Founders Share Stories and Encouragement on Mental Wellness

It’s time for some inspiring stories!

Over the past few months, the GAN Community came together to support startup founders who have been deeply impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. GAN launched The Founder Support Fund in early May with commitments from GAN Partners UPS, Mailchimp, and Chargebee, members of the GAN Advisory Board, and individual supporters, with GAN matching donations up to $10,000. So far, the fund has awarded 17 grants to founders in nine countries, and the plan is to support more founders with ongoing awards as funds allow.

Startup life is hard enough; now, the pandemic has left many founders in an impossible position. As the needs of their colleagues and customers increase, sales and cash have decreased (even vanished), creating enough pressure to crush and burn out even the most seasoned startup veteran. Many amazing resources have been created to support their companies, so we created the fund with a different goal — to invest in the mental and emotional wellness of founders themselves, amidst the current chaos.

Getting vulnerable and sharing stories of struggle isn’t easy, but the founders who received grants hope to advance the conversation around founder mental wellness. Below, you’ll read stories from some of the grantees about how they’ve invested their grants to find relief during a tough time, plus some words of encouragement they have to share.

Caroline Cotto

Renewal Mill, California, USA
While working across the country from her co-founder, Caroline used her grant for counseling.

Brian Gaudio

Module Housing, Pennsylvania, USA
Brian set up a “Team Fund,” and took the team on a group bike ride.

Bolis Ibrahim

Argentum Electronics Inc, Toronto, Canada
Bolis used his grant funds to distribute wellness “gifts” to his team members—such as an air conditioner, WiFi extender, computer parts, and Apple Watch.

Jose Pablo Toscano

Jubel, Mexico City, Mexico
Jose Pablo used his grant award for online yoga classes and counseling services.

Victoria Chen

BridgeYear, Texas, USA
In the midst of a business pivot, Victoria distributed her grant funds throughout her team, awarding everyone $50 to treat themselves to something positive throughout the summer. The team also shared a meal catered by a Black-owned restaurant.

Carole Trone

Fair Opportunity Project, Wisconsin, USA
Carole used her grant award to purchase new bike tires so she could ride her bike through the pine tree forests of Wisconsin.

Rene Espinoza

Lazarillo, Santiago, Chile 
Rene and his team used their grant award to purchase products and services to reduce stress, such as visiting a chiropractor and a refrigerator for a new dad on his team.

Kālisi Mausio 

FOODPrint, Hawaii, USA
As a working mom, Kālisi used her grant to cover a few months of childcare!

 

If you’re a GAN Startup and interested in working with one of the amazing partners who has supported the fund, check out their startup programs here: UPS, Chargebee, and Mailchimp

And if you or your organization would like to support the next round of founders, go here

 

Read the full stories below.

Caroline Cotto, California, USA

Caroline Cotto
Renewal Mill

Industry: Food, Sustainability

While I love my job, being an entrepreneur and working on a small team can be lonely and isolating in the best of times. 

COVID-19 forced my co-founder to move across the country for childcare support, as we both worked round the clock to adjust to rapidly changing health regulations and shifting sales channels. Riding the waves of our company and the endless news cycle has been mentally and emotionally draining, but thanks to the Founder Support Fund, I was able to take a few moments to focus on myself and get connected with a counselor.  

This self-investment has allowed me space and time to process the events of the last few months and get a supportive, third-party perspective on the day-to-day challenges we face. 

It’s a welcome reminder that while we may be apart during this time, we’re never alone. And to continue our long fight against things like a broken food system, climate change, and systemic injustice, sometimes it’s important to pause and secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

 

Brian Gaudio, Pennsylvania, USA

Brian Gaudio
Module Housing

Industry: Housing, Architecture

We used the grant funds to set up a “Team Fund,” deployed across our team. Two employees purchased used bikes with some of their funds. As a team, we all went out for a team bike ride last week and will do it again this week. Hallie, a remote team member, bought some hiking shoes and went on a beautiful hike with her partner to test them out.

During our weekly all-hands meetings, we ask the team about their highs and lows. Several of our team members, myself included, said the team bike ride was a high last week.
We’re all working remotely, so being able to see each other and not talk about work was a nice opportunity to connect.

We’ve learned that other founders can be a great support network. I’ve leaned on founders from the accelerator cohort we participated in. Personally, I’ve used the GAN therapy/startup coach program for several months and I’ve found working with a therapist to be extremely beneficial to better understanding my problems and frustrations.

 

Bolis Ibrahim
Argentum Electronics Inc

Industry: Technology
We used our grant money to distribute mental wellness “gifts” to the team. We told everyone that the idea was for all of us to support our own mental health, and pay it forward. 

We’ve purchased the following gifts so far:

  • Air conditioner: It’s been getting hot in Toronto, so we bought one of our developers an AC unit for their apartment. They were extremely happy!
  • Air fryer: One of our team members bought this as a gift for their sister’s birthday. An investment in healthy living!
  • Apple Watch: One of our team members always wanted an Apple Watch but hasn’t been able to spend the extra money, so we bought it for them as a gift.
  • Headphones: One of our team members loves to run, but didn’t have good enough sports headphones to listen to music on runs, so we got them some!
  • Computer parts: We upgraded some of our employees’ computers to make their work easier to do!
  • WiFi extender: Working from home has put a strain on home WiFi, so we upgraded some of our employees’ home WiFi.
  • Fashion accessories: Feel-good fashion buys for our team!
  • More coming! We are also brainstorming ways we can help the broader community.

We prioritized purchasing items that would make our team members “happy,” however they define the word for themselves. For me, it has been so fun to give back to our team and give them the opportunity to pay it forward. Overall the impact on all of our mental/emotional wellness has been extremely positive.

Advice for others- It’s important to zoom out and remember that emotional and mental struggle comes in waves! Remember that the highs will pass, and turn into lows, and that the lows will pass and turn into highs. Putting this into perspective is so important for mental preparation for founders. Good times can produce weak leaders, and weak leaders can produce bad times, but bad times produce strong leaders.

 

Jose Pablo Toscano, Mexico City, Mexico

Jose Pablo Toscano
Jubel

Industry: Travel
The founders are currently using the grant for online yoga class subscriptions, and I’m using it for counseling through the GAN program. We also plan to organize a weekend wellness retreat with the entire team whenever quarantines get lifted in Mexico. 

For me, counseling has been a game-changer. I don’t really see myself stopping in the near future. You start with what you think is the root of your stress/issues, and you slowly peel back the layers to bring to light the actual root causes, which allows you to work on them. It’s been a great relief. 

Advice for others — challenges with mental or emotional health are something that you shouldn’t ignore or just “power through.” Counseling is expensive but worth it. There are also cheaper/free online resources that could help as well, so no one has to put aside their mental/emotional health entirely. 

Victoria Chen
BridgeYear

Industry: Education

Every team member has $50 to splurge on themselves each month during the summer. Part of the funds were spent on an all-team, “no work talk” meal, which was a chance for us to decompress and spend quality time together. In June, we ordered food from a Black-owned business and talked about everything from starting a podcast to our middle school selves. It was a wonderful way to get to know each other better and to take a break from the grind of startup life. Each team member can use the remaining funds however they want: flowers to brighten their workspace or a latte from a favorite coffee shop.  

The ability to encourage our staff to “treat themselves” is something I haven’t experienced as a founder previously. Our team has been working SO hard to pivot our entire model and come up with a brand-new product in just three months. The grant allowed me, as their leader, to remind them to prioritize their well-being and take the time to honor how far we’ve come. Our team members are BIG fans of bubble tea so that’s often the “treat yourself” drink of choice with this grant funding!

Advice for others — You can’t be a founder, a leader, an innovator, without taking care of you. It’s often a lonely journey… but taking the time to remind yourself of why you started on this journey to begin with can be invigorating!

 

Carole Trone, Wisconsin, USA

Carole Trone
Fair Opportunity Project

Industry: Education

I tossed in a Founder Support Fund grant application late one weekend night when I was at my computer because that’s my usual spot these days, nights, and weekends. What a different year…what could I do that looked like other years? Summer is sweet but fleeting in Wisconsin. I love riding bike trails but my skinny tires don’t do well on loose, unpaved paths. So part of my application request was to purchase sturdier tires that would get me out on those trails.

All of our summer travel plans before COVID-19 involved crowded places and airplanes. In other words, not going to happen this year. I remembered that a friend had a seldom-used rustic cabin on the shore of Lake Superior. That’s what I would do: bike and stay in a remote cabin. No internet for a whole week.

I almost didn’t submit the grant application because it was so totally focused on me and had nothing to do with growing my startup nonprofit. The email award notification from GAN was the best news I received that week! I could invest funds on me, no guilt required.

In late June, I headed up with my family to Manitowish Waters in Northern Wisconsin. The bike trail network there is over 50 miles long and actually beautifully paved. The side roads, not so much, but my new knobby tires addressed that challenge. Riding my bike within pine tree forests and in the crisp northern air is sheer therapy for me. No pandemic thoughts or buzzing notifications. Calming vibes all the way.

In a few weeks, my family and I will head up to the remote cabin on the shores of Lake Superior. It’s very close to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan and we’ll spend our days hiking for miles and miles before heading back for a camplike meal and nights in the sleeping bag. I am imagining looking out at the world’s largest freshwater lake every day. 

I shifted to the startup world mid-career, after work in academia and in nonprofits. I’ve never really thought of the startup world as prioritizing health and well-being and so this grant offer from GAN was really striking to me. GAN’s generosity in itself has been a comfort, knowing that they are thinking about mental and emotional wellness. It has also forced me to think about how I am taking care of myself. I’ve been working from home now since March and it’s probably the first time in my life that I’ve made a deliberate effort each day to include activities that are specific to improving my mental and emotional well-being.

Advice for others- You are not alone. Take time to take care of yourself and you will ultimately be more successful at what you do. We are all facing absolutely unprecedented challenges right now and we don’t know when the end will be in sight. Make an effort to exercise or meditate or talk to friends. Unplug and find beauty in everyday things.

       

 

Lazarillo team, Santiago, Chile

Rene Espinoza
Lazarillo

Industry: Health Tech

When we received our grant, I informed the team that we would have the opportunity to use the funds for relaxation activities. A few team members were nervous about going to the doctor due to COVID-19 and used the funds for chiropractic sessions, which turned out great for them. Another team member had just become a father, so we asked what would be helpful for him and his wife. He asked for a mini-fridge they could set in their room and now they are sleeping way better without having to make trips to the kitchen.  

Providing help apart from the standard salary creates a feeling of support and team unity during these times. For me as a founder, it makes me feel great to be able to spend money on personal needs that my team members have.

Advice for others- It is important to check up on your team’s mental and emotional well-being. It is common for people to say they are fine even when they are not. The only way to know how someone is really doing is to check in, or provide moments in which the team can share openly about how they are really feeling. Also, celebrate the victories more. Be cheerful and positive — as a founder, you set the mood.