SILVIA CAVALCANTI


I was flying back to New York from a business trip in Sydney. I had two children under two at the time and was still working as an executive in Advertising while getting my third startup off the ground.

So far this story sounds super glamorous and impressive, right? Those around me thought so too.

As I came back from that trip, a colleague said, “I can’t believe how you do it with two babies.” When I went home that night, my kids ran towards me yelling “Mainha! Mainha!”. That’s when I thought to myself, “I have no idea how I’d do it without them.”

End of story.

I loved to trot out this anecdote at conferences and events because it helped paint me as a stoic entrepreneurial heroine, holding it all together and thriving not despite, but because of the pressure.

While the story may be true, the character I played in it was all a lie. The truth is, that time in my life was incredibly difficult, and far from a stoic, I was an emotional wreck. Cash flow issues forced us to sell our business to a public company which eventually shut down everything we had built.  It was agonizing and it felt like selling one of my babies because we needed the money. After the deal closed I completely fell apart. I was miserable and started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. It took years of reflection, therapy, and reengineering my life to get to a place where I feel like I am genuinely thriving.

The Super Fallacy

I know I am not alone. For the new Health and Performance of High-Impact Entrepreneurs Report’ Endeavor Brazil spoke to 118 tech founders and revealed that while just about everyone wrestles with difficult emotions, 75% of entrepreneurs feel pressure from other people’s expectations and 54% consider discussions around mental health a taboo in the ecosystem.

As we dig into additional research, it’s pretty clear that the toll of entrepreneurship on founders’ mental well-being is a worldwide phenomenon. One UCSF and UC Berkeley research found that 72% of entrepreneurs reported mental health concerns, a much higher incidence than is found in the general population.

The stigma against frank discussion of mental health isn’t limited to Brazil either. The likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have often been idolized in the media as entrepreneurial heroes who created world-changing companies through sheer force of will.

While scattered articles have investigated entrepreneurs’ mental health and some founders, like Bonobos’ Andy Dunn, and Toms Shoes’ Blake Mycoskie have gone public about their struggles, the predominant narrative continues to be one of invincibility.

A few years ago, Linda, co-founder and CEO of Endeavor, opened up about a deeply personal moment. As Endeavor was celebrating its 11th year of empowering founders outside of Silicon Valley and gearing up to launch in its 12th country, Linda received devastating news: her husband was diagnosed with aggressive bone cancer. And all of this on top of the demands of raising their three-year-old twin girls. The weight of her emotions became too heavy to bear alone, and she decided to let it out to the team, whose response was “Now that we know you’re a real person, we’ll follow you anywhere.” While reflecting on this experience, Linda underscored the importance of embracing vulnerability, encouraging founders  to “be less super, more human.”

When Superpower Becomes Kryptonite

The Endeavor Brazil report found that 70% of entrepreneurs feel lonely throughout the journey and 62% feel they are sacrificing their present lives for future success. Yet, there is a prevalent cultural perception that successful entrepreneurs are endowed with superpowers that make them immune to breakdowns as if their confidence and resilience are somehow unwavering and devoid of expiration date.

Every entrepreneur has heard the advice to ‘fake it till you make it’. After all, we need to exude confidence in what we’re building to bring partners, employees, investors, and our own families along for the ride. Besides that, we are all shaped by our own internal narrative – so the stories we tell ourselves can be a precious source of stamina in the face of adversity. I know that firsthand.

But running on false posturing adds an exhausting layer of stress to an already incredibly stressful journey. The truth is we all experience self-doubt and anxiety. By not admitting this to ourselves, we become oppressively trapped inside an unattainable version of who we are. So if there’s one lesson I can share from my own journey it is that it’s important to calibrate how much to lean on our supposed “superpowers”, otherwise they slowly become our own kryptonite.

Putting on the founder-superhero’s cape and pretending the latest crisis is just another day at the Daily Planet comes with very real costs. Instead, by recognizing the emotional hurdles we face and seeking support, we open up avenues to navigate through them. Ziad Sankari, founder of CardioDiagnostics, for instance, candidly shared that by writing down his worries he’s able to confront them with greater ease. 

The benefits of acknowledging our emotional struggles are pretty clear. So why then, are so few of us willing to be open about them? Last year, at a founders-only event, we invited some of our most experienced founders to open up, and one serial entrepreneur perfectly captured the bind founders find themselves in. 

We would surely benefit from talking about it and sharing tips with each other, he said, but investors see vulnerability as a sign of weakness. Admitting it is essentially bleeding in a shark tank. “Nobody shares what they’re going through when they’re going through it because that’s like blood in the water,” he said.

Humanizing the Hero’s Journey

That got us thinking. While we can’t change investors’ attitudes overnight, we can help rewrite the narrative of mental health in entrepreneurship.

Since nearly all entrepreneurs will struggle with their mental health at some point, supporting them to cope is simply smart portfolio management.  Even if you only care about the bottom line, ignoring the problem can have disastrous consequences for the business.

The Endeavor Brazil report shows that experienced founders are more likely to discuss their struggles with their co-founders, team, investors, and friends than younger founders. Perhaps that partly explains why founders with more than ten years of experience are also the ones with a less stressed routine compared to founders with less than five years of experience, according to the same report. 

That’s a key reason why, at Endeavor, we are often facilitating circles of trust among fellow entrepreneurs. This is a space where they can talk about the unspoken truths of scaling a business, from the pressure that comes with a higher valuation, to the post-exit blues leading to a sense of purposelessness and depression. Yet, we recognize there’s much more to be done.

We have recently started working with accomplished founders in our network on humanizing the entrepreneurial journey. By publicly sharing how they have coped with challenging emotions, we aim to kick off a conversational chain reaction – making frank discussions of mental health so normal that entrepreneurs don’t have to fear giving up the superhero facade. After all, vulnerability breeds connection and connection breeds courage.

Together we can rewrite the narrative around founder mental health. As Linda says, “Be less super, more human.” It’s time to take off our capes.

If you have dropped yours and want to share your story, let’s chat: [email protected].

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