Opción YO creates mental health counseling platform tailored to the Hispanic market

From a young age, Daniela Sichel knew that she wanted to become a psychologist. 

“When I was eight years old, my father died, and my family and I had the privilege to have access to therapy,” she told Refresh Miami. “This life experience made me choose to become a psychologist. And for more than 20 years, I have been helping many people with their life struggles.”

What Sichel did not know from a young age was that one day she would co-found a tech startup. But once again it was particular life circumstances that brought her to a vocation.

Sichel (pictured above) immigrated to Miami from her native Venezuela in 2008. Her license to practice psychology did not transfer over from Venezuela to the States, so Sichel undertook a master’s at Nova Southeastern University and rebuilt her private practice in the US. Then in 2016, Sichel and her husband relocated to Lima, Peru.

“That migration process was very different than when I moved from Caracas to Miami because my clients started saying, ‘let’s keep doing our sessions via Skype,’” said Sichel. This virtual environment also enabled her to take on new clients from around the world. “And that’s how I validated how great it is to work online.”

A digital approach to dealing with mental health

Fast forward to 2019, and Sichel teamed up with psychologist Mariana Morales to build Opción YO, a digital platform for mental health counseling.

Mariana Morales

“Our mission is to give affordable therapy with trusted psychologists, coaches, and nutritionists to the Hispanic community globally,” Sichel explained. 30-minute, one-on-one sessions start at less than $20, when purchased in a package of four. Group sessions, which are structured around a particular topic such as grieving, start at $7.

Sichel reports that most of Opción YO’s clients are based in Latin America, but 30% are Hispanic-Americans living in the US.

Part of the startup’s goal is to reduce the stigma associated with mental health counseling. Sichel underscored the gender disparity of Opción YO’s user base – 90% female, 10% male – as a direct reflection of this stigma. “We are working very hard to change that reality,” said Sichel.

Opción YO boasts a bench of more than 300 licensed therapists from more than 40 nationalities living in 32 countries. According to Sichel, “you can get access to therapy 24 hours a day, anywhere.” And while Spanish is the primary language, Opción YO has therapists who speak other languages, including English, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Hebrew.

All the therapists on the platform have a minimum of five years of experience and are regularly supervised. “The quality of service that we are giving is excellent, and we’re very proud of that,” asserted Sichel.

Online counseling has its benefits

Sichel and Morales’ timing was auspicious. Shortly after launch, the coronavirus pandemic hit, keeping people at home and in need of counseling. But Sichel posits that virtual sessions will remain popular even in a post-pandemic world.

“[The online format] makes you more open in the session because you’re working with someone that you believe is an expert in what you need, rather than going to a place that is comfortable because it’s near your house or near your work,” explained Sichel. She also noted that online counselling saves time, since clients do not have to travel to their session.

Another hidden benefit of online counselling? Avoiding the much-dreaded waiting room. “This stigma about going to therapy is reduced when you go to online therapy because people don’t feel that someone is going to see them in the waiting room, or that they are going to see their therapist in the supermarket or at a restaurant,” asserted Sichel.

Opción YO has a reported compound growth rate of 22% monthly, with a total of 2,000 users who have cumulatively taken part in 9,000 sessions. The startup is currently in the midst of raising a seed round, off the heels of a successful pre-seed fundraise in April led by an angel investor. Opción YO has their sights set on a Series A round next year, enabling them to grow their 11-person team and explore the possibility of entering the B2B space.

Opportunities and challenges in the tech industry

Sichel, who divides her time between Lima and Miami, expressed positivity about the South Florida tech scene: “it’s amazing to see how big the ecosystem is getting.” Opción YO recently took part in the third EndeavorLAB cohort, which Sichel called “an amazing place to be.” At Endeavor, she found “great people” and a “great network of excellent professionals” that are “always available and open doors.”

Making the transition from psychologist to technologist has, at times, been an uphill battle for Sichel. “It has been a great challenge, but it’s amazing how much you can learn when you know your mission and you want to achieve something,” she said. “I really believe that anyone can do anything that they’re willing to achieve.”

However, Sichel underscored the struggles of being a female, Latin American founder. “The ecosystem is 99.9% men. Investors don’t look at women the same as men, and we are underprivileged not only to be Latin Americans, but also to be women.”

She continued: “I thought that being a minority was going to be something that would help me raise money more easily. But it’s not.”

The data reflects Sichel’s experience. A Crunchbase analysis showed that funding for female-founded companies decreased to a meager 2.3% of all VC funding in 2020. That’s down from 2.8% in 2019, which TechCrunch noted was an all-time high.

“The disparity is incredible,” lamented Sichel. “But I’m willing to help a little bit to change that.”

Read more about some of South Florida’s most innovative women on Refresh Miami:

Riley Kaminer