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Burn-out: a cost of startup ambition

Burn-out is more common than you might think. It’s particularly prominents in startups, whether they’re Silicon Valley or Auckland based. OneUpOneDown mentor and mentee, Dil Khosa, found this out first hand when she hit ‘the wall’ and burned out, causing her to take a year off to recuperate and focus on her health. In this blog, Dil gets honest, sharing her experience with burn-out, how she recovered (but also didn’t at the same time) and found her new mission for Athena X Ventures

What is your job title/line of work?

Technology startup operator. Founder of Athena X Ventures.

Coming from a biotech background, I have worked across the startup ecosystem from fundraising to startup building. Right now, I am building a digital incubator for womxn and over-looked founders in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). I am also currently the StartupGenome ambassador for New Zealand. 

Why did you sign up for OneUpOneDown? 

I love its mission! At sign up time, I was also looking to meet new ambitious and interesting women, globally, which this platform allowed me to do. I am currently working with a mentee whom I adore and we share similar values, and are totally hitting it off! Beyond this, I believe we can be making lifelong friends through the program. 

Tell us about your background!

Biotech to SaaS? Yes that is me. 

I had a major educational pivot when I completed my biotech degree and decided to get into tech startups of any kind. There was an opportunity to start building operations from scratch at a newly formed company called Parrot Analytics. I loved the team, considering the founder was my friend from university and the technologists were uber-intelligent! I loved TV and loved big data. Those two elements made it all appealing to me. We were about 5 people back in 2014, at the Icehouse, and then we grew the team up from there around the globe. 

In early 2019, I hit ‘the wall’ – I burned out

With no other option but to resign to look after my health and sanity, I did so and started my healing journey. 

The raw part of this is that I ended up at ER a few times over the 6 months after resigning due to panic attacks, major chronic illness (my body was giving way), and suicidal attempts due to the deep depression I fell into. When my identity was tied to work, I felt worthless without it.

Once I started to get back on my feet, I got an opportunity to work part-time at Mentemia during my healing year. The team, I just adore! Their app is now available to all kiwis for free – it’s about looking after our mental wellbeing every day. The time I spent there was truly re-energising and healing! As I mentioned to them, I started to feel better mentally, by being there with the team and perhaps just by osmosis from what we were working on! 

Pre-pandemic, I left Mentemia as I planned to do some traveling (I was envisioning summertime in small towns in Italy with a ‘Call me by your name’ vibe), take some time to get creative, and work on my project Athena X. However, as everyone knows, this did not quite work out. So here I am, re-adjusting mindset and mental health. While trying to re-imagine what Athena X Ventures is going to look like in a new world and economy. 

Burn-out can be quite a common occurrence for people working in high growth startups. We have a number of women in the OneUpOneDown community who have experienced it, stepped away from tech startups in need of a break, and are now working out what comes next. Can you tell us about your experience with this?

I agree with this observation and have myself learned, since sharing with the world my burn-out journey, that other women face this more than men in tech startups. From Silicon Valley to New Zealand. It does not discriminate. 

For one, we need to start educating everyone that, as of 2019, the World Health Organisation now refers to burn-out as “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” (World Health Organisation, International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual). So it is real and it is serious. 

The more I spoke up about my burn out experience, the more women started to reach out to me saying they were either experiencing the same thing or on the verge of getting to that point. I found this interesting. So I started to read up more on other women’s experience in tech and startups and I found this was a common phenomena amongst women (Read: Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner; Brotopia by Emily Chang) 

The startup world has looked up to Silicon Valley as a functioning ecosystem, which was built on a system of ‘hustle’ culture. 100+ hour weeks, sleeping at work, etc etc. It was what was believed to have brought us the likes of Google, Amazon, Paypal. Elon Musk is constantly talking about his long work hours that are needed to ‘get shit done’. I got sucked in! In all honesty, this doesn’t work in today’s world, it does not work for New Zealand, it especially does not work for women. The system is still patriarchal and does not accommodate women. So we have to help change the game

I think losing talent to burn-out is the biggest risk to our startup ecosystem, hence my major focus right now on helping founders address it face on, build their tool kit to handle this, and then build resilient and healthy teams. 

What do you think is the key reason you burnt out?

I worked too hard and too many hours, thinking I had to keep up with the startup ‘hustle’ culture to ‘win’. Even when I was not at work I was thinking about work, being ‘online’ and about my team. I have generalised anxiety, so you can imagine I was constantly on edge. Too much workload, too much anxiety and not enough balance, boundaries and self-care. Now, we have known risk factors that lead to burn-out at work. When I look back I realise I could tick them all off as I was heading toward that cliff’s edge. 

What would you have done differently, knowing what you know now?

Change my team’s work culture and ensure there are triage points for those burn-out risk factors above.  

I would’ve gone to my doctors and therapy earlier! I would’ve not held in thinking it would come across as weak if I opened up about my struggles at work and to my team, and with family. Even having a coach can help founders. They can help challenge your negative and/or distorted from reality thoughts, guiding you toward the right action and be there to bounce ideas off – from life or business advice to offering a different perspective. A coach who comes to mind is Daisy Moore.  

I would put life above work now. Anyday. 

What I mean by that is I would change my priorities. My family, my holistic health, my enjoyment of life all come before work. It might seem counterintuitive, but I find that once I am well in those areas I am more creative. I may work less hours but I feel more productive and make an incremental impact. I manage my energy better, so if I feel super tired I listen to my body and have a nap. TURNS OUT I LOVE SLEEP. 

How have you recovered from the experience? (What have you needed, and what new working or personal care principles have you incorporated into your life?)

I was thinking this today as I reflect on the year of healing from burn-out. 

And you know, I have NOT recovered. In some ways, yes I am in a better mental state now than I was a year ago. But my body is more sensitive to stress and anxiety than ever before. I have chronic fatigue spells. I fall sick often. These things take time to rebuild. That’s why I just hope to not see anyone around me burn-out!  

Self-care and mindfulness are my saving grace. I have multiple apps (Mentemia, Insight Timer, Calm) which I use daily to work my mind and meditate. I sleep more. I journal and write in my gratitude diary every day. I changed up my value system after reading and working through Dare to Lead by Brene Brown. Also, I try to have Fun every day, with a capital F! I picked up adult ballet, and started painting and reading – things I find fun. 

Can you tell us about your new venture and the mission you’re working towards?

Athena X Ventures is a digital space for the next generation of diverse entrepreneurs in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). While it is a work in progress, our vision is to add more diversity to our startup ecosystem by tapping into underrepresented populations in NZ and helping guide them in building tech and science-based ventures. How? We’re still working on it. But this is the one thing that gets me up every day. We already work with a few women who are starting their entrepreneurial journey and we are currently focused on bringing this free founder wellbeing program to as many tech founders and soon to be founders in New Zealand. Our mental and emotional wellbeing are concepts that are not taught in any educational environment right now, and not in any entrepreneurship course or degree or journey. Therefore, we want to help ourselves build these skills here for our Kiwi founders. 

What advice would you give to someone to women who feel as though they are heading towards burn-out?

Pause! Take some time off to understand what you are feeling in your mind and body. 

Visit your GP if you are feeling run down and tired all the time. 

If it’s too late, I would suggest she take a sabbatical from work (if the work allows it) or re-think and re-order her life to make sure she is healthy first. 

What are your top tips for women who are in high stressful positions and considering a career change?

I would say, just DO IT. 

Often the stress is not worth it and it is two-pronged – one is the pressure that comes from the team/leader and the other is that it is internal stress and pressure we put on ourselves. 

Remove these stressors from your life. It is not worth it. Build your own life and career, the way you want it to be. Take time off. Look after yourself #SelfCare and then consider what you would like to do next. 

What are your top tips for getting a new idea off the ground?

Right now the world is completely changing. Having some empathy for people at the moment as you think of new ideas is important. Some principles still apply in entrepreneurial starting points such as ‘customer discovery’ and getting clarity on your ‘problem-solution’ phase. Developing a deep understanding of who you are serving is probably the most important thing you can do right now. Having empathy for future customers/buyers. 

Then depending on what the idea is, look at funding options or just bootstrap if you can 😉 

Any other pearls of wisdom?

There is going to be a major shift in what people want from those of us who are venture builders. Whether as employees or as buyers. We will want to align everything closer to our value systems. Silicon Valley will not be as it is hyped up to be, and maybe New Zealand will be the leader in building strong startup ecosystems 2.0! 

In the last decade or so, we saw that a lot of tech startups were built to solve problems and provide innovative solutions to industries and people, and the tech is ‘cool’, but what impact were they really making on society and the environment? Was it positive? Was it ethical? Lots of lessons can be learned from the failure of the ‘old startup world’ in the form of Theranos and WeWork (and lots of other stories!).

I strongly believe there is space to build tech startups the ethical and right way, focussing on the founder and team wellbeing, and being true to purpose and value-based work. In the tech world I hope to see more women run companies and new ideas that help our world be better. 

What do you love most about what you’re working on now, say, in comparison to what you were doing before?

I love that I now get to work with more women & under-served entrepreneurs in tech and science (still male-dominated worlds). I love that I am helping to create a safe environment for us to test our ideas and fail safely. And try again. 

While Hollywood was fun, it was not for me in the long run. 

How can we follow your journey? 

Medium https://medium.com/@dilkhosa

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/dilkhosa/

Twitter https://twitter.com/DilKhosa

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/dilkhosa/ 

And stay tuned on https://www.athenaxventures.com/ 

SundayClub https://sundayclubnz.substack.com/

Thank you for reading my story!