Silicon Valley is a fishbowl. A hotbed of talent, bravado and ambition, where millions of dollars in funding often depend on one’s ability to project confidence and decisiveness.
As a result, many founders struggle with mental and emotional health. The weight can be crushing, something Jake Chapman, the managing partner of Alpha Bridge Ventures, a San Francisco-based early-stage VC firm, knows firsthand. Before he became an investor, Jake was a serial entrepreneur. When his first company ran into trouble, he sank into a dark place.
“I’d maxed out my credit cards, I had a newborn at home and things weren’t working,” he said. “Companies were on fire around me, and I was paralyzed; I couldn’t do anything to fix the problem.”
Partly borne out of Jake's own experience, Alpha Bridge Ventures was founded with the intention of making sure its founders have a solid support system for when times get tough. This means having a trained professional to turn to in moments of stress and the resources to address underlying emotional and relationship issues before they derail a company’s progress. “Co-founder conflict, trouble building company culture, burnout — they start as people problems, but if they don’t get addressed, they become significant company problems,” Jake said.
We recently spoke with Jake and Dr. Kari Sulenes, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and heads Alpha Bridge’s founder development program, about the importance of emotional and mental hygiene in Silicon Valley, their own experience providing this type of support and why more firms should be attuned to the mental and emotional needs of their founders.
First, how you do you define mental and emotional health, and how did you identify a need for further support in this area?
Dr. Kari: When we talk about mental health, we are often talking about anxiety, depression and ADHD — conditions that startup founders actually experience at much higher rates than the general population. Mental and emotional fitness is more about resilience, confidence, emotional intelligence and the way people generally navigate their own self-awareness and communicate their vision and emotions day-to-day. Both are important, but there's a distinction in how we define and should support both areas.
Jake: To offer an anecdote, let’s imagine a startup CEO’s average day. Let’s say he has five important meetings — the first one with an anchor investor who is going to lead the next round of funding. If it goes poorly, is the founder able to rebound from that and have a very successful rest of the day? That’s where you see the concrete effects of taking mental and emotional health seriously.
Why are these important areas to focus on for the startup community?
Dr. Kari: Founders are pretty well-supported in the business areas of their lives. They have mentors and advisors for a lot of the tactical decisions, but when it comes to personal decisions, they actually become quite isolated as they walk through the life stages of their company. Typically, founders are hiring their friends or family members, and so the folks who were, at one point, their social network have now become their business network. As a leader and a friend, it may be tough to make that transition and be the manager the business needs to thrive.
Having a completely transparent, personal conversation could be seen as awkward, especially for someone who is a leader. Is it difficult to get founders to open up?
Dr. Kari: I don’t find much reluctance, but I anticipate that I’m actually running into people who are desperate for someone to talk to or they are already open about it.
Jake: Founders overwhelmingly come alive when we tell them that all of our focus is on making them better, stronger leaders and that we focus on their health and well-being.
Dr. Kari: From my experience so far, when I’ve been talking to other venture firms, the [partners will say], "I’d like to come through the program to get a sense of what it’s like." When we sit in a room behind closed doors, they say, "Actually, I just really need this for myself."
I think we’re seeing venture capitalists themselves starting to understand the toll of their own work on their bodies and minds and relationships. They are starting to value it from the inside out.
Why do you think there’s still a reluctance to openly seek out emotional support or ask for help?
Dr. Kari: I think that the word you just said, help, is one of the keys. We are in a "crush it" culture, and the idea that you need help means that you are not crushing it. If you aren’t crushing it, you’ve basically failed — that’s the code of the startup world. If you need help, it means you’re weak, you’re not effective, you’re not a good CEO. It triggers the fear of, I’m going to lose my "startup baby."
Jake: If you ask anybody who their CEO idol is, 80% of consumer-focused founders will say Steve Jobs. There is this image of Jobs as this iconic standalone figure who did it all himself. But the real Steve Jobs had 20 different mentors in his life, including the top executive coaches. He focused on meditation and physical health. He didn’t do it alone. But people think of him standing on a stage by himself.
How do you make the case to your limited partners that investing in founders leads to healthier returns?
Jake: The story that our support will make our companies more successful — I think people want to believe that, but some discount it because it will be a 20-year endeavor to actually prove. The end in venture is so small: I could do this for the rest of my career and not invest in enough companies to show you, statistically, a causal relationship between what we do and how our companies perform. That can’t be the story that will sell people.
Here's what does sell people — founders really want this. Not only is it good for deal flow, but it’s also good for deal access. We get an allocation in rounds that are filling up because we bring a differentiated value-add service that founders want on a personal level, which other investors don’t. If there’s space for somebody, they are going to make space for us.
Let's talk nuts and bolts — how did you create your integrated founder development program at Alpha Bridge?
Jake: Given the business dynamic between investor and founder, it’s really hard for founders to be totally honest and open with us, so it makes sense to have some confidentiality between the founder support side and the investment side. The original idea was to pay folks to come in and work with our founders. We realized that’s not a complete product offering; it doesn’t solve a lot of the problems founders actually have. That’s when we found Kari and brought her on.
Dr. Kari: I did about 10 interviews with founders in the network, trying to understand their experiences, where they go for support and what they wished they had that they don’t. We used that as background research for our current strategy, through which we build an interdisciplinary team around each founder, streamline services and set up a situation where all the coaches are collaborating, so their services are more efficient.
And how does the program work today?
Dr. Kari: Most founders work with an executive coach. They might also have a physical trainer, a mindfulness coach, and most people work with our functional medicine coach to understand how their internal organs are functioning and keeping their energy consistent throughout the day. Some people might be working with a personal chef or a personal organizer. We have someone right now working with a storytelling coach.
Jake: I work with an executive coach who is also a successful venture capitalist. We try our best to make a match like that, where there is a lot of substantive understanding. I can talk about fundraising, and he gets it right away.
What myths about startup culture do you hope Alpha Bridge’s approach to investing and working with founders will puncture?
Dr. Kari: That in order for your company to succeed, you have to suffer. That your well-being and the well-being of your company are mutually exclusive. We are doing everything we can to rewrite that narrative and say, not only are they not mutually exclusive but they are actually intimately linked.
And lastly... What can founders without access to Alpha Bridge do to take care of their mental well-being?
Jake: Physical health is something that is overlooked by a lot of people. Kari and I were at a dinner recently with 15 founders. The first question at the dinner was, "What is your mental health hack?" For 13 or 14 of the founders, it was a physical thing: Yoga, trail running, boxing.
On a basic level, taking care of yourself physically makes a big difference for people mentally in their ability to lead. I know that if I take a month off from my regime of running on the weekends and boxing in the mornings, I can’t bring my A game. I don’t have as much energy, I start getting down on myself. Part of that is mental — punishing yourself for getting down on your physical routine — but part of it is physical. The chemicals in your brain aren’t the same when you are exercising consistently than when you are sitting at your desk all day in a dark room.
I’d also recommend finding someone — like a mentor, an executive coach or a therapist — who really listens to you. There’s a big difference between having someone ask how you’re doing, and having someone sit down, stare into your eyes and ask: "How are you really doing?"
Building a venture fund, I’m going through a lot of the same challenges that founders go through. I’ve had therapists in the past, and I have a coach now. I find immense value in it.