Isolation in Entrepreneurship Is Real. At Business Events, Women Need Empathetic Connections.
The language of entrepreneurship is about strength, power, leadership. Rarely do we hear terms such as empathy, vulnerability or isolation in our lexicon. That should change. As professionals, entrepreneurs and especially as people, we are not alone in our struggles. By fostering business environments and events that encourage true connections, particularly among women and others on the fringes, we can find support.
In my career, I have held senior roles in teams at large, publicly traded technology companies and startups, conducted mergers, acquisitions, layoffs and even an IPO. I've known pressure. I've always embraced it and even thrived on it.
Entrepreneurship is a different animal. Sometimes, it can be incredibly lonely, even isolating for women. It's something we don't talk about. We worry our boards or customers may view us as incapable, that our employees may perceive us as weak.
Turns out it's not uncommon. Gallup in 2014 reported that more than 10 percent of business owners said a physician or nurse at some point told them they have depression, a higher rate than for construction workers, miners or managers. In 2012, the polling firm found that U.S. entrepreneurs are more likely than other workers -- 45 percent vs. 42 percent -- to report experiencing stress a lot of the day "yesterday."
Despite added pressures and proclivity toward depression, societal norms tell us that the personal and professional obstacles we face shouldn't impact our work, attitude or focus. Recently, however, it has become increasingly clear to me that external appearances of stoicism and strength are just that -- appearances. What we could use more of as entrepreneurs are authentic bonds that reinforce real internal strength through empathy.
How an everyday event became extraordinary
I came to this realization while attempting to process the recent suicide of a dear friend's son, which came within days of the shocking deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. In the midst of the fallout from these tragic events, I was thrust back into "work mode" for a conference overseas. I attend, speak at or curate dozens of industry events each year, but traveling and working during this period was not easy.
Regrettably, I typically do not spend quality time with other attendees at events, but this time I did, and it was eye-opening. As part of a 16-woman cohort invited as guests of the Mayor of London for Tech Week, I was among people who got to where we are today because we've emerged stronger in the face of adversity, sometimes merely maintaining the façade of invulnerability. The trip was extraordinary because our small contingent of entrepreneurs fostered true connections, in part by being honest about our struggles.
We were afforded moments to let our guards down and talk, and I found that each of these women confronts challenges in her C-level role that mirror some of mine. Hiring, product evolution, customer relationships, fundraising, scaling and difficult board or executive team dynamics -- in facing these obstacles, none of us is alone.
Being in this like-minded group setting, I was privileged to learn about many of these women on a personal level, too. We all have individual battles. I've had serious health scares and experienced moments of despair as an entrepreneur. Many of us live regularly on the road away from loved ones, and most have trouble finding the time to just ... breathe.
Three ways event organizers can foster connections through empathy
I've thought about how my positive, empathetic event experience might be repeated. There are ways we can create more open, accepting business environments that don't have to be touchy-feely -- just real. Here are a few ideas for creating empathetic connections at business events:
Incorporate empathy in event content. Organizers can address the stress of entrepreneurship in event content by planning a general panel discussion about coping with everyday issues that affect business leaders and decision makers. Or, they might include a keynote during lunch with an expert in mental health, stress relief and developing coping skills in a business setting. Maybe there's room for a mental wellness discussion before or after that morning yoga session.
Foster intimate moments. By arranging seating for lunch or networking sessions in a way that coaxes smaller groups of two to four people to sit together, event organizers can foster more intimate conversations.
Inspire honest conversation. Event planners can inspire honest conversations by including discussion cards with questions that spark real talk, perhaps along with the usual conference bag swag or on lunch tables. Questions such as, "What's the toughest decision you had to make last week involving an employee or colleague?" or, "Work-life balance -- is there such a thing?" could prompt some interesting discussion!
The next time I attend a business conference or event, I hope to build on what I learned in London. I aim to see through the surface of strong handshakes and industry jargon, past the mass of networking opportunities, beyond the business card and into the real person. By letting our guards down, we can create a more authentic and empathetic business environment, one connection at a time.