Stories surrounding entrepreneurs and self-made CEOs typically involve romantic tales of bootstrapping, seven-digit checks and the kind of hard-won success that keeps the American Dream looking shiny and new.
But glossing over the toll creating a company takes on your mental health is a disservice, says Emma McIlroy, CEO and cofounder of feminist fashion e-tailer Wildfang. “It would be so much easier for me to stand up and not be vulnerable—to just say, ‘It’s all great. I’m a big deal CEO,’” she says. “But that doesn't help the people coming behind you who are going through the same difficulties or those who want to become entrepreneurs.”
Talking about mental health is a conversation entrepreneurs may need more than the rest—research suggests that entrepreneurs are significantly more likely to deal with mental health issues. Thirty percent of entrepreneurs surveyed in a recent study led by psychologist and University of California San Francisco professor Michael Freeman, M.D., reported struggling with depression. For context, less than 7% of the general population deals with depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“I don't think I know a single founder who hasn't had some kind of brush with depression, had suicidal thoughts or experienced some level of intense mental stress,” McIlroy says. “I lived through enough of those really dark, crappy moments myself that I'm passionate about trying to figure out how anybody else going through them doesn't have to go as dark and as low.”
Here, McIlroy opens up about the mental health tax levied by entrepreneurship and why it’s so important for founders and CEOs to be more open about it in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.
Macaela Mackenzie: What made you want to start opening up more about mental health?
Emma McIlroy: About two years ago, I made a mental note for myself that I was going to be really real in every interview, at every event and with every platform I have. That might mean talking about the fact that I'm queer, that might mean talking about the fact that I'm an immigrant or that might mean talking about my struggles and mental health—which no one seems to do as an entrepreneur.
Almost every entrepreneur I know has been depressed at some point, but no one talks about any of the struggles. I'm deeply passionate about being really raw and honest about who I am and how this journey has affected me so that hopefully, it either helps the next generation see themselves in me or it helps those going through similar stuff know that they're not on their own.
MM: As a culture, we’re finally starting to address mental health issues. Why is it so important to be doing this specifically in a professional context?
EM: Mental health is a critical conversation in the workplace—particularly from leaders. It must start at the top because it effects so many people.Somehow, mental health challenges are seen as a weakness or something to feel guilty or ashamed about, even though so many people are affected. The only way we're going to remove the taboo is by talking about it.
Talking about it is the only way you get better—the acknowledgement of it, and the ability to own it and be honest about it is, truthfully, the only way that you can recover and get better. I long for the day when I hear a senior leader [at a major company] talk about their struggles with depression or the fact that they drink too much to cope with stress. I long for that day when someone is not afraid to have that conversation.
MM: As an entrepreneur, what do you feel are the consequences of focusing so heavily on the success stories?
EM: You lose all the flavor of the journey. When we don't tell entrepreneurs’ stories in real time, when we only tell them at the end of the journey, we lose so much color, so much richness, so much of the important information that I think other people would relate to.
I find in my career that I learn much more from failures than from successes. The person who's in my position who has had a big failure? I want to hear that story because I'm probably going to learn something from it.
MM: You’ve mentioned you've known multiple founders who have committed suicide. How has that shaped your experience and your goals as a founder and CEO?
EM: I didn’t understand the loneliness of the role. And it's huge—it's so lonely. The highs are high and that's great but the lows are horrific. And when the lows happen, you're all by yourself.
You’re often in these high-stress situations where things have gone wrong and you may not have the resources nor the skill set or experience to fix them. That's what startups are all about but they can also be incredibly lonely.
MM: Do you have any thoughts on what a new normal—one that addresses mental health more transparently—might look like for entrepreneurs and leaders?
EM: I would encourage my colleagues who are in a leadership role with a platform to let a little bit more of themselves and their personal struggles come through. I think social media has been kind of a downfall in many ways [because it creates] this Instagram life where everything's perfect and we eat beautiful kale salads all day long. It’s like we just sort of bury the other side of us—we bury the challenges and the ugly side and the failures.
The second thing is, I'd like to see more safe spaces created for entrepreneurs. There are definitely networking groups out there, but none of them talk about mental health. I've been in so many CEO circles that are still really focused on pitching yourself and talking about all the good stuff—I would love to see people in the industry create more safe spaces for [talking about mental health struggles].
Finally, I want to see the day where we get a VC fund that offers you money plus mental health counseling. Let me know when the money is contingent on you also being at two mental health or counseling sessions a month, because investors recognize that is part of making you a better, stronger leader. I'd love to see some funders and some of those funding institutions start to make that a really robust part of their package.
MM: Okay, you had to know this one was coming: How are you creating a more transparent culture that addresses mental health on your own turf at Wildfang?
EM: Every Monday we do this thing called “P and G’s” where you have to announce one thing you're proud of and one thing you're grateful for. What happens is probably half of the time, people share personal things rather than picking work-related things. When you work as hard as you do at startup, personal and professional just kinda meld together—it's really important for me to be managing people and celebrating people in a very holistic way. I try to create a culture where personal and professional lives are expressed and celebrated and there's room for both.
I try to be a very human leader. One way is that I share a little bit more of myself with my team than I ordinarily would. It's so scary to open up to them [about challenges] because you assume that [they'll think] you're a failure. But actually, I’ve found they get much more fired up about being a part of the solution. The point is that if my team sees me going through something and can understand what I'm going through, not only does it create a human connection, but they know it's okay for them to go through the same thing.
*This conversation was edited for length and clarity.