Written by: The Circles Team

August 15, 2021

This week we’d like to put the spotlight on Monica Mo, the Founder of WellSeek, a community organization for women’s mental health. A former biotech scientist, Monica found herself feeling more disconnected from herself and how she wanted to make an impact in her community. When she left the biotech industry, she recognized the powerful influence of social constructs on our well-being. Fed up by society’s definition of ‘wellness’, she joined forces with women changemakers from across the country culminating into what is now WellSeek.

Can you tell our readers a little bit more about you, your background, and what led you to create WellSeek?

7 years ago, I was working as a biotech scientist in R&D and I started to feel disconnected from the reason I went into my work in the first place. Though I loved science, it just wasn’t doing it for me being so far upstream from directly helping others in their health. I just knew that I wanted to help people seek their own path of health and happiness, whatever that may look for them. So I jumped straight into entrepreneurship without a clue on what it was like to build a business – guided only by a gut instinct that I needed to do it. To most of my family and friends, it was quite possibly one of the most irresponsible things I’ve ever done.

No, not at all. If anything, it was arguably one of the most responsible things you’ve ever done.

Well, at the time, let me tell you, everyone around me questioned what I was doing – and rightfully so! But it was through that learning process of listening to what people had to say and reading between the lines that helped me better understand the universal experiences we all strive for in our wellbeing.

I still remember, in the beginning, I looked at health from the lens of a data scientist and bioengineer – accuracy and precision were the main goals. But as I delved deeper, my views started to change. I began to understand how our choices are far more influenced by emotional drivers, and what we’re exposed to in our social and cultural surroundings is far more powerful in influencing our behaviors than any information or data. In other words, our wellness is shaped not only by our personal choices but also by the communities we’re in. It was during this time that I was working through my own experiences of disordered eating, anxiety, and depression as I struggled with the challenges of being a working mom trying to ‘do it all.

That’s how the ecosystem of WellSeek slowly came to be – a community of advocates, brand allies, and organizations connected through our mission of helping women thrive in their work and life. By working together, we are redefining what health, beauty, and identity mean in this modern world. More specifically, I wanted to help more women answer the question: how do we take back agency in our own lives and move forward with the work we’re most passionate about?

To go from what you were doing before, to creating WellSeek, that’s a huge shift. What was that first step? What was the first ingredient that went into the recipe that is now WellSeek?

From a tactical standpoint, getting organized was the first step. Project management and systems thinking were in my DNA through my days in science and biotech. I identified the components that are needed to get from A to Z, and methodically mapped out the steps that were required to get to my goals. It was about understanding what is needed and what are the gaps I needed to fill to make it work.

But behind the logic, there was an even more important driver: staying true to my purpose and core values. I had to really dig deep to know what I stand for and develop my own inner compass. It’s something that continues to ground me so I can continue to wake up day-in- and day-out knowing that what I’m trying to accomplish is bigger than me. That’s what keeps me going, despite obstacles and setbacks.

Your website mentions that despite a rapidly growing global wellness market worth over $4.2 trillion, mental health disorders are still on the rise and disproportionately impact women. Why do you think there’s that discrepancy?

I’m so glad you brought this up because we need to understand the forces at play. Mental health challenges aren’t just happening to us, they are happening at a higher rate for a reason. This gender gap in mental health is actually recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the most pervasive issues that must be addressed at the intersection of gender equality and health. More specifically, these mental health struggles stem from a lack of support systems, social constructs & gender roles, societal pressures on beauty standards and ideals, and many other invisible stressors that women are subconsciously internalizing. And they’re putting an enormous amount of pressure on women to conform to what we believe we “should” be.

Another way to look at it is through the lens of our innate human need for safety & belonging: women don’t feel safe in our daily lives by the societal structures in place. These are having a severe impact on how we are able to feel safe and have agency within our bodies, roles & identities, and in our livelihood. The mental load is real, and we need to start actively addressing the issues at the root and not just in reaction to it when mental health struggles come to the surface.

What needs to fall into place for there to be a paradigm shift in how women become well, and how do we prevent the opposite?

Simply put, there are many structural and cultural shifts that need to happen in our society to better support women and their well-being. With that said, these bigger changes won’t happen overnight so what we CAN do is to focus on how we react to our lived experiences.

The first step is self-awareness and practicing acceptance. It’s knowing that it’s OK to experience overwhelm and stress and that the emotions and feelings you’re experiencing are completely human. We can be honest with ourselves and acknowledge “I don’t like this reality”, while also recognizing that these painful moments don’t take away from everything else in your life that is going right.

It’s a powerful way to take a step back and see the experience for what it is. That’s when you can redirect your energy away from fighting a reality you can’t change and towards the next right step – no matter how small.

WellSeek has initiatives focused on advocacy, community, and media, which are gaps identified by the World Health Organization. Can you elaborate on how you go about filling those gaps?

What’s most exciting in these current times is the shift towards community care. It’s about providing compassionate, supportive ways to help our neighbors, friends, and family – and let them know that they are never alone in their lived experience.

That can look like advocacy work, where we’re speaking up and activating public support for change at the local and systems level. This is something we’re actively doing with our non-profit project, SeekHer Foundation, through our social advocacy campaigns with our corporate partners and investing in more women-led communities that are bridging those gaps locally. After all, it’s the small ripples we make today that build momentum to make the bigger waves tomorrow.

It’s also important to have community spaces where people can open up and explore the narratives they’re trying to rewrite. Whether it’s through social media, learning workshops, or inspiring event gatherings, my goal at WellSeek is to create opportunities where we can stop, check-in, and be held in a space where you know others get it too. That’s the humanized element we’re constantly missing in our mainstream self-care and wellness industries that overly emphasize quick-fix, one-size-fits-all solutions. We have to understand who we are first and how we connect to our communities – that’s what helps us tap into our ability to live authentically.

And lastly, we all know the way the media drives our perception of value and worth. From beauty to motherhood to career success, we’re constantly bombarded with unrealistic ideals of perfection. We have been conditioned to think that in order to be viewed as someone respectable, we have to strive for that ‘superhuman’ potential. But we are human.

We’re going to make mistakes, we have struggles, we have challenges that we have to address. It is not about living perfectly, it’s about how we are going to be resilient in the moment and keep moving forward, even when we are struggling. We’re starting to see this shift in our mainstream conversations when Simone Biles bravely withdrew from her Olympic events to prioritize her well-being. That was huge! And the stories and perceptions shaped by our media must continue to support these changes in rewriting the superhuman narrative. I hope the content and messaging we continue to amplify through WellSeek will play a big role in that shift.

Do you already see things changing? Like the example you mentioned with Simone Biles, it was a monumental moment in sports for the greatest gymnast of all time to say, “I can’t compete because of my mental health.” Do you see something like that happening in the wellness industry?

Yeah, absolutely. The wellness industry is taking notice and recognizing that what we’ve been doing so far isn’t sustainable. We can’t go on living feeling like we’re always at a deficit, and it’s important to start addressing our needs – physical, emotional, spiritual – from a place of wholeness and connection. The fact that Simone was able to self-advocate, and to do it on such a big stage, is incredible. That really shows that people are now recognizing the power of speaking up to say, “I need to take a step back, and I need help.”

When you look back at how WellSeek started and where it is now, what has been the most memorable or meaningful moment for you and how do you see WellSeek moving forward?

100%, it’s been connecting with so many amazing women in my community, from the advocates to thought leaders to corporate partners who want to support our shared mission of helping women thrive. It’s just been so rewarding to come together behind a social cause that is meaningful to us individually, so we can make a bigger difference as a collective.

Moving forward, I’m most excited about working alongside business leaders and organizations that are invested in advancing women in their work and life. Because at the end of the day, this gender gap of mental health is really limiting our human potential to move forward. Data already supports the fact that when we uplift women, we help the world. Now is the time to do it.

Lastly, what would you tell a woman who is struggling?

Don’t do it alone. Healing was never meant to be done in isolation, which is why I really appreciate what Circles is doing as a mental health platform. That was a big lesson for me when I was going through my own personal struggles. I thought I was the only one suffering and that there was something wrong with me. We often put so much pressure on ourselves, yet we can lessen the load by simply saying “I need help.” And that’s when we recognize we’re never alone in the dark.

Yes, absolutely. Monica, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you, thank you!