1.19.2020 11:00 PM

Mind and Body

Cherry Rose Tan: Why she's fighting for mental health in the tech industry

"One of the most frequent topics that comes up is loneliness."

Cherry Rose Tan

Cherry Rose Tan is the founder and CEO of For Founders by Founders, which aims to remove mental health stigma in the tech industry and create healthier work environments. She’s also a founder herself and was an early investor in Paycase Financial, a crypto finance network.

In the following interview, Tan talks to Inverse about the unique mental health struggles entrepreneurs encounter, what it takes to create a safe space, and the healthy communities she wants to build in the tech world.

A version of this article also appears in the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Hello! Can you please introduce yourself?

My name is Cherry Rose Tan. I currently lead a mental health movement, based in the tech industry, that’s called For Founders, by Founders.

As somebody who is a serial entrepreneur and speaker, I’m really passionate about bringing the mental health conversation to the tech world. I was previously a tech founder myself, and having gone through that experience, I know the entrepreneurial journey is kind of like a rollercoaster. There are a lot of high-highs, but there are also low-lows. So my commitment with For Founders, by Founders is to provide a safe space, especially for people in the tech world, to take off their masks and feel comfortable sharing their stories.

What does a safe space mean in the context of your work?

In the context of the work that I do, the way a safe space gets created can be dependent on the situation or the organization or conference I’m working with. So, sometimes I might just be with the people I work with most — tech CEOs and executives. We discuss what place they are at in their life; what they are experiencing as an entrepreneur, but also what they are experiencing as just a person. They could be feeling pretty raw or vulnerable. It has to be a safe space for them to feel comfortable just having an initial conversation with me — to say, “Hey, I’d like to acknowledge a problem I’m experiencing.”

I would say a different level of impact is possible if people get to a place where they can say, “Ok, now let’s have a mental health conversation as a team or as a company.” In the past two years, a lot of my work involved speaking on stage at conferences, like Collision. It’s really exciting to bring mental health programming to these spaces and broaden the conversation.

You often speak to tech CEOs about their challenges. Would you say there’s room for tech companies to make mental health a priority at all levels so everyone can receive support?

Honestly, 100 percent. People in the tech community know Founders as the company that is capturing very deep stories from prolific tech leaders. They are all CEOs. Once a person came to me and said, “I get that you’re working with CEOs, but what about everyone else in the tech industry?”

Cherry Rose Tan is a former educator who now leads a mental health movement for the tech industry. Cherry Rose Tan

And to be frank, if you’re working in the startup world — and I know, I came from crypto — it can be cutthroat. People feel like they are always on the go. You’re trying to innovate, you’re trying to build the best IP — and all of your competitors are either working at the same pace or trying to go faster.

So, it’s my sincere hope that this movement will serve the entire industry. And I think it’s important that we’re starting where we are. These leaders are setting the tone for the rest of the industry. There are so many people counting on leaders to lead properly. If leaders aren’t thinking with clarity, or without a level of self-care, then problems emerge in organizations. If the director is burned out, then the managers become burned out, and then the employees.

"“It’s my sincere hope that this movement will serve the entire industry.”

That trickles down to the next generation who come into the workforce and feel the pressure of “well, I’m going to have to sacrifice my personal life to make this work.” The passion and the commitment of this movement is really about taking a stand, and frankly bringing a sense of humanity back into tech culture. Yes, we’re competitive. Yes, we’re innovative. But we also have to take care of our people.

We started off with tech CEOs because we believe that if there is a buy-in at the highest level. There’s a greater chance of implementing permanent change — and we’re really about playing the long game.

What are some of the mental health challenges tech CEOs and founders encounter?

One of the most frequent topics that comes up is loneliness. I think, oftentimes, there’s this illusion that tech life is always glamorous. But even if you’re raising $20 million in investments, that doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing personal struggles.

I’ll often get cold emails from people that essentially say, “I read the stories on your website, and where I live, I don’t have anybody to talk to in my circle about what’s really going on with me.” And if you’re in a public position where there is this perception you’ve got it all, and you want to project the image that you’re strong and successful, it can lead to this feeling of isolation and loneliness.

What advice do you give to people who feel stress or loneliness but feel they can’t reveal that to others?

I know this word has gotten trendy, but honestly, I think one of the best things a person can do is engage in self-care. It’s something I can speak to personally. When I first started as an entrepreneur, I felt a lot of pressure to do the “hustle and grind.” I always pushed myself harder and ended up, unfortunately, working somewhere between 80 and 100 hours a week.

Tan addresses an audience. Her organization collects the stories of tech "founders" and their stories. Cherry Rose Tan

I did that for years. Then one day, I woke up and came to a point where, mentally and physically, I was completely burned out. It wasn’t a reflection of my ability — I know that I am a high performer — but I just never thought self-care was something for me. I thought it was something other people needed. I had too much pride.

And I was proud of the amazing things my team was doing, but I could see the impact on my body. I was having trouble sleeping, I couldn’t relax; I couldn’t stop thinking about work. I wasn’t present with my friends and family. It really took a toll on my life.

"I could see the impact on my body.”

The ironic thing is — and I didn’t learn this until I went through it myself — a lot of people go into tech entrepreneurship because of the freedom of lifestyle. They hope that if they work hard enough, they can make enough money to have the lifestyle they want. And ironically, when you burn out, you miss out on what you wanted first of all — having a healthy lifestyle.

I really advise people to take the steps to take care of themselves, and then they can start taking care of other people. It’s important to slow down and check-in with yourself. Maybe you’re not finding the solution you’re looking for because you’re tired and just need to focus on solutions like exercising, eating, and sleeping well.

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