Eating Dessert First, with Kristina Saffran

Only 24 years old, Kristina Saffran is currently head of the 2nd largest eating disorder non-profit in the US called Project HEAL. Since she recovered from anorexia at 13, she’s been on a mission to help others reach a full recovery. Kristina moved out to the Bay Area two years ago after graduating from Harvard to run Project HEAL full time and has seen incredible growth and momentum –  she’s opened 40 chapters worldwide, provided life saving treatment grants to 57 applicants, engaged 18k followers on FB and Instagram, and engaged sponsors like Arianna Huffington, UBER and People Magazine.

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FnJ:  So first I must ask, can you tell us how you decided to start Project HEAL?  What was your inspiration?

My cofounder Liana and I met in treatment for anorexia at 13 years old.  We saw firsthand the horrible effects of insufficient insurance coverage for eating disorder treatment, which can run upwards of $30,000 a month – leaving the majority of sufferers unable to get the help they need.  This was an injustice, and we knew we had to do something about it.

We also found that there was a huge lack of mentors and role models in our recovery process.  Eating disorder recovery is specifically challenging because ambivalence about getting better is a part of the disorder.  We wanted to inspire others that recovery is 100% possible and 100% worth it.

KS headshot

FnJ:  At its core, what is Project HEAL as a cause, an organization and a brand?

Project HEAL ensures access to quality eating disorder treatment for all, advocates for more diverse representations of beauty, and inspires everyone that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible.

FnJ:  What challenges have you faced in turning your passion into a successful organization?

One thing that has been particularly tough is trying to balance our passion for the cause (and wanting to help every single person who reaches out) vs. the realities of running a business.  For example, when Liana and I started HEAL, we could legitimately say that 100% of the proceeds went to funding treatment grants – we had 0 overhead.  As we grew and added savvy business mentors to the team, they advised us that we needed to invest some money into growing the organization in order to help even more people.  We’ve done that, and they were undoubtedly right, but part of me still cringes anytime money is spent on anything other than treatment.

Another challenge has been maintaining our very personal touch with the grant recipients and chapters as we scale.  We’ve found incredible volunteers to help us do this and maintain the strong personal connections.

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FnJ:  What resources have you found helpful in this effort, and are there others you wish were available?

I’ve been lucky to find some incredible mentors, on the clinical/academic side and the business side, and some really special ones who span both industries.  I am indebted to these people, who have taken a chance on me as a young leader and change maker, and invested so much into the growth of Project HEAL.

FnJ:  Some of our readers might be interested in supporting this cause through their own startup companies or brands, can you give a few thoughts on why this might make sense from a business standpoint, and why pick Project HEAL over all the other great causes and organizations out there?  

Eating disorders are one of the most stigmatized, underfunded, and under-recognized of all mental health disorders.  Despite having some of the strongest genetic and neurobiological underpinnings of all mental illnesses, and one of the highest mortality rates, many people still think of eating disorders as a “choice” or a “vanity issue.”  Project HEAL intends to change this.  We’re making huge waves in an unchartered area, and by getting involved with us, you can have a massive impact on changing the narrative around an issue that affects up to 30 million Americans.

The timing is also right.  We’ve had some real advances in mental illness in the past decade, with effective interventions and prevention efforts being developed to affect real change.  Further, millennials attach far less stigma to mental illness than previous generations – this is an issue that affects us and we want companies to do something to help.

Finally, I personally think the fashion industry has a responsibility to put their weight behind this cause.  Eating disorders affect a disproportionate number of folks in the fashion industry, and the industry also sets the standard for beauty.  We need to diversify that image.

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FnJ:  We agree.  This could be a chance for a brand not just to support “a good cause,” but one that has a deep tie to the industry.  Seems like a win-win.  Any words of wisdom for someone looking to follow your footsteps and start a non-profit organization?

Perseverance.  We founded Project HEAL at 15 years old, so definitely had a lot of people questioning our credibility. But once you persevere at something in the face of obstacles and prove to people that you can make an impact, they start taking you seriously.

FnJ:  Never underestimate a teenager.  What are your favorite, and least favorite, parts of your business?

Favorite – funding treatment grant recipients and seeing them regain their lives.  Meeting awesome people who are passionate about eating disorder recovery.

Least favorite – excel spreadsheets

FnJ:  We hear you there!  Where do you see you and your organization 5-10 years?

By 2021, Project HEAL will be the premiere organization that brings together major donors and the most influential eating disorder voices to exponentially increase access to quality, affordable treatment for those in need.  We will reduce the stigma surrounding eating disorders, and increase prevention and early intervention efforts to reduce eating disorder related mortality world-wide.  See our latest set of priorities for the field.

FnJ:  What’s coming up for Project HEAL and how can Fashion InJunction readers get involved?  

Project HEAL’s 2nd Annual SF Gala, hosted by Arianna Huffington and 49ers President Paraag Marathe, will take place at the St. Regis on October 27th in SF.  This event will be attended by over 300 tech luminaries and influencers from around the Bay Area.  Sponsorships, tables and tickets are available here.

FnJ:  Fantastic.  We love a good gala and can’t wait to attend.  Hope many of our readers see the opportunities here and join us as well.  Thanks so much, Kristina, you are an inspiration, never stop shining!