By Jasper Smith, Vala founder and CEO
One of the key things to have come out of the Covid-19 lockdown period for me, has been how it has highlighted the fragility of human health; both physical and mental. We invest in people and those people have been challenged hard during this period, in ways that they are not used to being challenged. Founding, leading and building a business in any environment is tough, but this is something new.
In normal times, when we invest, we move into forward gear together with a vision and a plan clearly set out. But those plans were ripped up in February and March and with it went a lot of the confidence that entrepreneurs normally possess in abundance. With confidence went clarity, creativity, positivity, ability to make growth decisions and our central functions at Vala Capital were overloaded with the needs of investees for advice. Two weeks into lockdown and I already knew something needed to shift beyond just performance; I wanted to make our people feel better, feel supported and know that we are sharing the same experiences at a time when our key people were reporting a feeling of isolation, of fear, even of loneliness. It wasn't just them; it was us too.
At that time, I met CHX Performance when they invited me to take part in a podcast series they were offering to their clients and the subject of this particular podcast was "why altruism is good for business". I got an insight into how they are developing and supporting not only leadership groups but entire global organisations to be at their best, even when most people are far from there. Their content weaves cutting edge science (delivered by a really inspiring professor of cognition and neuroscience, who is about to be a global star!) and the invaluable experience of business leaders (founders of CHX) from the world of human capital.
I was inspired and intrigued, hearing how altruism is a must-have behaviour in a high-performance culture, and my first thought was, "our people need this now more than ever". So, I scoped a series of workshops for the leaders of our portfolio companies, which we delivered through June.
World Health Organisation data indicate that 80% of cases of poor mental health or mental illness worldwide involve dysregulation or disorder of mood or emotion, and it is here that CHX excel. They took us straight to why it was natural to feel the way we were feeling, but then steered us towards how to get biological control, psychological safety and the resulting shift towards positive and indeed growth mentality. Here were experts going straight to the point of mental health, cutting through a huge amount of speculation and hearsay in the media, and showing a clear route to control and a return to something closer to normality. Since completing the series last week, I have also now seen a report that confirmed a lot of what I was seeing. In a study commissioned and published this month by the BVCA:
· 90% of entrepreneurs surveyed reported signs of mental health strain
· 45% felt under constant and extreme pressure
· 78% felt running a business had affected their mental health, and an extraordinary
· 79% of founders felt lonely, compared to an average population rate of 14%.
I feel as an investor in leaders that I have an ethical obligation to do something to support our people, because this clearly is a major problem and it is clearly not going away soon.
To kick off the sessions with "what you are feeling and experiencing is a very healthy and normal response to a very abnormal situation" led to an enormous sigh of relief all around. To hear a world-leading authority explain that it is a good sign if you are experiencing fatigue, tension, confusion, anger, perhaps depression (these are normal responses) meant we could all draw a line and start from there. Exactly like the reforecasting that took place in February and March, we could draw a new base line and start to build.
And that felt great.
I could not recommend this programme more highly. CHX brought us together, they challenged us, they supported us, and they left us feeling hopeful. And when you read the media, look at the data and consider the human cost of all of this, it is hard to argue that we could have made a better investment at this time.