Launching a company can be stressful for anyone, but diverse founders often face unique impacts on their mental well-being. Here’s how some prior participants in our Multicultural Innovation Lab have coped.
“It’s like building a plane while it’s flying,” is how one entrepreneur who took part in our Multicultural Innovation Lab (MCIL) describes launching a startup. The challenges of finding investors, hiring a team and acquiring customers are daunting enough, but there’s also the stress that comes along with that. For women and founders of color, who routinely confront the additional hurdle of systemic bias, those challenges to mental health and well-being can prove even tougher.
The leadership of the MCIL, Morgan Stanley’s in-house accelerator that supports early-stage tech and tech-enabled startups led by multicultural and women entrepreneurs, realized that mental health training should be part of the suite of resources it offers participants, and so it has partnered with Bright Ventures, which invests in diverse and inclusively-led startups and provides leadership coaching for their founders. Since 2020, Bright Ventures founder and Managing Partner, Lenore Champagne Beirne and her team have met regularly with Lab participants to address issues of mental health and tailor personalized solutions.
“We know from our experience that well-being is a big part of how leadership is both experienced and expressed,” she says. “Many founders deal with anxiety, depression, ADHD, even suicidal ideation. Given that women and founders of color, especially Black founders, are routinely misheard, misunderstood and discriminated against, is that they would endure those things in even greater numbers."
Former MCIL participant Kevin Dedner knows that experience all too well, having struggled with depression and exhaustion at one point during his career in public health. It’s what led him to found his company Hurdle, which provides culturally responsive teletherapy services to individuals and employers, focusing particularly on the Black community and other typically underserved minority groups.
“I saw three therapists before I could find one who I felt truly understood me as an African-American, who could connect with my narrative and my life experiences,” he says. “Once I started to talk about my depression publicly, I found that many of my friends had had a similar experience.” His company aims to fill that gap by training and equipping therapists to understand and respond to cultural differences and the effects of racism.
Dedner practices what he preaches, making mental wellness a priority at his company as well as with his clients. He schedules no internal team meetings on Wednesdays, starts extended meetings with a meditation or reflective exercise and offers unlimited vacation to employees within reason. And while he himself works six to seven days a week, “I’ve built protective measures into my work life and figured out a cadence for it,” he says, including scheduling 30-minute buffers between meetings.
“Black and brown founders have been told that they have to be twice as good as everyone else. And it means they are working at a pace that is unreasonable to prove they are worthy,” he says, a pace that can lead to depression and burnout. “It’s a dangerous idea.”
For Dana Weeks, the founder and CEO of MedTransGo, which offers healthcare providers technology to efficiently and conveniently book transportation, interpretation and other care coordination services for their patients, the stress of the pandemic forced her to address both her well-being and her purpose as a founder head-on. As a Black and Asian-American woman, she was deeply impacted by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, as well as the spa shootings and increased violence against the Asian-American community.
"I live in Georgia, and the social awakening that happened as a result of those events brought up some powerful emotions, and it gave me license to really feel and talk about the fear and the sadness and just the emotional depletion we had all experienced," she says. "And on the other side, it made me more resolute. My business is aimed at solving a healthcare problem, but it is also solving for community health disparities. When you feel the world's problems are so big, being able to lead a diverse and dedicated team and channel your despair into something that has meaning and purpose and that gives you the ability to innovate is helpful mentally."
Fellow MCIL participant Isabel Koo, founder of Noodie, a company that sells healthy, flavorful, authentic alternatives to instant ramen, also came to rely on others to help her through periods of anxiety and exhaustion. She’d always felt she had the self-resilience to handle just about anything, having forged her way to CEO of a successful retail company as a woman of color. “When the world doesn’t necessarily have faith in your ability to succeed because you are not in the standard visual majority, you have to dig deep and build your own skills and your own confidence in yourself,” she says.
But when she found herself dealing with complex supply chains and a pivot from a business-to-consumer model to one that also incorporated a business-to-business platform—during a pandemic, no less—she suddenly didn’t know where to turn to for support. Self-doubt as she worked to scale the business only added to the pressures.
Her solution was to build a staff she could count on, one able to not only navigate the many different cultures she deals with to do business but also lend critical perspectives. “Our whole team is multicultural. And what I’ve found is that people from diverse backgrounds inherently think about risk, and mitigating risk, very differently. It’s been a huge upside for me personally.”
Believing in herself, though, as well as others, was just as crucial, a value that resonated for several of the MCIL participants who shared their experiences. It’s important, Dedner says, for both their own health and that of their companies, that multicultural founders tell themselves, “‘I deserve to be here. I’m solving a problem that needs to be solved,’” he says. “If you don’t have that, none of the other stuff works out.”