Vladimira sits on the advisory boards of a number of impact businesses including Colorintech, Prospero World and angel-invests, including NUR, a mindfulness platform for the Arab world. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to entrepreneurship as a force of good, entrepreneurial mental health and opportunities across emerging markets. She often coaches businesses leaders on how to design healthy and high-performing cultures and she spent a significant time in growing the entrepreneurial ecosystems in Central and Eastern Europe, London and East Africa. She has also engaged in public policy-making at global forums including the European Parliament and the United Nations. She is currently the Founder of Neem. Below are the edited excerpts from Manager Innovation’s recent conversation with Vladimira Briestenska.
Yaruq Nadeem: How did you get to the topic of mental health?
Vladimira Briestenska: Well, it was really attractive in the beginning. Working in London with struggling entrepreneurs, my role was to support them in the journey of building their businesses. Business talks were kept on the table but in more private sessions, they wanted to talk about how they were doing emotionally and how tiring was the journey for them. In short, I was the first safe space for most of them to be talking about it. While no business curriculum talked about mental well-being, I knew I could work on this because this actually was a bug!
Yaruq Nadeem: How was your journey from Slovakia to Pakistan?
Vladimira Briestenska: I was forever inspired by entrepreneurship and the power that it possessed in solving problems. I was lucky enough to be in Africa and work with entrepreneurs struggling to change real people’s lives. That is where I knew I wanted to be. Pakistan wasn’t originally on my list. My husband proposed the opportunity of working with JazzCash on social entrepreneurship. The hunger for looking beyond the obvious was what motivated me to continue, and now this is my 5th year here. Starting from JazzCash, we paved our own way to building something better.
Yaruq Nadeem: How many lives have you guys impacted through your startup (NEEM)?
Vladimira Briestenska: Probably 5. The reason because for the last 2 years we pivoted to another business as well. The financial well-being vision is not that popular in Pakistan and so we knew we had to go with something else too side by side. COVID-19 too was another push we received. Now we collaborate with companies out there so as to provide inspiration to other companies. All of it takes time to develop, we’re building teams and technologies, so quite soon if God wills, we shall be out in the market.
Yaruq Nadeem: In your observation, how common are mental health issues amongst the founders of startups?
Vladimira Briestenska: It’s massive. There are 582 million entrepreneurs around the globe. Out of these about 72% have directly or indirectly faced the issue, but we so skillfully manage to place it under the cover.
Yaruq Nadeem: Why do you think the problem is more common amongst the founders as compared to the employees?
Vladimira Briestenska: When we think about the life of an entrepreneur, the dedication and impact you create in the lives of people are all that come to our minds. But alongside that, there is an exuberant amount of pressure that comes in the life of a founder. An individual founder has so much to see in the journey from transitioning from a job to a startup of one’s own. Approval support and financial instability are major tension makers. The direct impact of conditions around you on your work often leaves you in self-doubt, this is what makes the journey tough. It always isn’t easy behind the doors.
Yaruq Nadeem: Do you see some trends as to the mental problems varying from one type of founder to another, in terms of their backgrounds?
Vladimira Briestenska: There are commonalities that people face when beginning the journey. When you’ve embarked on the journey, finding a suitable partner is yet another trouble. In hard moments, tough decisions are difficult to be made alone. An emotional toll comes with fundraising. Investors too invite trouble on their own, questioning your identity as a whole. What we’re trying to do here, is help put emotions on the table with our startup. So yes, bringing up an entire idea of your startup out there involves many grief moments that also indirectly linked to the types of backgrounds.
Yaruq Nadeem: In your interactions with entrepreneurs, how are they working to solve mental health problems? Why is this subject considered taboo?
Vladimira Briestenska: Business magazines talk about success only. Headline after headline brings about glamor only. This is what does not invite me to speak about my problem then. It’s good that we’re beginning to see change by attending sessions as such. As to what I’ve seen, most entrepreneurs find peers who walked the same journey and tell them about their troubles so as to seek support. A mentor or a fellow entrepreneur is what I would highly recommend, do not be alone on this journey.
Yaruq Nadeem: What can founders do on a day-to-day level to prevent themselves from depression and stress?
Vladimira Briestenska: Start from yourself. Give yourself a moment and identify your key stressors and energizers. Practice solitude. Reflect on yourself and find a support system, no matter how stigmatized that sounds now. Therapists are an investment, wherein communication does wonders to you. Be it a mentor, a peer, or a therapist but the key is to talk about it to someone.
Yaruq Nadeem: How has your experience as a female founder been in this male-dominating business environment?
Vladimira Briestenska: I think entrepreneurship is now shifting. It wasn’t super easy but I address things that happen to challenge my identity. Despite being men dominated, I think it is equally challenging for them as well due to the difference in how each one of you is built. I think verbalizing is the key. I was lucky because the men I worked with are people I know and also equally woke and open to differences.
Yaruq Nadeem: How does a founder identify that they now need external help and support?
Vladimira Briestenska: This comes with the sorts of challenges you’re facing. When you know the answer is not with you, it is useful to find someone and listen to what he has to say for you. They will give you more questions, but through that, you will find answers for yourself. Just do what that inner voice in you says. If you lose yourself once, it takes a long time to get back. So nurture yourself well while you’re at it.
Yaruq Nadeem: What advice would you give to people, as to how to deal with others, keeping in mind their well-being? How important is it to be emotionally intelligent?
Vladimira Briestenska: If you’re not in a good place yourself, you’ll be detrimental to other people’s well-being as well. Try to switch the word selfish to self-care. Take care of yourself, and show up for others in their times of need. Taking an off for your mental health is no issue, try to lead by example to your people.
Yaruq Nadeem: Tell us the story of The Naked Podcast.
Vladimira Briestenska: As aforementioned, I knew mental health was a topic that was not talked about so I had to take the initiative. When we looked around to see who is doing what, believe me not many are talking about it, and consider it a stigma. We created Naked Podcast, where we had a Pakistani female entrepreneur talk about her high struggle. This was because we wanted to get out to the local founders and talk about the people behind the business and not the business itself. Anxiety, depression, disorders, and grief, all are what we openly talk about. This is not about self-promotion; we offer hope to people who are in dire straits. Some speakers also said that this was the first time they ever talked about this topic, and I think this is an achievement. The feeling of not being alone is the need of the hour.
Yaruq Nadeem: Are you looking to invest in similar startups as the one now?
Vladimira Briestenska: I’m very passionate about women founders, so am more than willing to find and invest in them. Be it, women, themselves, or their products, I will be around this core area. Always go after investors that give you more than money. Because money may come and go but the value is what matters. Not every investor is one who offers you a safe space, in turn helping you out on your bad days.
Yaruq Nadeem: How can entrepreneurs reach out to you in terms of their mental health queries?
Vladimira Briestenska: A conversation is what matters. If you have a story to share, reach out. If you come with a genuine authentic ask, I will make time out for you no matter what. Whatever way you could benefit from our help, is what I’ll pave way for.
Yaruq Nadeem: What advice would you give the audience to help deal with the economic downsizing?
- Have a conversation with your team, and address their ambiguities. Transparency is what matters! Offer them the opportunity to ask questions.
- Think about your runway. Try to squeeze your expenses instead of downsizing. Talk it out with your investors, do not keep it within yourself.