Launch Day for any startup is full of stress, joy…and a few frantic calls with developers to work out last-minute bugs.
But Launch Day doesn’t typically coincide with the stress and joy of someone’s actual wedding day.
That’s exactly what happened for Chattanooga entrepreneur Kenzie Butera Davis. Her company BeforeWeBegin planned to launch their first public-facing platform out of beta in late October. Yet as the team worked to get all acceptance requirements for the app store ready to go, she and her bridesmaid, and co-founder/CPO, Lilly Mittenthal found themselves iterating and responding to Apple Review Board emails right before the rehearsal dinner and even the morning of the wedding. Right after finishing her hair for the big day on November 6, Davis finally got the call: Her app met Apple’s requirements and was ready to move forward.
It’s an unconventional launch story, but Davis is building an unconventional app. Maro is an e-learning and digital health platform to help parents have tough conversations with elementary and middle school kids about mental health, identity, empathy, diversity, and sex.
While the app can help parents navigate the complexities of “The Talk,” Davis says it is really more of a holistic “parent companion for child development.” Parents can use the platform and the chatbot to get the right resources around mental health, wellness, and sex education.
Maro’s namesake is the Roman poet Virgil Maro, known for guiding Dante through the complexities of Inferno and Purgatorio in The Divine Comedy. Similarly, maro guides parents through the toughest parts of parenting a young child and the hard questions that ultimately arise. Maro’s built-in chatbot recommends content that is relevant as well as age-appropriate for K-8 kids and gives parents complete control over what content they choose to engage with.
Importantly, Maro has both parent-facing and child-facing content. Parents can get recommendations on what topics to address with kids and how to go about having such difficult conversations. There are additional parental educational modules and ways to track a child’s mental, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing. National resources are included, and new content is added about every week to keep the platform up-to-date.
For the child-facing content, Davis and painter-turned-interaction-designer Mittenthal knew that style would matter in order to capture a child’s attention. In order to make sure the content was digestible and fun for kids, the team has worked with high-profile artists, animators, and designers from around the world to create culturally-appropriate content on a wide variety of topics.
Building in the Southeast
Davis entered university focused on trauma-informed care and power-based violence, ultimately working with and researching sexual violence and sex education.
After working in both the education and non-profit sector, Davis wanted to tackle the “inefficiencies” she saw when it came to teaching important topics. In a Medium article penned by Davis about the start of maro, she said her three years researching the topic made her ask the question: “At what point early in a person’s life is there an opportunity for intervention in the case that that human would otherwise grow up participating in a cycle of violence?”
While building such an app in the Southeast may seem a bit unorthodox, Davis found that parents, regardless of location, want such a platform to help guide conversations with their kids. “It was in [our customer discovery] conversations that it really hit us that it wasn’t necessarily about geography or perceived culture, it’s about being willing to meet parents where they are at. You have to be willing to allow them to teach their own values in their home and give them the tools they need to do that.”
Davis told Hypepotamus that the power of the platform is not just in the number of resources available, but that it provides a customizable and flexible curriculum that serves to guide parents through tough conversations in a way that aligns with their household values.
While maro is just getting off the ground, Davis has been plugged into the Chattanooga startup scene for some time. Prior to launch, she worked at Chattanooga-based accelerator The Company Lab (CO.LAB) as well as The JumpFund, a VC firm investing in early-stage, women-led companies. It was through the Southeast tech startup scene that Davis met co-founder and SCAD graduate Lilly Mittenthal, who brings product and UX/UI experience to the team.
While Davis says she has been asked why she isn’t building maro in New York or California — places where it is perceived that parents might be more open to such conversations — she knows the most important thing is “cultivating community, because we have to build trust and rapport with parents. We want to meet parents where they’re at and be very approachable.”
Moving Beyond “The Talk”
Ultimately, the vision is to impact three verticals: home, school and health. The team is starting with parents through their app, maro, but is also looking to see how the data they collect can help in a clinical setting, which can help “close the data gap for whole child pediatric care.”
From a public health perspective, the data collected and maro’s algorithm can ultimately track the app’s influence on statistics such as averting instances of unintended pregnancies, sexual violence, self-harm, and other downstream mental and reproductive health issues.
As the team looks to land their first round of funding in the near future, it’s exciting to see a female-founded startup show that when technology meets health in the Southeast, important platforms get built.