Have you ever finished a riveting book and realized that the plot, characters, and setting have left an indelible mark on your being? That is how I will always remember the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship – the people, energy, and ideas will forever imprint the fabric of my life.
When I joined the Trust Center nearly six years ago, I blogged about Disciplined Entrepreneurship – the framework we use for the entrepreneurship program at MIT’s Trust Center based on the book by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. One of the ideas that resonated with me then, and continues to do so, is that “ideas mean nothing without execution.”
Reflecting on the past six years, I realize that my time at MIT was about more than a job, it was about the execution of entrepreneurship. It was a chance to shape the lives of aspiring entrepreneurs who had big dreams and ideas to change the world for the better and help them to shape and execute those ideas into concrete plans. At the Trust Center, we like to say that MIT’s student entrepreneurs tackle the world’s big problems, and it was exciting to help make that happen.
Here’s the synopsis of how I landed at the Trust Center, and filled many roles, ultimately becoming the Director of MIT delta v, as well as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management on entrepreneurship topics.
In 2014, I had completed my doctorate in work-based learning at the University of Pennsylvania’s Chief Learning Officer program, and I wasn’t sure what my next step should be. I had the option to get back into the corporate world and focus on business analytics, but instead decided to pursue a role in education. I was hired by MIT as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and to help lead the student venture accelerator program, which is now known as delta v. From there, my role has expanded to teaching entrepreneurship classes, spearheading global programs, and becoming a spokesperson and thought leader representing MIT’s entrepreneurship initiatives.
This was definitely something new and different for me, and I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and embrace the challenge. The results achieved have certainly been beyond what I could have anticipated six years ago, including the expansion of the Trust Center – both physically and via online with Orbit, growing delta v both in size and in scope, partnerships with other universities, and instituting a flagship program to support the mental health of entrepreneurs. There were also many awards and accolades along the way, both personally and for the program.
But I’m not here to toot my own horn … I want to sincerely thank the whole team at the Trust Center for their support, teamwork, and camaraderie over the years – our group is quite the entrepreneurial talent tree. I’d also like to thank all the students who I was able to work with and mentor on their entrepreneurial journeys. Your enthusiasm and bright light made the hard parts of this job rewarding and worthwhile.
For those of you who are rethinking your own career situation, after the past year this may be exactly the right time to open yourself up to new experiences and find that that your next chapter was better than your last. I am leaving a job I love for the unknown – of course, this is a risk, but as an entrepreneur you bet on yourself, and make the choice to wake up with a “wow” in terms of what is going to happen today.
For me, this is the time to move beyond what has become well-loved and comfortable, and to take a leap into the next chapter – the fourth in my career. First, I was an engineer who moved up through the executive ranks. Second, I focused on startups, leading two companies to successful exits. Third, was my move into academia at MIT by leveraging my startup experience. And, for the fourth chapter, I’m not 100% sure what it will be yet, but stay tuned – that is the exciting part!
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.
At MIT, entrepreneurship programs run wide and deep – but across the board, student entrepreneurs know they can count on the university’s Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) for their wisdom, experience, and advice.
We caught up with some former EIRs who have represented the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. They have been part of a rotational program spearheaded by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. The concept of rotating experienced entrepreneurs through the Trust Center has been extremely successful – it gives students a sounding board for their questions and benefits the EIRs as well, enabling them to recharge and rejuvenate before their next venture.
Aulet likes to call the network of EIRs part of MIT’s Entrepreneurial Talent Tree. Many of these individuals have roots at MIT – they went into the world to become entrepreneurs, then touched back down at MIT as EIRs prior to moving on to do big things as entrepreneurs again, or in the entrepreneurial education community. Through this talent tree, the lessons and skills of MIT’s entrepreneurship program are widely shared, and a strong network is formed.
Elaine Chen, a former EIR who has recently been appointed as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center (TEC) and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, sums up the MIT EIR experience as an opportunity to give back to the entrepreneurial community by helping them learn. “We draw on our own experiences to help students acquire an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset, which will help them succeed wherever they go in their careers.”
“We try to give entrepreneurs a safe, unbiased set of feedback,” comments Dip Patel, now CTO of Soluna. “In the entrepreneurship game, it’s very hard to get unbiased feedback. And it’s doubly hard to get unbiased feedback from people who have been operators or founders.”
“It’s better to give than to receive,” adds Will Sanchez, now at Gradient, his fourth startup. “But as MIT EIRs, we certainly receive a lot from the students as well. And we are doing this in a serving way.”
Donna Levin adds, “The EIR role enabled me to help provide students with actionable skills, proven frameworks, and a sense of urgency – what we called moving at founder speed.” Levin has moved on to head up Babson’s entrepreneurship program.
Nick Meyer, now a co-founder of Relativity6, remarks on the bond between the EIR group at the Trust Center. “Everyone’s always trying to help each other out and make introductions, and we still talk all the time.”
Introducing MIT EIRs: What they’re doing Now
As a brief introduction, here’s a quick snapshot of the former EIRs interviewed for this article and what they are doing now. Each EIR explains what they felt they were able to share with the student entrepreneurs, and what they received in return.
Elaine Chen continues to expand entrepreneurial education in the Boston area as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, following her nine years at MIT as an EIR and Senior Lecturer. Chen will work with students in all majors – including liberal arts, medical, dental, etc. Building on her MIT experience, this was a fantastic career opportunity and Chen looks forward to the year ahead.
Nick Meyer is now a co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Relativity6, a company that uses AI to increase customer retention and lifetime value, currently focusing on the insurance broker industry. Key to Relativity6’s success is how to be predictive, without using personal information. The company looks at patterns developing over the course of people’s lives.
Will Sanchez is now The VP of Business and Customer Development and a founding advisor at Gradient, a cybersecurity company that is working to reimagine digital trust from the very beginning. The 14-person, Boston-based startup is still very much in the jungle stage – no paved roads – and he’s learning tons of new things to satisfy his infinite curiosity.
Dip Patel, is now the CTO at Soluna, a company launched in 2018 that is building a new type of data center that combines with renewable power plants – grid operators can plug into and turn on and off whenever they want. The company’s mission is to make renewable energy the primary power source, using computing as a catalyst.
Giving to, and Gaining from, MIT’s Student Entrepreneurs
It’s evident that this is a smart and talented group. We are fortunate each of them shared their time and talents with the student entrepreneurs at MIT. Here’s how they felt they gave back to the entrepreneurship community, and what they gained in return.
Elaine Chen comments she was known as a “hardware person” at the Trust Center and was able to leverage her background at Rethink Robotics, Zeemote, SensAble Technologies, and other hardware-related startups, to help guide students with startups in that sector. She feels that she was able to share her experience having seen a lot of different scenarios and give students a dose of reality.
Working with the students, she learned a lot about different businesses – from bitcoin to chip design – because they researched it and learned it together. She also worked with current EIR Paul Cheek as product manager for MIT Orbit, and helped build up the knowledge base with over 600 unique articles for entrepreneurs.
Donna Levin explains, “We were able to create a safe environment and meet students wherever they were on their entrepreneurial journey. From ideation, market selection, to product market fit – early stage entrepreneurs craved the ability to have a conversation about the problem they were trying to tackle today or this week.”
She was constantly inspired by the societal problems the students are tackling in the world and learning about new technology and scientific discoveries. Levin says serving as an EIR was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.
Nick Meyer believes he helped students navigate the MIT culture and break out of the mental blocks that can come from overthinking things. Many students at MIT have such confidence in their ability to build things, and build things quickly, that they default to building instead of first figuring out what should be built. Meyer was able to aid students by sharing a lot of stories of what’s practical and what has worked at his startups.
In turn, he reports that telling his stories to the students helped him created a narrative of what happened in his career, as opposed to how the startup made him feel. “You can build up this narrative that’s not the healthiest because there aren’t that many levels of success in startups. There is kind of ‘billionaire or bust’ mentality, so, most of your time is spent dealing in failure and not reflecting on everything you’ve learned, what you’re good at, and being helpful. I’ve learned from the students how valuable all my startup experiences really were, and just who I am and what I’ve learned, and how to approach things.”
Will Sanchez sayson the first day of the delta v kickoff, he introduced himself to the cohort as, “I’m Will, New York City kid. I don’t know how I can help you, but I will ask you the tough questions – the more awkward, the better.” He reports that seemed to have resonated well not only with the delta v team but with the cohort and students in general.
What he learned from the students was that there’s so much he had to offer. “Going into it, I didn’t know what I could possibly offer these brilliant students and faculty, I just ran a small start-up that was somewhat successful. It was surprising to me how much I could add as a generalist.”
Dip Patel explains he was always extremely candid about his past and showing his vulnerability to the students – from sharing what it was like to fire his best friend to landing a million-dollar deal. “I think that what I brought as an EIR is candid vulnerability, plus realism as to what they are signing up for. And the energy, I think I brought energy.”
In terms of learning from the students, he comments, “It is extremely motivating that I get to meet students who share their dreams with me. The fact that I’m able to help them achieve their dreams, and they are grateful for that, motivates me as an entrepreneur.”
Keeping it Fresh
In other businesses, employee churn is generally seen as a negative. However, at MIT, the EIR position is designed to be part of a rotational model that keeps things fresh for both the students and the experienced entrepreneurs. EIRs find that the role of being an advisor to students lets them recharge their entrepreneurial batteries and unwind after the stress of starting a new company – and, the Trust Center gets the benefit of new and different experiences with each EIR.
Patel comments, “When you sell a company, even if you make millions of dollars, you’re losing a big piece of who you are. A lot of people say you shouldn’t connect your professional life with who you are, but it’s really hard for an entrepreneur to do that – damn near impossible. So, when that company ends, for whatever reason, it really takes a toll.” The beauty of the EIR role is that it lets entrepreneurs decompress and figure out what’s next. However, he continues, “After we started Soluna, I missed the Trust Center and wanted to get back involved, so now I’ve come back as a lecturer, co-teaching one entrepreneurship class each semester.”
Meyer says that when he was first approached for the EIR position, he was in the middle of a starting a new company, so he declined. “About three months later, I realized that I was in no mental space to be doing another start-up, because it was like my seventh or something, starting from when I was in high school,” comments Meyer. “I knew I did not have the grit or energy built up to last for another three, four, or five years working at another startup. I just needed a break.” After a short stint as a ski instructor in Switzerland, he joined MIT as an EIR for about two years. Along with helping students, it let him reflect on the best way to move forward. “I’d say MIT encourages people to move on after spending some time as an EIR. Very few people camp out for a long time.”
“MIT is a special place. It’s a place where people truly believe the impossible can work,” explains Patel, and this belief resonates in the discussions with all of the EIRs. Chen adds, “Being an EIR in MIT’s strong entrepreneurial ecosystem was an amazing opportunity.”
Sanchez reflects, “As EIRs, we’re all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors, but we all want to add the human dynamic to entrepreneurship – the stuff you can’t just Google or read about in a class.” Patel continues, “The EIRs are truly there to help, but the entrepreneurs have to ask. And you have to get comfortable asking for help – that’s another piece of advice. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.”
As this group of EIRs blazes new trails, they are each still inextricably tied to their EIR cohort and the student entrepreneurs they advised while at MIT’s Trust Center. This network runs deep, and the talent tree continues to grow.
Today I put the dogs in my car to drive to a field where I could take them for a walk. I then went back to the house because I forgot my phone and when I came out, I got into the other car, and started driving to work. I was well into the next town before I realized it was 8:00, and I work from home now. It was a bit of a wake up call.
I know my mind is not in the game yet. I am running from item to item and finishing nothing. And, I don’t even have kids in the house. Like others, I do have family, community, and colleagues that I am worried about.
So, I am going to cut myself a break and figure this out.
I may need a slotted time. At a former employer, I was a slave to instant messaging, and I still hate it. I worked long hours, and I was busy, but not productive. I don’t want to make that mistake again. I don’t know what this “new normal” will look like yet, but I encourage all of you to find a way to work that works for you.
If you are home with kids, you know they need, deserve, and want your attention. If you have a spouse or partner at home and you are sharing a room or alternating rooms, you have to find a rhythm. If you are caring for an elderly parent, relative, or friend, I’m sure you’re especially stressed right now.
We all need patience. In one of my training sessions, the instructor said that you need patience and that you may not be able to do everything. They are right. This is a unique opportunity, and how can we take advantage of it? Each of us needs to figure out how it works for them and let one another know.
As part of MIT’s entrepreneurship community, we are a team that cares about each other. The work will get done as long as we take care of ourselves. So, I encourage you to experiment. If you want to partner up as we do for delta v applications, then set up time ahead so others can plan for it. If you need time for yourself, take it.
It looks like this is going to be a long road. This is a tough time, no doubt. We need to continue to deliver excellent programming, engage with students, teach in an innovative way, and continue to be a high performing team. However, first and foremost, we need to take care of ourselves, and if we all do that, we will get through this even stronger.
I know we’ve heard Rudyard Kipling’s quote from The Jungle Book, “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” and in this situation, I believe it is extremely apt and timely.
Those are my thoughts for today.
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments as well.
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:
A 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.
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.
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.