Why We Need to Redefine Start-up Culture With Positive Mental Health Habits

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Data shows self-awareness practices helped M.I.T. entrepreneurs better manage the stress of entrepreneurship.

Anxiety and depression are rampant among entrepreneurs. The stereotype of a founder — fueled by caffeine and ramen noodles, while forgoing sleep, exercise, fresh air, friends, and family in the quest for success — has been the norm for years. It has been encouraged, and even glorified, by start-up culture.

The Inc. article “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship” explores this topic and explains, “the same passionate dispositions that drive founders heedlessly toward success can sometimes consume them. Business owners are ‘vulnerable to the dark side of obsession.’” Yet this is not healthy or helpful for long-term success.

Compounding this problem is the start-up founder’s hesitation to show weakness or self-doubt. They feel the need to project confidence for investors and employees, despite any inner insecurities. They also tend to connect their self-worth and identity to their start-ups, which can lead to feelings of depression if their start-up fails.

We also commonly see “impostor syndrome” — an unjustified, yet pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence. This can slow down an otherwise well-designed new organization by curtailing its ultimate impact and potentially even its existence. The majority of entrepreneurs have experienced these feelings, but they are pushed away and not discussed.

At M.I.T., we don’t believe entrepreneurship has to be this way. The health of a start-up doesn’t need to impact founders’ mental health. We believe self-awareness and mental preparedness can enhance an entrepreneur’s abilities. This, in turn, leads to creating a more successful business. The right tools can help entrepreneurs work through stress, rather than work in spite of it. This is a real game changer for the start-up culture.

Through a new exploratory program, we’ve found data affirming that when entrepreneurs understand their thoughts, feelings, and biases, it is useful in managing stress — and this is a skill that can be taught. In fact, 93% of M.I.T. delta v entrepreneurs believe self-awareness practices can help them create more successful businesses. Here’s more about the program:

Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication

Last year, we debuted Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (E.C.C.) at M.I.T.’s delta v accelerator. This is the first comprehensive program to address mental health challenges in the start-up community and builds on our previous smaller experiments in this area. Our goal was to teach 84 student founders and their team members tools to build greater self-awareness and to provide a confidential environment for venting and peer feedback. Stress is inevitable in start-ups, but by learning how to be less affected by that stress, participants could make better choices for themselves and their start-ups.

In the first six weeks of the program, participants were taught the tools of self-awareness, including meditation and mindfulness, and their benefits. What are the benefits of meditation or mindfulness? Studies abound, but two that may be of particular interest to entrepreneurs are:

  • Harvard study on practicing mindfulness meditation for at least 30 minutes a day reports that the practice can increase grey matter in the hippocampus. This is one of the more important meditation facts, since this part of the brain plays an important role in memory and learning.
  • Another study, published in Heliyon, showed that practicing mindfulness meditation for a short period of time may enhance visuospatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.

In the second six weeks, they applied their learnings, discussing key choices entrepreneurs face — taking breaks vs. spending all your time on your start-up, working through limiting beliefs, considering others’ perspectives, and approaching challenges with fear or curiosity. Participants learned through readings, optional group meditation, and small group sessions where they could talk confidentially about challenges they were facing with people who could relate to what they were going through.

The results were significant. Participants didn’t just learn that a self-awareness practice can benefit them — they decided to implement it on a regular basis in their own lives. The overall experience had a measurable effect on their well-being.

The student entrepreneurs started becoming what we call “antifragile.” The term antifragile is used by professor and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book titled Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. When applying his systems analysis to humans, antifragile people are those who “grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”

A comparison of surveys conducted before and after the program, with 60 participants responding, revealed the following results:

Learning new skills

Before the program, 65% of participants had never meditated and only 21% were regularly practicing meditation or mindfulness.

By the end of the summer, 88% of had independently established their own regular, weekly meditation or mindfulness practice, despite heavy workloads and continual critical deadlines. And, their practices were measurably impacting how they worked through stress. After the program, 53% of participants were using a deliberate technique to calm themselves when in the midst of a stressful situation.

Sharing challenges

Most founders rarely have the opportunity to talk about the challenges of entrepreneurship with someone who is knowledgeable, and whom they don’t feel the need to impress. Participants in E.C.C. reported significant value from both small group discussions and optional one-on-one sessions, which were both 100% utilized by the students. The fact that very busy students took full advantage of E.C.C.’s optional one-on-one coaching, in particular, indicates the strong value the participants realized from the program.

Credit: The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship

Making better choices

We hypothesized that self-awareness tools could help founders make better moment-to-moment choices in their daily entrepreneurial lives. We found that after the program, 34% of participants who had established a meditation or mindfulness practice were more confident in their communications with others. And 40% were more aware of the emotions they were feeling, choosing to go ahead and feel those emotions rather than push them away.

The data affirms that self-awareness tools are useful in managing stress — and they can be taught. These tools help you understand your automatic responses to difficult situations and to perspectives different from your own. You start to notice problems earlier and feel more personal confidence, making it is easier to treat yourself and others with respect and to be resilient in the face of entrepreneurship’s challenges.

As demonstrated in this Boston Consulting Group article “Unleashing the Power of Mindfulness in Corporations,” meditation and mindfulness have proven positive effects in other industries — and now we have data that shows they can be significantly beneficial in entrepreneurship. Integrating self-awareness into the entrepreneurial experience will help prevent burnout, encourage better mental and physical health, and create better team dynamics. It’s great for entrepreneurs, and it could be great for their start-ups’ bottom line too.

Self-awareness education can guide entrepreneurs to not only take care of themselves, but to spread these skills across the entrepreneurial ecosystem, building company cultures that are supportive of both individual and start-up success. As M.I.T.’s delta v program works to redefine the start-up culture by incorporating positive mental health practices, we want to help entrepreneurs practice the self-awareness skills necessary to nurture their own mental health and create more successful businesses.

This piece originally appeared in Thrive Global and was co-written by Kathleen Stetson.

Entrepreneurship 2020: A Look Ahead

Heading into a new decade is a time for both reflection and predictions. What have we learned about entrepreneurship? And what do we see as trends moving forward?

2019 marked the tenth summer that MIT’s Martin Trust Center has hosted an accelerator and the eighth year of our formal MIT delta v program. I’ve had the pleasure of leading delta v for the past five years, and I’ve seen tremendous growth during that time. The summer-long bootcamp works with entrepreneurs who enter with an idea for their business and progress to product creation and new venture launch. The program is based on the Disciplined Entrepreneurship framework with the philosophy that entrepreneurship can be taught; you don’t have to be born an entrepreneur.

A Decade of Success at MIT’s delta v Accelerator

We’ve studied the path of the companies coming out of delta v; as of January 2018, 101 teams made up of 316 students had taken part, and a full 75% of these startups were either still in business or had been acquired – far above the average for new ventures. These delta v alumni companies employ more than 500 workers across the globe, and 25% of our teams have ten or more employees. According to figures on Crunchbase, as of November 2019, delta v teams have raised more than $215 million from 375+ investments. One-third of the companies raised at least $1M+, and six teams have exceeded $10M+ in funding rounds.

In the words of one of our board members, Max Faingezicht, “delta v is a driving force of the entrepreneurial ecosystem where you mix talent with motivation to go out and change the world.”

So, what changes do we anticipate in the next decade of entrepreneurship? Some of the broader trends we see are ones reflected in delta v.

A Rise in Women Entrepreneurs is Impacting the Economy

It is a fact that women entrepreneurs are driving economic growth. According to an article in Forbes on 10 Stats that Build the Case for Investing in Women-Led Startups, women were the sole or majority owners of an estimated 12.3 million U.S. businesses at the beginning of 2018, and are starting businesses at a rate of more than 1,800 per day. The number of women-owned companies is growing at a faster rate than all businesses and women of color are driving this. In addition, companies founded by women deliver higher revenue – more than 2 times as much per dollar invested – than those founded by men.  

Four out of every ten businesses in the U.S. are owned by women, according to The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). These businesses tend to be smaller in terms of revenue and employment. In fact, 88% of women-owned businesses generate less than $100,000 in annual revenue, while 1.7% generated more than $1 million in revenue – although both segments are growing.

At MIT’s delta v we see more women taking leadership roles in the startups. With each cohort, we strive for diverse gender and ethnic backgrounds plus a worldwide perspective, and we proactively aim to neutralize gender bias for entrepreneurs. Diverse teams offer a tremendous benefit in terms of networking and help each other solve challenges, supporting our philosophy that diversity fuels innovation. We’ve also seen that the rate of our successful women-led startups is even higher than the delta v average.

Mentorship Lays the Foundation for Entrepreneurial Success

An article in VentureBeat explains that people with access to a mentor are five times more likely to be interested in starting a business than those without a mentor. Mentorship is linked with business success, and business owners who receive three-plus hours of counseling report higher revenues and employment growth rates. The article also states nearly half of women entrepreneurs say one of the top challenges they face is finding a mentor who can direct them to the resources and organizations that can help them launch their businesses. 

At delta v, our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence and board members are built-in mentors for our student teams. Both bring resources and experience to guide the new entrepreneurs on their journey. We also encourage student entrepreneurs to find their voice. This requires mentees to speak up and be active participants in the process. They need to own their narrative, identify what is of value to them, and speak up to find a mentor or sponsor and make that relationship fruitful.

Gen Z’s Vision of Entrepreneurship

Although we work with a lot of Millennials in delta v, it’s interesting to keep an eye on the upcoming generation of entrepreneurs. (Pew Research considers anyone born between 1981 and 1996 a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of Generation Z.)

Gen Z has different priorities and different frames of reference than the entrepreneurs who preceded them. Amazon’s next-day delivery has always been a thing for them. They never went to Blockbuster to rent a movie and social media permeates their lives. As a result, internet-based business models are second nature; “Uberize” is even a verb used to describe a business model. Entrepreneur states that 41% of Gen Z-ers plan to become entrepreneurs.

Interestingly, Millennials are less likely to become entrepreneurs, according to a study from the U.S. Small Business Administration. It revealed that fewer than 4 percent of 30-year-olds are actively engaged in entrepreneurship, compared with 5.4 percent of Generation X-ers and 6.7 percent of Baby Boomers who were entrepreneurs at the same age. Coming of age during a time of recession and burdened with student debt, many Millennials turned to side gigs to make money. I explored the gig economy in my Xconomy article on Necessity vs. Innovation-based Entrepreneurs. Interestingly, necessity entrepreneurship is strongly counter-cyclical – that is, recessions drive necessity-based entrepreneurs to start their businesses.

As each new generation makes its way in the world, it is fascinating to see how they view entrepreneurship and the new types of businesses they create.

What’s Ahead for delta v?

With the data we have gathered on the delta v teams over the past decade, one of our next steps is to develop a more scalable playbook so that we can extend our reach even further. At MIT, we rely on observations, research, and experimentation. Our motto, mens et manus (which translates from Latin to “mind and hand”), is present in everything we do. In entrepreneurship classes and programs, this approach is vital. Our students don’t automatically have a higher success rate; they learn the fundamentals of becoming an entrepreneur hands-on. At the Martin Trust Center, we have integrated the mechanics of new venture creation in curriculum, programming, community support, and we have validated them on a world stage.

As the collective knowledge of entrepreneurship improves, we continue to move forward to meet the needs of the entire entrepreneur. However, like any discovery, it takes several experiments and iterations to fully understand aspects of the problem you are trying to solve. We realize that mental fortitude and self-awareness are crucial to moving forward and are implementing some exciting new programming in this area.

As we prepare to lead entrepreneurs into the next decade, there are some “big rocks” to address. We need to prepare students for financial discussions and mental stamina for the funding process. We need to focus on establishing a culture and nurturing it, supported by our team. A business reflects the character of the founding and growing team, so the journey starts with an individual and builds to a long-term game.