I was thrilled that over 30 brilliant founders of charities and social enterprises gathered in London for our November Social Founder Network Forum at EY London.
We heard Michelle Morgan speak, in her PJs, about her social founder story, and over tears, laughter and a delicious breakfast, we discussed the vital issues raised by her incredibly open, honest and stimulating talk.
From EY's beautiful rooms overlooking the Tower of London, it was hard not to remember the intense partnerships begun in love and war, passion and social change, faith and kingdoms that had ended in a boat-ride through Traitors' Gate to imprisonment beheading, fire and gruesome deaths! Maybe our lives as social founders aren't so intense after all!
1. Take care of your mental health
Michelle was incredibly open with us. She had had 15 highly successful years as co-founder of Livity, winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, and EY Social Entrepreneur of the Year, with a turnover of £millions, and powerful social impact: "the joys of being a social founder in the first years gave me an absolute sense of purpose and mission - and freedom," she told us.
But 15 years in something changed. Stress, anxiety, even paranoia and suspicion, were starting to intrude, with symptoms of both physical and mental ill-health, that she now knows she took far too long to recognise and address.
Dealing with a major new investor, she had what she thought was “investment headache”; she was “plate-spinning”. As her symptoms grew more intense, she had flagged to her board: “I’m a bit worried about my mental health…." But no-one wanted to address this:
“It was easier to talk to my board about heavy periods than my mental health," Michelle told us, “and I was complicit in that. We never talked about it again.”
Is it classic founder behaviour that Michelle ignored these symptoms? She thinks so, and even when she tried to raise them, her board seemed reluctant to discuss and address her mental health - it was taboo, too difficult.
I wonder how common this is across our network of social founders and their boards? Whose responsibility is it to raise these issues? The founder? The Chair of the board? A trusted trustee? A member of staff or co-founder? Maybe even an investor or donor?
How taboo are mental health issues at leadership and board level?
Are stress and mental ‘unwellness’ more common in the charity and social sector we wondered? One of our founders thought so:
“The expectations around a purpose-led business can make it feel even more emotional.”
But is this so, or is it that social founders are just more open and honest than commercial founders about the tough times we all go through?
“I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t see the future, and was not feeling great about the past,” Michelle told us. “Then anxiety became depression: anxiety was feeling everything - with depression, I felt nothing.”
Reading Ruby Wax’s book Frazzled made Michelle realise it was depression – “I had a ‘that’s me’ moment. Suddenly, what I felt had a name and an expression for what I was feeling – and it was my first step to recovery.”
Like so many social founders, out of adversity comes incredible strength, creativity and solutions. In section 5 below, ‘Starting Again', read more about Michelle’s journey out of depression into her exciting and original new venture: "Pjoys – where brilliance meets madness.”
2. Make time for yourself, and define clear boundaries.
There was much discussion around the best ways to keep mentally and physically strong as a founder. "Make time for yourself" was one of the strongest pieces of advice from our social founders:
“As social founders we are reacting to multiple expectations from others all around us - even our mothers-in-law put high expectations on our cooking!” commented Zahra Ibrahim, founder of the Excel Women’s Centre.
"It is key to have a relationship with yourself, to make time for that. You need to know yourself to know where and who you are… Keep listening to yourself.” advised Zahra. She too identified with Michelle’s story: “When I was in my pyjamas was the only time I could step out of the pressure!”
“We make our organisation our identity, and then there is huge stigma around failure,” added another founder. “Try to uncouple your own self-worth from the success of your venture. Define clear and healthy boundaries between who you are, where you end and where your business begins.”
Mike Dixon, the charismatic founder of Whizz-Kidz openly talked about how he, like many founders, had suffered from ‘hands-up syndrome’ - saying yes to everything, taking too much on. Many years ago someone had pointed this out to him – advising him to “just do one thing”. So he set up Whizz-Kidz and stopped everything else – “It was brilliant, for me and for Whizz-Kidz.”
“You are more important than your work - take care of yourself first.” advised another founder.
3. Nurture your co-founder relationship
“Having a co-founder is in many ways like having a spouse," commented one of our founders during our discussion, "and keeping that relationship on track is vital to the success of the enterprise.”
I was impressed by the honesty and depth of feeling coming from our founders in the room about their relationships with their co-founders. Roughly a third of the founders at our Forum have or had co-founders, and in many cases this had ended up as a tough experience. Across the room there was talk of grief, of loss, even of PTSD, after a co-founder relationship had become too difficult, or broken-down. There were positive stories too, and the high energy, mutual support and complementary skills of a co-founder were cited as an asset when that partnership works well.
A common theme was ‘unequal division of labour’. One founder called in a professional mediator "before the relationship became too impossible", a successful decision, but, he advised “Be careful which mediator you choose - pick a professional!”
Another founder advised having professional co-founder ‘pre-marriage counselling’ before even starting to work together to launch a new venture:
“Having early and honest discussions around shared vision and aligned values with your co-founder is vital," she advised. "Relationship 'retreats' with a facilitator are also valuable around major pressure points.”
“Always assume your co-founder is reasonable and means the best!” said one founder, and “Respect your co-founder, and put yourself in their shoes,” added another.
Do not underestimate the joys and challenges of jointly co-founding a social business:
“When you found something with someone, that is where your life is going…”
4. Letting go is liberating!
After Michelle’s highly personal story of leaving Livity, there was much discussion about how and when to step down, to leave. “Letting go is liberating!” said one seasoned founder.
Michael Norton, founder of the Directory of Social Change and CIVA advised “Leaving is a good thing. Creating the idea, getting started are what founders are good at. Staying for ever is not always a good thing. When I start something I like to find somebody brilliant to to run it. My key success factor is then how quickly I am thrown out. This means that the person I have chosen is in full control, fully confident, and no longer needs me. I can then go on to do something else.”
I wonder how easy that is though. Certainly for many of us we don’t know how our organisations will evolve, nor how we as founders will evolve, or how our roles can change. We had one founder in the room who had stayed as CEO for over 30 years, growing her organisation to a £37 million high impact charity and social venture.
What are your thoughts on how, when and if founders should leave?
Add your comments and questions below.
5. Starting again: you can do it!
We loved Michelle’s story about the genesis of her new social venture Pjoys after the traumatic months of physical and mental ill-health:
"I gave myself permission to think gently: if I did it all over again, what would I do?”
“I’m one of the poster-kids for a purpose-led business. Do something you love, I was told by so many of my friends - but I had depression so I didn’t love anything - except my pyjamas!!!”
And then from that utterly low point, what Michelle describes as 'Where brilliance meets madness’ was born. She would go on to create a new social venture selling the most beautiful designer pyjamas, while giving messages of mental health and wellbeing:
“I’m using pyjamas as the Trojan Horse to give messages of hope and help.” she told us, between tears and laughter.
At the very start of her journey, and now having just successfully raised £60,000 through Crowdfunder, Michelle knows it isn’t easy to start again:
“My new venture @Pjoys has moments of absolute joy, but also sometimes feels so hard, sometimes lonely and frightening.”
Those founder joys and challenges don’t go away, that is part of the founder drive, the “Founder DNA” as Michael Norton calls it.
We will watch with excitement and admiration as Michelle’s new social business – “Pjoys: where brilliance meets madness” - takes off on its journey.
And Michelle’s closing words of advice to our social founder forum?
“Remember that RECOVERY is the message, and the most likely outcome of a crisis.”
Read more about Michelle's story in our November Feature.
Our social founders shared practical advice, alongside stories of challenges, successes, and new starts. Their passion for the organisations they have founded shines through.
What are your own thoughts, questions and experiences about being a founder of a charity or social enterprise?
Do you agree with our Social Founders’ advice in this blog?
Thank you so much for reading this blog, and for your engagement and interest in the Social Founder Network.
I'll look forward to your comments, questions and advice, and hope to see you soon