The Emotional Cost Of Being A Female Millennial Startup Founder

“My work is me.”

This is how I defined myself when I founded my startup Mailbird. I put in twenty hour days, worked on weekends and my laptop never shut down. Sounds like just another day in every startup right? But that’s the problem. I never stopped to think about the drain my business was having on my “emotional capital”. The more I focused on building the best email client for Windows, the more I seemed to neglect my physical health. As a person with Diabetes, it wasn’t long before my lifestyle took an ugly toll.

Entrepreneurs rarely discuss this side of starting a successful business. We all tend to practice the mantra of “fake it till you make it” and showing vulnerability is thought of as a sign of weakness. But with 45% of entrepreneurs saying they are stressed in the latest Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, it’s time for us to make this emotional tax, well, less taboo. We need to have honest conversations about the real cost of starting a business to pave the way for better and healthier business habits.

The initial Mailbird team in 2012 learning the balance between work and rewards

One of the most difficult things that accompanies entrepreneurship is the ability to manage stress. If I think about mega entrepreneurs out there like Elon Musk for example, I believe that they are exceptional at managing stress. We aren’t always naturally great at managing challenges that come our way in life and in business, but you learn from them, and you find a way to manage it so you can continue.

First thing, is to never be afraid to ask for help. Stress contributes to many diseases for both the body and mind, so learning to not take on too much, asking for help and not beating yourself up over the failures is important for survival. The beautiful thing about being an entrepreneur is that you can build a really well balanced work culture to reduce stress.

The Cost of Stress

Stress is the dark side of entrepreneurship for everyone. It often leads to burnout, anxiety and it affects every area of our lives. BGF Ventures surveyed 500 founders from across the UK and found that 41% felt stressed every day. That’s a scary statistic considering the dangerous impact this emotional toll can have on our health. According to theAmerican Psychological Association, emotional stress can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias and even sudden death. Anxiety and depression are also a common effect of continued emotional stress over an extended period of time.

One of the hardest things I have found about being an entrepreneur is carrying the weight of my business and my team on my shoulders. But the good news is that Mailbird can help me reduce stress. How?

At Mailbird, we remember to balance the health of our team, in order to improve the health of the overall business.

Well, the beautiful thing about founding my own startup is that I have the power to create a well-balanced work culture. For me, this means having a space where everyone feels it’s okay to ask for help. I don’t want anyone on my team to feel like that they are taking on too much nor do I want them beating themselves up for failures. Afterall, when we fail, we learn and when we learn we can produce a better final product and solution for the world.

The Cost of Burning Out

I’ve burnt out before. My first job out of college as a new grad millennial going into her first big girl job, I had to learn the hard way, about stress management. I was very unhappy at work, so I left. I had a few filler careers in between that were less stressful. When my co-founders and I met, that first year was a roller coaster. Stress levels to the max. I was no doing things for myself. It was work, work, work 6am to 2am. The stress levels were high, and the pressure of our big public launch of the best email client for Windows ever that we were building, came to a screeching halt.

At Mailbird, we know stress is a reality at work. We want to help others with this.

I was not managing my stress. There was no balance. You hear that that is what it is when you are starting a company, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve also been living with type 1 Diabetes, so the stress levels were not helping with yet another stress in life, which was managing my health. You have to put yourself and health first, nurture and give yourself what you deserve most. I learned the hard way, and let my health suffer for the sake of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs often talk about having no balance in their lives. It’s all about the graft and not putting anyone or anything in front of your business. But it doesn’t have to be this way. When I started Mailbird, my stress levels were at the max. My co-founders and I were working from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. every single day leading up to our launch. I hadn’t learnt how to manage stress yet, and as a result, everything that we were building came to a screeching halt.

If I had to do it all over again, that would be the one thing I would change. I’d choose not to buy into the obsessive mindset that runs wild in startup culture. Instead, I’d put myself first and not let my health suffer for the sake of entrepreneurship. You can’t run an award-winning business if you’re six feet under.

The Cost of Expectation

Just like onions have layers, so does stress.

Millennials are nurtured in society to be great, and high expectations are set for them by society, parents and peers. You spend all this money for the one gigantic build up, so you can graduate and be in debt forever and have that one job. Of course these are for the privileged millennials in America who have the means to fund themselves through college. So, regardless of the impact on your physical and mental health, you push through. Similar to how STEM fields happen to be male dominated, it’s because educational institutions in these fields haven’t put much effort into making these industries attractive and opportunistic for women.

As a woman and a millennial in the tech industry, expectation is one of the biggest pressures that leads up to burnout. It’s hard being a founder of a company. It’s tough to manage your mental balance when you have the world weighing on your shoulders. There are additional layers of stress with being a women in a the technology industry; and again we have additional challenges in this millennial generation. We have challenges today that did not exist during our parents generation.

The biggest factors are the high pressure of expectations of our friends family and peers as well as technology, which can put us in a vulnerable position trying to constantly please other. We are bombarded with information, social acceptance and privacy concerns in excess. It’s tough being a founder of a tech company. It’s also tough being a women in tech. Being a millennial business owner is a challenge because of the pressure and expectation from others to be perfect. With those three factors against you, starting a company has tremendous emotional costs that we never talk about.

People either expect more or less because of your gender or age, and while this can drive you harder to achieve your dreams, it also puts you in a vulnerable position. It’s hard to take a step back and appreciate your businesses success when so many other millennial entrepreneurs are hitting milestones faster and making a bigger disruption in the market. It’s even worse when this judgement is coming from friends, family or even your peers.

The True Cost of Success

With a quick Google search, you’ll find hundreds of articles talking about the success of entrepreneurs from every background. On the other hand, what many of these articles fail to mention, is the cost. The sleepless nights, the mental breakdowns and the copious amounts of stress. So what to do now that we have some real awareness of the emotional cost of being a female, millennial tech founder? I believe first and foremost we need to accept and remind ourselves how critical balance is in our lives.

You hear stories all the time about these superstar tech founders and innovators, who are all men, yet no one talks about the mental breakdowns and copious amounts of stress that weighs on their shoulders to where they are no longer living and healthy lifestyle. As a Diabetic as well, I have been guilty of putting my health second and my business first. The sheer reality of it all is that if I don’t put my health first, then the business will crumble. As a person, you should value your self, be selfish for your well being and health. Don’t put yourself in situations that threaten your happiness and well being. We need the tools and breaks to help us slow down, and tune out the expectations of society, of investors, of shareholders, of business partners, of your family and friends…remember that you know what you can handle, you know what you need to do to feel good about your work and self.

Instead of creating this expectation of tireless working hours that give a founder zero quality of life, it would be much better and we’d create healthier companies and team cultures that prioritize a healthier balance of life and stress. A friend of mine simply created rules. No work after 8pm and no work at home. This is to help her balance the load of work and life, to create a clear separation in order to facilitate a healthy relationship with our work and our selves. Otherwise, we put ourselves in a position to beat ourselves up for just not being good enough, not fast enough, not aggressive enough for others…when instead we should be prioritizing our own expectations of ourselves, not others.

Remember women, tech founders and millennials, you have the power to do incredible things by your own terms. You can build and create amazing things without putting your health and self worth at stake. It’s time to change the ecosystem before more and more women, tech founders and millennials suffer from stress and the loss of their precious life that should never be wasted suffering to please others. Prioritize yourself first, then things will work out for the best because they are on your own terms, time and expectations. We need breaks to help us slow down, tune out the expectations of society and remember that you know how much you can handle.

The strength of the Mailbird team doesn’t come from overloaded stress, but from persistence, hard work and fun.

Instead of promoting a startup culture around tireless working hours, we need to prioritize a healthier balance of life. Whether that’s creating a set of rules like no work at home, we all need to focus more on building a healthy relationship between our startup and the other facets of our lives. Your health and well-being must come first, otherwise you’ll be in no shape to run a business on your own terms. Put your well-being first. Achieve your goals on your terms, time and expectations.

Share your experience and journey below, I’d love to hear your story on what you went through and how you balance today.

*This article is as seen in Forbes

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  • Aaron Boydston

    Another way to think of think of it is, “Take care of yourself in order to be able to bless others.” A great illustration of this mindset is the emergency instructions on a plane. Put YOUR oxegen mask on first, THEN help others. It is not encouraging selfishness, it is so that you are ABLE to help others. While this can easily be distorted to self-centeredness, if the purpose remains true, it is selflessness. Also, your definition of success is tantamount!