Alires J. Almon describes herself as an “explorer.” As a child, she tinkered with computers and a chemistry set. “My grandfather worked at NASA, and I was a total science fiction nerd,” she says. “I wanted to turn science fiction into science fact.”
Her career path has been equally exploratory. After studying psychology, Almon’s journey took her from the U.S. government to a Fortune 500 telecommunications company to a deep space exploration project, and finally to her “dream job” as the Director of Innovation at the Mental Health Center of Denver. “I was looking for an organization that was working with purpose and innovation,” she recalls. “The role incorporated my interests and skill in behavioral health and technology.”
Almon’s team is developing tech to help people struggling with mental health issues lead productive and fulfilling lives—something that has become all the more necessary due to the effects of the pandemic. “We find ways to meet the ever-increasing needs of the community, especially as mental health care continues to become de-stigmatized,” she says.
Here, Almon shares why she opted for a nontraditional tech path, how to break through in an industry where BIPOC women are underrepresented, and why fellow futurists should consider the nonprofit track.
How would you describe the work you’ve done throughout your career?
My work has focused on optimizing human performance in every environment: the office, space, and the community—sometimes in extreme and isolating conditions. That optimization can take the form of professional coaching, team-building, or executive coaching in the workplace. Each of those environments required some form of technology. As the Director of Innovation at the Mental Health Center of Denver, I have the opportunity to put all that interest into real-world problem-solving.
What are you responsible for in your role?
I lead the Innovation Technology Lab at the Mental Health Center of Denver as if it were a startup. We are trying to create a world where mental health care is accessible to everyone in an equitable manner. We assess and develop new products and solutions.
Everyone from the C-suite to our frontline clinicians and staff is engaged in the process. My team develops the solutions and pilots them. As with any innovation project, it's not guaranteed that our solution will succeed. We have to be willing to live with uncertainty, and the thrill of that challenge is what makes this work exciting. There are always lessons to be learned. And the biggest one is that saying “no” opens the door to other opportunities.
What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?
Our flagship project is called Digital Front Door. This web portal provides on-demand, personalized recommendations for individuals who are curious about mental health. It helps people explore on their terms—when they want help and how they want it. Last year, 80,000 residents sought help from the Mental Health Center of Denver. With this new portal, our strategy is to use technology as a force multiplier. The goal is to reach them early. And if users do need care, we have a way to bring them into services seamlessly through our mobile app.
We’re also working on a super-cool project that involves the game Minecraft. As a gamer myself, I was excited to see another intersection of our clinical work and a new digital realm. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our students could not attend our classes in person and struggled. Our clinicians saw that the kids they were treating wanted to engage in an environment where they felt safe both emotionally and physically. So, two of our clinicians built a virtual replica of our brick-and-mortar facilities in a secured Minecraft environment. In our pilot, we saw 100% attendance for group sessions! While adults may balk at the idea of meeting in an all-digital world, the students had no reservations. We look forward to developing this approach further to play therapy.
Why should candidates who work in tech consider working for a nonprofit?
As a not-for-profit organization, we get to see how technology impacts the most vulnerable in our communities. Our technology choices have a purpose and are not just utilizing technology for technology's sake. Here you get to see what it is like in the real world and how challenging it is to implement technology into the workplace and see how it is used by real people every day.
What do you like best about the company culture at the Mental Health Center of Denver?
There is a culture of innovation and an openness to look internally and have hard conversations. It is not easy to address changes from within the system. It takes courage and tenacity.
One thing that impressed me about MHCD is that we are not afraid to look at ourselves and see if we are part of the problem. When it comes to adressing anti-Black racism, our internal survey results were not stellar. We are willing to take responsibility for our technology and address the lack of equity that technology engenders. If we are to implement new technologies, we look at the 360-degree impact of that technology on access and equity.
What has been the key to your success working in an industry where BIPOC women are often underrepresented?
I grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I was one of about 10 Black students in my graduating class of 500. Being one of few was nothing new to me. After college at the University of Georgia, the reality of that upbringing allowed me to foster a crucial mindset: freedom of mind. I chose to take a path that would mean being in places where there was no one like me. I became adept at navigating those environments. In choosing to move back West, I left the possibility of support and an emotional comfort zone, but I knew how to thrive in adverse conditions.
I have been in jobs in my entire career where if I was not the only Black woman, I was one of a few Black people or people of color, period. I won't sugarcoat it: It is disheartening to look around and see that you are the only one—and know why you are the only one.
It is important to be okay following your passions, even if no one else is there. Building a village outside of work has been vital to my success, especially in places like Boise, Idaho, and Yuma, Arizona. I have learned that others are like myself: explorers. And if you look hard enough, you will find them.