On our latest episode of Future of the Business World, we talk with Tom Hu, a high school senior from Ontario, Canada, who is all too familiar with the pressures of student achievement. He is starting a business called Nicely, a mental-health evaluation tool that analyzes an individual’s social media use and delivers data to professionals to inform and improve client evaluation, diagnosis and care. Tom discusses his thorough market research and business plan, which was strengthened when he met his co-founder, Ted, during last summer’s Leadership in the Business World program.
Be sure to click the arrow above to listen to our conversation. An edited version of the transcript appears below.
Wharton Global Youth Program: A note to our listeners. We will be talking about depression and suicide on today’s episode.
Hello and welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast featuring high school students who are inspired by innovation. I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Each month, I get to have a fascinating conversation with a teen entrepreneur who is creating a product or service that addresses a need in the market, while often also making our world a better place.
My guest today is Tom Hu, a high school student from Ontario, Canada, who studied at Wharton last summer in our Leadership in the Business World program. Tom is building a product that he hopes will transform the current telehealth market and improve the mental health of Generation Z.
Tom, welcome to Future of the Business World.
Tom Hu: Hello, everyone. Hi, Diana. Thank you once again for this invitation and this wonderful opportunity to be here. My name is Tom Hu. I am currently a senior at Ridley College in Ontario, Canada. I love music. I love sports. And I’m looking forward to our conversation today.
Wharton Global Youth: Tell us about your platform, which is called Nicely. When did you begin developing it and why?
Tom: Nicely is a real-time negative mood indicator based on someone’s social media results. So, I started developing Nicely in the summer of 2021 through a hackathon back in China. The story with Nicely really began in my freshman year, when a good friend of mine attempted suicide. Despite his stellar academic records and vibrant social life, he was troubled by negative emotions and only expressed those through self-deprecating jokes on social media. And so, his calls for help went unanswered. After the attempt, I went to offer him support and sought to understand how his situation developed. This is when I realized how social media influenced his circumstances, and I started to question the role of technology in affecting the mental state of young adults.
That is the point where this idea of Nicely started in my mind. I wanted to build a product that could help Gen Z to regulate and monitor their social media usage. I see social media as a double-edged sword, where one side can help us promote ourselves and help us see a broader perspective of the world. However, on the other side, it can also promote negative emotions.
Wharton Global Youth: I’m very sorry that your friend went through that hard experience. But it sounds like it inspired some interesting problem solving on your end. And I want to get into that a little bit more. Can you talk about how the platform works? You call it a mental-health evaluation tool that delivers in-depth analysis of an individual’s social media and daily experiences. What does that mean, exactly? And where do emotions fit into all of that?
Tom: How I see emotions in the mental-health space is that emotion is something that cannot be quantified over time. It is subjective to someone, and can vary based on the context, the space, the current experiences you’re going through and the cultural perspective and personal perspective that you have. The most powerful point about Nicely is that we can quantify emotion in a way through data analytics and quantify them in a number.
So, how does our platform work? Our platform is connected to the API, or the application programming interface of major social media platforms — in this case we use Twitter. After our clients have registered, our program will then go on to the API of Twitter and fetch all public information about that client. And so, this will include their public posts, public comments, likes, shares, retweets, etc. After all this information is fetched, we then fed them through our machine learning model. Well, to be more specific, a sentimental analysis model that characterizes each post on a scale of positive to negative. After that, we’ll then map out all the results on a plane. In the end, what our clients will get is a detailed graph about their emotional fluctuation during the day. And what we hope to achieve with this technology is that we hope to use the graph and identify signs of crisis in someone’s life. So, this really goes back to the definition of depression and mental crises and how we diagnose depression. For example, depression is a long-time accumulation of negative emotions. So through the graph, we hope to find early signs of the accumulation of negative emotions, and send them to health professionals so they can help the patient or client in advanced time.
Wharton Global Youth: Is this data used both by professionals as well as by say, a student who wants to understand their social media use?
Tom: Currently, our product is [directed] toward professionals. A client will agree to a professional using data for their analysis. Let’s say I’m a professional. I’ll [say], ‘Okay, here’s a new advanced product named Nicely. Do you wish to let us analyze your data, which is completely private?’ (I won’t be leaking this information to anyone). [The professional asks], ‘Do you allow me to analyze such data in the exchange for better treatment?’ That is really the pitch line that we have or the thinking process that we have here.
Again, based on a mutual agreement between the professional and the client, then the professional will start using the data which the client is generating day by day, and trying to use that data to decipher behavioral characteristics and emotional traits about that individual person to better understand how their emotions work. How does this person work emotionally? What do they like? What do they dislike? Based on those data, they can then give suggestions that are more personalized and individualized.
Wharton Global Youth: Fascinating. It’s such a combination of data-driven and data-informed. You know, you think of mental health as being such an emotional crisis, but you’re really using the data to solve the problem. That’s a unique approach. I want to talk to you about Leadership in the Business World, which is the program that you attended last summer at Wharton. How did it help your entrepreneurial journey?
Tom: Absolutely. I’ll definitely say that my entrepreneurial past before the LBW program was very steady. However, when it comes to the LBW program, it just exponentially grows. This goes back to my first day. Just for some context: I actually met my co-founder Ted in the LBW program in which we were roommates. It was the first night in LBW. And it’s just me and Ted lying in our dorm room. And I didn’t know anything about him. I was trying to do a conversation starter. I was like, ‘So Ted, what do you like?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m into history. I’m into philosophy. I’m also into business.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, business, I’m into it, too. I actually have a current startup name Nicely.’ And then we got into details about it. And Ted started showing me all these visions that he had about this business. I was like, ‘Wow, Ted, your ideas are amazing! In the future, do you mind if we go more in depth in our discussion, or even think about joining our team?’ And that really is how I recruited my co-founder, one of the most fascinating stories I love to tell.
But other than finding more members [for my] team in LBW, the overall perspectives and constructive criticisms that I have received from my peers are great. [It’s great] to see how a group of passionate entrepreneurs and business students have come together with varying perspective, ideas, and a passion for entrepreneurship. So, during my time on campus, I loved to pitch my idea to various different individuals, whether they were my peers, whether they were in a different program, whether they were a professor or a guest speaker. The time at LBW taught me to be fearless with my entrepreneurial process, reaching out to anyone I can get to receive that piece of criticism that’s valuable for an early-age startup.
Wharton Global Youth: Wow! Sounds like it was a wonderful experience for you. So, mental health can be a real taboo subject. And yet society, especially high school students, have really been struggling emotionally and psychologically. You mentioned your friend, I hope he’s doing better. Is he? Good. We’ve got social media, as you said, the pandemic, pressures of school and achievement, and so much more. What have you learned about the mental health of your peers and really even yourself through the process of creating your startup? And more importantly, what should the rest of the world understand?
Tom: As a high school student, I know that the struggle that we have been currently experiencing is real. Whether it is university applications, your high school curriculum, AP program, IB program, in Ontario, we have the OSSD program — the academic pressures and the co-curricular demand for students in the current age is unimaginable. So, because we have such a heavy load on high school students, social media becomes one of our best outlets to express such emotions. And such is the reason why I wanted to start a venture in the area [to begin with]. As I’ve navigated through the different professionals and different social media sources, and I’ve done my marketing research, what I have found is that we as the younger generation need to stand up for ourselves to talk about our own experiences. As someone who is young, and as someone who is from the generation, our advantage is not the professional understanding over mental health or the professional understanding over psychology that we have. It is moreso the understanding of our own experiences as a part of this generation Z. Think about the ways that we can improve our own well-being and how we can support our peers.
Wharton Global Youth: I think what I hear you saying, beyond the data, which is something that you are studying and analyzing, is that it’s about conversation, community, and communication, right? You are hoping to get your peers talking more about these things that they’re struggling with, so that they can ideally move beyond them. And of course, Nicely, will help with that, because it’s got the analysis piece, but it sounds like staying quiet is not an option.
Tom: And in terms of what should the rest of the world know? Be more supportive toward young adults.
Wharton Global Youth: Do you feel social media is to blame for the mental health issues that your peers are facing?
Tom: Wow, that’s a great question. It is very stereotypical that social media is a place of comparison where our peers compare ourselves to the ones around us, the beauty comparison, or just there’s a lot of competing comparisons going on on social media. But me personally — not addressing it from a Nicely perspective — I’ll say that social media can be a place for motivation and positivity. For example, for myself, I can personalize my social media accounts and my social media follows so that it becomes a source of motivation during some of my most dark ages, or some of my most nervous, anxious times.
And when I’m addressing it in a Nicely perspective, I’ll say that social media is an outlet for Gen Z. It is an outlet for the academic pressure, it is an outlet for their personal lives, and it’s a place where Generation Z loves to talk about and relieve their stress and their personal load in this time that is so stressed and pressured.
And when I’m talking about social media in a professional spectrum, social media has been a platform where it’s seen as having a competing relationship with professionals. Say I’m a client, I’m a young Gen Z and going to a professional. I might not be telling the truth. I might be telling biased information and might be telling inaccurate information. However, in the meantime, we’re being very honest on our social media, whether we are talking to our friend or posting about our day. Some have the habit of journaling their day on their social media. It might just be a random sentence. But really, what you post on social media has a high representation of yourself, your true self, of who you are. That is the point where we see, okay, Nicely, we can use this as something that fuses and powers our model. We’re using this source of information to benefit and improve the accuracy of diagnosis.
Wharton Global Youth: Related to that, do you feel as though Nicely is already making a difference in the world? And have you met or interacted with any of your users? Can you kind of walk us through that experience?
Tom: Currently, Nicely is still at a very early stage of development, so we have not started any clinical trials. But we hope that we will start them in the near future. Just based on our previous marketing research and talking to psychology professionals, professors, or professionals in general, I would say that the overall outlook on Nicely is very positive. People think that it’s a very innovative process that can help propel the understanding of patients.
During the initiation of Nicely, we identified three main problems that we see with the current methodology, or where the diagnosing mechanism is lacking. So first of all is the blind spot: how decisions of care provision are made without crucial data. Second of all is narrow assessment: How grey zones elapse between [counseling] sessions with minimal monitoring. And third of all, is limited follow up: there are only a few ways to identify and help prevent crisis in real time. So really, we saw that there’s a lack of the use of data. And we see that this data is crucial in the diagnosing process. Just by seeing someone’s social media profile, it has a lot to unpack.
This is an example scenario. Let’s say I am a high school senior who plays on a basketball team and I constantly tweet about my basketball journey throughout my life. And one day I started tweeting: Oh, today it was the playoff with my basketball [team]. I am so frustrated with myself. I tried to go onto the court, I tried dribbling around, I tried shooting around. However, for some reason, it just wasn’t working out. And after that, I got very upset about myself. I feel very frustrated, and my coach put me on the bench for the entirety of the game. Going back home, I still feel very frustrated. I wanted to play good for my team. However, for some reason, that particular day was just not my day. So that would be a sort of a raw content that our program was picking up. However, after analysis, and let’s say after this content is being sent to a professional, what they can decipher from this content is that this person really places their team at a very high priority. And he really places his personal performance over his personal well-being. Such information can be beneficial in helping the professional to understand their client on a personal level.
Wharton Global Youth: You are a for-profit business, which means you fit squarely into the demographic of aspiring to make a profit and an impact. How do you balance those objectives?
Tom: As someone who is a young entrepreneur, I definitely prioritize the impact over profit. However, I do think profit is still necessary in the process. I think profit can give us a very stable structure and help us to improve over time. I was having this debate between a nonprofit and for-profit during the initiation of Nicely, and I chose for-profit in the end. However, I do really love nonprofits. But really, the reason being is the cost associated with this model. The use of AI in the industry is very premature. And a lot of investments rather as clinical trials or academic studies need to be solid to provide a structure for Nicely in order for it to actually launch. So again, being a for-profit enables us to reinvest in ourselves to make a bigger impact in society.
Wharton Global Youth: I heard you mention the next three to four years. You’re a senior, what’s next for you?
Tom: So currently I just finished the college-application process. For college, I’m definitely going to the U.S. And in terms of developing Nicely, we have three directions currently. First of all, is integrating Nicely into the current methodologies that professionals are using; starting to use Nicely in clinical scenarios and starting to see Nicely really flourish in the current market. Second of all, modify our current platform and promote individual use of Nicely. So for some audiences that might not be so confident or that might not want to share the data with someone else, we also are looking to integrate it in a form so individuals can use it to monitor their own emotional well-being. So this is for a more sensitive audience group. And really, we’re trying to reach as big of an audience group as we can. And finally, what we’re looking toward is to use our current model and current approach to promote psychological studies and promote our understanding of our emotional well-being. [This involves] finding out the key words or key activities that might lead to a crisis, and overall just promote our understanding as a whole.
Wharton Global Youth: All right, let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Try to answer these questions as quickly as you can. You spent time studying in Leadership in the Business World, as we discussed. How do you define leadership in a sentence or two?
Tom: I’ll define leadership as gathering a group of like-minded peers working on one initiative that can impact the world.
Wharton Global Youth: Something about you that would surprise us?
Tom: I am a jazz musician. I love classical music and jazz, and I play over four instruments.
Wharton Global Youth: A company where you would like to go behind the scenes to see how it operates?
Tom: I’ll say SpaceX.
Wharton Global Youth: You’re starting your own business-themed talk show. Who is your first guest and why?
Tom: I’ll definitely say Steve Jobs, but mainly on disruptive technology and how really creating something out of the air and how can he really, again, create something and promote something that does not exist in our world.
Wharton Global Youth: Thank you so much for joining us on Future of the Business World.
Tom: Well, thank you so much, Diana. It is a pleasure and honor to be here. Thank you once again for this amazing opportunity.
Wharton Global Youth: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US is 1-800-273-8255.
Tom Hu says that teenagers are often very honest on their social media platforms. Do you agree with this? Do you see value in collecting social media data to inform mental-health diagnoses and treatment?
Tom wants the world to know that high school students face lots of pressures and need more support. What would you like the world to understand about life’s demands and how they affect mental health?
Have you applied innovative thinking to the struggles that many teens are facing? Share your ideas and your story in the comment section of this transcript.