Alumni Spotlight: Jessica Byrd-Olmstead, Ph.D., Brings Humanity to Technology

Thursday, March 11, 2021
PAU alumna Jessica Byrd-Olmstead, Ph.D., describes her career as an adventure, a river trip with many twists and turns. Lots of rapids, too, it seems.
Jessica Byrd-Olmstead

Dr. Byrd-Olmstead is a current board member of the California Psychological Association (CPA) and this year’s chair of the virtual convention April 16-18. She’s a psychologist, author, and tech entrepreneur. And she maintains a private practice. She recently took a few minutes from her busy schedule to reflect on her career since graduating in 2012 from PAU’s Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program

She arrived at PAU with some research experience and had an interest in the field of addiction and recovery. Working with her advisor, Professor Louis Moffett, she focused on research at the Palo Alto Veteran’s Administration, and then, as a member of the first cohort in the Diversity and Community Mental Health emphasis, she did a practicum at the UCSF AIDS Health Project (now Alliance Health) working with individuals living with HIV/AIDS and another at San Mateo County’s juvenile hall, Youth Services Center. She has often worked with marginalized groups—LGBTQ youth, individuals  in recovery, and those who have been incarcerated. 
“I really thought I would end up in public policy and more on the research side of things,” Dr. Byrd-Olmstead says, but when she graduated, she landed at Kaiser Permanente, where she worked for six years and ultimately helped start a program for adolescents with substance use and mental health concerns.  
The current of her career took her to The Meadows Outpatient Center next, where she was recruited to build their Sunnyvale treatment center from the ground up. “I was hired as a Director, but jumped right in—I picked the carpet, hired the staff, went through the state licensing process, and opened it up.”
Kaiser and The Meadows gave Dr. Byrd-Olmstead management experience, “but it was much more than that,” she says. “It was really this concept of being a stakeholder, of having more psychologists as decision makers.”
That became her mission—to get more psychologists interested in leadership roles—but before she put it in motion, she decided to take some time off. She traveled and took up fitness and meditation. “I thought, these are things I’ve been suggesting to people for a decade,” she says. “They actually work! I had to practice what I told people every single day, and it gave me a newfound respect for why it’s so hard to be the recipient of that advice.”
The break gave Dr. Byrd-Olmstead time to reflect on her growing interest in leadership and entrepreneurship and gave rise to one of her latest projects, a tech start-up that focuses on wellness and travel. While the company is still in stealth mode, Dr. Byrd-Olmstead is clear about its goal: to leverage technology for well-being. And she is fierce in her belief that the tech field needs more psychologists.
“We help bring humanity to the tech world,” she says. “Our field is human behavior and we need to have experts in human behavior sitting at the table.”
Dr. Byrd-Olmstead is also working on a book, part memoir and part science. “Shame is often a propelling factor in success and fear of failure,” she says. “The book is about how I had to learn to shift that and how I did it.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, of course, she has had to navigate around some obstacles, like taking the CPA convention virtual and creating an online community. The conference will include eight live sessions with a lineup that includes David Burns, M.D. of Stanford and Dr. Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association, along with networking opportunities, student posters, and sponsor booths, all digital. 
Her ultimate goal in everything she does is to “make mental health mainstream,” where it’s accessible and destigmatized. “I used to say if I can help one person, that’s enough. But now I think, what if I could do something, whether it’s through a book, a podcast, or a mobile application, how can I use these platforms to help more than just one? Maybe it’s a thousand. Maybe it’s a million.”


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