Silicon Valley’s tech elite isn’t only interested in funding apps and hot social networks. At a formal gala at San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel on Thursday, nonprofit Project HEAL raised $250,000 to fund treatment for some of the 30 million Americans suffering from eating disorders.
The Fighting For 500 Gala was Project HEAL’s second fundraising event in San Francisco, cementing the nonprofit’s connections to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs and ethos. The gala’s high-profile attendees included Sherpa Capital’s Shervin Pishevar, Mozido CEO Todd Bradley, Menlo Ventures Managing Director Shawn Carolan and Marien Ventures’ founder Alexsis de Raadt-St. James. The gala was cohosted by Ariana Huffington and Paraag Marathe, 49ers Chief Strategy Officer and Managing Partner of the billionaire York family’s investment entity. In a moving speech, Marathe spoke about losing his sister to anorexia 11 years ago, something he said he’s only discussed publicly a handful of times. “If you love someone who has an eating disorder, show the commitment that comes from that love,” Marathe said.
Project HEAL was founded eight years ago by Kristina Saffran, now 24, and Liana Roseman, now 25. The pair met while getting treatment for their own eating disorders in 2006 at the ages of 13 and 14, and founded the organization as teenagers two years later. The organization, which raised $1.6 million in donations in 2015, provides scholarships to people struggling with eating disorders who can’t afford to pay for the treatment they need to recover. Approximately one in 10 Americans have an eating disorder, but 90% of those people never receive treatment, according to Project HEAL. Treatment can cost as much as $30,000 per month and is often not adequately covered by insurance. “The journey to recovery is a long, hard and expensive one,” Saffran said at the start of the night.
Tom Insel, the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) who joined Alphabet’s Verily Life Sciences last year, was honored with an award alongside his daughter, Lara Gregorio, who has recovered from an eating disorder. Gregorio is now a clinical social worker and director of clinical initiatives at 7 Cups of Tea, the largest mental health company offering care online. “My eating disorder became the fire that drives me, much like it drives Liana and Kristina” Gregorio said of the inspiration for her work. “I’m standing here because someone over there paid for my treatment,” Gregorio said, gesturing to her father. “No one should ever, ever, ever be denied care.”
While Project HEAL has been around since 2008, last year’s San Francisco charity gala was a real turning point for the organization and its young founders. “Last year really catapulted us to success,” Saffran said on stage. The 2015 gala, which was sponsored by Arianna Huffington and billionaire Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, was held at Uber’s headquarters and raised more than half a million dollars for eating disorder treatment. The connection to Kalanick, whose then-girlfriend has suffered from an eating disorder, allowed Saffran, who had recently moved to the Bay Area, to tap into the Silicon Valley tech network. Now, Saffran is running Project HEAL full-time and trying to apply a startup mentality to her nonprofit, by applying a data-driven approach and running it like a business.
“Silicon Valley is a great place to be in when you’re a 24-year-old and looking to change the face of this disorder,” Saffran said at the end of the night.