Founders shouldn't have to choose between mental health and grit

Episode Summary

This week, Natasha spoke with a founder, a psychiatrist and a venture capitalist about founder mental health, a topic that has been a conversation in Silicon Valley for as long as we can remember. The theme has gained renewed momentum due to the startup and venture downturn in general, and exacerbated by a bank failure that still has some folks reeling.

Episode Notes

This week, Natasha spoke with a founder, a psychiatrist and a venture capitalist about founder mental health, a topic that has been a conversation in Silicon Valley for as long as we can remember. The theme has gained renewed momentum due to the startup and venture downturn in general, and exacerbated by a bank failure that still has some folks reeling.

It's time for a check-in. Here's who we spoke with for today's show:

This is, of course, a conversation we want to continue. If you have a story you want to share, or if there's an angle that you think we missed when it comes to talking about mental health in the entrepreneurial world, you can email us at equitypod@techcrunch.com.

As always, Alex, Natasha and Mary Ann will be back for our weekly news roundup on Friday, but follow us on Twitter @EquityPod for live updates and more!

For episode transcripts and more, head to Equity’s Simplecast website

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Episode Transcription

Natasha Mascarenhas  0:11  

Hello, and welcome back to equity, a podcast about the business of startups where we unpack the numbers and nuance Behind the Headlines. I'm Natasha Mascarenhas. And this is our Wednesday show where today we're niching down to a group of experts thinking about their work and unpacking the rest. Today, we're talking about founder mental health, which has been a conversation in Silicon Valley for as long as I can remember, but it has gained some renewed momentum due to the downturn at large and also a bank crash that still has a lot of people reeling. So it feels like time for a check in. Today, we're talking to a founder, a psychiatrist and a venture capitalist about how founders should be thinking about their mental health and how maybe they shouldn't be thinking about it. So before we jump into our first interview, I do want to give a trigger warning for a conversation today because we do talk about sensitive topics, including suicide prevention, but for those of you who are joining us, let's jump into our first interview, which is with Naveed Lalani, the founder and CEO of pioneer mind.


Our first expert, Naveed Lalani, the CEO of pioneer mind, and the creator of a pledge to get people talking about the founder's mental health crisis in response to SVB. Naveed, welcome to equity.


Naveed Lalani  1:20  

Thank you, Natasha. Glad to be here.


Natasha Mascarenhas  1:21  

I am so glad to talk to you and move our conversation from DMS and Twitter to email. Let's start Naveed, with a little background on yourself. So people understand what your reaction to the SVB crisis was, when we talk about mental health.


Naveed Lalani  1:34  

Absolutely, yeah. So I have a company called pioneer mind. We're creating a mental fitness platform for startup founders. It was actually incubated by SVB. Which is very interesting. And they found me to be the - they brought me on to be the founder and CEO of this startup. And, you know, when I began the company last June, I've always liked the idea of creating a pledge for founder mental health and you know, treating it as a business expense and de-stigmatizing it. That was kind of the quick background and why the topic is interesting to me. I've also been a founder myself multiple times. And I've also dealt with my own mental health challenges. I've worked with a lot of different organizations and have been close to a lot of founders. And I've seen them struggle with mental health. And it's a topic that's very near and dear to my heart.


Natasha Mascarenhas  2:13  

Yeah, no, thank you for coming on to talk about it. Because I think there is a different vantage point that you obviously have as someone who's trying to build and disrupt the way we talk about and service mental health tensions for people and also dealing with it yourself like, what can you tell me about the gap you see in the market, or even in the conversation with mental health and founders? Because your startup is just focusing on boundaries? Or is it focusing on kind of a more general group as well?


Naveed Lalani  2:38  

We're focusing on founders right now down the road, we'll expand to other high achievers like creators and etc. But our initial focus is on founders. To answer you a question about the gap. I see, I think there's been a lot of like, great work that's been done by different firms that are, you know, pledging 1% or 2%, of non dilute of capital to founder mental health, I think it's a great starting point, what I want to see happen is I want to see founders get the autonomy, that they need to be able to spend money on their mental health and have it as a business expense versus an allowance. And that's kind of my perspective, you know, founders drive on autonomy, and that's what I want to create for them. So when an investor talks about investing in a founder, they usually say, "Hey, we invest in the individual, not the idea." While the founder is mind, body and soul. And there's a lot of mental health challenges the founders face, you know, if you're investing in the founder, truly, you should be also investing in their mental health. And I think this is part of the package, right? So I want fundamental health expense to be treated just like accounting or legal. Yeah, versus like a default thing that you do. It's not something that you have to have a special allocation of capital for. You can do again, it's a great starting point. I think it should just be part of the business startup p&l


Natasha Mascarenhas  3:43  

And to clarify to you kind of explain this, but like there are Yeah, there are some VC funds out there that view it as a way to support founders. So they give 1-2%. Like you said, of non dilutive capital, or you kind of suggesting that it should just be part of the check that we baked into the check that a founder guts versus something founders have to come and ask their VCs for?


Naveed Lalani  4:01  

That's correct. Yeah. I mean, I think the VCs that have done this have actually like done an incredible job of, you know, really helping destigmatize this. I think the next step now is to just have it as a core business expense.


Natasha Mascarenhas  4:11  

Yeah, no questions asked. So let's bring in the pledge. Last time we checked, there was like almost 400 signatures on a pledge which kind of made two promises in order to sign it. The number one was, "We make a commitment to take an active role in encouraging mental health care for founders and the greater startup community." And number two is, "we pledge to encourage the founders we partner with to invest in their personal mental health and build a workplace culture that promotes mental health." Why did it feel important to have these two goals when you were creating a pledge and kind of reacting to the SVB shut down on founder mental health?


Naveed Lalani  4:45  

Yeah, absolutely. And I should also acknowledge that even though I've had the idea for the pledge for a while, and so has our advisor Brad Baum. The reason that we got catalyzed to create it now is because I saw a tweet from a friend of a founder who said that they had to stop their friend from founder friend from committing sucide because they were worried about not being able to make payroll the next Monday, and this is before the FDIC took over SVB. And so that really catalyzed us to say, you know, we should just like launch this thing now. And the reason that those two aspects of the pledge are important for me and for Brad is because I think normalizing the conversation around this is very important. Like, I almost want to create a world where, you know, founders that have neuro divergence, or they have mental health challenges, or they're feeling stress or burnout, it just becomes a normal part of the conversation. It's not like something that's discussed in the shadows. It's like, it's just a normal thing that you deal with, like, "Hey, I'm, you know, running out of runway," right? Like, I have limited runway right now. That's like a normal part of the conversation, even though it's like a really tough situation to be in. Yeah, I believe, like, it's important for founders to be able to say, "Hey, I'm like, starting to get burned out." And that should just be a normal part of the conversation, right? So you can attack it upfront, versus it being like something in the shadows that you talk about. So I think that's why that's in the pledge. And also, we have in the pledge that it should be an encouraged business expense. It's towards the end of the pledge. And I think those are the two really key components of it. And I think there are more conversation, there's around fundamental health the more we'll destigmatize. And again, I think the main difference here between what's been done in the past, and what we're doing here is that, you know, VCs don't have to worry about doing the math to see, hey, how do we afford this out of our management fees, right? It just comes out of the startups budget. Makes it simple.


Natasha Mascarenhas  6:21  

in some ways, and I know, this is me being a little naive here. But in some ways, it feels like it would be even simpler to have started with thinking of it as a business expense, or, you know, maybe it was when people were getting those checks is more on permission then and seeing your investor say, Hey, we're not going to question you when we see you spending capital on this?


Naveed Lalani  6:39  

Yeah, it's basically a bat signal. So if my investor has signed the pledge, right, they basically told me, Hey, not only are we cool with you getting therapy and coaching and group support in any kind of app based solution for your mental health and mental wellness through your startup's business expense, we actually encourage it. Okay, we actually know it's actually a strength. Right. And to that point, you know, one of the other things I want to make very clear, at least my perspective, and I think Brad's perspective is we're not anti hustle culture. Okay? We're both founders, ourselves. And we love founders, we love the grind and the grit of entrepreneurship. What we're about is hustling responsibly. And that's another kind of important thread for us personally.


Natasha Mascarenhas  7:15  

Yeah. I mean, there's a really, I think, important aspect from the site, which is, I believe it's stories.founder.pledge.com, that talks about real founder mental health stories and ask people to submit those so people listening, who want to hear more about the specifics of what people go through, whether it's anxiety, depression, or different conditions, I definitely urge you to go there. But I want to definitely end with kind of the why now, I know, we started with the why now, but let's end with it too. Which is, why do you think people are going to finally take mental health more seriously this time around?


Naveed Lalani  7:49  

Absolutely. I think COVID Definitely accelerated the conversation around mental health. And I actually talked to a Chief People Officer CHRO of a pretty large startup. And, you know, she told me that now that the individual contributor or the manager level has opened up more about mental health, it's actually made executives more closed, because, you know, the perception of mental health is that might be a weakness. And so like, you don't want to come off as like everybody being weak, right? So like, if an employee is coming to you, and saying, Hey, I feel these things. You don't want to be like, Oh, I feel them too. Right. That doesn't help situation. Sure. And so I think the why now is very important, because I think, as the conversation on mental health has opened up through COVID, founders are becoming more and more closed about talking about their own mental health, and it's crucially important, and if they talk about it, it actually destigmatizes it for the entire organization, right, where everybody can talk about it. And again, it's about hustling responsibly. It's not about you know, not not working hard, or etc. In your startup. You know, startups are - our internal motto at Pioneer mind, or even the external motto is that we don't make startups easier. We make founders stronger. And that's kind of a very important key takeaway. And one thing I wanted to mention Natasha that you asked me earlier about action from this pledge, right? So a pledge is great, but like, how do we take action from it? So we have a few different things that we're planning. One is we want to create an operating manual for founder mental health, that investors in the ecosystem at large can refer to, to learn about how to talk about this about resources about the different aspects of founder mental health. We also want to do a yearly state of fundamental health survey that we asked the pledge takers to send out to their portfolio companies to really understand what's working, what's not working, and then also to do local meetups and you know, virtual events around this and just to continue the conversation and destigmatizing it.


Natasha Mascarenhas  9:26  

Oh, I think that's great. And I love that motto. I think my takeaway so far from our conversation is very much like I think with mental health and especially founder and executive and any public person mental health, the conversation has felt like individual in a way and it seems like this effort and just where the competition is heading next is could we be more collectivism focused in this? Because I agree with you, I think, you know, one of my first bosses would always post in Slack saying, okay, gone for an hour going to therapy, and that, for me completely changed the trajectory of how I approach work. You know, I never I don't think I was even stigmatized. I don't think I was like You know, anti therapy, it was just more like, how loud are we going to be about it? So, I very much resonate with what you're saying.


Naveed Lalani  10:06  

Yeah, exactly. Like, you know, I go to therapy, I have coaching, and I'm very open with my team about that. And, you know, they see how I perform much better even after a session where I can vent some stuff to somebody right, or where I can, you know, get that, you know, kind of build up my resilience muscle and, and also, fundamental health is not just important when you're in the yellow or the red, okay, like when you're depressed, or you're super anxious, it's probably not the right time to tell you, Hey, let's build some resilience. Sure. You're just trying to get out of bed, you know. So I think founder mental health is a constant journey where it especially when you're in the green, you should be getting these mental health and mental wellness, mental fitness services, because that's the time to build resilience, right. And startups are so difficult. It's a roller coaster. Right? And all we're saying is put the seatbelt on, it's going to be a roller coaster, just put on the seatbelt. And I think that's what watching your mental health and mental wellness does.


Natasha Mascarenhas  10:55  

Oh, I think that's great. On that note, Naveed, thank you so much for coming to equity. Everyone. You can find a bead on Twitter at Naveed_L and find pioneer mind at Pioneer mind.com Any closing thoughts, Naveed?


Naveed Lalani  11:07  

Yeah, absolutely. I would love for you right now we have 90 plus venture capital investors, over 300 leaders that have signed a pledge, I want to see a world where every investor has signed a pledge. So please go to founderpledge.com Learn more and consider signing.


Natasha Mascarenhas  11:21  

So that's a great perspective on how founders are thinking about it and jumping in and helping their own community. But up next, let's talk to a psychiatrist to expand on the types of help that is out there right now and how to differentiate between all the different options as well as understand the top things that founders might be going through and how to think about them.


We're gonna bring in the psychiatrists perspective from a friend, someone who I've loved her words for forever, and we finally have a chance to work together. So let me introduce Saumya Dave. Welcome to the show.


Saumya Dave  11:52  

Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here.


Natasha Mascarenhas  11:54  

I know, I feel like we've been like looking for a way to work together. And I'm so glad. I think I partially am doing this show, because I've just seen so much of what you've said out loud about mental health, positions of power, honestly. And just, I mean, let's start there, even like, tell me about your world. Because the way I know you is, you know, you're this brilliant author. You've written two novels, Well Behaved Indian Women, and What a Happy Family that's touched on these. And you're, you're actually working on a third that has to do with a little bit more of the tech side as well.


Saumya Dave  12:22  

Yes. So I am an author and a psychiatrist. And my third novel does focus on the perspective of a woman named Maya Patel. She's a South Asian CEO and founder and she's also a new mom. So the book really deals with her struggles, trying to manage her company as a new mom, and then also her founder role, which, as we just talked about, is forever changing and flexible. And it's something that's evolving all the time. And so I really wanted to show a woman navigating those different worlds and how she manages to do that.


Natasha Mascarenhas  12:50  

Oh, my God. Yeah, good timing on that front. Getting into kind of your history as a psychiatrist, tell the audience a little bit about your work and how you found yourself specializing specifically in mental health. And really like, like I said, this episode is all focused on like, leaders. And can you talk about those unique challenges that you found them facing through your years in this space?


Saumya Dave  13:10  

So I've always been just so interested in what makes people who they are. And I didn't realize until I was older, that that's what therapy really is, it's about digging into someone's past into how they handle emotional experiences, how their patterns of behavior develop, how they navigate conflicts, all of those different things. And what I find so interesting in the workplace is that a lot of the people can we are in other parts of our lives get brought into the workplace, we play a lot of those same roles, right. And of course, this can vary depending on where we're at in our careers. But from a founder's perspective, what I find so interesting is that a founder usually wears so many different hats, and to see when a certain trait comes out, you know, depending on the conflict, and depending on the landscape of the environment that they're in, and all of these different things, I think, just creates this unique and ever evolving thing. And so I've just been always really, really interested in how people are in their work selves and how that really represents who they are as a whole.


Natasha Mascarenhas  14:02  

Yeah, I actually was even talking with this about someone before because I think we often hear okay, early stage founders, when you're finding your early investors think of it as a marriage, and that framing is used so often. Yeah, I found the framing to you know, obviously explain like kind of how seriously you should be taking something but I actually am curious, as someone that's probably spoken to people going through issues on both sides, like between like a romantic relationship and also like building are there any similarities there? Is that comparison even a healthy one that we should be looking at?


Saumya Dave  14:31  

So I think there might be some overlap. And of course, it maybe isn't always a one for one similarly to how we say like you're the people you work with at work or your family, they are the people you're with around right so I kind of see them as a similar parallel type of thing where when you say this is like a marriage, it's also not in the same way your work family is not really your family, but will you probably go through many, many deep big things with them. Yes, absolutely. So are there things to learn from both sets of dynamics? Yes.


Natasha Mascarenhas  14:57  

Definitely. I know I'm thinking too like in this different hats point like, are there certain hats, do you think that founders today? Are they weighing heavier? Are they harder to hold these days? Like what has kind of been tough there? Because yeah, I mean, I do appreciate the differentiation, too.


Saumya Dave  15:10  

I think that what's been so hard as since the beginning of the pandemic, people have often had very blurred boundaries between work and home and other parts of their lives. And so I imagine that every founder, in some way, has been navigating that in a variety of different ways, you know, so I think people have usually had boundaries between this part of their life, and then they can maybe turn off a little bit and go to the next part of their life. Now, everything's blurred, sometimes in one physical space for people, by the way. And so people have had that blurring. And then at the same time, what I've been hearing is that people have lost a lot of that humanity that may have been there at work before because things have become so virtual. And so we've forgotten about those micro interactions that can happen when we're just making small talk with someone right on the way to getting lunch or on the way to just going to the bathroom or things like that. It's very much we're facing each other on this screen, and we're looking at each other's faces, the entire time, there's a meeting. And so there's a lot of fatigue that comes from that. And there's also grief that comes from losing those other types of interactions that happen with people. So we're communicating a lot, but we're maybe not connecting a lot. And I think that's an important distinguishing thing to touch on. And that I can see a lot of founders also dealing with that and how to really make sense of that. And maybe even make it better. In the coming weeks and months.


Natasha Mascarenhas  16:19  

You had this interesting framing around emotional spring cleaning. And I love that because I think there is like kind of a natural reset that happens when the sun comes out. But even if we place in the context of what the market looks like, right now, with this downturn with the bank crash that people still feel like they're reeling from, what are some of your top tips for founders who maybe even feel like it's not a priority for them to be doing spring cleaning on you know, their mental health, but are just trying to make sure their people are getting paid right now? Like I'm sure that's like a tension that you're constantly facing, writing about thinking about.


Saumya Dave  16:52  

So what I will say is that what's interesting in the link between people getting paid, and then other things that need to be done is that we're talking about value, right? When people are paid. This is one way we are showing their value. But people also want to feel valued because of who they are and what they're providing to the work. And so having those empathetic direct conversations goes such a long way. And I think especially when there's uncertainty, especially when they're shopping lose more than ever, people need to be reminded that they're valued for who they are, you know, we talk a lot about burnout coming from working too many hours. And that can definitely be a cause of burnout, but so can feeling under supported and undervalued. And so we need to also remember, right that that all of these things are actually tied together, I think it's hard to view any of them in a vacuum, because they are usually multi layered things that we're looking at here.


Natasha Mascarenhas  17:36  

There was this, I mean, I feel like like you're speaking to the choir. And it's like, you know what I'm thinking about personally, always. But I think like, you know, loneliness is definitely part of this conversation, there's been a recent effort we're talking about in this podcast that has a founder created a pledge that makes investors kind of say out loud, that they should be treating mental health, like it's a business expense, and support their portfolio companies to take resources on and make it a bigger conversation. And one thing I struggled with as someone who's like also thought about this idea for a while, albeit not professionally, is like how do you move from knowing it's important to actually kind of addressing some of both the low hanging fruit like what can I do today after listen to this podcast, to help as a founder and kind of longterm, too? like from talk to action is kind of the lever that I feel like a lot of people in tech are struggling to pull.


Saumya Dave 18:26  

Sure, of course. And I think there's so many layers to this. So I think if we look at one vantage point, even when we talk about mental health in the workplace can have such an impact. So people who feel like mental health conversations are normalized, and like they're validated, and like they're supported, they feel differently in their workplaces than people who feel like they can be open about any mental health struggle they may be having at all. So when leaders are talking about it, whether that's in sharing their own struggles, or saying, Hey, it's okay, if you're not, okay, let's take out time to either have a one on one conversation about this, or a group conversation about this, where you feel psychologically safe. That psychological safety can go such a long way to go then one step further. If there are opportunities in place for people to have the flexibility to go to their therapy appointments to take a mental health day, to have flexibility in meeting certain deadlines and things like that, that can also be a way to show we're here to support you. And we're here to make sure that we can work with the capacity and where you're at. And then of course, things like DE&I initiatives, and also making sure groups like parents and other people are looked out for and they feel like they're seen and heard too. So I think there are things we can do actually, at multiple levels. It might not look the same for each company. But there are things that can be put into place that can help people feel supported.


Natasha Mascarenhas  19:36  

Like explicitness around this being like part of every day, which I mean in some ways, like it contrasts with the term hustle culture, which I'm sure you have thoughts on. And its relevance in work but I think it's still- you know, I lose hope only when I think about the fact that some people think caring about mental health is not, you know, takes away from hustling and I struggle with a response other than "how can you think that way?" Like that's - I'm to focus on that not to be true.


Saumya Dave  20:02  

For sure, and I think that when we see the tie, that's very real. And the research has shown it right that when people feel more supported or more satisfied at work, they'll be able to bring a better self to work. And that usually results in better outcomes for everybody. I think we need to start making that tie more clear, we need to state it more, we need to emphasize it more, because I totally agree with you, they often get seen as these contradictory and opposing missions. And they're not.


Natasha Mascarenhas  20:24  

Right. I know, it's like, you know, the research is there. It's not, we're not waiting for it. We know it makes a difference. I'm sure some people are listening today. And they're thinking about, okay, like, I know, it's probably time to make that choice, if I haven't already, or say it even louder if I'm doing it. And a big thing I hear from founders is, do we go for founder therapy? Do we go for coaching? Do we go for group sessions? Can you help differentiate between those three? Is there a fourth and fifth option that I'm not thinking about? There feels like there's so much fragmentation.


Saumya Dave  20:51  

No, you're absolutely right. And I think there's so many more options out there now. And that's a great thing. And there can also be overlap between the ones you just mentioned. And so I'll start with the more traditional models. So I like to think of therapy as a relationship that someone has with a therapist or qualified mental health provider, where they really dig into someone's past their emotional management of situations, their patterns in behavior, and then what they can make of that. Whereas coaching, I like to think of as more strategy and bowl focus. So I like to think of therapy is rooted more in the past from the start, and then coaching as the present and the future. So I hear a lot of people actually having an executive coach then they also have a therapist, because they might say, Well, I feel really sad, or I feel very stressed or anxious, when this situation comes up at work. So I want to see my therapist for that. But when it comes to actually setting goals for this situation, that's when I talk to my coach about that. So just to distinguish, you know, and so people can have both and really create benefits for both. And also one person might even play the role of both. So again, there's a lot more overlap now than I think I've ever seen in any point in time between therapy and coaching. And group coaching, I think also focuses more on what's the problem, what's the strategy, what's the goal, and how are we going to get through these steps together as a group. I see that being done more when there's a very clear outcome that people are looking for in a group, and then a clear set of steps to get there. Of course, there's also group therapy, where the whole group can go through emotional dynamics and what's going on, right, so we can have the group setting in either therapy or coaching. So I think it lends itself to a lot of like different ways. And by the way, a company might need something different at different times. And so I think it's really important for us to remember that mental health is really a collective thing. It's not an individual problem. It's really a collective mission. And the more we see it that way, I think the more we can all benefit.


Natasha Mascarenhas  22:32  

Right, because I think it can kind of feel disrupting, like purely on the reporter side, the way I get pitched startups focusing on increasing access to mental health support for a variety of different groups of people. It kind of feels like, maybe not intentionally, but it feels like people are kind of just trying to agree on which way is the right way? Is it group, because individual is too expensive or individual, you know, doesn't make sense. When you're building a company where you're like it, it really is kind of like the founding team that needs to all be in the room talking about these issues. And I guess I'm curious if you've had any take there on just the number of startups that have entered this space. Like, have any of them stood out to you? Or if you don't want to name names, even like, do you think the number of startups is correlating to the value that they're also bringing in actually broadening mental health resources?


Saumya Dave  23:18  

So I think the broadening of the mental health resources is definitely there. So I think there are more access points for people. That being said, I don't know if there are more access points for therapy. And the reason I say that is because I see therapy as a relationship, right between two people that really is cultivated over time, there's trust, there's what we call a therapeutic alliance, which is actually the connection between someone and their therapist, the better that is, the better the outcomes tend to be. And it's really hard to get that when there are certain services that offer for example, texting, right that there's primarily a texting based way of communication, or responding to someone in shorter sessions. But do I think that that at least is better than nothing for many people? Because a lot of people, like you said, are dealing with loneliness, that is a public health crisis right now. So I think there's more access to services. I just don't know if they're all under the umbrella of therapy necessarily.


Natasha Mascarenhas  24:06  

Okay. No, that makes sense. And I've noticed this whole time like, it's not necessarily something that you are saying people should be talking to their their co founders or even their co workers about in terms of yes, maybe say out loud that you are pursuing this, but in house mental health services at companies doesn't sound like it's necessarily the best option. Does that feel fair?


Saumya Dave  24:26  

Yeah, sure. And I think it can be fair to and I also think even if we go one step back, right before in house services, if a founder or if the leaders of an organization are able to know how to have difficult conversations with people, recognize when someone's not feeling emotionally safe, and even be able to direct them to resources, those are all very powerful things too, right, that can be done even on the preventive aspect of things, just just recognizing and being aware.


Natasha Mascarenhas  24:49  

Yeah, well, on that note, recognizing and being aware, it's exactly what we're going to be asking an investor about coming up next, who has promised to put some effort into helping their portfolio companies deal with the mental health crisis that Saumya you so eloquently explained. So thank you for coming to equity. Everyone, you can find her on Instagram at SaumyaJDave I'll link it in the show. Anywhere else where people can find you?When is the book coming out, do we have a timeline?


Saumya Dave  25:12  

We do not have a release date yet. We have very slow edits.


Natasha Mascarenhas  25:15  

Well, good luck on the editing process. Thank you for coming on equity, always fun to talk to you.


Now let's dive into our final interview of the show and bring in the venture capitalist perspective. I decided to bring on one of my favorite investors, sources and panic DMs, Leslie Feinzaig from Graham and Walker. she invests in companies that are bettering how we live, how we work and how we coexist with the planets. So it's very fitting that we're talking about mental health. Leslie, welcome to equity.


Leslie Feinzaig  25:44  

I am a longtime listener first time caller. I'm so excited to be here. Thank you for asking me.


Natasha Mascarenhas  25:50  

So is it weird to you to be talking about mental health because it is kind of I'm sure something you've talked about for years and years and years? Or does it, are you unsurprised that we're back on the mic talking about it yet again?


Leslie Feinzaig  25:59  

Well, I'm unsurprised given a context of what's happened this year, and it being kind of on top of many years of just like shock after shock after shock, like macro shocks that affect founders. And it's also, you know, it's like a huge part of the national conversation on all kinds of different ways. So I don't know if I'm shocked, but I'm glad that we're talking about it.


Natasha Mascarenhas  26:19  

Yeah, I mean, I really do want to start off with just a pulse check on how your portfolio companies are doing because the show is definitely focused on founders. I know, there's so many different ways we can look at it. And that's probably its own series. But the companies are speaking to the founders, like what are they feeling now that it's been almost a month I think, since SVB, first crashed, but you know, all the stats and stresses are still somewhat lingering.


Leslie Feinzaig  26:41  

Yeah, SVB. It's so funny, because their reactions in the moment were like, they ranged from like, true panic to one founder was like, "Is it weird that I feel normal?" And that was my favorite quote, ever. That was Melinda Howey of Proxi, she's like, I was like, "Melinda, how do you feel?" "I don't know. Normal?" She was like, "What, like, stuff gets thrown at us every day? Like, this is just another existential crisis on Thursday." Thank you for asking.


Natasha Mascarenhas  27:09  



Leslie Feinzaig  27:11  

I mean, it's funny, but it's also like, extremely concerning, right. Like, yeah, thank you for asking how they are. I think that for the most part, they're doing well, I think it's an extremely challenging fundraising environment. And so again, there's a range of thriving to worried, but if I objectively compare them to the rest of the ecosystem, I would say that they're on the better side of things.


Natasha Mascarenhas  27:34  

Yeah. And I know you back kind of diverse set of founders. And I remember talking to Mandela SH Dixon about this topic, which was she was that at one point, she was like, for female founders, like every day has been a downturn. And so a new factor entering the equation did make it harder, which is tough, but there kind of as the muscle memory of reacting to no's or to stresses. So I very much hear what you're saying.


Leslie Feinzaig  27:58  

Yeah, I think that there's a whole set of founders that were never part of the frothy market, right? Like nobody was ever throwing money at them. And so, so that change in that ecosystem doesn't affect them quite as much. And it's also sort of, it makes for a portfolio like mine, pretty recession proof, right? Like, these are companies that have been very revenue focused from day one, for the most part. But the flip side is that they're reading the same thing I'm reading and the same thing you're reading and the listeners are reading and even being aware of like how much harder everything is for everyone can be really, really scary. It can really get in your head. And it's not just on the fundraising side, but like all of the uncertainty around how the economy is doing. Yeah, like, what are people going to keep spending? Are businesses going to keep spending? Like, what does that mean for value propositions? What does that mean for like, how do you balance growth and runway that nobody has answers to that right now? I feel like the answers to that were really clear a year and a half ago. And today, nobody can tell you very clearly like this is the formula you should focus on, because that's going to take you to the next round. That is really unknown today. So I think those are the types of stresses that they're dealing with that are pretty new.


Natasha Mascarenhas  29:03  

I'm sure that changes your job a little bit to on being an investor that's trying to add value and support founders through all aspects of this roller coaster. So I saw that you were one of the many VCs that signed a recent founder mental health pledge. That was basically petitioning that they're going to make a commitment to take an active role in encouraging mental health care and encourage founders to invest in their personal mental health and build a workplace culture that promotes mental health. Tell me about signing the petition and also kind of what your framework has been and how you're trying to support founders beyond kind of being a shoulder. What role should a VC be playing right now?


Leslie Feinzaig  29:38  

Right? I don't know what roles other people should be playing. I can tell you that the role that I think I play and it sort of predates the conversation, I tend to feel like running a startup is playing a long game. And a lot of the culture around how we get startups to grow is very short term focused. I think that is where we sacrifice a lot of those short term health things in the interest of like having massive, massive short term impact, but I feel like you, you might win that short term battle, but you lose the long term war. It might be that I'm a mom, or that I'm sort of, you know, I've been a founder for a really long time. And I think that the more that you're at this game, the more you realize that it's a game of endurance. You know, it's a series of sprints. It's not a single sprint. And so I've always thought with founders, like my job is, first and foremost, I truly believe that it's my job to believe in people more than they believe in themselves, and to like, help them see it. Because sometimes you need somebody that's outside to remind you what's possible. And what's real, right, like, just like an outside check in.


Natasha Mascarenhas  30:35  

Yeah, make it explicit.


Leslie Feinzaig  30:36  

Yeah, like, Hey, this is doable. You know, why not? You second, I think when you're in the moment, and I frequently say this to founders that I have been in their shoes, far longer than I've been in my shoes, like, I have been a founder, far longer than I've been a VC. I am probably, like, I still have the instincts of a founder, I still feel like a founder. I am building a VC firm. And it is no different than building a startup except the go to market is different. And I think that that is I still have a lot of those sorts of stressors of building and I can really, like, empathize with what the founders are going through and have that conversation with them.


Natasha Mascarenhas  31:14  

What's one thing you didn't have as a founder at least you want it as a founder that you're now doing as a VC? Because I think we see the pledge is one example. But Naveed, who also co wrote the pledge said something along the lines of like, okay, some VCs are pledging, you know, 1-2% of non dilutive capital part of their management fee to help founders like he didn't love that idea. He thinks that should be baked into the check. But I'm curious, your take on some of the ways that you've kind of specifically tried to offer mental health support?


Leslie Feinzaig  31:41  

Yeah, I, you know, I start my conversations with my founders by asking how are you? It's so you know, like, how are you? Lately, when things get really bad, I don't do this with every founder. But if they're under a lot of stress, I will ask, you know, are you sleeping? Are you eating nutritious food? Are you exercising? Do you enjoy things? Are you looking forward to things? So almost like, hey, is there somebody that you need to talk to? I try to start my emails in times of crisis with like, support, hey, we're here for like, it's okay. And then the other thing is, like, I like to remind founders in our portfolio that like, it's okay to fail, you know, they there's so much of that fear of screwing up and not being perfect is what gets in your head. And so very frequently, like hammering home, like, I will not be mad at you, if you fail, you are not your company. I'll be mad at you if you lie, cheat or steal. That's different, right? Like, I'll be mad at you if you stop trying. But not if you fail, like failure is built into this game. You got this, like, don't be afraid of the downside. Don't mortgage your house, don't go into debt, and don't sacrifice your personal health and relationships. Because it's not worth it, like focus on what you can do. So I think that those are, you know, I, we're not a huge fund, we don't have the resources to like buy coaching for everybody. But I think it's more about how we relate to each other, and what kind of pressure we put on ourselves and each other. And I think that like being literally in their shoes beside them, is an incredibly powerful way of like having that empathy of what the founder is going through, and like being the person that that like - and listen, I'm not perfect, I probably, you know, I probably like projects, like, nobody's perfect here. I don't want to be put on a pedestal. But I do feel like I walk next to them. You know what I mean? Like I'm walking beside them.


Natasha Mascarenhas  33:28  

Yeah, well, I do think this is the change I'm seeing in terms of the conversation because I think before it was like, Okay, we're gonna just maybe the first phase was like hustle culture. Thank you. We love it. That's the founders want to back. The second was like hustle culture but if you need help, here are some services. Third, and I think this really is what like I think blew up during SVB is what was the first thing your investors said to you? When your money got locked up? There was a camp of founders who just got frantic text being like, what was your exposure? What was your exposure? You know, and then there's gonna be the ones that were getting money from their investors, which, you know, I know, you said, you're a smaller fund. I don't know how realistic that was, for a lot of people good for the, you know, the billionaires that could do it. You know, and then there was third, the people who asked how they were first, and I've not heard as much in that category. But I think it's so important, and probably has,


Leslie Feinzaig  34:18  

That's us


Natasha Mascarenhas  34:18  

Yeah, I mean, it's an important, it's an important conversation. And speaking of important conversations, the last thing I want to get your thoughts on was, I think a thread that went viral last month, which was about founders returning money to their investors, because they decided that they're no longer able to build this business. And I know that's not necessarily directly correlated to mental health. Sometimes it could just be we couldn't find product market fit, but I thought about it because you talked about failure, and you talked about telling them that it's okay about it. And I guess I would love to hear how you've, you know, how you think about when your founder tells you that they failed or that they can't do it anymore? What even the next step is like, what's the advice for someone who maybe is listening and is like, I don't think I can do this anymore. How should I and what should I tell my investor to do next?


Leslie Feinzaig  34:58  

I think you an dI should do a full podcast about this like we did a session last year when the VC downturn started in the summer, like around August at Graham & Walker, we did a whole session about like, how do you know if it's the end?


Natasha Mascarenhas  35:09  

Oh my god, yes.


Leslie Feinzaig  35:11  

And it's been our most viewed session. So it's still on our website, people can go and like, view it, we did it with like, no screen names. So people could log in anonymously and ask questions, and not you know,


Natasha Mascarenhas  35:20  

That's awesome.


Leslie Feinzaig  35:20  

So I know that it's like a latent fear. I can tell you, I have never had a founder come and told me, I think that this is the end, it's always me asking them like, do you still have it in you? Just to like, remind like, and hey, by the way, I do this to myself as well, because I have been through extremely hard moments building this fund. And like, you know, more than once, I've had to stop and ask myself, like, why am I doing this? Is this still worth it? Like, why do I do what I do? And reconnect with like, what is the thing that is worth it? One thing that feels super important to me that I don't want to forget to talk about is in when you were describing hustle culture, just now, I just want to say that one of the most problematic insidious things that I see is this, like, it's almost like we're building a dichotomy between hustle culture and mental health. And those two things are not, I mean, like, they're not mutually exclusive, comprehensively exhaustive, total, but like so many people, it is not like hustle culture is not a binary. It's not like, either you work super hard, or you are a complete slacker. And I feel like in our ecosystem, too frequently, it is sort of built that way. And that is where people get in trouble with themselves. And so I think what the most important thing, I'll tell you what I've learned through eight years, since I had a job for somebody else, you know, when you are hustling, you really have to ask yourself, "Am I working this hard on the right things? Or am I working this hard? Because I don't know what the right things to do are?"


Natasha Mascarenhas  36:51  

Wow, yeah.


Leslie Feinzaig  36:53  

Because I lacked the confidence to know that if I'm doing that, so like, I really feel like you need to focus on your sleep, you need to focus on your nutrition, you need to focus on your relationships, if you want to work 20 hours a day, and are able to do that, while like honest to God, you know, taking care of yourself and taking care of your loved ones, then great, but don't sacrifice one for the other. Like, it is not a binary it's a dial. And if you are on the wrong side of that dial, you're just not going to be around for their long, you're just not gonna be so like, you're gonna win the battle, you're gonna lose the war. Right? And I feel like, that's what I want to see in our founders like, yeah, it's gonna take, I don't know, five to 15 years for them to go public with their companies to like IPO. Right? Well, I mean, I want to know that they can go the distance. And I know, I don't know exactly how to predict that they will. But I can tell you for sure how they won't.


Natasha Mascarenhas  37:41  

Yeah. And even on that note, where are some resources you think people can go? Whether it's founders you know who have spun up interesting efforts, or VCs that you're looking to at this time? Like, I guess, like, I don't know, if it's if VCs is the right one, but I'm saying more like, what are the resources that people should be looking at right now?


Leslie Feinzaig  37:59  

Okay, so I'm just gonna give you two from my life. And like, yeah, full disclosure, these are both investments from our portfolio. So one is Dr. Grin Lord is the founder and CEO of empathic AI. But more importantly, Dr. Lord is one of the cofounders of therapists in tech, which is a community that supports therapists that are kind of moving careers and into tech. She put out some of the most impactful advice during the SVB crisis for both founders, and for VCs on how to treat their founders. So I really encourage you to go look at her LinkedIn and get involved with therapists in tech. And even just like every VC should go and look at that LinkedIn post. I feel like I we can tweet it afterwards so that people have access to it. So that you are not harming your own founders, through your ignorance on how to communicate with them. So that's one and the second, I will call out like a lot of people talk about therapy, which I think is great and important and all the things but you know, what I didn't realize was super, super important? Nutrition. So I'm going to call out another one of our portfolio companies, which is Culina health. This is registered dieticians through telehealth, it's 100%. insurance covered. It's a company out of New York with a black woman founder and CO CEO, amazing team. I have been a customer since September, and it completely changes my energy. Like you meet with a registered dietitian. And just like think about what you're putting in your body and like how you're taking care of yourself. So like nutrition, sleep, exercise, all of this stuff are like such important tools to come back to a place of like stability, because the world is going to throw so many things at you. I mean, if I could tell you the week I just had. I mean, like if I could just tell you the week that I just had, and I met with my culina health person who's amazing. And she said, Okay, so what tools did we have? What tools do you have to come back to a place of stability because, yeah, you need roots because the wind is gonna blow really, really, really hard.


Natasha Mascarenhas  39:48  

I love that. And this is why I love talking to you. Because I do think there's like such an importance and being nuanced about this was why it's in our tagline but also like vulnerable. I think it's a super hard thing to talk about. And I think just like you said the phrase hustle culture and combating it in some way is often even kind of where the mental health conversation stops or gets messed up. And just, you know, nutrition, a whole thing that we haven't talked about on the show until now, I think is a super probably like telling note to end on. So Leslie, thank you so much for coming on equity. Tell people where to find you, where to find Graham and Walker out on the internet.


Leslie Feinzaig  40:21  

Grandma walker is at GrahamWalker.com. You can find his graham and Walker in any of your actually, that's not true. We really are just on LinkedIn and Twitter. Like the other channels are there, but we don't really actively put anything there. And then you can find me on Twitter at Leslie Feinzaig, I love making friends there. So, you know, I look forward to meeting you all. Thank you so much for having me.


Natasha Mascarenhas  40:41  

Of course, we will chat on there soon enough. I'm sure I'll be in your dams like tomorrow, so I can't wait. Hope you have a better rest of your week.


Leslie Feinzaig  40:48  

Thank you so much. It's already better.


Natasha Mascarenhas  40:50  

And that is our show. Thank you everyone for being with us today on a different equity Wednesday than usual. But one that I think was super important. Hopefully you were able to take away a ton of learning lessons, whether it's how to be kinder and more explicit with your founder friends, or where to give grace and what kind of resources you can go to even in this moment where we're all overloaded with a ton of information. Obviously we still want to continue the conversation. So if you have a story you want to share, if there's an angle that you think we missed when it comes to talking about mental health in the entrepreneurial world, you can email us at equitypod@techcrunch.com. Our wonderful producer Theresa checks the email all the time. You can also DM us @equitypod on Twitter. We are back on the mic with Alex and Mary Ann on Friday, so I will chat with you then. And until then, take care, drink water and eat some nutritious food. Bye. Equity Wednesdays are hosted by myself, TechCrunch senior reporter Natasha Mascarenhas were produced by Theresa Loconsolo with editing by Kell Keller. Bryce Durbin is our Illustrator. Alyssa stringer leads audience development, and Henry Pickavet manages TechCrunch audio products. Thank you so much for listening and we'll be back next week.


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