It’s OK to Not Be OK: An Honest Exploration of Wellness for Leaders

Three startup founders share how they manage their mental health in a crisis.
By Lindsey Marlowe

Last Updated: December 5, 2020

Published: May 10, 2020

Mari Andrews

When was the last time you cried?

This was asked by M13 Partner Christine Choi of both audience and founder panelists during our April 21 webinar on wellness for leaders. It’s a question we encourage everyone to take a moment to ask themselves, given we’re facing exponential challenges we could’ve never anticipated as a result of this current global crisis. Our panelists’ answers showed that they’re struggling in unique ways while feeling unified by grief, frustration, and endurance.

Christine Choi: In the last 21 days, I’ve lost five friends and parents of friends, and I’ve lost someone I love to COVID-19. The last time I cried was four days ago.

Sascha Lewis: I cried last Wednesday during my couples’ therapy session with my wife.

Darja Gutnick: I cried 10 days ago in a coaching session. It was the first time in a long time that I slowed down he brought me to tears by simply asking me how I was feeling, which made me realize how sad I feel about everything that’s going on.

Ara Katz: I cried two days ago during a fight with my husband. We’re both trying to run our startups from home with a toddler in the house and have been without childcare for weeks.

As former founders and operators, M13 understands the challenges entrepreneurs face, particularly amid today’s uncertainty. We designed our model to help founding teams endure both good and bad times of work, and we recognize this requires empathy and a belief in sustainable growth. It’s okay to not be okay, but there is power in the shift from vulnerability to resilience. We sat down with three founders in M13’s ecosystem to discuss.

Sascha Lews is the co-founder of EVRYMAN, a men’s emotional wellness company that provides tools, support and experiences for men to build deeper connections to each other and accelerate their personal growth.

Darja Gutnick is the co-founder and CEO of Bunch, an M13 company and a leadership intelligence startup on a mission to help managers become great leaders and tackle the everyday challenges of leading people using AI, psychology, and data.

Ara Katz is the co-founder and co-CEO of Seed Health, an M13 company and a microbial sciences company pioneering applications of bacteria to impact human and environmental health.

Christine: Work and workspaces are being redefined now that we have to integrate work into our homes. How are we supposed to make space to build resilience both in the workplace and at home? How do we make room for self-care as well as a diversity of ideas and perspectives?

Sascha: Work can so easily become all-encompassing now, especially if you’re an entrepreneur. Joining a group; having a supportive fabric, network, and community outside of your workplace is critical. There’s additional pressure to hit projections and keep business afloat. Have a yoga practice or meditation, or be part of a community group … whatever that outlet is, you have to prioritize it—even if you have to shorten it or do it at an inopportune moment.

Treat your self-care as the most important meeting of your week. If we can’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of others.

Sascha Lewis

Also, recognize that you’re not a lone wolf. This is why having a community is important. It helps you realize that there are other people dealing with the same struggles, and can likely offer support along the way.

Darja: I want to share a perspective from M13 Managing Partner Karl Alomar during one of our first meetings after news of the crisis hit. My Bunch co-founders and I were pulling the team together to create an action plan. We were quite scared–—none of us knew what was in store. We met with Karl and M13 Partner Matt Hoffman, and I’ll never forget when Karl said: “The most important thing is to breathe and realize this is just another problem to solve.” He helped me realize that it seemed very scary and big, but at the end of the day, it depended on how well we could handle the situation and how important it is to not be led by fear. See the opportunities, see the light at the end of the tunnel. That perspective immediately snapped me out of being scared to instead feeling opportunistic.

Ara: We can sit in the suffering of not being with others or we can find comfort in having so much time to just be with ourselves. This is an opportunity to examine the choices you’ve made. Examine how you structure your time, your relationships, your geography, your space, the way you care for yourself.

I wish we could rebrand physical distancing to self-proximity.

Ara Katz

There is this notion of resilience: in environmental science, it's referred to as allostasis, meaning a sense of balance. When there's a problem in the environment, with which there are many, the way we measure an ecosystem's health is how quickly it can return to a state of balance. It's not restored exactly to the state it was before but a state of balance, which we call homeostasis.

If you look up health in the dictionary, it’s defined as a state of emotional, physical, and mental well-being. (I think the last time that definition got touched was in 1948.) Wellness is defined as a state of general well-being. This idea that these things are “states,” that we will somehow achieve one day, is a real betrayal to what we ultimately want to do, which is to look at health as a verb; this thing we do every day to strengthen our muscles of resilience. There’s a beautiful quote: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

Resilience is how quickly you can return to that state in the face of change. How you choose to do that is part of our collective learning, education, and wisdom that I hope comes from this crisis.

Ara Katz

What unconventional ways have you been trying to stay connected with your customers?

Darja: At Bunch, we’re actively working to improve the way we communicate with our customers given the macro environment changes. We’ve been interacting with early testers of our iOS leadership coaching app through texts and WhatsApp, and it has been extremely valuable for us. We’ve been able to get different perspectives through this process, and we’re developing more personal relationships with our customers. Overall, we’re focusing on delivering the highest level of value to our customers, taking leadership advice from famous thought leaders and practitioners, and delivering them to our users in a highly personalized way.

Bunch’s iOS leadership coaching app

“Being mindful of your community’s time is so important. We’re pushing ourselves to reduce the space we take up in inboxes. We want Bunch to provide value in a one-liner and build thoughtful experiences to give people time and space to be intentional about where they spend their time and energy.” Darja Gutnick

‍‍Sascha: We’ve always thought of ourselves as a URL-meets-IRL business, so it has been challenging. We’ve canceled around 25 total retreats, each with 35 to 75 men. So we’ve been calling what we do now “Project Lemonade” we’ve been handed a bunch of lemons because our revenue went from close to a million dollars for the year to zero very quickly.

EVRYMAN had to quickly pivot and create opportunities for growth and change. We’re doing global community calls on a weekly basis. We get somewhere between 100-200 men from all over the world who come and get a digital taste of the EVRYMAN method. That’s new for us. Usually you had to physically come to a retreat, lean in, and put a lot of energy toward getting the most out of our work. Now all you have to do is click on a Zoom link, and listen in for an hour.

We’ve lowered the barrier of entry, which has been exciting because men from all walks of life come together. We want more human connection, and there is this new global energy, so we’re able to see men from different places and hear the struggles they’re having and their hopes and challenges. It has been grounding for us. Ultimately it has ended up being positive because we’ve developed these new, dynamic ways EVRYMAN can interact with our community.

Ara: The idea is this overwhelming sense of accountability for the home we have. How can we inspire the Overview Effect about the human body? We call that the Inner View: if you’re so enamored with the cosmos, how can you not be enamored with ourselves, our bodies? Can you make people feel in awe of themselves so before they decide to put something in their bodies or on their bodies, you look at yourself the way you look at the earth from space? Ultimately, it’s about developing a fascination with everything outside of us. And that’s where first-principles thinking comes from. Whether you call it a pivot, adaptation, we’re obsessed with that shift in perspective.

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