Written by Andrew Seale
As a founder, you can live off wafer cookies and Pringles. You can hire your family and friends and work 100 hours to avoid working 40. You can do whatever you want. But there will be a cost.
There’s always a cost.
“It’s the loneliest job I can imagine,” says Kari Sulenes, executive director of Atlas, a program that supports founder development through the lens of health and mental well-being. “(Entrepreneurs) literally leverage everything about their lives to make this idea happen and then as the company grows and becomes successful they get further and further from the life that was separate from their business.”
It’s not necessarily a problem, says Sulenes, rather a byproduct of that entrepreneurial drive, that need to create. “(But) it tends to leave people really isolated and also pretty confused about where the things like cooking for yourself and going surfing and going on a date and going to a doctor (will) fit in,” she says. “They lose priority really quickly.”
The program was spun out of Bay Area venture capital firm Alpha Bridge Ventures, on the grounds that founders that are doing well, build companies that do well.
“What you feed your body literally provides you with the building blocks that are the key to your mental and emotional well-being which is then key to your leadership ability, your decision-making ability, and ability to be resistant to stress and persist through challenges,” says Sulenes, whose background is in clinical psychology and organizational behaviour.
Before launching Atlas internally, Alpha Bridge Ventures partners Howie Diamond and Jake Chapman, tapped Sulenes to conduct a small, qualitative study of founders in Silicon Valley to try and understand where it is they go to get support and how they execute their wellness on their own.
“In those interviews, I learned that founders are really well-supported in the business area – there are all sorts of advisors and mentors, VCs are jumping up to help with introductions and help them tactically move through different aspects of the business's growth,” she says. “But (they’re) completely unsupported in the personal areas of their lives.”
It was a surprising result, one that spurred Sulenes to design a holistic wellness program that funnels “every aspect of health and well-being through the lens of leadership.”
As demand grew it made more sense to spin the program out onto its own. In late 2018, Alpha Bridge Ventures hosted a dinner in Toronto to get to know some of the startup community here. As they started to build relationships with several founders, Sulenes noticed an opportunity.
Sure, Alpha Bridge Ventures could play a role financially in supporting startups moving towards their Series A. But it was more than that. It felt like a chance to rewrite history, to change the conversation surrounding founders and mental health, and to do so before the ecosystem gets too big to change, too set in its ways.
“I don't think I thought initially we'd make a ground-up impact, I didn't imagine I’d work with many people in Toronto personally and then I was wrong,” says Sulenes. Instead, Atlas and Alpha Bridge Venture’s are hoping to help drive that conversation.
“We can start to create situations where (founders) have access to their support,” she says. “We think we're going to do that most efficiently through the lens of venture capitalists… we can change the minds of VCs about what it means to be an effective founder.”
She says she’d like to see VCs saying “I'm going to pay for you to go to coaching” or, “I think it's really important for you to take a vacation.” That will help foster change in the ecosystem and the culture surrounding what it means to be a founder.
“This is a place where the venture world is still being assembled and set up,” she says. “We think we can have an impact here.”
Photo by Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)