Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series based on new research from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) on how COVID-19 is negatively impacting the mental health of entrepreneurs.
The world needs more people like Michael DeVenney, particularly when it comes to confronting and discussing mental health issues.
His story is a follow-up to our first article on the subject posted last week about a new report from the Business Development Bank of Canada on the overall mental state of Canadian entrepreneurs, many of whom are grappling with a pandemic that has caused untold harm.
Findings revealed that upwards of two in five business owners report feeling depressed at least once a week and two-thirds feel tired or have low energy.
Halifax-based DeVenney knows all too well what that feels like, but the difference between him and the bulk of respondents surveyed by BDC, is that he is not afraid to talk publicly about the problems he has faced and overcome.
In an interview with Canada’s Podcast co-founder Phil Bliss, he defines himself as a “unique combination of things. I am an entrepreneur and inside of me is probably an economic developer and analyst and I also have a mental health issue – PTSD chronic form and it has developed over the years. It makes being an entrepreneur quite a bit more interesting.
“One of the biggest reasons I am open about it as that I wanted to show people that you could be just as creative, just as effective just as productive having a mental health challenge as anybody else would.”
His is a fascinating story of grit, determination, success, disappointment and ultimately success again.
Before DeVenney became an entrepreneur, he was a senior vice president and investment advisor with several major financial institutions including TD Evergreen, CIBC Wood Gundy and Scotia Bond.
He was successful, yet not happy, and yearned for something else.
“I like flexibility and I like independence. I was constantly coming up against the walls that were around me. I am also someone who always has ideas and I like to pursue those ideas even though sometimes they do not go the way you hoped.
“Within the corporate world, I couldn’t do it. I felt going the entrepreneurial route was the best path for me. I enjoy the ability to test new ideas, see what is going to work to try things out and see what happens. It has kept my life a lot more interesting and the businesses that I have had have done well so all in all it has been a good journey.
“I saw different ways to do things that didn’t fit in the corporate world. I am comfortable with risk and have always been that way. I felt that I would rather have the freedom to pursue things and fail if I had to but to at least try them. I did not want to spend a life in a box. I really like being able to colour outside the lines and I like to work the way I want to, and I hate asking for permission. I thought it was worth the risk.”
It has ended up also being both complicated and stressful. There has, he says, always been a mental health issue there, but in the early years he never wanted to admit it or deal with it. Instead, the answer was to work longer and longer hours as a means of fixing a problem.
“I have always been fairly driven in terms of working towards something and doing everything I had to do to get there. Working 70 hours a week never bothered me or I felt it never bothered me.”
About 20 years ago, DeVenney first experienced a deeper bout of depression and the answer “for me at the time was medication and opening up a second business. I felt if I had more things to take up my time, I would not have time to think about what was going wrong.
“I put everything I had into the second business and about six years ago everything really came to a head. I have PTSD from chronic childhood abuse, and I am very open about it, because I know a lot of people do not want to talk about it. The more that we talk about it and are open about it, the less the stigma is attached to it and people understand what it is like.
“I went through really severe depression despite the success of the businesses I had. Someone asked me the other day if I have any good memories? What struck me as sad is that I never took time to enjoy the journey while I was there. I was always focused on what was next – what had to be done, what do we have to reach for? Nothing ever seemed to be enough.
“I was at the point where I couldn’t function and run the businesses, so I ended up selling one business to my business partner and the other to a group of employees.”
Suddenly, he was left with nothing. “I felt like I was weak,” recalls DeVenney. “I felt there was something wrong with me. After about a month I had to know is it just me or are there other people like me?”
As a result, he launched the Mindset Project, which was a research study into entrepreneurs’ mental health and decision making.
“I look back now, and I can’t believe, I was able to get 425 entrepreneurs to take an hour to answer surveys. What became clear very quickly was that I was not alone. I was in good company. In fact, it is one of the more prevalent professions where people will face mental health challenges.”
He admits when he started the Mindset Project, he had a vision of all those who participated “standing with me and saying, ‘yes this is what I face too.’ What I found was that nobody wanted to stand with me. People would talk privately, but they would not talk publicly.”
Undeterred, DeVenney launched yet another business called WorkInsights, developer of a diagnostic tool that calculates the hidden strengths and threats to a business in real time. This time, the rules are different.
“When I started the new business, I wanted to be really open about who I am, what I am going through and really show that I can still be successful, I can still be creative, I can still be productive,” he says. “In fact, more so now than ever. My team now, know everything about me. They are not my therapists, but I want them to understand that if I am having an off day it has nothing to do with them. In fact, it has created this trusting environment where we have conversations, not meetings.”
As for the symptoms of depression, he says, “if you wake up in the morning and you feel very tired that is not a good sign. If you are not just worrying, but ruminating – your thinking of what you could have done, should have done, will do, will not do, what is going to happen? When you start down those roads of constant chattering, there is probably something going on.
“The greatest thing about going down that road is that you can turn around at any point. Finding a therapist to talk to – finding someone who you can be open and honest about everything that is going on – makes a huge difference.
“It can be a challenge finding the right therapist. It has to be someone you can trust and someone you can be open and honest about.”