How to scale a mental health startup and get your face on a billboard

Editor’s Note: Vent Over Tea is a social enterprise founded at McGill that offers a free active listening service in Montreal (and recently, Calgary) to anybody who wants to talk through their struggles. They won 1st place in the Social Enterprise Track in the McGill Dobson Cup 2016, and have been featured in the Montreal Gazette as well as Bell Media.

The 3 founders: Chloe Chow, Sarah Fennessey, and Nimra Khan took the time to walk us through their journey and how they’re scaling their service.

They operate in Montreal and since a few weeks ago, Calgary. If you want to be listened to, or have a friend who does, book a session today at

Spotting the problem & scratching their own itch

Chloe: There’s a lot of stress and expectations from McGill, which is hard to balance with a social life and all the other things you have on your plate as a student. When I was at McGill, I struggled with a lot of depression and anxiety.

Sarah: I’m from Calgary so when I got to Montreal, I needed to find a new therapist. And this was back in 2011 when all the strikes were going on. So McGill Mental Health was actually on strike at the time, which meant I was literally in a situation where McGill had no mental health resources available and had to find one off-campus. I eventually got fed up with what was available on campus, and decided to do something about it.

Just the act of talking to someone made a difference – it didn’t need to be the world’s best therapist.”

The steps that took them from idea to prototype

Sarah: I had been going to therapy for a couple of years and eventually was able to overcome the PTSD I had been struggling with. Then I was in this situation where I didn’t need professional help anymore since I didn’t have a diagnosable disorder, but I still really loved talking to my therapist. It’s nice to have an uncensored, judgment-free conversation and some time to just unwind and talk through your struggles and anxieties. Even if you don’t have a disorder, there’s just so much shit going on in your life.  

I was taking a course with Richard Koestner and he showed us this fascinating study about therapists’ effectiveness that made things click for me. Basically, it looked at 3 test groups of patients, where each one went to get therapy from one of the following groups:

  1. A group that had appointments with an experienced therapist
  2. A group that had appointments with an empathetic professor
  3. A control group who received no treatment

What they found was that there was no difference between the 2 treatment groups in terms of the mental health improvements made by the patients, who were men with mild depression. And of course, they both made significant improvements compared to the control group who didn’t get any therapy. Just the act of talking to someone made a difference – it didn’t need to be the world’s best therapist.

So I thought: “Wait, what if we get a group of really good listeners together willing to volunteer their time and then make it free so you don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars to get the ‘best’ therapist who might get you the same results that an empathetic person could?”

Vent Over Tea won 1st prize in the Social Enterprise track of the McGill Dobson Cup 2016.
How the founding team was built

Sarah: So I had this idea brewing but I didn’t know how to bring it to life. Then one day I was browsing Spotted McGill around exam time and noticed that everybody was opening up about their mental health struggles with exams. So I anonymously wrote a post asking, “Does anyone wanna help me make this service to help students who are struggling with mental health issues at McGill? Email me if you’re interested, and I’ll set up a meeting in the New Year.”  And Chloe was one of the responders – she came to every single meeting. And another one of the students introduced us to Nimra.

Nimra: I met up with Sarah, and actually just wanted to be a listener at first. The interview went well, and since it was the beginning of the organization, I got involved on the organizational side as well. I had been in other McGill clubs before and knew how they were structured, so I was able to bring some of that knowledge to our little initiative.

We want to simulate 2 friends having an open and honest conversation.”

How they scaled their training process for their volunteer listeners

Chloe: Obviously we needed to train our listeners to make sure they were high quality. In the early phases, we’d outsource the training to McGill where there was a great active listening workshop and we had all our volunteers do that.

But that’s not scalable – it’s hard to get all our listeners take that workshop, especially if they’re not McGill students.

So we worked with a psychologist – the director of the clinic where I was interning at the time, to structure and build our own active listening training program for our volunteer listeners.

Although we don’t work with them anymore, it was nice to get advice from a professional with a clinical background even though our approach to Vent Over Tea is the complete opposite: we want to simulate 2 friends having an open and honest conversation.

How Chloe’s face ended up on billboards everywhere (photo above)

Chloe: Bell Let’s Talk is a Canadian nationwide campaign that raised $6.9 million for mental health initiatives across the country. This year, they decided to shine the spotlight on everyday people instead of just celebrities.

We were in a Gazette article last summer and this woman who was working on the campaign sent me a message on facebook saying she had a proposition for me from Bell. I was skeptical, so I stalked her on LinkedIn and realized it was for real. So we had a conversation on the phone, and all the ambassadors met up this January and talked openly about our experiences.

The whole thing was super weird, because they used my photo on a lot of billboards. And that was definitely a moment of vulnerability for me because I don’t talk openly about my mental health struggles to everyone – just a few close people. So having my experience published across the country was super strange, but also very empowering. Random people who I haven’t spoken to in years would send me messages saying, “Awesome that you’re taking part in this!”

The Calgary chapter launched just a few weeks ago and it’s growing faster than it did in Montreal because now we know what we’re doing.”

How they’re expanding to a 2nd city: Calgary

Sarah: I grew up in Calgary and have a network there already, so it just happened naturally. All my friends and family over there knew about Vent Over Tea and were super excited about what we’ve been building. And they all really wanted to be involved and start it in Calgary.

My mom is spearheading the project: holding meetings and training sessions, and she’s loving it! The Calgary chapter launched just a few weeks ago and it’s growing faster than it did in Montreal because now we know what we’re doing.

The Vent Over Tea team in Calgary.
The struggles they face as they scale

Sarah: It takes a while for people to decide that they want to talk to someone. And even after they’ve decided, it takes time for them to build up the confidence to make the first appointment.

Chloe: And then they have to take a leap of faith and try Vent Over Tea! It takes a while for people to trust a brand. The fact that we’ve been around for several years in Montreal has helped there because we’ve got some recognition at this point. So when people think, “Should I meet up and talk about my problems to stranger?”, they’re more okay with the idea. Now we’re figuring out how to bring that trust to Calgary.

Pause before you give advice. Then don’t give the advice.”

One thing you can do to become a better listener

Chloe: Pause before you give advice. Then don’t give the advice. When people come to you with an issue looking for a solution, if you can pause and just let them think out loud, they usually figure out solutions to their own problems, which is really empowering.


Advice for startup founders on maintaining their mental health

Sarah: Don’t spread yourself too thin or try to do everything in one day. Not only is it hard on you, but the work you deliver isn’t at its full potential. I know what it’s like to try to do everything at once and burn out. Instead, prioritize your work, break it up into chunks and just take it one step at a time with your full attention.

If you’re reading this and feeling even a little bit interested in what the Vent Over Tea experience is like, book a session right now. It’s free, you can select the cafe of your preference, and you don’t need to have a “problem” in order to book. It’s a liberating, uncensored, and fleeting conversation shared between two people with no follow up or strings attached.

To book a vent session, click here.

Mo Akif

Mo Akif

The Editor-in-Chief of the McGill Dobson Chronicles. Never having started a lemonade stand as a child and tired of reading blog posts about entrepreneurship without actually doing anything, he was on the verge of giving up and joining a pyramid scheme. Luckily the McGill Dobson Centre decided to adopt him, allowing him to get a closer look at what it takes to build something valuable.