"Life is mean. Let’s talk behind its back."
When Kali Rogers landed on the catchy slogan for Blush, the online life coaching startup she launched this month to help teenage girls and young women handle everyday struggles, she was speaking from experience.
"I was just this typical everyday girl who had something awful happen," says the Austin-based Rogers, 25, of the day three years ago when she was sexually assaulted by a close and trusted friend.
Afterward, Rogers went through tough times. She foundered, blamed herself for the incident, and cut off contact with friends, but eventually sought help from a school counselor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she was enrolled as a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in counseling. During one conversation, a switch flipped.
"She basically said, ‘You know Kali, one time I went and took my dog for a walk, and I didn’t lock my door, because I lived in a safe neighborhood, and when I came back, my house had been robbed. Was that my fault?’ One statement like that can change somebody’s life," Rogers says.
Now Rogers is hoping she can do the same for other girls—only on a bigger scale. Started with the help of an investment from her father, Dallas environmental lawyer and management consultant C. Gregory Rogers, Blush offers online coaching for young women ages 13 to 25 through video sessions ($100), as well as a less-expensive, text-based service that promises written feedback within 48 hours ($50) to those who write entries in a private, online diary. Newcomers fill out a confidential questionnaire that Rogers uses to screen clients and match them with one of its four counselors, all of whom are licensed with master’s degrees in counseling. Their experience varies, but each has worked with adolescent girls. For Charlotte Slocum, that meant time counseling the children of addicts through the Betty Ford Center, among other places, while Alex Podowski, another Blush coach, is an Intensive Outpatient therapist who works regularly with athletes and those in the LBGTQ community.
"Any girl that is like, ‘My boyfriend broke up with me, and I failed my chemistry test, and I feel like my mom hates me,’ can go join Blush and be like, ‘I’m going to figure this out and feel proud of it,’" Rogers says.
With its pink and lavender hues, a Chevron-patterned background that’s more fashion boutique than self-help venue, Spotify playlists, cute cartoon icons and a chatty tone ("Talk to someone who gets it. We all have our Master’s in Counseling but aren’t old enough to be your mom"), the vibe is that of the cool, confident, yet utterly approachable girl who seems to have all the answers—even as she admits her own flaws.
In her own site profile, for example, Rogers identifies herself as a "haunted house pansy" (as in, she's afraid of them) and "wannabe Khaleesi" (from Game of Thrones.) It’s just the kind of upbeat, yet world-aware personae that a school-aged girl facing the pressures of rampant social media, academic overload, body image issues and family squabbles might heart in an instant. Though Rogers won’t give exact numbers, she says Blush had enough sign-ups in its first week that she’s already recruiting new coaches.
But what about girls facing problems beyond the realm of your average teen drama? Or girls who need help but can’t afford the $50 to $100 session fee? Or girls who simply do not identify with the site’s line-up of predominately blond counselors, asks Rose Greene, a child welfare specialist and family visit coach with the Oregon Department of Human Services Child Welfare program.
"Having someone like a sponsor to help you through high school could be extremely helpful," she says. "I just don’t know if I believe in a for-profit company charging so much and only getting to one part of the population."
While Greene also wonders "how real a person is online because of the anonymity that gives them," she has seen technology used in effective ways to aid in the treatment of mental health, including services for veterans suffering from PTSD, and is guardedly optimistic about its efficacy.
"Teenagers are so used to dealing with being online, and that’s kind of the way that they’re connecting with people that it is useful to incorporate that technology to reach them," says Greene.
But to anyone facing concerns over his or her mental health, Greene recommends visiting a primary care physician first for an initial assessment, mental health screening and referrals.
Before a client can join Blush, Rogers takes steps to separate people who can benefit from coaching from those who need clinical help. While the look and feel of the site itself is lighthearted enough, the initial sign-up process is, in many ways, a traditional intake form designed to help Rogers identify those with common problems—failed tests, parental discord—and those needing the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist or someone dealing with a clinical diagnosis.
That’s admittedly murky territory. But making that kind of judgment call is one Rogers, who ran a private practice before starting Blush, says is part of a counselor’s job. And she says she and the other counselors at Blush are trained to do such work—even though the site’s services are limited to coaching.
"We have the background to identify it pretty quickly. We’re not helping anybody by letting them go without the help that they need," she says.
When Rogers decides a new sign up needs help that’s outside the scope of what Blush offers, she offers a referral to a person or organization that’s equipped to help.
As for the cost and counselor homogeneity, these issues are not lost on Rogers, who would like to add lower-cost options in the future, but debuted with pricing that she felt was on par with equivalent professional services.
She also told me, "I want more diversity. I want people who are relatable to everybody. Right now, three out of the four of us are blonde, and that’s something that I definitely want to change."
By keeping the focus on coaching, Rogers hopes she can capitalize on a time when people are increasingly comfortable seeking services over the Internet and online communication tools are proliferating. And while mental health providers are typically licensed only to practice with clients living in the same state, that restriction doesn't apply to coaching, which Rogers says "is more about where you are and where you want to go," than traditional forms of therapy. That means Blush can work with anyone, anytime, anywhere—clearly an attractive detail for an entrepreneur looking to build a brand.
That always-on flexibility may also be a selling point for those seeking help—especially digital natives with few qualms about chatting, sharing, and interacting over the Internet. Not only are video sessions and online written support through journal entries possible from the comfort of one’s own bedroom, something that could easily be attractive to people of all ages, they are a practical option for teens who may not yet drive, own a car or have access to transportation they’d need to see a coach or counselor in person. On top of the logistical challenges of actually attending sessions, some teens in need struggle to find a compatible coach close to home.
"[Blush] gives girls some control with going to coaching. Either your mom drives you, and that’s really awkward, or you sit in this room and it’s like a time out," she says of in-person alternatives.
Instead of feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed about seeking help, Rogers says she hopes the girls who use Blush look at it in the same way they consider going to the gym.
"You have to work on your body to look better. You have to work on your mind to feel better."