This opinion piece was originally published Sunday, November 15, 2020, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette online, which you may access here.
A Necessary Conversation
By Wayne Miller
Executive Director, The Venture Center
The countdown is on for the start of one of the most exciting weeks of the year! Monday, November 16, kicks-off Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW), which aims to remove barriers and welcome everyone to the rewarding world of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs and small business owners are the backbones of our communities and our economies, and Global Entrepreneurship Week takes the opportunity to celebrate and strengthen their critical roles. As The Venture Center’s executive director, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the most brilliant entrepreneurs I believe the world has to offer, and have been lucky enough to do it in the great state of Arkansas, which I’ll always call the “land of opportunity.”
In Arkansas and around the world, Global Entrepreneurship Week provides an opportunity to reflect on what is working in entrepreneurship and where opportunities to address current and future challenges lie. In today’s COVID-19 climate, those opportunities are abundant. Recent reports address several ways to implement a comprehensive response to entrepreneurs experiencing pandemic-driven crises, however, there remains a gaping hole where critical resources for mental health should be.
COVID-19 presents challenges and struggles for people and businesses across all industries, universally increasing stress, anxiety, and depression. Now, more than ever before, we need open conversations about mental health and wellness. Yet in the entrepreneurial community, a stigma persists and prevents awareness of the issue and access to the tools needed to combat it.
Elon Musk famously said of entrepreneurship, “The reality is great highs, terrible lows, and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.” In my work with entrepreneurs, I’ve seen them living Mr. Musk’s experience. The highs are incredibly exciting, and the bigger the risk, the bigger the high. The same is true for the lowest of lows, though. When taking a significant risk doesn’t pay off, the lows are devastating and can create financial and emotional holes from which escape feels insurmountable. Add a global pandemic to the mix and the potential for tragedy soars.
The sheer number of entrepreneurs at risk of a mental health crisis tells us a special effort to address mental health is critical, and those numbers are pre-pandemic. A Michael Freeman study published in 2015 revealed that a whopping 75% of sampled entrepreneurs dealt with significant mental health challenges from ADHD to depression. In August, the CDC released findings that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety disorders have tripled, while the number of people suffering from depression has quadrupled. Those numbers are daunting, but they are not insurmountable.
To tackle this growing crisis, we have to start by talking about and destigmatizing mental health struggles. The Entrepreneurial Support Organizations (ESOs) in Arkansas are equipped to foster those conversations. We are not mental health experts, but entrepreneurs are our business and they are our community. Together, we can build and strengthen communal spaces where people can make meaningful connections and have honest, open conversations about how they are faring. Just this year, The Venture Center hosted a mindfulness meditation workshop during which attendees felt safe sharing stressors affecting them. The simple act of having a place and time to focus on one aspect of wellness created a conversation that normalized openness about stress and provided a connection that played a role in relieving that stress.
While mindfulness and openness are essential to fostering conversations around mental health awareness, strengthening the support community is another critical effort. This week, ESOs around the world are working together to do just that. Here in Arkansas, The Venture Center, Innovate Arkansas, Conductor, and the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center are producing the first GEW Central Arkansas Pitch Event. We’ll support nine entrepreneurs who will win prizes through this event, yes, but who will also make connections and expand their entrepreneurial community, hopefully lessening today’s heavy burdens.
While events like the GEW Pitch event help struggling entrepreneurs, an added level of support and guidance can be instrumental in helping keep heads above water. At least monthly, I talk with small business owners looking for mentors. They need a person in their field to brainstorm with or get feedback from and who has only their best interest at heart.
Mentorship is a highly sought after resource for entrepreneurs in all stages of business development because having someone to bounce ideas off can relieve the anxiety many entrepreneurs are experiencing today. And mentors can offer something that friends and family might not be able to – a pure understanding of what it’s like to start or grow a business and provide a living, breathing example of a person who has weathered any number of crises the entrepreneurial journey presents.
Entrepreneurs at every level possess so many of the same core qualities. From Arkansas and Amsterdam to San Francisco and Singapore, small business owners and entrepreneurs possess seemingly superhuman amounts of courage, tenacity, curiosity, and independence. The call to prioritize mental health and wellness doesn’t change any of that. Rather, mental health awareness and growing the availability of resources is likely to encourage more people to step into the world of entrepreneurship.
Your input and feedback are vital as we work to create more awareness for our small business owners and entrepreneurs. Please tell us how you’ve handled challenges related to mental health and wellness by emailing us firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s have that necessary conversation, and let’s not wait another day.