31st July 2019! The case of Cafe Coffee Day Founder, Mr V.G. Siddhartha’s disappearance took a shockingly dark turn when his body was discovered at a Mangalore beach. The eventual discovery that he had ended his own life, sent shockwaves through the Indian corporate world. Members of the Indian entrepreneurial community, including me, just couldn’t believe what they were hearing. This horrific incident really brought to the fore the various mental and emotional challenges that we entrepreneurs face behind the scenes.
The Legend of Entrepreneurs
What comes to your mind when you hear the word – Entrepreneur?
Ever asked any layperson this question? I certainly have, and the response is usually along the lines of –
A person who’s fearless, tireless, relentless, dynamic, smart, and doesn’t mind taking risks.
Sure, these are some qualities that are required, and even necessary to put yourself out there, challenge the norm and start your own venture.
Entrepreneurs Are Human Too
According to a recent study by the Ascent Foundation and the Mariwala Health Initiative, titled “Entrepreneurial Well-Being”,
Over 50% reported experiencing anxiety, confusion, irritability, and frustration sometimes.
In fact, 55% of entrepreneurs who are aged 20-40 years and are running their own businesses, reported anxiety as the dominant feeling they experienced. The most shocking and worrisome finding was that 8% of the entrepreneurs aged 20-40 years admit to having suicidal thoughts.
Let’s face it, starting something from scratch, although exciting, requires huge financial, emotional and psychological investments. At some point, it just takes over your life.
This isn’t something that I personally resent, but I certainly can’t stop it from taking a toll on me sometimes. Sometimes, It even begins to creep into my sense of self, and no matter how much I may resist, it sometimes feels like a defining part of my identity. AFTER ALL, MY COMPANY IS “MY BABY” – something I’ve created and feel responsible for.
The Lonely Journey of a Founder
However, this is but one side of the coin. The other side, the human side, is generally ignored.
This journey can be quite lonely, particularly in our country, where starting our own venture is considered too risky a move. I remember when I tried conveying this decision to my family, my brother called and asked me if I had thought this through and that if he was in my place, he might not have made such a bold move. I was blessed with a family who allows me to take risks. I still remember my father telling me,
You will get enough people laughing and taunting you when things go south, It’s you who has to survive this!
Not only did it give me the final nudge to jump into this, but also made it clear that “I am on my own!”. Isn’t that true for a lot of us?
Family and friends, generally find themselves puzzled as to why you decided to take a risk instead of going for the so-called “safer option”, and it is so difficult to even begin to explain to them why you did take this step. This, unfortunately, also means that you often find yourself with no options, when you need an empathetic, non-judgemental, and unbiased ear to hear you out, or a shoulder to cry on.
So why isn’t this side of entrepreneurship ever discussed publicly? This is exactly the question that Elon Musk was asked by a Twitter user in July 2017.
It isn’t necessarily true that people don’t want to hear about the “terrible lows and unrelenting stress” that an entrepreneur must face. However, what I have realised is that most entrepreneurs hesitate to talk about their vulnerable moments, particularly when their own family or friends might be unsupportive or will start offering “solutions”.
More often than not, we try to portray a certain image of ourselves wherein we don’t look emotionally “weak”.
This is also why seeking support through counselling and psychotherapy appears to be far fetched in the larger scheme of things. Most of us tend to prioritise the success of our company over our mental health. Even when we do feel the need for counselling, we’re hesitant, often due to the stigma associated with it.
Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown caught everyone unawares. For startup founders, it was a particularly rude shock and has had a significant impact on the community’s mental wellbeing.
In the lockdown/social distancing months, i.e. the past 3 to 4 months, we’ve supported nearly 450 clients who’re entrepreneurs.
They report heightened distress and worry about how to manage their companies in these circumstances. With the implementation of “Work From Home” being advised, there’s immense pressure to keep employees engaged, and maintain their productivity. Additionally, there’s immense worry about the future of businesses due to the impact of the suspension of offline activities such as sales, which usually require in-person meetings and travel.
The resulting mix of emotions – stress, worry, anxiety, frustration, helplessness, etc. – has been tremendously distressing and maybe even overwhelming. Thus the need for emotional support has become all the more crucial among founders in the current times.
In the last 5 years of our existence, we’ve been approached by entrepreneurs numerous times to discuss their issues with our Coaches. This was tremendously heartening for us and gave us some great insights, apart from my own personal ones, into the kind of issues my fellow entrepreneurs face in their lives. However, the number of individuals was found to be wanting, for reasons discussed earlier in this article. So we couldn’t contain our happiness and excitement when Prasanna K, Managing Director, Upekkha, approached us with the challenge to create and run a program catering exclusively to entrepreneurs, with the promise to get on-board the founders of startups being mentored by Upekkha. Thus, “The Founders Program” was born.
The Founders Program
The Founders Program is an initiative by YourDOST, that aims to address the mental health needs of our fellow start-up founders across the country. The aim is to enable each and every one of them to build Grit and adopt a Growth Mindset while working through the challenges that arise in their lives. As a part of the program, each founder is assigned a Coach (a professional psychologist trained in handling high-performing entrepreneurs), who helps them identify their core issues or areas to work, breaks the problem down into immediate goal(s) and works with them.
Over the past year and a half, we have administered this program to 250+ Founders, along with accelerators/incubators like Upekkha (SaaS accelerator), NSRCEL (IIM Bangalore’s incubator) and also with founders approaching us directly.
To be honest, I was not very sure how effective this would be, especially when I know this breed of us, founders! To my surprise, this has yielded tremendously positive results and the program has received excellent feedback from these participants.
The top issues that founders worked on were:
Given the daily ups and downs, this was an expected top concern that was worked upon.
Since most founders’ professional lives come at the cost of their personal relationships, many chose to work on improving this aspect of their lives.
With complementing personalities, this is bound to happen between founders and was a common area.
For founders, the combination of negativity, anxiety and stress often manifests itself in the form of anger and many used the program to overcome this issue.
This became quite common especially in the last 3 months of the pandemic.
In addition to these top concerns, some other issues that founders chose to work on with their coaches were time management, assertiveness and focus/concentration.
Real Stories, Real Impact
As you know, we (founders) are a reserved kind. But once we believe in something we do not shy away from talking about it from the front. We were fortunate enough that a lot of my fellow founders were kind enough to share their experiences and leave a message for others who might benefit from it. Here are some of their messages –
Personally, The Founders Program has been one of the main highs for me at YourDOST. Speaking to the founders personally and being able to do something for the community has been a very humbling experience.
I know what we have done is just a tip of the iceberg but we do feel this is the right start. Having so many founders acknowledge the efforts and share their experience is overwhelming.
We all put our blood and sweat behind our companies, but forget that we need to take care of ourselves. We are humans, We are vulnerable! Let’s accept, acknowledge and appreciate rather than hide it. Hum hain to jahaan hai!
A program which was a closed pilot for the last 1.5 years, has now been made open to everyone. Do take a look and give it a shot – https://yourdost.com/emotional-wellness-founders
LET’S SEEK HELP BECAUSE WE ARE STRONG!