Taking the pledge: why therapy is a valuable investment for founders.
Dasha Maggio is the Director of Founder Success at Felicis Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm that backs iconic companies across the world. Dasha previously worked at sweetgreen, a fast-casual restaurant chain, and as a management consultant. We chatted with her about her experience with therapy and why she thinks it’s vital to invest in the mental health of your team.
Tell me about why you went to therapy. What were you doing at the time?
It’s hard for me to remember exactly how it all happened, but there were a couple of factors. First, I was super stressed at my job. I felt isolated and found myself wondering if and how things would get better. I had a tough time getting out of bed in the morning, which was highly unusual for me. There were also family issues contributing to the anxiety. Someone, I think my mom, suggested that I should go see a therapist. I was living in DC at the time. So, I found a therapist on Yelp that seemed like she would be a good fit.
It was great having dedicated time to sit in a calm and quiet environment, a place to go every week and just have someone to listen to me. That helped me pull out emotions and experiences that I’d never processed before. I was born in Russia, and I think Russians are generally quite emotionally stoic.
How did therapy feel? What was the experience like?
Therapy helped me look at things that I’d been avoiding and keeping inside. My therapist guided and pushed me a little bit. It wasn’t always comforting or comfortable. I started out without much emotional range; I didn’t have a rich vocabulary for naming emotions. There was a lot of painful stuff that I didn’t want to deal with or talk about or think about or express. Ultimately, learning how to sit there, feel emotion and cry in front of someone was really valuable. Therapy taught me that it’s ok to do that and gave me the space to practice. That alone has served me very well. From childhood, I tended to see the world in black and white, so embracing small moments of releasing my control over situations has been something that I use to this day.
Did therapy teach you useful tools and if so, what were they?
Therapy offers skills that many of us were not equipped with in childhood or taught in school or as an adult. A big part of it was learning how to ask for help, learning how to rely on others, way more than ever came naturally to me. Learning how to express myself and practicing it in therapy allowed me to be more open with my family, my friends and my husband. I’m now more comfortable expressing disappointment, sadness, frustration, anger, the full spectrum of the emotional rainbow, not just the rosy parts. I’ve also learned to catch myself on the verge of shutting down. When I get frustrated or upset, I now know that if I suppress it, it’s only going to come out in an unhealthy and unproductive way later. So I let myself just feel it, and it’s ok. Also, therapy has helped smooth out my emotional landscape. I’m more resilient and better able to deal with tough moments.
Did you share going to therapy with friends or colleagues? How did they react?
I’ve probably mentioned it at work. I don’t remember the context, but I’m not secretive about it. I’m fortunate to work on a team that is very open and transparent about emotions. I have a close friend currently in therapy. We talk all the time about what’s she going through and what’s she working on; a lot of it has to do with family. I’ve also talked to other folks in venture, and several founders, who are or have been in therapy.
Does therapy make you a better team leader?
Absolutely. I believe leaders that embrace vulnerability come across as more authentic, trustworthy and, in many ways, capable. Past events that haven’t been properly processed or recurring unproductive narratives running through a person’s mind can really take a toll on emotional and mental energy, and no one can be at their best like that. You have to take care of yourself first before you can expect to effectively lead someone else (it’s that whole, “put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others” thing).
Are there patterns you see that make you think a founder should consider getting some kind of help?
That’s a good question. Every person has a different resiliency baseline and different coping mechanisms. If something about my interactions with a founder changes dramatically, that’s a sign. Sometimes you can really tell when someone is not having fun or having trouble focusing or just going off the radar. If someone is constantly e-mailing me at all hours of the night or saying they routinely get only three hours of sleep, or other little comments start to creep into conversation, comments that indicate hopelessness or self-doubt or anxiety or guilt about not spending time with family or friends — those are all signs to me that something is off. In some cases, therapy might be helpful, in some cases it might not be the answer. But it’s very important not to assume anything or probe without invitation or come off as judgemental if there’s ever a hunch. I just try to actively listen in an empathetic, open way.
I want to talk about our Pledge for Founder Well-being. What are your thoughts about it? You said you were excited.
I was excited, absolutely. I support any effort that helps destigmatize mental health, especially in the tech industry. We’ve normalized a culture of constant image crafting, always making it seem that you’re on top of your game and definitely never struggling on a personal level. I see some positive change — founders seem more comfortable expressing that not everything is going well — but we have a lot more work to do, and not just talking, but empowering folks to take action once they recognize they need help.
Do you have any advice for founders?
Someone once said, “your work is not your worth,” which I reference as an eloquent reminder for founders to strive for some separation between individual identity and company identity. It might not always feel that way, but it becomes even more important as the company scales.
Also, remember that everyone you meet is dealing with something emotionally taxing (that goes for the CEO of a billion-dollar company, and for VCs, and for anyone who might appear totally put together). Take comfort in that fact, because it means you’re not alone.
Finally, consider therapy, and other support like coaching and self-care, an investment in yourself; it’s neither a sign of weakness, nor an indulgence. If you want to do the best work of your life (and live a full life outside of work), get curious about your operating system and be courageous and humble enough to embrace support from others.