In late 2010, I was a stock trader in New York. It was a male-dominated, unnecessarily high-stress job. I was good at it, but the misogynistic culture — and learning I was being paid 15% less than my male counterparts — pushed me to eventually quit. In time, I decided to found my own startup, focusing on getting more money in the hands of women.
But the stress and addiction to adrenaline stayed with me — it was an old mental pattern that predated my new job as CEO. I turned to food and alcohol to soothe my anxiety about my startup’s future. I’d binge, blindly polishing off heaps of junk food. I’d wind up blackout drunk during happy hour. I packed my schedule with events and trips and work so that I could feel busy and keep moving, never stopping to catch my breath. All of those helped me avoid the upset I felt.
Work began to intensify. Within a year of founding the company, I’d hired the co-founder of the well known organization that had pioneered the idea we were expanding upon at my startup, and I’d convinced a large app company to use my product, Seeds, which turns money spent on in-app purchases into microloans to people in need. My partners were finding that their users were much more likely to buy if their money was going towards a good cause, and I was elated that it was working. It was time to hire additional teammates to handle Seeds’s growing needs as I got more companies on board. To do that, I needed more money.
But I wasn’t finding investors. And I was completely broke.
With cash running low and customers clamoring for more support, my stress levels were at an all-time high. A friend suggested I visit a monastery in the East Village. It was there that I first became aware of Vipassana meditation, which is believed to be the specific practice the Buddha used to achieve enlightment.
While all types of meditation can be helpful, I believe Vipassana allows a practitioner to get to the deepest root of her problems. I decided to sign up for a free 10-day silent Vipassana retreat, though I was terrified of what could go wrong at work while I was off the grid. To my great surprise, my ability to focus was so improved afterward that tasks that had previously taken me a few hours to do could now be accomplished in 30 minutes.
Seeds began to transform as I brought a more self-aware and calm approach to my work. My entire demeanor changed. I was less afraid of connecting with others authentically and of sharing my true self, flaws and all. I began to clearly understand my own inherent value in a way that I couldn’t before. Because I was no longer devoting so much energy to self-sabotage and self-doubt, I was able to accomplish more. As a result, more authentic, highly talented and supportive people began appearing in my life.
Within a month of my first Vipassana retreat, I closed our first angel investment. Within two months of my second Vipassana course, we got into the Techstars startup accelerator. I started trusting myself more when it came to hiring decisions, releasing teammates when it wasn’t right, which immediately cleared the space for opportunities that were a better fit for them, and for Seeds. I went to a networking event and followed my gut, skipping my assigned seat to sit next to a woman who seemed interesting. Later, she would introduce me to the first investor to ever ask me if he could invest, as well as an early employee at Kiva and an early engineer at a tech company that had one of the most successful exits in history, who later became a collaborator. In the beginning, I never dreamed that I would be fortunate enough to work with people like them, but my Vipassana practice allowed me to evolve to a point at which this happened naturally.
My drinking used to be excessive and dangerous — I got a DUI, and had friends expressing concern about me — and I was 35 pounds overweight when my eating was the most out of control. Since that time, I’ve attended four 10-day Vipassana courses, and have formed a daily practice that helps me weather my startup’s craziest ups and downs. Instead of abusing food and substances, I’ve learned to sit quietly and look inside myself for love and self-acceptance. It’s allowed me to see reality more clearly as the old mental patterns that no longer serve me have fallen away. I still have a lot of work to do, but Vipassana has been the key to accessing the peace and self-love that was in me all along — which was in turn the key to my startup’s survival.