It’s said that the sum of all one's experiences lead you to who you are today, and in Ryan Mundy’s case it couldn’t be more true. He’s drawn upon his experience as a Super Bowl-winning NFL player and as an investor and entrepreneur in tech startups to tackle a woefully broken system: mental and physical wellness in communities of color. Ryan, fueled by his own personal mental health struggles experienced during his transition from player to entrepreneur, is making an impact on black wellness through Alkeme Health, a digital health startup that he founded.
Here are my three big takeaways from the conversation:
Life transitions require you to reassess your own identity and determine who you are and what inspires you.
The healthcare system is even more broken for people of color.
Alkeme Health hopes to crash the access barriers by connecting people of color with content, professionals, and more that is aimed towards them.
I know you’ll enjoy listening to Ryan’s journey and to the enormous impact and potential that Alkeme will have on our world.
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Ryan: And I said, well, if I had a tough time, imagine what's going on, for folks on the south and west side of Chicago or on the north side of Pittsburgh or on the east side of Detroit, this is like generational type stuff that just keeps sending us back.
How do we unlock our communities, potential rooted in mental health?
Aaron: I'm Aaron Levy. And I have this vision of a workplace where your manager doesn't suck; where instead your manager is your coach helping you to reach your full potential. I founded Raise The Bar, wrote Open, Honest, and Direct, and started this podcast to help companies transform their workplace to a place where both the company and employee succeeds.
In this podcast, I get to interview leaders who built high-performing teams and learn from them on what it takes to unlock a team with potential.
Today, I'm lucky to have Ryan Mundy, the founder and CEO of Alkeme Health, a digital health startup rooted in Black wellness. Ryan's had many past lives though, before starting Alkkeme, Ryan co-founded SWZLE, which was acquired back in October of 2020 and was the managing director of Techletes.
Before his reign in the tech space Ryan's first career was as a professional athlete where he played eight years in the National Football League. And as a Super Bowl winning champion of Super Bowl 43. In this episode, Ryan talks about his career as an athlete, his exploration of finding his identity when sports ends and his trials and tribulations with mental health and how that's helped to form his new business and the impact that he's having on the world.
I know you'll enjoy this one. Enjoy the listen.
Aaron: So Ryan, thank you for coming on. Just a pleasure to have you on, and I've been following you from afar for years and the work you've been doing in the Chicago tech space, but you've had a quite a journey prior to that. I'd love to hear a little bit more about your story and how you got here today.
Like not just a step one, step two, but, take me back to what got you here.
Ryan: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me on; definitely a pleasure to join you. And in this episode I'm a well-traveled man. Let's put it like that. And you know my, my core belief around life is everything happens the way it should and that's what got me to this point today. And I wouldn't trade anything in the world to be where I am sitting currently right now, but I'm originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I started playing football at the age of seven years old. So that's back in 1992 came from very humble beginnings.
Neither one of my parents went to college. I have two younger sisters, you know, inner city neighborhood. Lower middle-class community if you will. And you know, just kind of getting by Like a pretty good summary of my upbringing, but more specifically, I started playing football in 1992 as mentioned at the age of seven.
And during that season, we were absolutely terrible. Didn't win one game. I played often guard and wore number 52 and it was in direct conflict with my skillset because I was the biggest kid. I was the fastest kid. I was the strongest kid on the team yet. And still I'm blocking for a bunch of kids who aren't scoring touchdowns.
And we went winless that season. And so nonetheless, I was pretty frustrated and told my dad, like, you know, I'm not playing football next season. I don't want to. This is a terrible experience. We suck on that score in touchdowns. I don't want to play. And so going into the 1993 season my dad, he didn't make me get back out there.
You know, his thought process was that eventually, oh, you know, you'll change your mind, but I was pretty like sold on not getting back out there to play football and a few weeks into the season. My dad came to me, he says, so do you want to go out and play football? And I'm like, Nope. He was like, all right, well, what would need to happen in order for you to get back out?
I get back out there, you know, I want to make touchdowns and mind you I'm seven years old. And so like, it probably wasn't much of a negotiation, but I do remember articulating him to him. Like, you know, if I want, if I'm getting back out there, you know, I want the ball, I don't want to score touchdowns like Emmett Smith, Barry Sanders, et cetera.
And so that was the deal we struck; my dad's best friend took over the head coaching duties. So that was like an easy thing to make happen. Meet a running back, but I always tell that story because had it not been for my dad and, you know, again, I frame this as a negotiation. He probably more than likely, literally made me get back out there.
But had it not been for my father making me get back out on that field. The 1993 season, I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today. You know, that's just, I believe in that like relativity of life and everything is connected and had I not made that decision and my dad and I made that decision for me, a lot of the things in my life probably wouldn't have happened the way that they would.
But fast forward through that as mentioned, grew up in Pittsburgh and you know, became high school, all American, highly recruited.. Upwards of 40 or so full scholarship rides across the country, but narrowed my choices down to Pitt, Penn state, Michigan, Virginia, and Notre Dame and ultimately selected Michigan where I went to the University of Michigan.
Four seasons there and had a really good career you know, started a bunch of games throughout my time there. But eventually went to West Virginia for my fifth year of football and played under Rich Rodriguez. And, you know, we had a good, good year that year. But eventually I got drafted back home to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008. And we won a Super Bowl my rookie year. And so, you know, that was like, it was, it was a dream come true for me to be drafted by my hometown team. First and foremost, you know, to live out a lifelong dream in front of my family, my friends and everybody who had helped me throughout the ups and downs to get that starting point or that station in life to actually realize a dream in front of everyone who had helped me get there was really special, but the icing or the cherry on top of that was that we won a Super Bowl. My rookie year, there's a lot of Hall of Fame players out there who don't even come remotely close to winning a Super Bowl.
And here I am, you know, fresh out of college in my hometown on a Super Bowl winning team. You know, it was kind of like a movie script if you will. But fast forward. Two years later, we went to another Super Bowl last night. Versus being bad, unfortunately. So I know the joy of winning as who will, and also the agony of losing.
But I played five years in Pittsburgh under some amazing coaches and some hall of fame teammates. I played one year in New York with the Giants, and then I came to Chicago and played two seasons there, 2014 to 2015 and subsequently retired after eight years. And during that time of transition, I got into, as you mentioned, startups, more so an angel investor side you know, made a handful of bets, you know, across the country.
I was like a mercenary angel investor, but then eventually got on the other side of this. Started one business in the eco-friendly category around reusable straws. This was the summer of 2018 where everybody was anti plastic and plastic straws specifically were the Anti-Christ. And I was like, all right, well, somebody needs to do something about this.
I should go do it. And figured out a business opportunity to create a little lifestyle business. We did really well with that. I sold that business almost a year ago today. As I prepared to now focus on Alkeme, which is a digital health company focused on eliminating disparities from the healthcare system, starting with the mental health platform that focuses on a black experience.
Aaron: I'm probably have the math wrong, but you said you started in 92 at seven and you played till 2015. So you know, a major part of your life, your identity, your career was playing football, and then what your 29, 30 and your career is over. And, you know, you've had a super bowl and you've been in the super bowl and you've done all this stuff, but to the real world, you're a 29, 30 year old.
So like, help me understand what. Kind of what evolution was going from my identity as a football player to now becoming something else or recreating myself in a whole new career and endeavor.
Ryan: Yeah. It's you know, sports is an amazing activity, it teaches you a ton of life lessons. And so particularly football a physical game, you get knocked down.
You gotta get back up, you having a bad play, you gotta shake it off and play the next play. And that's been like a very consistent theme throughout my life. But I was up for a really big challenge transitioning away from. To add to your point. I played football for 24 years in total. I started at the age of seven and I did not stop until I was 31 years old, every year.
And as you mentioned, you know, for the first time in my life I had to ask myself, you know, who am I when I'm not tackling. Literally that simple, like who am I when I'm not tackling somebody?
Ryan: And that brings on a lot of questions. It brings on a lot of anxiety. Identity issues, et cetera. And so I remember very distinctly during my rookie season. And I talked to Mike Tomlin and he told me, you know, football is not who you are, it's what you do. And you know, that stuck with me throughout my professional career.
And I was proactive and finding, or at least educating myself through different programs. I actually got my MBA while I was an active athlete at the university of Miami, Florida. So that was my way of mitigating this inevitable transition, which I had saw a lot of my predecessors deal with some pretty heavy stuff around like alcoholism, substance abuse, money troubles, the whole nine, I had seen that.
And I was determined not to be that person and my way of mitigating that was through education. But it's a lot different when that rubber has to meet the road. And so I was highly educated when I retired.. But what I quickly realized is I was not emotionally ready for that transition. And so again, that's what that big looming question like, who am I, like yeah, I got a degree, but who am I? You know what I mean? Like I had to take that journey and where, because I was dealing with a bunch of anxiety. I was dealing with depression. I was dealing with general identity issues. It was just kind of a lot for me to kind of take on it, you know, at the age of 31, I got a wife and two kids and then there's all these external pressures.
And so it was a lot for me to manage. And when I went out into the marketplace to go see a therapist and go get help, I had a tough time doing that, to be honest with you. You know, people were still looking at me as like Ryan Mundy, the athlete; oh, you shouldn't have these problems. You should be all good because you did this, this and this.
It was really, really tough sledding. And so, you know, that's like the backstory behind why I've built Alkeme or why I'm building Alkeme, but it's really important, especially now today. In this day and age where athletes would be more vocal about mental health and just the humanity of, of such like, we all deal with these issues, whether it's transition, just who am I in the world?
I mean, it is, it's, it's such a really important time to bring these things to light. But my experience really showed up at the age of 31, when I was trying to figure out who am I, such a big question.
Aaron: It's such a big question that, you know, all human beings ask themselves. And it's so interesting. Cause I, you know, I've talked to a number of athletes around this too; your identity is tied to the sport. You know what you say, Mike Tomlin's said football is not who you are. It's what you do. And it's almost like, it sounds like you thought about this prior to retirement, but the day you stop playing football is the day where it smacks you in the face.
And you have to say, what's this life thing about?
Ryan: Yup. For sure. But the reality is at some point along the spectrum of being an athlete specifically, you know, you have to face that inevitable transition, whether you stop playing after high school, a lot of my buddies stopped playing after college.
And the reality there is that. Yeah, life hit them in the face really hard because, you know, we were doing all the same things on campus. But for one reason or another you know, I made it professionally and they didn't. And so life hit them in the face really hard because they didn't have any money.
They weren't resourced properly. So they were dealing with these issues at a really young age but the great thing about making it professionally as at least you have somewhat of a financial cushion if you manage your funds appropriately, but that does not solve anything. I I'm, I'm here to tell you it does not meaningfully solve anything as it relates to those identity issues and figuring out who you are.
Aaron: And so you were proactive about it and you said, Hey, I need to get help. How are you able to find, get the help and, you know, what was your journey into the identity that you've opened yourself up to.
Ryan: Yeah. I mean, I mentioned my core belief around everything happens the way it should.
But that's not in a passive manner. Like I am extremely proactive about going out there and figuring things out. I am extremely curious. You know, like to believe that I have a high degree of creativity and, you know, combine those two to go out there and figure things out and go out and learn and explore.
And it's all rooted under this belief around unlocking the best and highest version of myself. And so that has always kind of been my MO if you will, it's like, how can I get better? How can I unlock the next version of myself? And so that was like the fuel that allowed me to kind of separate myself from football.
You know, as it relates to my Identity transition, if you will like, and it was, I should be very honest here. Like it, it was compounded too, because I did not have a good departure from the Bears. You know, I was injured, you know, staff and I, we weren't on the same page on a few things. and so when I retired, I was injured and upset and that did not enable a good relationship for me to transition away from the game that I, again, that I have played for 24 years.
So in all reality, I was bitter as hell and very upset. You know, people think that when you retire, you retire with a team and you get this press conference and it's a Swan song and you know, all this jazz, like it ain't like that for 99.9% of the athletes And so like I was upset. I was emotionally hurt.
I was physically hurt. And all, you know, I just kind of used negative energy to try to propel myself forward and find it by myself and carve out a new identity. And so as it relates to like the mental health portion of that when I went out into the marketplace, again, people were looking at me as Ryan, the athlete, I'm like, don't talk to me about football.
I don't want to talk about that. That part of my life is done. I'm trying to move on and pursue, you know, use these skills that I've developed as a professional athlete in a new context, that was like the pull through that I was looking for. And so, you know, really dealt with some tough situations and tough issues.
And that's how I even got into tech. I was like, Ooh, what's this? I don't know anything about it. I don't know anything about VC. I got a few dollars. I'm gonna go do it. And you know, that, that unlocking of the potential is really what drove me professionally.
But personally I was still kind of working through and navigating that. But what I've learned through that experience personally, was that healthcare, the healthcare system is flawed at best particularly for communities of color, black and brown communities who are looking for culturally competent, culturally relevant care.
Like I was looking for somebody, as I mentioned not to see me as Ryan Mundy, the athlete; those days were done. I needed help and support for Ryan Mundy, the man, Ryan Mundy, the black man, right. Ryan Mundy the husband right. Ryan Mundy, the father, like help me out with that. But the athlete portion of my life is big and consuming that, you know, people gravitate towards it.
And so I had a really rough go, but eventually, you know a professional that helped me work through some things. But you know, in that experience, I realized that even with resources, like I was still had a very tough time finding the care that I needed and so that was a driver for me starting out.
Aaron: It's so interesting that you just said, you just converted your kind of drive of unlock, the best of the highest version of myself and what seems like in finding or an as you got clearing your identity and success in the tech world and success in your business career, it almost seems like Alkeme is this. This next level at the stage beyond you, beyond your identity too, like, how do I, as you said, unlock the potential of the communities that we can touch and get us back from, from some setbacks we've had, in terms of the way the healthcare system is broken in general, but very broken for communities of color.
Ryan: Yeah, for sure. You know, that that is a driver and again, you know, use my unique positioning, my set of life experiences. You know, not many people are walking around. And I played eight years in the NFL and won the Superbowl, et cetera. So, you know, the challenge for me initially was like, how do I channel all that value that I'd built up over 24 years?
Like I can't completely do away with that. Like, how do I use that as a net positive for me and, and use it to propel me into my next endeavor. You know, and it took some time to really figure that out. But you know, I feel like I'm in a good spot with it right now.
Aaron: So as you were figuring that out and exploring it and taking that time, I think what I'm wondering is what are some of those things that you're taking carrying forward with you from your past experiences, whether, you know, being Peewee football or on a Superbowl winning team or in selling a business, like what are those experiences that you're pulling forward into Alkeme and into the next stage?
Ryan: You know, for, for a while, it was really hard for me to translate, those experiences cause the reality is that's what I did. I ran into people. So you're like, well, how do you do that in the real world? What's the pull through there? And it wasn't until, after sitting with it a little bit, it's not about the physical, right; what allowed you to do that mentally?
Like, you know, what were you thinking? You know, what's your demeanor, if you will, that allowed you to subject yourself to that type of stress and physical duress not for a short period of time, but over a long period of time. And once I got to that level of thinking about like, it's not about the physical act, but it's about who I am as a person.
You know, I started to think about some adjectives right around like grit, determination, focused, discipline, consistency, creativity, I mean a whole nine yards. Like all these things started to bubble up and I was like, yeah, that's what allowing me to go out there to run into 300 pounders. Not how much I bench press, that was helpful.
But you know, you still got to have something to you from that mental standpoint to as mentioned, go out there and do that. And so when I started to repurpose and put those things into context, I was like, oh, this sounds like a pretty amazing and incredible business person. And so with that, you know, the next step was finding something that I'm passionate about and that I want to do, and that I want to apply these skills to.
And so it was a, you know, it was a multi-step process, but, you know, kind of taking over. It's really understanding that I've been on some really great teams and quite frankly, I've been on some shitty teams and understanding like some of the characteristics of like how great teams win and what causes some cracks in the ship.
I've I've been able to really sit down and digest those and think about how to put them into the company that I'm building today.
Aaron: I almost like that as kind of, almost like a recipe or a set of steps. Cause, the people that listen to this are leaders, themselves who are looking to evolve themselves and evolve their organizations.
And you know, what you said is looking at what I've done successfully in the past and whether it's in your case football, but in anybody else's case, right. We've, we've all been successful in one thing or another and looking at what are those strengths that we have and things that we value, you know, and you mentioned things that you had, you could attribute to not just the physical, but the grit, the determination that consistency, and build that list and say, okay, how do I apply that to.
What I want to create and define what you want to create. And then go about what I heard doing the work. It's almost like a good little recipe for success is like, get clear on yourself, your skills, your strengths, define how you want to apply them and then start applying them.
Ryan: That's exactly right.. Yeah, I think a lot about like my time when the Steelers world-class organization, you know, there's a reason why; well, Tom Brady just passed them last year, but there was a reason that they have six Super Bowls and some organizations have zero or they're still holding onto the something that happened 30, 40 years ago.
There's a big reason behind that. And Yeah. Took a lot of reflection back on a lot of the insights there, but more specifically you know, I backed up a Hall of Famer in Pittsburgh in a Hall of fame where it was Troy Polamalu and also backed up a really, really, really good safety in Ryan Clark, who's now commentating on ESPN.
And so like when either one of those guys went out of there, guess who was going to the game? Me. But more specifically when Troy went out of the game, just imagine the level of expectation and the pressure that I have to go into the game and think that I have to live up to this guy. You know, he's out there jumping over the line, you know, Not game changing plays not season changing plays, but like plays that literally shaped the face of the franchise. And I got to go out there and replace this guy. That is a very, very, tall attack.
But what I learned throughout that process is I don't need to go out there and be Troy Polamalu. I just need to be out there and be the best and highest version of Ryan Mundy.
And I'm here for a reason, right? So they didn't bring me in here to be Troy Polamalu, but they brought me in here to be the best and highest Ryan Mundy. . And so shifting that lens of thinking you know, I just had best understand my skills, my attributes, and, and have a core [belief, knowing that I had the support of the staff, my teammates, et cetera.
And if I went out there and did, you know, became my, the best and highest version of myself, we would be, the team would be fine, we would do well so on and so forth. So it was a really important lesson for me to, you know, not always be looking to your left and looking to your right, comparing yourself to others, but really figuring out how to maximize what you have and, and, and being at peace with.
Aaron: It's such a powerful lesson. And it's one of those things that we talk about. I was just in a group of 12 leaders just before this. And one of the biggest things is like the best leader you can be is yourself. And it's so easy to compare yourself to, right? The Steve Jobs in your situation. Literally the person who was just coming out before you, Troy Polamalu, right?
And say, I need to be like him. As opposed to saying, let me be the best and highest version of myself. And that's like such a key lesson that any individual can learn, right. Being your authentic self is the best outcome you can deliver to people around you.
Ryan: Yeah, for sure. It's not to discount drawing inspiration from those folks.
You know, I do. And, and, and I did, you know, with Troy and even now in the business context, I draw a lot of inspiration, but, you know, the reality is you still have to have that level of self-awareness to know how to apply it to what you got going on. You know, and that, that has always been like the I think the kind of hidden truth is look, look for inspiration out in the world, but you have to have a realistic view of what's going of your situation and circumstances; self-awareness et cetera, and figure out how to best apply that.
So I learned a ton from Troy. I got better because I, I picked up on some of the things that were applicable to me and drew some inspiration from his plate. But all the while, still not measuring myself against him because he's a totally different breed of cat and not always thinking and, having that self-awareness of the things that I'm capable of versus the things that he was obviously capable of.
Aaron: And you said something that was kind of like hidden in there, but It's so crucial to any team performance is you said, I know I had the trust of the team. Like the team was behind me and this idea of, I can feel safe to be myself, right, to be the best version of myself and that in that my team trusts me to be there
That that crosses all boundaries, right? That's outside of sports, inside of sports, it's everywhere. And such a crucial component of anybody feeling and being able to perform at their best in the workplace.
Ryan: Yeah, trust is earned, not given. And, in that context, And I tell the team this all the time is that we have to earn trust.
You know, like we don't just hand it out, like pieces of Halloween candy you have to earn that. And that takes time to really develop that relationship. And there has to be clear guidance and understanding of what is trustworthy and what's not true; i.e. what falls below the line and what you know is, is above the standard.
We had a saying in Pittsburgh or Mike Tomlin had a saying: the standard is the standard. And at first I had no idea what that meant. I'm like, coach, what the hell are you talking about? But if you hear it be like, yeah, it's like, it kinda makes sense. So again, let's think about this scenario where Ryan Mundy and Troy Polamalu play safety.
Period. That is a fact, right? And there's, there's a level of play that we've already kind of established towards a hall of Famer Ryan Mundy is not but what Ryan Mundy did do and what, what what allowed Ryan to earn the trust of his teammates and coaches for him to, for them to put him into the game was that he met the standard, right?
So how far you go above the standard, that is subjective and relative. But what we do know is that there's a bare minimum here, you have to meet or be above to even be considered to be a part of the organization or to, to have a role in the organization.
So you know, having that clarity and understanding, I think really helps the trust because you know, other positions and that people in the organization, they know what it takes to go out there at a bare minimum to do the job.
Aaron: And you've taken all of this, all this learning of your, your past careers, right? Your career as a venture capitalist, your career as a founder and successful business owner, your career as a professional athlete and an athlete. And you've said, okay, I'm taking these experiences. I'm taking this life journey.
I'm building Alkeme and creating; not just giving back, but more so creating an opening for mental health. What does that look like?
Ryan: Yeah. So our mission at Alkeme is to become the universal health care provider for the black community.
And that mission is rooted in mental health. But during this time of my time of transition. I was seeing, you know, type two diabetes, amputation and cardiovascular disease. My grandfather passed away from Alzheimer's heart attack, stroke, you name it. And I put my experience and experience in my family on that trajectory of black and brown health.
Didn't seem like nobody was doing anything because it was just kind of raining all my life. And so I asked myself the question, well, what does this look like? Where is the starting point? Cause that's such a big question. And it took me a while to wrap my brain around, like what the answer is or what step one, it looks like.
But it's really developed in a concept that a healthy life starts with a healthy mind. You know, if, if we're not fit mentally, if we're not healthy mentally, then all aspects of our lives are susceptible. How can we adhere to healthy eating habits? How can we adhere to any protocols that are prescribed to us if we're not in a right mindset and a healthy mindset to be proactive and diligent about maintaining those regimens?
And then also 2020. That was a big thing too. Like, and everybody was in desperate need of mental health support. But yeah, like we, we have pretty grand visions of, of blowing out our platform beyond mental health, and continue to expand our offering as we continue to grow into the future.
Ryan: Our starting point you know, Alkeme in its current form today is a content company, content and production company. When we, when we look at the care spectrum, specifically for mental health, It is littered with access barriers.
It's really, really hard for people to get the help that I had; starting out with stigmas, you know, so you're dealing with things on your own and you're too scared to ask for help. Because getting in front of a therapist seems like a thousand miles away. And so, this is how it shows up.
I'm talking to myself in my head too. Scared of doing anything. I may talk to a friend or two. I may find some names on Instagram that kind of helped me out.
There's a big ass jump to go see a therapist. And so what we're building currently. As a product that sits in between an Instagram meme and actually seeking and getting professional help. We know that therapists are overworked and underpaid and the supply just does not meet the rising demand particularly, you know, for our community who are interested in working with professionals of color, less than 2% of clinical professionals are black or brown, that's not nearly enough to meet the growing demand. And so like, how do you democratize access?
You know, with all these cost barriers, time constraints, people constraints or professional constraints you know, you, you package it up and put it into a efficacious content format.
And so that's currently how we're showing up, but we definitely have plans to grow and develop into other modalities for treatment areas.
Aaron: I'm taking a lot from today. I think one of the big things is how do you develop yourself as a person? How do you create or reestablish that identity and as a person, as a leader, but what's so interesting is you've used that exploration, that understanding to not just create for yourself, but how do you create and solve these bigger problems out there?
And it's just really, really. Inspiring and exciting for what's out there and what's possible. And I'm just grateful that you were able to give us your time and share a little bit. And just wanna say that.
Ryan: Yeah, thank you so much. You know, to whom much is given, much is required. And, you know, I take that very seriously and I feel like I've, I've been blessed with a lot.
But it means nothing if I don't pay it forward and work, you know, work my ass off to, to leave the world in a better spot that because I'm here.
Aaron: Open, Honest, and Direct is produced by Raise The Bar, where we help organizations level up their leadership by empowering their managers with the tools, skills, and training to be better leaders of people. You can get in touch with us at raisebar.co. Thank you for listening and go put your learning into practice.