Founder of Techstars, Brad Feld, sat down with our CEO, David Ronick, to discuss the stigma around mental health.
Brad, thanks for sharing your thoughts with me, and with friends of Minded. Like you, I’ve grappled with mental health issues for many years, and the rollercoaster ride of being a serial entrepreneur has added to the struggle at times. I’m grateful for your advocacy of mental health awareness, as well as for founding TechStars - which has had a profound, positive impact on my life and my career. For anyone who hasn’t watched your TechStars Mental Health video, I highly recommend it. Now on to a few questions...
DR: Since you started sharing your experiences with mental health issues, have you found that many people have been open about their own experiences?
BF: When I started talking openly about it in 2013, the stigma around mental health challenges was strong, and even discussing them was extremely rare. That year, over 100 entrepreneurs and VCs reached out to me to discuss their own struggles and in many cases I was the first person, including family members, that they felt comfortable talking to. As I talked to more people, I realized that the stigma around mental health issues was a massive compounding factor and decided that part of my goal on this planet going forward was to eliminate the stigma around mental health, especially in tech and entrepreneurship.
DR: Is there something special that happens when you connect with someone who is open to sharing their challenges?
BF: The level of emotional intimacy intensifies quickly. It's really powerful. You quickly get past any surface discussion, posturing, or the normal shallow layers of a new relationship or a transactional discussion.
DR: How has COVID impacted your mental health? How has it impacted the mental health of people around you?
BF: I have clinical obsessive compulsive disorder, so COVID was particularly challenging to me on several dimensions. While I no longer link the O (obsessions) and the C (compulsions), all the typical OCD stuff that generates anxiety, such as germs, dirt, and disease still apply. And then we have this new disease, spread by the air, that no one really understands. Consequently, just being around other humans generated huge anxiety for me early on. And it still does, even though I'm vaccinated. My solution was to isolate incredibly aggressively, which fortunately suits my personality (I love to be alone or just with my wife Amy.) The first three months of Covid (March, April, and May 2020) were incredibly intense because I also threw myself into volunteer work with the leadership at the State of Colorado on both economic and health related fronts. At the same time, the entrepreneurial world was in disarray and full of uncertainty at the beginning of the crisis.
By summer time, I'd personally settled down. I decided to isolate for a long time until I didn't feel anxious in public. I focused on what I could impact. I continued to show up and do my best, but I also took plenty of time for myself. From early fall 2020 forward I've been in a very stable place.
Many people around me have struggled mightily, often with different issues. This is especially true of my friends who are extroverts and thrive on being with other people. The dynamics from structural inequities, especially around race and gender, have also created another layer of profound stress this last year.
DR: Are mental health issues common among entrepreneurs? What’s different about entrepreneurs or the challenges we face that impact mental health?
BF: Yes. But the stigma continues to be extreme, along with the mantra that as an entrepreneur you have to be a fearless leader who shows no weakness. I think this is total bullshit; the best leaders in my experience are vulnerable, empathetic, and accessible to others.
Part of my goal on this planet is to eliminate the stigma around mental health - Brad Feld
DR: Do you think the strength and support of the Techstars community helps those of us with mental health issues?
BF: Hugely. It's been a real gift for me to be able to engage with so many people in the Techstars community around issues surrounding mental health. The leadership team at Techstars has prioritized this and I'm really proud to be involved in the organization.
DR: Is there anything you are doing these days to support mental health - or seeing others do - that you’d like to mention?
BF: I do many things continuously, and I'm a "starter" / "supporter" so I try to get new things going while supporting existing initiatives. Locally, we have loved our involvement in supporting the Boulder Community Health activity, including the Della Cava Building and the Anchor Point Mental Health Endowment.
Brad has been an early-stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and, prior to that, founded Intensity Ventures. Brad is also a co-founder of Techstars. Brad is a writer and speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship. He’s written a number of books as part of the Startup Revolution series and writes the blog Feld Thoughts. Brad holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Management Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brad is also an art collector and long-distance runner. He has completed 25 marathons as part of his mission to finish a marathon in each of the 50 states.