The Startup Fighting To Eliminate LGBTQIA+ Health Disparities
Building out a company that redefines health and wellness for the queer community.
Cutting edge technology, meet ancient holistic practice
"We created an entirely new product and new category, a new piece of hardware and integrated across technology, art, science, and neuroscience to create this thing—and changed hundreds of thousands of lives."
Welcome to The Leap, where women (and nonbinary) entrepreneurs open up about what it took to get to where they are now. In 2018, women founders received just 2.2% of the $130 billion in venture money invested in the United States. Given these odds, it’s time to get real about what it’s really like to be a woman founder. From raising capital to imposter syndrome, we explore what it takes for women to enter the world of entrepreneurship.
Below, we talk to Ariel Garten, the founder of Muse, a brain sensing headband that helps you meditate. Muse gives you real-time feedback on your brain while you meditate to guide you and keep you in focused attention.
Did you go to college? If so, what did you study?
I have always known I was going to be an entrepreneur from a very young age. The idea of working for somebody else seemed absolutely crazy. I started my entrepreneurial ventures when I was quite young. When I was 16 I had a line of clothing that I sold on consignment to stores in Toronto. At the same time I had a job in a research lab I had a job in a research lab doing embryonic stem cell research when I was 17. So I was exposed to both the arts and the sciences.
When I went to university it was for neuroscience. When I graduated I immediately opened a clothing store and expanded my line and started selling across the United States. But I was really fascinated by the brain, having studied neuroscience, and [was] really looking for an opportunity to build a business around it.
What were you doing before work before starting your company? Tell us about your career path before becoming an entrepreneur.
In the early 2000s I began working with Dr. Steve Mann, who is one of the inventors of the wearable computer. He had an early brain-computer interface system that we were using to create concerts, we were literally making music with our minds. And I stood back and said “Holy shit, this is incredible! We’re controlling the world with our minds and the world needs to know about it.”
I got together with my co-founders Trevor Coleman and Chris Aimone, and eventually we formed the company InteraXon. We started to explore stuff that you can do with this amazing technology, like making levitating chairs and thought-controlled toasters. We wanted to thought-control the world. We got this massive project with the Olympics and thought, “What’s the biggest thing we can do with our brains?” and we got a project that allowed us to control the lights in the CN tower with people’s brains from across the country. From there, we were like, we can do anything with our minds. But it turned out we didn’t yet have a product. We finally came to the realization that being able to control the world inside your mind rather than the world outside was the most valuable piece, and so Muse was born as a meditation tool.
Where did you first get the idea for Muse?
After the Olympics we were really still convinced it was about controlling technology with your mind and the paradigms that we were using is that we could see when your brain was focused and when it was relaxed. We would train people to be focusing and relaxing their brains in order to use that as the control signal.
At that point after the Olympics, we stood back and said, hold on, people can see when they’re focused and they can see when they’re relaxed. This was like going to the gym for your brain, it was a cognitive trainer. We quickly realized that we were teaching people to be able to meditate and that the killer app was not going to be controlling stuff outside of you but controlling stuff inside of you.
When did you know you wanted to leave your previous career path behind? What did the transition from your previous career to launching this company look like?
I was doing so many things. I had a family real estate business. I was a psychotherapist. So, after I closed my clothing business I became trained as a psychotherapist because I knew I wanted to work in the space of the brain and build a business around it. I was still working in the research lab, I was doing this, I had my psychotherapy practice. It wasn’t until after the Olympics when I realized, okay this thing is real. The three of us getting together every week in our basement had really transported into this massive thing with us standing on the world stage. We realized it was a business. We got paid for the Olympics project and that became the first revenue for the company that then allowed us to hire people and to move forward with a real business and slowly quit all of my other jobs.
Letting go of a steady paycheck is terrifying for most people, did you have a financial safety net (if you can, please tell us about how you saved/what kind of runway you had) or back-up plan?
I had saved some money from my psychotherapy business and it was actually my own money that got invested in the first starting of the business. Up until we got the Olympics contract I dumped thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars into this. Any penny that I had went into this. If we needed to buy equipment or pay for something I was doing it. And I was doing it because I could see there was a thing here. I was confident spending this money because I knew there was something on the other side. Exactly what form it would take didn’t really matter but I knew this was going to be big.
How have your conceptions of financial stability changed since starting this venture?
Everybody assumes that once you become an entrepreneur you’ll be rich, but it’s really initially quite the opposite. As a psychotherapist and in real estate I was making very nice income and then you dump it all into this company, you have no money, and at first you are working for nothing. Then we eventually paid each other $35,000 each per year and that was like a huge big deal that we could pay ourselves. Then it moved up to $42,000 then after our A round it moved up to $65,000. Like, I’m the CEO of the company and I’m getting paid $65,000 and am thinking, “Oh my god, can we afford to pay me $65,000?”
The whole time you’re telling yourself the story of like, “someday I’m going to be a millionaire,” and you’re making slide decks that say you’re a billion dollar company and you own 65% of a billion dollar company and so it’s this very funny tension between feeling this sense of safety and security knowing that what you’re doing is going to be huge and you’re going to be a millionaire and so it’s totally fine to dump it all in, and then also actually having no money. As a startup you run out of money all the time and you’re the first person to not get paid. So it’s a hell of an adventure.
We’re now at a place where the company has been at this for ten years, my salary is very stable, everybody’s salary is very stable. We pay above market rate whereas in the beginning you just try to pay everyone as cheap as you possibly can because every penny matters so much. So now I’m less deluded about the millions of dollars in payoff at the end of the day. It may or may not be there someday but I have the stability of a stable company and a stable income and everything works well and I know it’s fine.
What’s been your plan to profitability—how have you been raising capital?
The initial [capital] was out of my own pocket. Our seed series was funded first by Chade-Meng Tan, he created the Google "Search Inside Yourself" program. He gave us the first check of $100,000 to create this meditation tool which he said was on his mission of solving world peace in his lifetime. I remember that moment when the three of us got our first check and were just staring at each other like, “Oh my god is this really happening?”
The next money came in the same round from FFCC out of New York City. I remember sitting in the room with this venture capitalist when he all of a sudden started talking about the company as “we.” And I realized, holy shit he’s putting money into this company. Our first round was in 2011 and that was a $400,000 raise on a $4.5 million valuation, which at that point was pretty significant for a Canadian company. These days it’s a small valuation, back then everyone was shocked. We then did an Indiegogo campaign where we raised another $300,000. Then I raised another series A led by Horizon Ventures out of Hong Kong and A Grade which is Ashton Kutcher’s last fund, so that was pretty amazing.
I had been an entrepreneur, but I had no formal business background. I had never pitched, I’m a 5’2’’ female with ridiculously long hippie hair and here I am standing and telling venture capitalists that we’re going to control computers with my mind and they should give me millions of dollars for it. And, astonishingly, some of them did. So that was an extraordinary process. To date, I raised about $18.7 million until the time when I stepped down as CEO and then the CEO that succeeded me, Derek Luke, has raised probably another $10 million.
What’s it been like being a woman entrepreneur?
In some ways it has not felt any different because I don’t know the difference. I was a female CEO of a tech company ten years ago. As I was going through all of these things, I would feel quite confident in what I was doing and it would also be amazing to me that I was there. But I don’t think that was a matter of being male or female, I think anybody with no actual experience running a business and pitching VCs, with no MBA would probably also feel a sort of, “Wow, how did I get here?” But I got there with my tenacity and my knowledge that I can do this.
I probably have been discounted, but I never really experienced any negativity. In some ways I think I had a more positive experience being a female because people would be fascinated by it. I was a rare bird. People found my courage and inspiration fascinating and so they wanted to talk to me and introduce me to people. I showed up in silicon valley and strangers were introducing me to VCs after five minutes of conversation. In many ways, I think being a woman was advantageous because I was able to stand out in the crowd. It made me very compelling. As I went on to be the CEO of a tech company for seven years, people would always ask me what it was like being a woman in tech. At first that question angered me, I didn’t know why they were pointing out that I was a woman. I thought, why can’t we just accept that women are CEOs too and that’s fine?
Eventually I became more aware of how difficult other women were having it. I really recognized the barriers women face internationally in a visceral way and recognized how important it was to stand up and say yes, I am a woman CEO and that matters. We need to point it out, and we need to raise the flag, and flap our arms as loud as we can and say yes, we are here. And this is good. And we are role models. I’m extremely passionate about supporting women in business and mentor many women entrepreneurs across various feels to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to have success that they want in their own lives and not be held back by the voices in their own head or the social context around them.
What would you say has been your company’s biggest victory so far?
We brought a brain sensing headband to market that helps you meditate that you can buy in Best Buy. We created an entirely new product and new category, a new piece of hardware and integrated across technology, art, science, and neuroscience to create this thing—and changed hundreds of thousands of lives. This whole thing has been rather unbelievable.
What does your self-care routine look like?
I am very lucky to have created a meditation company along with my co-founders, and so meditation is a key part of my routine and a key part of my grounding. Taking the time to focus on my breath, being able to observe my thoughts and using that to ground myself is fundamental.
As the world shifts and changes around you, the skills you learn in meditation allow you to be flexible and resilient to the world. I never had a very strong inner critic which I think has been part of what allowed me to believe that I could do this crazy thing and go forward where other people might have shied back and said, “Oh I dunno if this will work, I could fail,” I really had a very quiet inner dialogue. But meditation has allowed me to take what was left of that inner dialogue and really be able to work with it in productive ways. And be able to learn more about my emotional reactions and shift my relationship to my emotional reactions and my thoughts. It’s been extraordinary.
What are some resources (books, podcasts, etc) that have helped you on your journey?
I gather a lot of my favorite resources and I share them in my own podcast Untangled, which I co-host with Patricia Karpas. We interview key authors and leaders in the meditation space and scientists to learn about the brain and meditative practices. In the previous episodes we featured Dr. Marc Lesser, who is the author of Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader which I really loved. We featured Dr. Jeffrey Martin who has this amazing program to help you mind fundamental well-being. I would recommend Untangled and all of the authors and resources that flow out through there.
What’s your advice to someone who is considering taking “the leap”?
My advice is that you can do it. We have so many things in our head that hold us back that are not true. We have so many thoughts that always tell us that we aren’t going to be good enough, that our ideas aren’t good enough. None of those things are real or true.
We are amazing beautiful creatures, and once we quiet the voices in our head that tell us that we are not, you are then able to really achieve and accomplish whatever you want in life. The most important thing is to know that you can do it, and anything you can’t do there are other people around you who you can hire, or bring on board, or partner with who have the skills and capabilities. So don’t worry, you don’t have to know how to do everything, you just have to have the vision to galvanize people to bring them along the road with you.
I’ve found myself in some extraordinary places and it’s happened because I have the chutzpah and the guts to just go out and do that. Everybody might be looking about saying “What’s this little girl doing here? How did she get here?” and the answer is I wanted to be there, so I asked and I put myself there. If you don’t reach out you can never succeed. Don’t worry about failure, don’t worry if you fail, just continue to reach out, put yourself out there, and you will succeed ultimately.