Elle Wisnicki, MBA 22: Why goats should be part of mental healthcare

Haas Voices is a first-person series that highlights the lived experiences of members of the Berkeley Haas community

Elle Wisnicki, MBA 22, dreams of opening a wellness retreat center that offers animal-assisted therapy to children and adults—and she’s moving closer toward that goal at Haas. Wisnicki is a 2021 recipient of the John E. Martin Fellowship, (named for the father of Michael Martin, MBA 09) awarded to students who are working to improve mental healthcare quality and access. 

Elle Wisnicki photo with goats
Elle Wisnicki, MBA 22, dreams of opening a wellness retreat center that offers animal-assisted therapy.

I’m Black and Jewish and was raised by a single mom. I was an independent kid, always wanting to help others, so when I wasn’t caring for stray animals in the neighborhood, you could find me babysitting.

Growing up in Hollywood, Calif., where wealth exists parallel to a large population experiencing homelessness, I learned about mental health challenges at a young age. My mom and I got to know the stories of our neighbors who were homeless and faced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, depression, and more.

From childhood to high school, my career aspiration was to become an OB/GYN doctor or genetic counselor for families. However, after realizing that a lot of people can’t even get to the doctor for basic care, I shifted my goals away from providing care to helping people access care.

After realizing that a lot of people can’t even get to the doctor for basic care, I shifted my goals away from providing care to helping people access care.

After undergrad at Columbia University, I worked in consulting. At that job, I began connecting the dots among common mental health issues within different groups of people I’d met and worked with for over a decade, including homeless veterans, patients I worked with at Planned Parenthood, students I supported as an RA in my dorm, and even my financially well-off consulting coworkers who were burning out. No matter their walk of life , many shared a common thread: determining how to best address their mental health problems.

When I started putting it all together I began to see how I could thrive in this line of work and I wanted to start focusing on it right away. When I considered leaving consulting, I knew I had to align my career with my values so that my work would reflect my life’s greater purpose. After reaching out to diverse people in my network, I was inspired to become a mental health coach at Sibly, a text-based mental health and wellness app.

This was the first step toward starting my own mental health-related venture. However, I knew that creating a startup without the support of an MBA network would be challenging. So I initially came to Haas to focus on startup solutions for crisis response. What I quickly learned was that the many hours of research, customer discovery calls, and networking on a computer screen, on top of my MBA lectures, was leading to burnout.

In November 2020, I took the month off of my startup to spend some time restoring my own mental health. I volunteered for a ferret rescue and took llamas on walks up north in Yuba City, played with goats and did goat yoga in Half Moon Bay, and worked with kitten rescues. My soul lit up.

My soul lit up. I felt healed when an animal rested in my lap or greeted me.

I felt healed when an animal rested in my lap or greeted me, or when I moved my body around innocent beings, who only wanted to provide affection.

goats with Elle Wisnicki in barn
Goats are part of Elle Wisnicki’s animal-assisted therapy plan.

I realized others enjoy animals and nature in a healing way as do I and many people are looking for alternative wellness solutions. My potential customers told me they benefited from being closer to nature, but craved structure and couldn’t find affordable group wellness centers near them.

My vision is to offer that structure, by opening a retreat center with half day, full-day, and weekend wellness retreats. I’m also considering animal-assisted individual and group therapy, goat yoga, sustainable farming workshops, garden box subscriptions, children’s birthday parties, summer camps, a petting zoo, products, and transportation to access all of these services through bus rides between San Francisco and Oakland.

When I was applying for the Martin fellowship I connected with a Haas alum who had won a similar fellowship a few years before me. We recognized we both had similar goals. He recently began developing land he and his family own and considering what kind of venture they want to use it for. We’ve started discussions around the types of pilots we will put together to determine what is most appealing to our customers.

In addition to these plans, I continue to work in mental health tech.  This semester, through the Lean Launchpad entrepreneurship class, I worked for a wellness startup Shimmer, focused on employer wellness benefits and insurance. My summer internship is focused on health insurance and mental health access for children and youth in  foster care.

Throughout this journey, I’ve realized how grateful I am to be living and working at a time where as a society we’re finally prioritizing mental health. There has been tremendous growth in the wellness industry and I am thrilled about increasing access and with the movement toward mental health destigmatization.

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