SXSWorld November 2015


Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 21 of 35

2 0 S X S W o r l d | N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 5 | S X S W. C O M mong entrepreneurs, the effects of poor mental health can range from detrimental to debilitating. Though high-profile founders such as Moz's Rand Fishkin and Brad Feld of the Foundry Group have been public about their struggles, many others closely guard them, sometimes with catastrophic costs. In recent years, suicide has claimed several talented figures, including Aaron Swartz, who co-founded Reddit and helped develop the Creative Commons; Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a co-founder of Diaspora, a social network described as the "anti-Facebook"; and Austen Heinz, who founded Cambrian Genomics. Besides dealing loved ones and the startup community heav y losses, these deaths cast attention on little-discussed aspects of how startup life can affect the mental health of entrepreneurs. The driven, lonely culture and the grind of the business world can be a shock to brilliant CEOs and founders who may have standout tech credentials but less business experience. A pilot study published ear- lier this year found strong links between mental health issues and entrepreneurship, and suggested a high likeli- hood that entrepreneurs will encounter mental health chal- lenges at work or at home. Run by Michael Freeman, M.D.— clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, as well as a CEO and executive coach—the study surveyed entrepreneurs about ADHD, bipolar conditions, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. It found 49 percent of responders experienced at least one of the symptoms, and 23 percent more had at least one close family member experiencing at least one. The same team is going back to further investigate those findings with more robust study methodologies. But the initial findings, together with con- versations the suicides sparked, are already creating change. Startup incubators and business schools are trying to raise aware- ness among young entrepreneurs about how their careers can affect their mental health. First and foremost is an effort to destigma- tize mental illness. "I get email after email saying, 'There's so much stigma asso- ciated with mental health problems ... I am afraid that [getting treatment] will interfere with my IPO, or that I won't get the next round of funding,' " Freeman says. "These people are clearly excep- tional, and they create prosperity, jobs, products and services, but they are still afraid of the consequences of saying they have mental health differences." But breaking the taboo isn't easy. Joel Trammel, CEO of Khorus and author of The CEO Tightrope, debunks some of the myths that contribute to the culture of silence in the advice he gives other CEOs. He agrees that the pressures to maintain a flawless image to get or keep investors is great. But he highlights the pitfalls of doing so. "No matter how bad things are for the team, a lot of people think they can't be open about it. That's the 'cheerleader CEO.' Maybe that helps you get customers for a while. But on the other hand, you destroy your credibility. It's hard for the CEO to be anything other than what they are. If you're an emotional CEO, be who you are. People will accept you and respect you for that." If you've been in the startup world long enough, you've likely heard investors use phrases like "putting a bullet" in the lowest-performing companies. So it is understandable some entrepreneurs worry that the first sign of weakness will mean being culled. Trammel's advice? "Pay attention to who your inves- tors are. Ensure you're aligned." Being choosy about investors can be tough if only a few are interested—but it builds your credibility as a leader looking for the best, not the easiest, path to success. Plus, if investors are scared off by mental health issues that up to half of all entrepreneurs may experience, do you really want them any way? Freeman says stigmatizing mental health differences negates a potential upside: "The personality traits asso- ciated with mental health conditions are very helpful to entrepreneurs." As examples of traits linked to mental health differences and to successful entrepreneurs, he lists creativity, motivation and a higher tolerance for risk. With proper support and treatment, he emphasizes, people with mental health challenges can actually benefit from personality traits linked to ADHD, anxiety, depression or bipolar disorders. But, he explains, that is only if you keep the symptoms from undermining you: "Depression, irritability, errors in judge- ment, losing things, not following through on details required to launch might interfere with effectiveness." His thought: manage your symptoms, and your personality quirks could work in your favor. That's why he often avoids using the term "mental illness," and instead talks about mental health differences or conditions—language that allows that unusual workings of the human mind can also be helpful. "The conversations on how mental health differences are normal in entrepreneurs and their families are more part of the currency of entrepreneurship now," he says when asked what impacts he has noticed in the wake of his study. It's generally accepted that to run a successful startup, exceptional drive and vision are required. Now, a third quality—balance—may be recognized as essential, too. T Balance Crucial to Tech Exec Well-Being by K atie MatlacK A Le f t : J o el Tr a m m el Rig h t : M ich a el Fre e m a n , M . D. WA C H S M A N - S TA L E Y C O U R T E S Y O F J O E L T R A M M E L L "If you're an emotional CEO, be who you are. People will accept you and respect you for that."

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of SXSWORLD - SXSWorld November 2015