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.

How did we adapt MIT’s Venture Accelerator as a Virtual Experience?

2020 is a year we’ll remember for many things, but 2020 graduates will certainly remember how typically crowd-filled graduation ceremonies were transformed into unique and socially distanced celebration amid COVID-19 restrictions. At MIT’s delta v, we can relate. We are just starting our summer-long student venture accelerator program, and, our entire program – start-to-finish will be virtual this year.

What does that mean? Although our fantastic space at the Martin Trust Center – usually buzzing with activity – will be dark, we’ve created a virtual model to provide a unique experience and lots of new and different opportunities for our student-entrepreneurs. At the end of the summer, these students will kick-start their ventures and reach escape velocity with a final presentation of their startup companies at Demo Day. We anticipate seeing some of the best and brightest new startups ever to come out of MIT, because – as said by Benjamin Franklin – “Out of adversity comes opportunity.”

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Prepping to Go Virtual

The delta v program has become known as a “transformative experience that only MIT could provide,” and the entrepreneurs that go through this program are truly helping to make the world a better place (Check out this video for 2-minute synopsis.) Many MIT programs were cancelled this summer, but thanks to Managing Director Bill Aulet’s advocacy across MIT and with the Trust Center donors, this summer’s virtual delta v program has become a reality. 

Students joining this program, and the whole MIT community, have major expectations of delta v. So, we knew we would need to go beyond just transitioning to Zoom meetings and putting our content online. We looked at what worked for MIT’s remote learning classes in the spring, and also reached out to our entrepreneurial education colleagues at other universities to gain their insight.

We held brainstorming sessions and many, many meetings to figure out how we could make this year’s delta v experience engaging and interactive. We honestly looked at the challenges and worked hard to address issues like onboarding, the lack of personal connections, less-than-ideal work from home situations, and “Zoom fatigue.” We knew that engagement, high-touch experiences, and cohort learning would all be essential for making this a success, and we put in extra effort to ensure delta v would not lose its special touch.

The 2020 Cohort

Our 2020 cohort of delta v teams was the smallest we’ve had in six years – 11 teams in Cambridge and six in New York City. We purposely selected fewer teams to allow for more individualized attention from our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs), who are spending dedicated online time mentoring each team. (This also means if you didn’t get selected this year, think about applying again for 2021!)

This infographic shows the makeup of our 2020 delta cohort. Each year, we work on trying to get a diverse and balanced group of entrepreneurs tackling problems in a variety of industries.

More Talent!

A big part of delta v is learning from the pros. One of the benefits of our virtual session this summer is the sheer number of experts we’ve been able to line up. In fact, in the month of June alone, the delta v teams will have opportunities to hear from 21 different speakers delivering workshops.

With a virtual program, we have the benefit of being able to approach experts who are located anywhere, rather than focusing only on local resources or those willing to travel to the MIT campus. This summer, our students are fortunate enough to learn from many outstanding experts, including the following people:

Ryan Choi, MIT Alum, now with Y Combinator for a discussion on finding product-market fit and will be back for a discussion on hiring

Eleanor Carey, who spent 62 days at sea, rowing from California to Hawaii, gave an inspiring talk relating to the realities of entrepreneurship

James Baum, technology leader, investor, and advisor, who shared his advice on managing boards and will be back for office hours

George Petrovas, serial entrepreneur, who shared his founder journey and is on a delta v mock board

Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group will talk about fundraising in a Covid-19 environment

John Belizaire, CEO of Soluna, will speak about leadership

Perry Cohen, Founder Executive Director of The Venture Out Project will speak about his journey

Plus, our amazing faculty including Kirk Arnold, Kit Hickey, Erin Scott, Jason Jay, Bill Aulet, Paul Cheek, and Dip Patel.

More Mindfulness

This year at delta v, we will build on our Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (ECC) program to teach tools for self-awareness and mindfulness with the goal of better mental health and “anti-fragility” for entrepreneurs. We recently wrote about this program for the Harvard Business Review, and it has been well-received by students and the community. We believe that if we teach new entrepreneurs how to work through the stresses of entrepreneurship more effectively, it will lead to better decision making and healthier choices for their life and their business.

An interesting dimension to this year’s delta v cohort is that they are particularly receptive to learning about meditation and mindfulness for stress reduction, according to Kathleen Stetson, our ECC coach and creator of the program. She believes this is a direct result of the proliferation of information in the news and on social media about mental health concerns during the pandemic.

Demo Day

This year, Demo Day may be where we see the biggest impact of going virtual. Traditionally, at the end of the summer, all of the delta v teams gather to formally present their startups to the MIT entrepreneurship community. Things will change this year, but we are making some amazing plans for Demo Day and a post-event networking experience.

We will also hold a Virtual Investor Day, which is new this summer.  This will focus specifically on the financial foundation of the startups and will allow the final Demo Day pitches to be a bit shorter. Students will benefit by having two completed pitches when they finish the program.

Conclusion

Conducting the delta v accelerator program virtually is a first for all of us – we are learning too. We strive to bring this year’s delta v cohort an incredible and rewarding experience, and we are open to feedback and suggestions.

The delta v student venture accelerator is the most inspiring environment I can think of for an entrepreneur. There’s an energy here that propels each of our teams forward. For 90 days, our student-entrepreneurs will eat, sleep, and breathe their startups. They will be guided through a process that makes them really think through the realities of starting an actual business, not just chasing a cool idea. Our fervent desire is that some of our student-entrepreneurs will create companies that will help to solve some of the big, global problems we are seeing in our world today – such as preventing the next pandemic or eradicating racism.

As the delta v leadership team, our opportunity this summer is to assist our students in their educational journeys as entrepreneurs and to guide them in making entrepreneurship a force for good.