Photo: Lisi Wolf
Maria Barrera, left, and Melissa Pelochino, who is based in Oregon, share a passion for the intersection of education, teaching and mental health. The duo founded Clayful, a text-based coaching app.
Clayful Health's app helps young people work through challenges via on-demand live chats.
Maria Barrera, 32
CEO and co-founder
Clayful Health, Davie
Born in Colombia, Maria Barrera moved to South Florida with her mom when she was 10. Though it was a hard transition, she excelled in math and science and by high school she was tutoring. “I would spend six hours every day after school running around Weston, going to different houses, and working with second-graders to seniors. I loved that — it was my happy place.”
“On a whim,” Barrera applied to the top 10 engineering schools, and accepted an offer from No. 2 Stanford, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in mechanical engineering, but also took electives in psychology.
Thinking at the time she wanted to work on flying cars, she interned at GE and Boeing. She also continued her tutoring, this time helping fellow Stanford students and kids throughout the San Francisco Bay area.
Her interest in education led to a serendipitous meeting at “d.school,” Stanford’s design thinking institute, with a founder of Nearpod, an education-technology company based in Dania Beach. Nearpod develops e-learning products used by tens of thousands of students, but back then it was a fledgling startup. After graduating, Barerra joined Nearpod in 2014, working in San Francisco on products such as Virtual Field Trips, which bring lessons alive for students once they don their virtual reality headsets.
She calls Nearpod her “startup school,” explaining that it’s where she learned about team building, sales and marketing, operations and even leading a company acquisition. “I got to learn how to build a product that kids love, that teachers will use, and that schools will pay for.”
Barrera joined an HR tech startup during the pandemic as mental health was a rising issue, and she saw plenty of wellness resources for adults, but not kids. But it was reading a New York Times story about rising cases of children committing suicide that pushed Barrera to make the entrepreneurial leap: “It broke my heart. I quit my job to go figure out how I could make a difference and how I could help.”
While formulating her business concept, Barrera talked to dozens of teachers, therapists, parents and kids. She joined a crisis network to experience counseling first-hand. As she did more research, she saw a need to support kids before they reach a breaking point. Most of the resources available at the time weren’t focused on prevention, she says. Barrera envisioned a support platform that would focus on prevention and be accessible to all, regardless of income, by partnering with schools, as Nearpod had done. And she moved back to South Florida to build it.
Barrera convinced Melissa Pelochino, a former Nearpod colleague and a mother of two who was just as passionate about the intersection of education, technology and mental health, as she was, to join her as a co-founder in what would become Clayful Health. Putting their d.school learning to work, they built a prototype and tested it with kids and their families. They launched their first pilot tests in March 2022 and inked their first school contracts last fall.
“We provide mental health and resilience coaching to kids on demand. Clayful Health lets them reach out to a coach right away to help themselves emotionally get back to a good place,” Barrera explains.
Young people today face an array of stressors — everything from test anxiety to conflicts with parents to encountering bullying at school. When those sorts of challenges arise, kids with Clayful can connect within 60 seconds to a coach via their smartphone (or school-issued device) and chat just as they would with a friend. The coaches don’t offer an opinion, but they do ask questions and empower the student with strategies to work through the situation. So far, about 15,000 students have used the app.
Barrera says she is building a product she wished she had as a kid. “We're focused on making a difference in kids’ lives. We've supported kids who are struggling with some really dark thoughts and helped them get the support they needed, before they hurt themselves or others.”
Clayful also provides data and insights to the schools it contracts with and acts as another safety net. The team will escalate a case to a school counselor or a wellness unit if needed.
The company’s 100 coaches, many of whom are former educators or mental health professionals, undergo training to help the students manage situations and find their own resiliency. To ensure safety, coaches get multiple background checks and are monitored to ensure their records stay clean.
Clayful asks for feedback after every coaching session and has earned 4.7 out of 5 stars, a student-rating that makes Barrera proud.
Today, 43 schools in six states — though none yet in Florida — contract with Clayful. The company recently raised a round of financing from education technology-focused investor Reach Capital. This year, Barrera landed a $150,000 grant and ongoing support from the Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, which helps Latino entrepreneurs build and grow their businesses.
“My biggest aha moment in this work is how much current mental health services are not designed for kids and for this generation — the Netflix generation with everything on demand,” says Barrera. “What’s next is really continuing to dive deep and understand what this generation of kids needs and building that for them.”