Mental health and wellness has taken center stage in national conversations as we attempt to recover, heal and restore our lives amid an ongoing global pandemic. But long before “mental health” was something people openly sought resources and support for, building a company in the mental health sector, especially as a female founder, has been like pushing a boulder up a mountain.
There’s nothing easy about advocating for a sector that K-12 investors historically didn’t believe had a large enough total addressable market, especially when many of those fundraising conversations happened while I’ve been visibly pregnant with each of my children — further feeding into investor hesitation. But just as I have always known, the need for proactive mental health support for children is continuing to grow to the point where even investors can’t ignore it.
Here are five of the key lessons I’ve learned starting a business in the mental health sector.
You must be resilient
This one may seem obvious, but it’s worth the reminder. Mental health is something that many people don’t understand, and for decades it has carried a negative stigma. Long before a global pandemic pushed us into isolation and forced us to revisit our social skills, I knew that social skills needed to be explicitly taught and practiced in schools, and that we can strengthen individuals and communities when practiced regularly. I’ve had to raise capital from an ecosystem that has largely dismissed the importance of whole child education and diminished the total addressable market for mental health and social emotional learning. There have been multiple moments throughout building Move This World where the world was telling me it was over, and I refused to let it happen. Do not get discouraged if you feel you aren’t heard or taken seriously, and continue to maintain relationships with investors who pass on your idea. You never know when someone may change their mind or want to revisit what you’re doing.
Speak up and advocate for what you need
I am lucky to have a network of supportive, encouraging advisors and mentors whom I know I can lean on, whether for advice or to step in as interim CEO when I was on maternity leave. One of the key lessons I’ve learned is that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Your investors, advisors, board members, and mentors want you to succeed, so lean on them. Sometimes our instinct can be to stay quiet about the things we are struggling with to appear more confident for those who can support us, but being a founding CEO is a lonely role and it’s important to be honest and lean on your network of advisors – that’s what they’re there for! It actually builds trust for your mentors and advisors to see that you know how to ask for and receive help in order to continue to build and grow your organization.
One of the key lessons I’ve learned is that you don’t get what you don’t ask for.
As a founding CEO, you have to have your hands all over every aspect of your company, and as entrepreneurs it can be challenging to release some of that engagement as the company grows. But it’s critical to empower your growing team in order to relieve your own cognitive load so you can do the things that only you can do. You can do it all, but do you have to? By empowering others, you’re building the foundation of a strong, dedicated team while also freeing up space for you to do those important tasks that only you can handle. Empowering others can also show up in how you share your ideas and perspective with others. In addition to building Move This World, I continue to normalize conversations around social-emotional wellness with my podcast, Move This World with Sara: Conversations in Social Emotional Learning. We just launched Season 4 featuring guests like Eric Decker, Mark Bertolini, and Ben Higgins where we discuss how they care for their social, emotional and mental well-being. Use your expertise and passion to empower a movement.
Build a team of investors and advisors that truly value you
One of the most critical lessons I’ve learned is to choose investors and advisors wisely. This is really hard, and I’ve been in situations where I’ve turned down money that was very much needed out of fear for my investor dynamic being negatively impacted. These are the people who have a lot of power and sway over your business, and you should make sure your values and goals are aligned. They should have an understanding and deep level of respect for who you are as a person, not just an entrepreneur, in order to build a long-term, successful relationship.
Practice the Power of Pause
As an entrepreneur, your days are long and nonstop. When was the last time you had a moment of complete stillness? These moments may feel impossible, but they’re essential. Being busy doesn’t equate to success and value. The best version of ourselves is usually well rested. To be our most productive at work, our most social with friends, our most understanding with family, we have to hit pause on the never-ending contest for our time and attention. I’ve done this in ways big and small, from taking a six-week sabbatical to go off the grid to an early morning creative writing practice that grounds my busy days. The Power of Pause helps us find clarity in today’s busy and noisy world, and it’s especially important in the mental health sector to prioritize and care for your own mental well-being.
Entrepreneurs are always learning, adapting and growing. As we continue to destigmatize mental health and embrace solutions to strengthen and support mental health and overall well-being, entrepreneurs in the mental health sector can be widely influential catalysts for change. Together, we can create a better, stronger, more resilient, inclusive and caring world.