This is the fifth feature in our 2017 entrepreneur series, highlighting Real Talk, a mobile app that provides sex education to middle schoolers via stories presented as text conversations.
Sexual health resources, particularly those aimed at youth, are in jeopardy. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and The Office of Adolescent Health face significant funding cuts, while the current administration is defunding Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs across the country. Meanwhile, comprehensive sex education programs are on the decline, especially in rural areas and communities of color, which consistently see higher rates of teen pregnancy than other areas of the U.S.
What happens when kids aren’t educated on sexual health in school? Well, they end up with a lot of questions –awkward questions they probably don’t want to ask their parents, and maybe not even their friends. And for many teens at the schools in which two of Real Talk’s Co-Founders – Vichi Jagannathan and Liz Chen – taught, the lack of answers to their sexual health questions result in life outcomes like teen pregnancy, which can lead to high school dropout. This dramatically impacts a teen’s trajectory for life success. Only 50% of teen mothers receive a high school diploma by the time they turn 22. The costs of teen pregnancy take a toll on their families – both from an expense standpoint and in the delay in typical life milestones. Young parenthood is also costly for U.S. taxpayers, who spent over $9 billion on teen pregnancy in 2010.
Together, Jagannathan, Chen, and their third co-founder Cristina Leos decided to build a product to bridge the education gap after witnessing both the lack of sex ed and high pregnancy rates in the communities in which they taught and lived. Speaking with hundreds of students, they discovered several critical findings. Unsurprisingly, students say they don’t enjoy learning about sex and relationships in school; they’d rather distill this information within the privacy of their mobile phones. But where are they actually learning about sex and relationships? A shocking percentage of students site porn as their top resource, while many others scout out the Internet or ask friends.
While this issue hits home for all three founders, Vichi Jagannathan witnessed one of her star students lose college and career opportunities due to teen pregnancy during her time teaching high school in rural North Carolina through Teach For America. While teaching at this school, Vichi watched as 20% of female students became pregnant before the 10th grade. One of Vichi’s most promising students was accepted to colleges across the board and was poised to excel in higher education and, hopefully, go on to a career path that would bring her family newfound prosperity. But teen pregnancy impeded this journey. She graduated with full honors and college scholarships waiting, but she simply couldn’t balance the demands and resource strain of college and young motherhood. If more fitting education resources were available for teens, perhaps this wouldn’t have been the case.
Together, the Real Talk co-founders decided to build the right sex education tool for teens, using a unique approach based on what young people actually want: a safe, private, place to learn about sex, relationships, and health that makes them feel like they aren’t alone in the journey through adolescence. Working with over 300 teens to gather data that would inform their design process, Jagannathan, Chen, and Leos set out to build a first of its kind mobile app that delivers sex education through stories presented as text message conversations. Text-based fiction has become all the rage with youth in the past year, with apps like Hooked and Yarn blowing up on the App Store charts. Stories told as text messages are easily digestible and allow youth to feel more engaged with the narratives than if they were reading educational prose.
Real Talk sources real stories from real teens, making the app as authentic as possible. Teens want to read content that is relatable and real – not canned. Youth can search through the app for specifics topics like, “acne,” “transgender,” or “bullying” and find carefully curated stories, along with links to quality online resources in case they want to learn more. Users can engage with the stories by responding to specific messages with emojis, and eventually will be able to submit their own stories to Real Talk directly through the app.
“Having lived and worked in areas with little to no access to sex education, I’ve seen first hand the impact this has on youth,” says Cristina Leos, a co-founder of Real Talk. “With only 50% of teen mothers receiving a high school diploma by the time they turn 22, this was an issue we couldn’t ignore. Real Talk presents sex education in a way that resonates with middle-school students, by meeting them on their phones and showing them they are not alone.”
Want to learn more about Real Talk? Visit www.realtalkapp.com, and keep your eyes out for the Real Talk Beta app to launch soon in the App Store.