I recently got a chance to chat with Alina Liao, founder, and CEO of Zenit Journals, about Social Entrepreneurship and how people can break into this field? Alina is a graduate of the Stanford MBA program.
To get started, can you talk about what got you started on Zenit Journals?
My passion is around developing ways to make mental health and wellness more accessible, especially for people of color. I grew up in a family where mental health wasn’t a thing, which is a common experience. It’s a shared challenge that a lot of people have experienced — that stigma around mental health.
For me, I didn’t even know I had my mental health challenges. I didn’t know it was something that you could talk about. I didn’t know what a school counselor was for. It was normal for me to keep everything to myself. And then, as an adult, I became exposed to different areas of mental health. Various resources and experiences like sharing my experiences with others, unpacking your thoughts and feelings, practicing mindfulness, transformed me. I saw the importance of valuing our self-care and how hard it is in like the world we live in.
I started Zenit last year after I left another organization that I had co-founded and ran for over three years. Leaving that organization was a challenging experience. At the time, I was working with a therapist, and she encouraged me to the journal.
Journaling is one of those things I knew would be good for me but I always struggled to keep up. But one day, I came up with a few journaling prompts related to what I was working on. And once I started writing them in a blank journal, journaling became so much easier. I was then doing it consistently and gained a much better understanding of myself and my thought patterns and behaviors. I was able to not only have a safe space to write out my thoughts and feelings but also make positive changes in my life.
So one day, I was writing down these prompts and thought, it would be nice if my journal already had these prompts on the pages. That’s where the idea of custom wellness journals originated. With Zenit, I empower the individual customer to personalize their Zenit Journal because we’re all unique human beings, and wellness is a personal journey. It is also a physical product, so it allows people to unplug from all the technology and take care of their mental health and wellness.
Why social entrepreneurship?
It matters to me that the work I’m doing has a positive impact on issues I care about. I approach entrepreneurship not just with a lens of social impact, but also social justice. With Zenit, I’m trying to build it as a “radical” wellness company. We’re not only creating a wellness product. I want all of how Zenit operates as a business to have a positive impact on all our stakeholder’s wellness.
When I think about eventually hiring a team and having a physical space, I want to make sure that we’re operating in a way that benefits our employees’ wellness, the communities we serve in, and the wellness of our planet. And for me, it’s exciting to work on building a model for a type of company that is intentionally maximizing wellness for all stakeholders.
What does social entrepreneurship mean for you?
I would say it is using business to drive social good. It goes beyond the social impact of the product or technology you’re developing. You have to think about the whole company, so if you have a product that generates some social good but you are underpaying your employees, or you’re having net harm on the planet like, I don’t think that’s acceptable. We have to think about the whole company and all of its touchpoints with all stakeholders — we have to think about all the externalities. I also think about how my business, as a radical wellness company, can have a positive net impact in driving racial equity and social justice. Racism has a mental health impact to it. There’s trauma from experiencing racism. And my company can’t be promoting wellness of society if it does not also advance racial justice.
Why are we seeing so few entrepreneurs with this point of view?
There needs to be a recognition about how our systems are designed to benefit one group of people and exclude and disadvantage other groups of people based on race. Unless you are bringing that awareness and incorporating it into how you create your business, you’re going to continue to perpetuate the systemic racism in the status quo. So we have to talk about this when we talk about starting any new business, whether you’re in the social entrepreneurship sector or not. You have to be part of the conversation — asking, how we are building our business in a way that advances racial equity and social justice? It’s like how we are seeing more people and businesses talk about environmental sustainability in their business strategy. I hope that racial equity also becomes part of the normal conversation.
So how can we rectify this situation as a society?
There are so many different stakeholders, and we need every stakeholder to be part of that conversation. Like, imagine if in every pitch competition there was a question, “What are you as an entrepreneur doing to address racial equity?” This question has to be part of our academic institutions and incubators that provide dedicated space and time to support entrepreneurs. You can operate in a bubble, like your Silicon Valley bubble. That doesn’t mean that what you do as a business doesn’t also impact other communities. We must step out of our bubbles, and we need to hear from people and communities that we don’t interact with as much to understand the at times unintended ways our business decisions perpetuate systemic racism and injustice.
How do we define success as social entrepreneurship?
The definition of success for a social entrepreneur is still a more traditional, capitalistic definition. The model for a social entrepreneur is that you have an idea, you pitch, and you raise a lot of investment money, and you scale. Our society still values that more is always better, faster is always better. I think it’s time for us as a society to challenge that idea, especially when it comes to areas of social impact. What works for one community might be different from what works for another community in addressing it’s social problems. There’s no one silver bullet to address complex social problems. There are going to be cases where scale isn’t necessarily better for the wellbeing of people and our planet. But I think that’s still our mindset. And so I think we are at a point where we need to start questioning what we value. Do we value profits for the few or wellness for all? A faster lifestyle or a more peaceful lifestyle? What we value will determine how we define success for social entrepreneurs.
To know more about the fantastic work done by Zenit Journals, click here