By Stef Tschida
“Where are your eyebrows?” Aneela Kumar froze. Since her early teens, she had soothed her anxiety and OCD-like tendencies through hair pulling. For Aneela, this medical condition called trichotillomania manifested in picking at her eyebrows and eyelashes. She’d hidden it from family and friends for years, balancing out where she picked and filling in bare patches with eyebrow pencil to make it less noticeable. But hormonal changes after the birth of her first child exacerbated her pulling behaviors, and for the first time there was someone in her life who made the habit harder to hide—her husband, Sameer.
With Sameer’s question Aneela felt a wave of fear and relief. She was tired of hiding and feeling like no one really knew her because of the secret she kept. She told him about her trichotillomania, and they researched the condition together. Then one night while sitting next to each other watching TV, Aneela subconsciously put her hand to her face to pick. Sameer gently pulled her hand away and a light bulb went off. When Sameer brought awareness to Aneela’s behavior, it was much easier not to pick. What if she could have a reminder like that all the time and help others with similar conditions to have that awareness, too?
Up until that time, Aneela had pursued two disparate career paths. She first worked as an auditor for a major international accounting firm, which she enjoyed but did not find fulfilling. When a close friend lost a parent, it reminded her of the loss of her dad to cancer years earlier, and a profound sense of sadness surfaced again. She realized she didn’t want to spend time in a job that wasn’t making her happy. After some soul searching, Aneela decided to go back to school for advertising. While completely different from accounting, as she reflected on the things that brought her joy, they were always related to the arts: creating collages in scrapbooks, designing the program for the talent show at school, serving as the editor and graphic designer for her high school’s literary magazine.
Aneela spent nearly a decade in her new career, working in account management, design and production for several large marketing and advertising agencies. She created mobile apps and produced award-winning interactive campaigns. During that time, she and Sameer moved to Minnesota and started a family, and Aneela began dreaming of creating her own business. The day Sameer gently grabbed her arm and she had the idea to bring more awareness to herself and others, it all came together: She could combine her personal experience and varied background to create a company that would make a difference in the world.
Aneela researched the potential for a bracelet that people with body-focused repetitive behaviors (which also include skin picking, nail biting and more) could wear. She and Sameer connected with people in the Twin Cities technical community who could help bring their idea to life. They traveled to Shenzhen, China, for three months to learn about manufacturing. They attended health care industry conferences and talked to psychologists and end users about what they needed. While it wasn’t always easy, others were excited about her idea. Health care professionals told her this was sorely needed by their patients. So, Aneela kept going.
In 2017, Aneela launched HabitAware and its Keen smart bracelet, which senses its owner’s behavior and sends a gentle vibration to bring awareness to their actions. Just a few years later, Aneela’s product is helping tens of thousands of people—herself included. The product, along with new coping techniques she learned, helped to retrain her brain. Today, Aneela is 90 percent free of hair pulling.
Aneela is on a mission to help even more people through HabitAware—not just with her product, but by increasing awareness about body-focused repetitive behaviors, helping people build a new relationship with those behaviors and advocating for others to respond with compassion. She speaks publicly about the freedom she’s gained by releasing a secret she carried for decades. Her efforts have been recognized by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, both of which have given HabitAware research grants to develop further solutions to help others increase their awareness of behaviors that don’t serve their physical or mental health. While it took several chapters in her career to reach this place, Aneela feels like she’s finally arrived.
To learn more about Aneela’s business, visit HabitAware.com.
Photo: Habit Aware
About the author: Stef Tschida is a former corporate communicator and lifelong storyteller. Stef’s WHY became clear when she worked at her daily campus newspaper. She realized she didn’t want to ask tough questions as a reporter—she wanted to help organizations answer those tough questions. She’s been doing that work ever since.