Colorado State University alumnus Joe Conrad (B.A., ’87) is no stranger to building success from the ground up. Now, he’s helping university students and employees do the same for their mental and physical well-being.

After graduating with a bachelor’s in technical journalism, Conrad felt unfulfilled at his first marketing firm in Denver. He soon ventured out on his own to use the power of creativity and branding to help nonprofits better tell their stories and bolster their missions. In 1990, he founded Cactus, a purpose-driven marketing and advertising agency. 

Focusing on brands that help people thrive, Cactus began to undertake behavior-change social marketing campaigns. Conrad was eventually asked to pioneer a new approach to the rising rates of suicide among working-aged men in the United States. Cactus launched Man Therapy, a campaign using humor to encourage men to proactively take charge of their mental health.

Cactus and Man Therapy were thriving in their respective missions when in 2014, Brett Anderson, then-CSU vice president for advancement and current special adviser to the president and chancellor, asked Conrad to partner with the CSU Health Network to bring his innovative solutions to another high-risk population: college students. 

Creative solutions to serious problems

Seeing a need to “create behavioral health solutions using creative technology,” Conrad founded Grit Digital Health and formed a public-private partnership with CSU to develop the YOU at College well-being platform, specifically YOU@CSU for the Rams community. 

“Right from the start, we knew that we wanted YOU at College to be adopted and embraced by every department on campus,” Conrad says. “So, we tried to take that same approach in the development of the platform in our research and development process.”

Grit and the Health Network spent a year gathering input from and support across campus, including representatives from academic programs and organizations, clubs and recreational organizations, administrative units, and residence hall leadership, among others, to develop a student-centered holistic platform.

Connections for YOU

“An epiphany I had a while ago in doing this work – and I know it to be true – is that stress doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Conrad says. “Instead of just focusing on the acute issue of when students are in crisis, it’s really about moving upstream: how to help students before they’re in crisis and how to help them be more resilient and take charge of their own well-being.”

That’s exactly what YOU at College is designed for. It’s a personalized, fully confidential tool that helps students, and now faculty and staff as well, navigate life by connecting them to a diverse array of general and campus resources, such as tips on overcoming procrastination, nearby child care options, self-image support, diversity education, anxiety solutions, and much more. 

Grit’s work produced four related platforms: YOU for Students; YOU for Faculty and Staff; Nod, an app that helps students make and maintain real-life relationships; and HelpCompass, a tool to quickly connect people to helpful resources in crisis and noncrisis situations. YOU has been purchased and deployed by nearly 200 campuses across the country.

Conrad has gifted them all to CSU, but there’s more to it.

“Ultimately, we want to help every single student, at least in one simple or profound way,” Conrad says.