Sajan Pillai, Managing Partner, Season Two Ventures

Sajan Pillai is an internationally acclaimed businessman, investor, engineer, IT innovator and philanthropist. He is currently the Managing Partner of Season Two Ventures, an early stage venture fund based in Southern California. Renowned for his exceptional ability to foster innovative thinking and infuse life into ideas, Sajan was featured in the prestigious Stemconnector’s list of 100 CEO Leaders as well as in the Glassdoor Employees’ Choice list of Top 100 CEOs during his two-decade long tenure as Director and CEO in UST Global. His ground-breaking initiative ‘Step IT Up America’, which aimed at empowering 5000 women technologists was lauded by political as well as industry leaders and was seen as a major step towards gender egalitarianism in the technology sector.

 

In 2019, if someone told me that I would be spending half my life over the next two years on virtual work meetings, I would have laughed. But here we are, talking about zoom fatigue, zoom gloom and information overload in the work from home mode. 

The pandemic and all the resultant lockdowns have certainly not been kind to people and their mental peace. In the US, the number of individuals displaying symptoms of anxiety and stress rose from 11% in 2019 to upwards of 42% in 2020. According to WHO, while there was a spike in attempts to promote awareness surrounding mental health, only 51% nations reported that their mental health policies were congruent with international standards. Additionally, it was reported that for every 100,000 individuals, the global average of mental health practitioners available was 13, with the numbers being heavily skewed towards high-income countries. A major portion of the world is, thus, deprived of appropriate mental care. 

One of the biggest stress points, apart from that of COVID-19 itself, has been from the professional front. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, as many as 81 million job losses were reported in 2020, leading to rampant financial insecurities. Simultaneously, the “lucky” few who could hold a job found themselves grappling with the concept of work-from-home, struggling to keep the personal and professional apart. The issue is that, we’re all so conditioned with this “tough it out” mentality that we, often, fail to notice the symptoms before they’ve already gotten severe. The lack of work-life-balance has led to a slew of resignations piling up across the corporate ladder. 

The situation in the start-up community hasn’t been too different. Even before the pandemic, Indians have had a history of glorifying overworked employees as the standard for productivity, and WFH has only managed to worsen the situation. The highly-involved nature of work in start-ups often leads to employees developing an emotional bond with the company. When this attachment begins tipping over to the wrong side of indulgence is when the problem starts. The most frequent culprits of such behaviour are entrepreneurs forgetting the fine line between passion and obsession with regard to their project.

The entrepreneurial journey is laden with opportunities of different kinds that offer room for autonomy, creativity, learning, innovation and a host of other wonderful things, but the one thing it seems to lack is a ‘Switch Off’ button. 

Founders are positioned, quite literally, at the eye of the storm. As the face of start-ups, they find themselves in a unique position where they are constantly kept under the scanner, where any move they make can be scrutinized by investors, consumers, the media or any other stakeholder. Within the company, it is difficult to precisely pinpoint the founder’s responsibility, because they are often required to be a jack-of-all-trades, overseeing and guiding all the teams in a unified direction.

Amidst all this, it becomes a little too easy for them to lose track of themselves. The most dangerous thing that any entrepreneur can do is to club their self-worth with the success of their venture. Anyone who is even peripherally associated with a startup knows the turbulent nature of the markets that they operate in, where the risk of failure is always around the corner. In such circumstances, if one begins to associate every little business setback with personal flaws, then they are setting themselves up for disaster. Over the years, several studies have highlighted that the entrepreneurial life leaves people susceptible to a myriad of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, ADHD etc.

In addition to looking out for themselves, founders are also tasked with the responsibility of caring for the wellbeing of their employees. The combined mental stress of it all can lead to decrease in productivity, lethargy, burnout etc., all of which adds up to a tainted reputation and financial losses, thereby forming a vicious loop of events where one triggers the other. Year on year, mental illnesses cost the global economy losses worth $1 trillion. 

Having said that, the silver lining, if any, to this situation is that the aggravated state of affairs has managed to create a collective awakening around mental wellbeing in workplaces. The way forward involves acknowledging unhealthy patterns and making active attempts to rectify them. As founders, the first step in doing so is to understand that a leader is not infallible. The world will not come crashing down because you took some time off, but not doing so might just lead you there. If you sense things slipping out of control, seek help. There is no shame in doing so. 

Within the workspace, founders must establish open channels of communication that help constantly evolve the framework of workplace wellness. It is high time that HR policies began promoting and making space for better, and diverse mental health practices that account for all. Additionally, a founder’s responsibility also lies in equipping employees with enough knowledge and autonomy to enable them to function independently. I am a strong believer in the concept of ‘Supportive Leadership’ wherein employees are encouraged to take ownership of their work. In my experience, this has had a very positive impact on myself as well as my team, and improved productivity. 

It is also important for VCs, as a community, to recognise that our job is not to pressure portfolio companies into meeting their targets, rather it is to help them get there more easily and efficiently. Mistakes are unavoidable, leader or otherwise. In such moments, we must treat them with the same empathy that we would show ourselves, and try to gauge how we can be of help.  

The journey towards better mental health goals is not restricted to a single path. Some may choose therapy, some might find peace in meditation, some might start running or get back to an old hobby; the point is that you must begin somewhere. If it helps, think of your mental health as an extension to your business goals. After all, what is the point of endless talent and vision if your body and mind refuse to cooperate with it?!

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