The Future of Tech, Reading & Mental Wellness with Padmasree Warrior

Discover how reading can help improve mental wellness—and be a social activity.
By Lindsey Marlowe

Last Updated: December 3, 2020

Published: October 2, 2020


The world in which we’re currently living has never before seen consumer behavior change so quickly. We expect to continue to see these seismic changes over the next decade. At M13, we invest in companies that are building defensible businesses around emerging consumer behaviors in the essential areas of consumer’s daily lives: food, healthcare, entertainment, and financial services.

For our 2020 Summer Series “Future Perfect” conversations, we’ve brought together founding leaders who have shaped and are shaping current and future generations of great businesses. Together, we seek to further understand how today’s health and economic crises are accelerating behaviors and white spaces for new necessities, innovations, and investments.

Wellness may have spent the last decade morphing from a buzzword into the impetus for thriving, reimagined industries, from on-demand fitness to nutrition and healthier eating, but these are chiefly physical pursuits.

What about mental wellness? As a society that happily seeks out modern, convenient solutions for problems, how can we use technology to combat rising rates of anxiety and depression all while balancing privacy and ambitions to quickly scale? 

Moderated by M13 Partner and NatureBox Co-founder Gautam Gupta, this discussion features:

  • Padmasree Warrior, Founder, President, and CEO of Fable, which is on a mission to be the world’s best mobile service for curated reading. A board member at Microsoft and Spotify, Warrior was previously CEO at electric car company NIO U.S and CTSO at Cisco.

What inspired your vision for Fable?

Building the AI technology for autonomous driving is difficult, and that’s what we were doing at NIO. It got me wondering why the wellness space, particularly mental wellness, wasn’t seeing the level of innovation present in other industries, and so I decided to dedicate my next chapter to this question.

Before physical fitness was a multitrillion-dollar industry, it was a pair of sneakers. Today, we have physical fitness on our daily agenda, but why aren’t we doing the same for our mental wellness? This has been my motivation with Fable.

In just the last decade, there’s been a 15%-20% increase in anxiety and depression, much of which is driven by workplace stress. It’s led to workplace suicides peaking at their highest rate in 26 years, and the World Economic Forum estimates that this drop in mental wellness correlates to what will be almost a $16 trillion loss in productivity in a 20-year period.
Fable is not a mental health company; we’re about mental wellness. And it’s not about fixing the root cause of anxiety or depression, because what you’re stressed out about may change from day to day. Instead, we encourage reading, which is proven to increase mental wellness in a way almost equal with meditation. It may be less effective than therapy but is more so than simply listening to music. Fable makes reading a social, interactive activity.

How do we destigmatize the reading of fiction versus self-help, business, and other non-fiction genres?

We have to give ourselves, and others, the permission to take a break to relax.

Good distractions are good for you. If we consider other “good” distractions, like going for a walk or working out, we understand their benefits for wellness.

Any reading is good, so do continue reading nonfiction genres. Fiction, however, encourages an increase in empathy and in processing power, as we exercise our brain in keeping track of storylines and characters.

Unfortunately, innovation in reading hasn’t been done to the extent of video and music, and so that’s where Fable comes into play. Curation is a big part of our product. Just as Spotify does so well with discovery and personalizing playlists, we seek to do with reading recommendations and destigmatizing reading as “tough.”

There is a misconception that reading is difficult, but if you can spend time reading Twitter or Instagram every day, then you can read fiction for 15 minutes. At the end of a month, you’ve read one book.

In addition to being a technologist and entrepreneur, you’re also a gifted artist, a poet, and a painter. How has your art influenced how you think about technology? And has your involvement in technology impacted how you think and participate in the art world?

Certainly, the way I think about technology and the way I think about art is influenced by my technology roots and background as well. I'm a big believer in bringing your whole self to whatever you're doing, whether that’s work or practices outside of work, and each will inevitably creep into decisions you make about the other. 

Artists have an empathetic eye; they are observant about color, expression, and emotion. In technology, we are led to believe that it’s all zeros and ones, but that’s not the case.

We're increasingly building technologies that touch millions of human lives, and it helps to have attention to detail and the impulse to step back to focus on what emotions that technology is going to drive for these millions of people.

In art as in UI, that’s framing and consideration of your work’s impact on the viewer/user. 

When it comes to technology, what maturation stage are we in?

The tech industry has spent all its energy in figuring out how to convert atoms to bits and how to change physical functionality into a digital platform. And largely this has been successful, but we're only just beginning to understand the implications of what we've created.

We have become focused on turning things that are physical into digital assets, so that we can more easily consume them. The word “cloud” didn't exist 10 years ago, and now we can't do anything without thinking about how it's going to sit on a cloud platform. There was no software as a service 15 years ago, and the SaaS companies that were startups only a decade ago now have massive market caps. We didn't have a formalized gig economy 10 years ago or much in the way of on-demand services.

As an industry, tech is still nascent in realizing the implications of privacy and consent. What role do they play in the responsible use of AI and facial recognition? How do we prevent bias when we’re collecting data about people, as tech’s role in public policy grows?

Ten years ago, a company would build a product in the U.S. and then consider international expansion. Today, global deployment should be thought of simultaneously.

Now the pace of innovation is so fast that, as you build a company, you need to be thinking about these issues in parallel with the building of your stacks and your tech. As technologists, we have to account for policy in the development of our process, such as with privacy policies. And just as there's been a blending of disciplines and skills, no longer do designers, software engineers, and developers work in their silos as it becomes more common to develop skills across disciplines there will be a blending of tech and policy.