How Jen Gotch's Mental Health Struggles Made Her a Better Leader
The founder and creative director of Ban.do wants to help her team, customers, and people everywhere prioritize their own wellness.
Jen Gotch is not a particularly private person. The founder of Ban.do, a company beloved for its bright, sunny, fun-focused products, is know for being brutally honest about her experiences with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. She's become a mental health advocate, thanks to her rising profile and platforms that includes the podcast Jen Gotch Is Ok…Sometimes and the new book, The Upside of Being Down: How Mental Health Struggles Led to My Greatest Successes in Work and Life. Gotch sat down with Entrepreneur to talk about the new book, her personal growth as a leader, and why her mental health experiences led her to expanding the mission of her business to be about so much more than just fun.
You’ve always been upfront about how your mental health has affected your life, and this book really dives into the role it’s played in your business. How has your relationship with your mental health impacted you as a leader?
I think the self-awareness and emotional intelligence that’s been built in me over the years, just as a result of being so reflective and having gone through therapy — and also being curious about the brain and human psychology — makes me a very empathetic leader. Maybe sometimes to a fault. It also helps me identify when someone else is struggling with anxiety. Some people deal with workplaces where there’s just zero sensitivity and zero permission to have those emotions. That was never even an option at Ban.do, because I’m like, bringing all of my emotions to the workplace.
Has that evolved at all over the years?
I think now I understand what that idea of “permission” means in a professional space. I’m not always known for being the most professional — somehow I get away with it because I’m nice and funny or something [laughs]. So I’ve had a lot of personal growth, which allows me to not have a panic attack on the floor of my office, or show up kind of manic. I’m a lot more stable — but at the same time, I would never misrepresent how I feel. I had some problems with my depression last year and there were times when I was just like, I’m not going to be able to come in today. I can be a little more responsible with it.
And what does all of that ultimately mean for your team?
I now do a thing called Office Hours, where any member of our team can schedule an hour with me to talk about, really whatever. Feelings, anything. And we have Slack conversations about finding a therapist; there’s just an open conversation that’s never stigmatizing. And it’s not like forced participation, right? There are still a lot of people that choose to be very private, and that’s great. It’s just a matter of giving people permission to feel, both officially and unofficially.
That must create a lot of good trickle-down communication among your team.
Yeah, I hope so. It’s a huge passion of mine to help people that are younger than me see that it’s ok, and see what the future could look like.
When did you start thinking about writing a book about your life and business?
I’d been talking with my editor about it since 2015, but I just knew it wasn’t the right time. I was really the only person at Ban.do who, at the time, really held the information. What’s the company’s plan if I like, get hit by a car? It didn’t feel like we had one. Plus, I just felt like, why would anyone want to read this? It’s not like I’m Michelle Obama.
So fast forward a few years. What had changed within the company that made you comfortable stepping back from the day to day to work on this project?
I’d been doing the podcast Jen Gotch Is Ok…Sometimes for a while and felt like I had developed a good sense of themes and stories that resonated with people. And the foundation had really been laid for the direction I wanted Ban.do to go in. Leadership and our entire team really understood my vision and could move it forward.
And what is that vision?
We changed our tagline to, “We exist to help you be your best.” It’s really about personal betterment. We were the “fun” brand for so long, and that was just a really hard pill for me to swallow. I think fun and joy is an important part of what we do, but it’s one piece of a larger pie. I want our mission to be more holistic. So we’re talking about wellness now, and working to educate our customer on what that might look professionally, emotionally, mentally, physically.
In 2018, Ban.do introduced a line of necklaces that read “Depression,” “Anxiety,” and “Bipolar," and it was met with huge success. Was that the impetus to rethink the brand’s mission?
I already knew I wanted to focus more on wellness, and the necklaces were just a lightning bolt of an idea. Their success kind of popped the bubble and cleared a path for us to do whatever we want.
We do that via social media, and at our IRL events that we host — where we’ve expanded to talk not just about business but to also talk about anxiety, and make that conversation much broader. But product has to dictate so much of what we do because, well, we are a consumer products company! So the result is a bit more subtle, and our process now includes looking at what boxes need to be checked in order to put it through to production and feel like it really is about personal betterment. How do we make this inflatable pool floatie feel connected to a feel-better journal? It’s on us to bridge that gap.
Have customers reacted to this shift?
It’s been embraced! We have the luxury of still being very small, and because we’ve always been very real and authentic and open, this is just an extension of what we were already doing. So it resonates. It’s not a construct, and our customers know that.
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