Pivots, a Pandemic, and Startup Founders’ Mental Health

The pandemic affects everyone. Today, we are all dealing with a different model for living – many people are working or attending school virtually, there is less social interaction, greater isolation, more juggling of home and work duties, and of course the anxiety and pain if loved ones become sick or die from COVID-19. A study by the CDC in June of this year reported 40% of US adults are struggling with mental health or substance abuse – substantially higher figures than in 2019.

Where does that leave our entrepreneurs? Beginning in March, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship closed its doors until further notice. We are continuing to support MIT’s entrepreneurship community virtually, including via online resources like Orbit. This past summer, our delta v accelerator moved to a completely virtual experience, including online Demo Day presentations.

One question we continue to ask ourselves is:
How has the pandemic affected the mental health of entrepreneurs?

Building Entrepreneurial Confidence

As we look to answer that question, we realize we were fortunate that MIT started the first self-awareness program for entrepreneurs last year – the Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (ECC) Program. We piloted this program with the delta v accelerator class of 2019 to help student entrepreneurs prioritize their own individual well-being while building their businesses. The culture of entrepreneurship celebrates working 24/7 to demonstrate passion and dedication for your business. A founder’s self-identity is often tied to the success of their startup, and as a result, entrepreneurs often experience loneliness, depression, and anxiety as they work through the normal ups and downs of startup life. This has only been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused delays, roadblocks, and failures for many startups.

Traditionally, entrepreneurs have lacked the support and tools to improve their mental well-being. The ECC pilot program, created by MIT Sloan MBA alumna Kathleen Stetson, taught MIT student entrepreneurs the tools and benefits of self-awareness; they then applied their learnings – discussing key choices entrepreneurs face, such as: taking breaks vs. spending all your time on your startup, working through limiting beliefs, considering others’ perspectives, and approaching challenges with fear or curiosity. The results were impressive, after taking part in the program 93% of participants felt that a self-awareness practice could help entrepreneurs create more successful businesses.

This year, because of the additional stress due to the pandemic, and the need for teams to feel connected when working remotely, we added two simple elements to the small groups within the ECC program that startup teams could quickly and easily implement in their own team interactions:

Red/yellow/green check-in – this not only encouraged small group members to practice self-awareness during small group, but many teams took this check-in strategy back to their teams, practicing it at the beginning of each of their standups.

A more structured way to give and receive help – after a small group member expressed a challenge they were facing, small group members asked clarifying questions rather than immediately jumping into solutions and advice. This not only made the speaker feel that they were heard, but helped participants practice active listening. They then took this back to their team interactions, helping them better understand their team members’ perspectives.

In a Fast Company article, Kathleen Stetson explains, “The 24/7, hustle-till-you-drop attitude has been a problematic fixture of startup culture for years. And now, due to the pandemic, sustaining one’s health is even harder. ‘I don’t know a startup founder who’s not burned out,’ a founder friend of mine told me recently.”

The Pivot: A Key Pandemic Strategy

“Pivot” has become the go-to word for 2020. People are pivoting with career changes and businesses are pivoting with strategies, as we all try to keep moving forward dealing with the unanticipated changes brought by a global pandemic. Entrepreneurs need to realize that a startup failure can be due to external circumstances, and the founders are not marked with a scarlet “F” for failure. A change in business strategy or taking a break from trying to start your own company is a pivot that will make you stronger the next time.

One of our delta v teams faced this type of challenge recently. Easel was a startup service that matched parents with top quality centers for last-minute childcare needs. The company was a member of the delta v class of 2019 and was faced with the tough decision to wind down the business this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic, so many people have transitioned to working from home that their childcare model was no longer sustainable. Although childcare continues to be a huge need, co-founders Neha Sharma and Michael Leonard realized they would need to shelve their plans for Easel and pivot to the next chapter in their lives. However, as delta v’s Managing Director Bill Aulet stated, “I still chalk these up to success for sure. They are much stronger than when they got here.” That strength, in part, came from MIT’s ECC program.

This type of a transition is one that often tests an entrepreneur’s sense of worth and purpose. They have put blood, sweat, and tears into their business only to watch their dreams fade. As stated in the Thrive Global article I co-authored with Kathleen Stetson, startup founders “tend to connect their self-worth and identity to their start-ups, which can lead to feelings of depression if their start-up fails.” Yet, 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. This is why MIT is proud to host the Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication program – the first comprehensive program to address mental health challenges in the start-up community and teach entrepreneurs how to effectively manage stress.

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