to find an office. You have to run payroll. You have to open a bank account. They might seem like minor things, but I had a difficult time here in the Philippines opening up a bank account, because I am a foreigner. Even though I have good credit and I’m from the US, they wanted to have many proofs from me and it was hard. The banking system here in the Philippines is different. However, the biggest milestone was launching our beta app back in March. It was a huge milestone achievement, because we had overcome a lot of technical challenges. We needed to hire the best staff possible and train them. It was a ton of work, but we did it somehow. We launched our business. After we launched our business, we got hit with this COVID-19 pandemic, and then the next challenge we had to overcome was to implement work from home. The COVID-19 pandemic flipped our world upside down, and had a huge impact on the wellness and mental health of the whole world. 

Can you share how MyGolana evolved in this new normal?

The great thing is that we have an online platform, so that in itself made it easier to prepare to work from home because of the pandemic. We did a lot of training for counselors to adjust to working from home, and it's been successful. I think, since our company is online, we are probably more flexible and adaptable to this crisis. We are actually growing even through the crisis, because of the demand for our services. 

What we will expect from MyGolana in the near future? How do you see MyGolana in the next five years?

We have a lot of new features that we want to introduce. What we launched in March was the beta version for the general public. But we are also starting to provide mental wellness services to corporations and HMOs. There are many things that we can improve on in our platform to make it even more user-friendly, positive, and impactful for people. We plan to be a global business so we also want to make it easier for people to access us from all around the world. Right now, we are open seven days a week from 8-10PM. We are happy to do that, but we actually want to go 24 hours a day. We will be hiring more people and expanding our staff, introducing a lot of new tools to make it easier for people from all around the world to reach us. In the next five years, we just see a tremendous opportunity for growth. We think that this can be an entirely new industry in the Philippines just like the BPO industry evolved from nothing to where it stands now. We think that online mental wellness can be a huge industry in the Philippines in the next five years. 

I have been visiting the Philippines since 2012 just for business trips. Something kept resonating with me. The people were nice and friendly but it’s more than that. I finally learned what it was that I was trying to understand. The Tagalog word is “Malasakit” and most people define it as being kind, caring,understanding, or empathetic. But it’s actually much more than that. It’s a term that’s not directly translatable into English. The best explanation I have heard of it is “The ability to feel another person’s pain”.  It’s a unique part of the Filipino culture. It’s this interconnectedness here through family and friends. I think it’s actually one of the natural resources of the Philippines, and that's why I came here because I want to hire counselors, therapists, and coaches with that quality. The mission of MyGolana is to share Malasakit with the whole world.

To kickstart your mental wellness journey, you may visit MyGolana for remote consultations.