Currently headquartered in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Kenzie Butera and Lilly Mittenthal met virtually and bonded over the belief in the importance of opening up discussions about reproductive and mental health. Together, they co-founded Maro Parents, a mobile application that helps parents navigate tough conversations with their young children. Maro is currently available on iOS with a seven-day free trial. Try it out and reach out to the co-founders if you have any feedback.
This article has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): Could you tell us more about Maro?
Kenzie Butera (KB): Maro is a mobile application for parents to navigate tough “growing up” conversations with children from kindergarten to eighth grade. These conversations range from mental and reproductive health, to empathy and diversity.
We support parents through a library of digital content that we created in partnership with subject matter experts. We also have a bot on the platform that prompts parents to journal key developmental and behavioural events in the child’s life, and then helps to recommend content depending on what has been keyed in. This helps navigate when and how to have these tough conversations with children, and also help answer any questions parents have around adolescent development.
Kr: How did you two get the idea to create this platform?
KB: Personally, I am really passionate about advocating against power-based violence, sexual violence, and domestic violence, especially since I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I became certified in trauma-informed care and worked for nonprofit organizations that allowed me to do research and advocacy. While I loved the work and met some really incredible people, I felt like there was an opportunity to prevent some of the things that we were seeing.
I transitioned my career focus to work with startups and spent three years in that space, doing everything from startup support to identifying deal flow for venture capital investors. It was during this time when I met Lilly and started the company.
Lilly Mittenthal (LM): Back then, I was actually working with Kenzie as a product manager, and she told me how the app was going to address sex education. I thought, “Well, if we’re starting a conversation for sex education, let’s do it for mental health too.”
This was very important to me because when I was growing up, I was diagnosed with ADHD. I had to take pills and go to therapy, but this was considered embarrassing and not to be spoken about because my father had a conservative mindset. I felt really isolated throughout my grown-up years and this led to depression. This is why I wanted to start the conversation on mental health so that both parents and children can be educated.
Kr: How can parents determine the right age to bring up certain topics with their children?
KB: One thing that we learned while doing customer research for Maro is that it is never too early to start these conversations. You just have to do it in a way that is age-appropriate, and this is where I think a lot of our value lies—in helping parents define and understand what is age-appropriate. For example, when talking about reproductive health, you can teach young children consent by simply asking them, “Why don’t you ask your friend before you hug them?”
LM: Exactly. Another example is we tell a story of a dragon who has anxiety. The dragon is told, “Why don’t you make a box and put all your worries inside? When you’re ready to look through them again, you can read them out loud and you have the power in your hands to get it out of your system whenever you want.” That is one easy way to talk to your child about how anxiety is an emotion and how they can deal with it.
Kr: How do you measure the success and impact of your app?
KB: We’ve just brought on a new team member who is taking the initiative on an impact report. This is going to allow us to put some bold projections on ten core impact areas, including decreasing rape and sexual assault, bullying, rates of suicide, and all these public health crises that are actually avoidable.
There is loads of research to suggest that preventive education can in fact keep the above mentioned from happening. Our research involves building a set of statistical models and data to see the power of preventive education. This is just getting started as it requires a lot of data, specifically longitudinal data. We won’t know the true benefits until our current demographic of kids ages, but we can still test the effectiveness of the content in smaller ways. Groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have done some really effective tests on the effects of mental health and sex education in smaller group settings, so we know it’s possible. We’re just trying to figure out how to do it at scale.
Kr: What does creating Maro mean to you?
LM: To me, Maro means less isolation because there will be more understanding. This could just mean convincing someone that suicide doesn’t have to be the end goal. Through Maro, both parents and kids will be able to understand mental health, rape, and assault more, and learn how to help a friend or family member through that. It is like growing a support system around knowledge, and that is what is important to me.
KB: Every morning, I think about the individual faces of the kids and teens who use our platform, either currently or those who have told us, “I wish I had that when I was that age.” I’ve seen many people struggle with different issues, from racism to mental health and sexual violence. It makes me want to cry every time I think about these individual experiences.
Whenever I think about the power behind what we’re building on Maro, I get really excited, because I just feel like there’s something here that I haven’t seen before. We wish that we would have had it when we were younger because it would have mitigated a lot of things had we known where to find resources, or the language to put around our experiences. So that is what Maro means to me—there are a lot of fun days building this app, but remembering why we are doing it in the first place is so important.