Deeper Connections In The Social Media Era: Trust

Despite being more connected than ever, it’s increasingly common for people to feel alienated from one another. Social media has largely served to dehumanize, turning even our closest friends and family into little more than text on a screen. On platforms with millions, we ultimately remain alone in our homes.

I recently spoke to Jiali Zhang and Ria Shah, the co-founders of Trust, an app that is seeking to add connection back into the experience we have on our phones. By allowing users to record voice messages to share with others, Trust aims to return a human touch to how we communicate — a novel idea in an impersonal age. Jiali and Ria share what motivated them to start Trust and the hurdles they’ve faced as women in technology.   

Mary Juetten: What’s the name of your company and where are you based? 

Jiali Zhang: We are Trust, and we are completely virtual! While our roots are in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area, our team members are spread across the U.S., Asia, and Europe. 

Juetten: When did you start? 

Zhang: Trust started as ‘HearHealth’ in October of 2019 as a platform for sharing perspectives and experiences to surface social data for healthcare. We quickly realized that we were building a product that served more than just healthcare and pivoted to social audio. 

Juetten: What problem are you solving? 

Ria Shah: Today, we are not sharing the experiences that are critical to our well-being. We see  the ramifications of this in healthcare where social experiences drive 80% of health outcomes, but healthcare professionals have little to no access to these authentic experiences. There is a need for sourcing more authentic data, not just for uses in healthcare, but across industries looking for ways to reduce bias in AI & big data. As we thought about ways to solve this problem, existing social data just didn’t meet the mark. 

We are building Trust because we believe there is a need for a better way to share our whole experiences and grow the important relationships in our lives, including the one with ourselves.

With Trust, we’re able to reproduce that same connection felt in conversation in a simple format: you can create audio stories to share with your Trust circle – a group of individuals you trust, and prompt individuals within your circle to hear about their experiences. When it’s an intimate group of individuals we trust, we are incentivized to share more vulnerably about the experiences and perspectives we wouldn’t otherwise share, helping us learn about ourselves and form stronger, more authentic relationships. And since we’re not in the business of selling user data, we can use in-house analytics technology to provide you with personalized insights about your lived experiences. 

Ultimately, we found listening as the better way to connect, and by way of listening, a better way of building trust, which encourages us to share our whole experience. We believe this solution is just the beginning of our much larger vision to help the world adopt novel insights found in authentic social data. By nature of Trust’s core values in authenticity and data-ownership, we are building a next-gen way for everyone – individuals and organizations alike – to utilize trust as an asset, build equity through data ownership, and set a new standard for how people connect digitally by capitalizing on a demand for human connection. 

Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them? 

Shah: Since we’re building a free social audio app, our users are those who want a more authentic way to stay connected with the people they care about. We foresee premium users – either individuals or organizations – can purchase a monthly subscription to build trust with their stakeholders that are Trust users, such as cohorts of patients, students, consumers, etc. by obtaining insights on experiences impacting their bottom lines.

Currently we are wrapping up a closed beta for our MVP where the majority of our app users are individuals from our own circles of family, friends, and peers. However, as we launch the first version of Trust on the App Store, we plan to grow our user base by nature of existing users’ positive experience and their ability to invite others to use Trust. 

Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project? 

Zhang: Long before we came together as founders or even friends, both of us had worked with advocacy groups for vulnerable populations in our community – myself with an organization supporting the homeless in the greater Seattle area and Ria with a programming group for LGBTQ+ youth in inner city Baltimore. Through our separate though parallel experiences, we witnessed a fortress of trust within these communities that often was not extended towards individuals or entities beyond the community. 

We learned that community leaders helped to facilitate the building of this trust through authentic connection, primarily by the simple act of listening. Following their examples, each of us lent open ears to the myriad of voices from these communities and slowly but surely gained their trust as well. We were not only moved by the life stories we heard, but more importantly, recognized the power of listening in discovering shared experiences, building true connection, and eventually, trust. 

We both saw the necessity for a platform to amplify unheard voices and untold stories, and more importantly, serve as a vehicle for trust-building in a society that increasingly gives in to cracks of distrust. Our mirrored experiences not only drove us to start this project, but remembering the individuals and voices we encountered continuously motivates and grounds us during the highs and lows of working on an early-stage startup. At the core of building Trust as co-founders, we want to help people build trust as human beings. 

Juetten: Did being female have any impact on your decision to launch and during your startup? 

Zhang: Being two females studying in a male-dominant field and working in a corporate environment, we have felt at times that we were not being listened to. Even more so, we wished we could openly talk about our experiences, but hold back from doing so on existing social apps due to their more ‘light-hearted’ or superficial culture. On Trust, we are able to vocalize our thoughts and be assured that those within our Trust circles will listen, hear, and offer advice and comfort. 

We are also both lucky enough to have powerful women in our lives but often don’t have the time to sit down and ask them the hard questions. By prompting them to tell us their stories on Trust, we can. On top of our own frustrations and motivations, we saw that the women from the communities we worked with and their inspiring stories did not have a platform outside of their communities to be heard. With a larger yet trusted platform, they can use their voices to empower more people, and this motivated us even more to build Trust. 

Juetten: Any challenges that you found are particular to female founders? 

Shah: As women, we are prone to underselling ourselves and are always hyper-aware of how we need to act in order to be taken seriously. So, one of our main challenges so far is comfortably talking about Trust in a self-assured manner and channeling the strong belief we have in our vision to others – without worrying about sounding overly confident. By the same token, we also want to be our authentic selves when talking about Trust, but with certain audiences we sometimes worry that being our authentic selves will take away from our credibility and hurt the perception of what we are building. Encouraged by a supportive circle of mentors and advisors as well as affirmation from beta users, we’ve found the courage to confidently talk about our work and its value while channeling a piece of ourselves. 

Juetten: Did you raise money? 

Shah: We are currently self-funded but are planning to raise money in the coming months.  

Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?

Zhang: One of our favorite startup stories is that of Atoms founders Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali. We first learned about them through their feature on Humans of New York. They started with nothing, coming from adverse circumstances, using KFC as their office and sharing a single laptop. Starting from a group of local craftsmen in a small village in Pakistan, they have become the first shoe company to provide quarter sizes, fixing the largest shoe shopping problem – fit. Despite their humble beginnings, they did not shy away from pursuing their vision, and despite their many setbacks, they were determined to try again. This courage and tenacity is a reminder for us when we feel underqualified to pursue our own vision and encounter our own rejections and failures, to pick it right up and keep trying. 

Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story? 

Zhang: We measure success by the impact that we are having on users – whether it is at a small or large scale: we are successful if the people using our product see real change in their relationships and communities. As a team, we measure success by our ability to turn difficult situations into opportunities.

One of our favorite success stories is that of Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd. While most may know Whitney as the youngest woman ever to take a company public, many may forget that the success of Bumble began with a nightmare end to another company she co-founded, Tinder. There, she was harassed by her then boyfriend, an executive at the company, dumped, and then ousted. Instead of letting the nightmare engulf her, it fueled her ambition. Whitney has faced the epitome of sexism both in her relationships and her work, but she found a way to turn those immense challenges around. 

Whitney not only embodies the courage of a champion for healthier relationships and better work environments for women, she channels those qualities into her company to empower women all around the world to do the same for themselves. Her courage and grit is incredibly admirable and inspires us as we build Trust. 

Juetten: Any tips for early-stage female founders? 


  • Remind yourself of the idea that sparked what you’re building. As females, we often stop for the many roadblocks we inevitably face. Solutions will evolve – you’re constantly going to be refining, enhancing, and changing the product – but continuing to remember the ‘why’ behind it is not only motivating, but helps you see your roadmap more clearly and define success by what truly matters. 
  • As women, we often are worried about asking for too much and shy away from asking directly. Be explicit in asking for what you need – it’s helpful in life and even more critical as a founder when there is so much happening and you need to move fast 
  • And this one is for all founders, not just females: embarking on a startup is a ‘marathon not a sprint,’ as a wise person once told us when we were formerly HearHealth. Get used to the idea that the battles are going to get harder but just as they are, you’re going to get stronger.

Juetten: What’s your next milestone and any long-term vision for your company? 

Shah: Our next milestone is deploying the final iteration of our MVP and meeting success metrics in order to launch on the App Store. Before we launch, we need to raise money to ensure our long-term vision: creating a listening network that prioritizes authentic content and data ownership to pioneer the coming era of human-centered technology through more authentic data. 

Thank you to Jiali and Ria for sharing their startup experiences and we look forward to seeing the product when it comes out of beta. It’s difficult work running a company, so believing that what you’re doing and understanding that it might extend beyond the marathon to a triathlon, is critical to success. #onwards.

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