This interview series features inspiring female entrepreneurs who have launched and run successful businesses. Through our peers’ experiences, we can learn practical lessons and insights to empower us on our entrepreneurial paths. Crucially, storytelling de-risks entrepreneurship so we believe it is an essential pillar in closing the opportunity gap for female founders.
Firstly, tell us a bit about you?
My name is Laurel Anne Stark and I am the CEO and founder of resurgo.co, the only web-app designed to support self-employed women to succeed. Earlier this year, resurgo.co released the first-ever report looking into the state of female entrepreneur mental health, which showed that entrepreneurial women face an above-average risk of mental illness due to gender obstacles, isolation and feelings of being overwhelmed—in addition to the usual stressors of self-employment—all of which is impacting their success. Having personally battled with, and recovered from, bankruptcy, burnout, and alcoholism during my 18 years of self-employment in tech, Il, a passionate mental health advocate, am now striving to take action in order to address the mental health crisis plaguing the world’s innovators.
Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea?
When I read “Are Entrepreneurs Touched With Fire?,” the research report that came out of Berkeley University in 2015, I had a sense that my own experience slid into perspective – it all suddenly made sense. The report found entrepreneurs are directly affected by mental illness at a rate just under three times the global average.
I’ve been self-employed since 2003 as a business and marketing consultant and over that time, I’ve had my own significant battles with mental illness including alcoholism, burnout and bankruptcy. I am also a survivor of abuse so I manage complex PTSD as well.
When I read that study, I was running a digital marketing agency and I was married with three step kids and a dog. I was struggling. I was trying so hard to do it all and be it all but ultimately felt like I wasn’t enough. Frequent panic attacks, persistent and disruptive negative thoughts and sleepless nights were normal for myself and I discovered, also for other women. The entrepreneurs I mentored and many of my female clients shared the same experiences. Managing anxiety, depression, overwhelm, substance misuse and more seemed a job unto itself. These obstacles significantly impacted our performance and ability to grow our businesses.
When I read that report, I felt like a lightbulb went on. If we could access adequate mental health support, we would then remove a significant obstacle to our success. That’s why I began to search for mental health support specifically for entrepreneurs. Amazingly, I found nothing. My assistant continued the search, and after 20 hours of additional research she found the same—there weren’t any mental health resources specifically for entrepreneurs. I was dismayed. How Incredibly shortsighted! Entrepreneurs, after all, are responsible for non-trivial contributions to the economy. We create jobs and innovative solutions to every-day problems. Why didn’t these resources exist? Why wasn’t there adequate support for the mental health and wellbeing of such a valuable and vulnerable part of the population?
I continued my research and found statistics that still shock me. Domestic violence rates are up, the gender wage gap is still an issue and women hold only 29% of leadership positions worldwide. I had naively thought that gender parity had been achieved, feminism had won and we could all just go about our lives.
My research has found that women who are self-employed are not only at three times greater risk of being affected by mental illness—as per the Berkeley study—but in addition, must face, manage and overcome substantial gender-based obstacles. Less access to wealth, less safety and less recourse in the workplace and everyday life are just a handful of the many barriers women were faced with. I wondered, what if we looked at these separate stats together? Based on my experience and what I saw in the thousands of female entrepreneurs I’d worked with over the years, I realised that if a self-employed woman was experiencing even a few of the obstacles noted in my research, at the same time, she’d be suffering a deep, lonely, mental health crisis.
That’s what led me to initiate research into female entrepreneur mental health and create resurgo.co to provide a solution to this vulnerable community.
What was the moment that everything changed for you? Describe that moment when you decided to fully commit to your idea and the first few steps you took to make it possible.
I was working on a book to address the topic of self employed women and mental health. I was about 75,000 words in when, for the first time, I spoke about my own mental health journey publicly at a conference. Another one of the conference sessions was about pitching investors. I was sitting in the audience when the thought came to me that it would be much easier for women if the book was an app that they could have with them all the time so they could start to feel better and do better much faster than if they were to absorb the information through a book.
A few months later, I applied to Pitch at the Beach (PATB), an event that connects investors and start-up founders in Tulum. There were over 270 applicants and only 24 were accepted to pitch. Incredibly, resurgo.co was one of them. Fast forward and there I was, standing barefoot in the sand on my birthday, pitching my business to a crowd of LATAM Venture Capitalists, Angel Investors and world-renowned business people—including Zev Siegl, the man who co-founded what has become the Starbucks we know today. It was like a dream. I still can’t believe it happened. I met some incredible people, received honest advice and made valuable connections—all without shoes on, which is very much not how these events are typically run.
What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?
The first challenge I had was to “show traction”—one of the requirements for applying to PATB was that the idea had proof that people were interested in it. I knew I didn’t have time to get users one by one so I reached out to my network of women who had founded, or were leading businesses that served women and self-employed women, and I asked them to “subscribe” to a year of resurgo. Collectively, their member base was just under 500k and that helped me show PATB enough traction to be invited to pitch.
What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
Shortly after we published our research report last year, I got asked to participate in a 20 min TV interview that would be syndicated worldwide. That’s when I knew for sure I was on to something.
Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?
resurgo.co is self- and community-funded. I’ve been funding the business myself, but in September 2020, we raised $14,000 via crowdfunding. The decision to crowd fund came from several objectives. I wanted to further validate the idea on a larger scale and see if people would literally buy into it. Even Google has developed expensive apps that no one uses. I didn’t want that to happen to resurgo.co. Additionally, it gave us a fantastic vehicle for marketing and promotion, a reason to tell everyone what I am doing with resurgo.co.
What has been your best investment?
Investing in building a team. One thing I know about women is that we work better together and the team we have now is the reason we have been as successful as we are. They’re brilliant, dedicated and from diverse backgrounds from all over the world. Together, we are getting great results.
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us?
Some of the feedback I got from my very first pitch was that I came off as angry and the pitch was far too focused on the problem instead of the solution. The feedback was hard to swallow, but I think it was unavoidable in that the idea needed to progress from the problem to the solution. I needed to have a not- so-great first pitch to be able to improve and I learned that, regardless of what problem we’re solving and how personal it may be for me, I need to remember that my pitch is only as great as it’s received by the audience.
What’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem and what in your mind needs to change?
My personal experience reflects the data. We’re under-represented across the board, in leadership positions, the bro-culture (especially in gaming) drives women out of the industry, and women-led companies are underfunded despite out-performing their male counterparts. Women in the startup space are critically under-resourced and stretched too thin. We all want to help each other, but the help needs to come from the demographic that is getting 95% of investment dollars. We need the help of men, as allies, as investors, as advocates. We need more women as investors and sitting on boards.
Here’s what I think needs to happen:
- We need to conduct more empirical studies on the needs and experiences of female entrepreneurs. This is both to give us a voice and to create more interest from governments to support our unique needs and potential contributions to society and the economy.
- Given that mental health challenges reportedly impede women’s success, we need to include mental health assessments and provide mental health-specific support in existing business support programs for women in tech. Women need to feel well in order to do well.
- Make mental health support for self-employed women more accessible at either low or no-cost to help them cope with the gender-based barriers in addition to the stressors of entrepreneurship. My research shows that women are disproportionately more prone to poor mental health than the global average and it’s one of the leading factors in preventing female founders from scaling their firms at the same rates as male-owned businesses.
- We need to stop placing the burden on women to report and campaign for better treatment by engaging corporate and government leadership with male mentorship to resolve the issue of harassment in the workplace and enact strict no-tolerance policies for men who assault or harass women.
- Remedy the lack of universal child care by providing low cost or free child care for self-employed women, in all sectors, and redistribute some portion of the burden of care to the state.
- We need more proactive, corporate and government leadership to contact, interview and connect women entrepreneurs with the programs that are available. If we had caseworker-style support, it would be so much easier to navigate all the red tape and bureaucracy that prevents women from accessing the support they need.
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own business?
That we must take care of our mental and emotional health, which is nearly impossible without support from mentors and a strong community. We need other people around us who “get it.” Without these women in my corner, I never would have made it this far or for this long. Self-employment will literally take everything you’ve got, and that’s why we have to recreate the supportive structures that help us succeed. That means having the right people in our corner, the right self-care infrastructure in place and access to the right tools. It took me ages to learn how to set up these supports for myself. I had to learn the hard way how to be self-employed without sacrificing my mental health—and it’s still a work in progress! I want to save other women the kind of trouble I went through, and get them access to everything they need, all in one place and always available.
Have you had any role models or mentors along the way?
Yes, several. Mita Carriman is my number one inspiration. She’s one of the under 1% of WOC that has received funding for her start-up, Adventurely. She is one of the strongest, smartest women I’ve ever met in my whole life and inspires me to keep fighting for equality.
I’ve also been lucky to count Brenda Mahoney, the founder of the first Paint and Sip business in Alberta, Canada, as one of my mentors. She has helped me with all the things I didn’t know I needed help with, from showing me that it’s possible to do business with a big heart and teaching me how to filter out multiple competing priorities to sending me new business and introducing me to key people. Leading my example, she’s shown me what vulnerable leadership looks like, and has always believed in me. Brenda’s honesty about her struggles has also given me permission to look at my own. Most crucially, her help demonstrated the value of receiving support from a peer and the value of building authentic community with other self-employed women, and that’s why connecting female entrepreneurs is at the heart of the resurgo.co mission so we can support and learn from each other through the common challenges we face as self-employed women.
What was your biggest learning of 2020?
Health is #1. My biggest challenge with resurgo.co is to not sacrifice my mental health building a mental health app. Crowdfunding was an incredible amount of work, and doing so during a pandemic made a difficult thing even more difficult, mentally. After we finished crowdfunding, I felt so depleted and re-focused on my own health. I’ve been seeing a naturopath and I’ve cut out caffeinated coffee and have made some difficult choices personally, to prioritise my health.
With the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Our goal is to bring resurgo.co to one million self-employed women by 2030. If all goes well, we’ll be halfway there by 2025. I’d also like to finish that book someday, although I may need more than five years!
What books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?
- A Woman’s Book of Life by Joan Borysenko
- The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
- Belonging by Toko-pa Turner
- Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward
- Shrill by Lindy West
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
Community and support is key to your success, and you must be willing to accept help. According to my research, isolation is one of the contributing factors to poor mental health, which is why having at least three people you can tell the truth to about how you’re doing, and not relying entirely on yourself is really important if you want to start a business.
As women entrepreneurs, it’s also important to remember that systemic bias is real so we don’t blame ourselves for the gender-based struggles we inevitably face when building a business. We have to work twice as hard for less than half the recognition and compensation, which is why recognising what is really impacting our performance and getting support for it before it comes an issue is so important.
Finally and perhaps most obviously in my case, make sure to take care of your mental and physical health. Limit your screen time, go offline, and don’t try to do it all at once. If we’re burnt out, we won’t be able to make the same kind of impact.
Where can we find you?
About your author
Leah Williams is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.
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