Reddit cofounder and venture capitalist Alexis Ohanian has always invested in mental health for the founders of his 100-plus portfolio companies. After the Covid-19 pandemic shined a harsh light on the need for work-life balance, Ohanian saw an opportunity in the professional growth space.
“This is new territory for us,” says Ohanian. “But I think back to 10 years ago, or even five years ago, there were so many taboos still around the workplace regarding mental health. There are still plenty, but Covid really put mental health on notice for all of us. It created an empathy for all of us.”
On Thursday, Ohanian’s 776 venture capital fund announced it is leading a $2.4 million pre-seed round in the Grand, a group career coaching platform that seeks to foster empathy by bringing together employees facing similar experiences in their professional lives.
Founded in 2019 by Anita Hossain Choudhry, 36, and Rei Wang, 32, the Grand invites individuals and companies to sign up for classes led by company certified facilitators on subjects like “Returning to Work After Becoming a Parent” and “Making a Career Transition” for $1200 to $1800. Each course has eight to 10 students and runs three months with yearlong access to the Grand’s community and events. To date, more than 500 professionals in 20 countries have taken the Grand’s classes, all of which are currently virtual. With the new funding, its cofounders hope to expand their business-to-business offerings, digital products and team.
This may be the Grand’s first funding round, but it’s no stranger to venture capital. Hossain Choudhry and Wang met in 2015 when they became the head of knowledge and CEO of the Dorm Room Fund at First Round Capital (Wang was named to the 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 Venture Capital list for this work). As a side hustle, which turned into a full-time role in August of 2018, Hossain Choudhry served as an executive coach at Reboot.io, while Wang spent her days cultivating a sense of community among the Dorm Room Fund’s young founders. It was during this time that they realized the need for a group carer coaching platform, and until this point bootstrapped the company.
“We saw how transformative this group coaching model is because it helps people feel less lonely in their journeys as they were supported by a group of peers who really get it,” says Hossain Choudhry. “Rei [Wang] and I thought about what it would look like if we could create a platform where people of different ages, industries and geographies could come together and get that level of peer support when they need it—that’s really how the Grand was born.”
The job training and career counseling industry was worth about $16.2 billion in 2020. Although its value is expected to decline slightly to $15.9 billion in 2021, this is because the sector serves to support other industries and many companies are investing in their own employee resource groups, according to Dr. Toni Irving, a leadership professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, likely forcing external counselors to lower their rates. The industry is also unique in that it is driven by giants like BetterUp and PathRise, as well as self-employed coaches with specific areas of expertise.
Katelin Holloway, founding partner at Ohanian’s 776, who first put the Grand on Ohanian’s radar, says these coaches are often too expensive for anyone who isn’t an executive. She should know: During her time as the vice president of people and culture at Reddit, Holloway spent much time searching for ways to provide automated, scalable career coaching solutions to employees of the network, but never found a platform that met her criteria.
“The second we met Anita [Hossain Choudhry] and Rei [Wang], who were in the early days of figuring things out, we just knew they were doing something right,” she says. “This idea of creating space for people who are at similar stages in their life cycle—whether that’s person or professional—was incredibly appealing.”
As employers seem to increasingly invest in employee well-being, the Grand’s cofounders believe they can fill this void as others in the space are small non-venture backed outfits.
Because the efficacy of coaching relies on employees’ willingness to be vulnerable, one might think it a conflict of interest to bring together those who work for the same organization, or even for rival businesses. Yet, Hossain Choudhry and Wang believe the grand’s commitment to confidentiality negates such issues.
“Individuals in the group are able to share more openly because they know that is the Grand’s guiding principle of the way we show up for one another,” says Hossain Choudhry.
Like Ohanian, experts including Irving, underscore the pandemic as driving employers to emphasize work-life balance for employees. “In these incredibly destabilizing times brought on by the pandemic, and exacerbated by wider awareness of police brutality and racial inequity, people are spending more time assessing their overall wellbeing,” says Irving. “As people continue to assess their boundaries and rethink their values, a benefit of our Zoom-centric lives is that coaching continues to become more accessible.”