Janet Bannister

Janet is a Partner at Real Ventures, a leading source of capital for entrepreneurs who are building the next generation of leading tech companies. Janet has led investments in over a dozen companies and works actively with founders to help them build large, industry-defining companies. In addition to working with her large portfolio of rapidly growing tech companies, Janet is very active in the Canadian tech ecosystem; she is on the Board of Communitech in Waterloo and Vector Institute in Toronto as well as the Toronto Region Board of Trade. She is also an active advisor at MoveTheDial, DMZ, Creative Destruction Lab and the Research Board of the University Health Network.

 
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Janet Bannister talks about what it was like witnessing friends struggle with mental health and how she maintains perspective in her day-to-day life. She also shares how to build a trusted circle of friends and why that has been her key for mental health.

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Even prior to this recording, several people mentioned you. They said you are super supportive of mental health.

Well, I am so happy to be here and I appreciate everything that you're doing. And it is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart.

 

Thank you. That means a lot. What’s your story, Janet?

Some of my very good friends have struggled with depression and anxiety.

I have seen the effects of that and I know how challenging it can be. I know that often it's the people who have the highest standards and who are the most driven people who suffer the most from anxiety and depression. They put such high expectations on themselves and they take on so much; they take on challenges that others would not attempt. 

When I first got into venture capital about five years ago, I thought, “If there's one cause that I really want to support in my role in venture capital, it's mental health.”.  I know how difficult it is for founders. They take on so much, they work long hours, they are under a lot of pressure, and they have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders.

These founders are trying to do things that have never been done before. I so much admire them for the courage and passion that they have to take on this challenge.  Having been an entrepreneur, having been in many different operating roles, I can relate to the stress and the pressure.

I've seen firsthand the potential negative impact that stress and pressure can have on people. At the end of the day, we're all human beings. Some businesses will succeed and some businesses will not succeed. That's just the reality.  But the most important thing is the human beings involved. And I truly believe that.  Whenever I work with an entrepreneur, first and foremost, I care about that entrepreneur and his/her team.  Absolutely. That to me, is far more important than how the business is doing.

 

I really appreciate that. In this day and age, especially for entrepreneurs, there is so much pressure. And in that, with our workspaces, it can lack humanity or connection. People are really longing for that.

Yes, absolutely. And I think social media can feed into this. If you're a founder who's struggling, and go onto Facebook and see all sorts of pictures of your friends having a great time, sittingh on a beach, or celebrating their latest accomplishments, it can generate feelings of “Oh, why are their lives so perfect and mine isn't?”.

Often founders do not have people that they can confide with.  It's the old expression: “It is lonely at the top”. That's often the case. 

 

That is too true. It is a common thing that founders communicate to me. The loneliness, not feeling seen or heard. Here’s something I am wondering: what has been the most surprising part of your journey so far?

That's a good question. What has surprised me the most, I suppose, is where I ended up. Younger people often ask me, “How do I get into venture capital?”.

I never thought about getting into venture capital. I did things that I was passionate about, that I loved, and where I thought I could make a positive impact and learn.  The combination of my work in consulting and building fast-growing tech businesses enabled me to go into venture capital and to be effective at it.

In terms of mental health, I was speaking at Western University, Ivey Business School a few months ago. I had some great conversations with the students there. The level of pressure and stress that those students feel is much greater than when I was at Business School 20 years ago.  They all are so focused on: “What am I going to do? How am I going get the right job? Where is my career going to go?” It is tough to have that much pressure as a student or recent graduate. 

One of my suggestions to people is to focus on the present. Focus on doing the best job today.  Focus on making sure that you're learning and growing, moving in the right direction, establishing your track record. There's a bit of serendipity to life and that's okay.

And regardless of how what you're doing right now turns out, it is a long life. Regardless of how this particular venture turns out, as long as you are learning and growing, it will be a platform upon which you can build.  You will take what you have learnt and how you have grown as a person and go onto your next career adventure.  It may seem today that what you're doing is everything, that it is your whole world. But it is a long life and there's going to be other adventures and other challenges and successes ahead.

 

Perspective is so important. I know I have been guilty of losing sight, especially when I was a younger founder. In the industry, we can be very goal-oriented, very future-oriented, very self-driven. Everyone else celebrating us, but we're like, “We need to do better” or, “What's the next thing?”.

I have a friend who won several Olympic medals. Before one of his races, he felt enormous pressure.  He felt he needed to win a medal for his country.  His coach asked him, “What do you want to do after the Olympics?”.  And he replied that he wanted to finish his university degree and excel in his career.  His coach said, “Well, regardless of whether you win a medal or not, is that going to change that?”  And the answer was “No”.  That gave him the perspective he needed to free himself from the pressure and go out and win a gold medal.

It is important to have the perspective to say, “Right now, this may seem like it means everything to me.  But in the long-run, things will go on.” If you're successful, that's awesome. And if you're not successful, that's okay too. You will take what you learned and go on and do something else great.

 

That's such a valuable lesson. For entrepreneurs, our identity and our self-worth can be so tied up in the business. And that pressure becomes elevated.

It's like the classic question when you meet people, which is: “What do you do?”.  When people ask that question, they are not really asking about what you do as a whole person. They are asking about your job. To me, this says a lot about our society, that asking what you do is synonymous with asking about someone’s work. 

 

When all we have is work, we lose sight of that. As someone who has been on both sides, how do you come back from that?

I think it is important that we have balance in our lives, that we have other things that give us meaning and joy.  It is also important to have others that you can lean on.  I am extremely grateful to have a group of very close friends.  We support each other.  Everyone needs people to lean on, people to support them through the ups and downs.  You need people with whom you can be completely honest and whom you know will have your back; they will care about you; they will help you and provide perspective.

Sometimes you need that perspective from someone else.  You may not be able to provide that for yourself.  You may be too much in the weeds; may not be able to see the forest for the trees. For people who do not have those types of people in their lives, I would encourage them to go to a professional coach or counsellor or someone else with whom they can talk.   

Life is tough and we weren’t made to shoulder everything ourselves. We all need a support group around us, of people who care about us more than the results that we deliver.

 

Yeah. Just hearing you say that… I love how your friendships are not based in work. Supporting the human being, not the human doing, is so important.

Yes, it's interesting. There's a lot of talk about mentors. People have asked me, “Have you had a mentor?”. I never really had a mentor if you define a mentor as someone who is older and more experienced and can show you the path.

What I have had is a group of wonderful, amazing friends. In many cases, I met these friends through work. But our relationship extends beyond work  These are people who I know are there for me.  And I am there for them.  We lift one another up, encourage each other, and give each other the courage to try new things.  Most importantly, we care about the person.  Not about how well their business is performing or how they did on their last performance review. I think we all need those people in our lives.

And if you don't have those people in your life, then I would encourage you to find those people. Maybe it's through an entrepreneurship group or other organization.  Find a group where you will be surrounded by people who can relate to you, understand you, and care about you.

 

I agree. I think you'll like this quote from Ben Baldwin, who runs Founder City Project. He told me once that “vulnerability is currency.” A lot of people don't see it that way, but he said if we can be open and allow ourselves to connect to other people, there is so much power in that.

My question for you is… How did you cultivate those kind of relationships where they go deep? Where they go beyond work? I know that's something a lot of people are searching for.

Yes. A huge part of it is being vulnerable yourself. It's about opening up to other people.  It is also about seeking out and finding people and being conscious about the people with whom you surround yourself.  For founders, I would encourage them to select investors who care about you and will be there for you. You want investors who view themselves as your partner, as part of your team, as being on the same side of the table as you. 

It applies to selecting co-founders as well. When you think about your co-founder, is this the type of person you can count on? Is this the type of person with whom you can have honest conversations?  Will you be there for each other through the ups and downs? 

 

I love this idea of the win-win, especially with the founder-investor relationship. There’s so much fear in our industry as it is. How can we be co-creators, rather than judging each other?

My philosophy, as an investor and as a board member, is to help the company and the founder in any way that I can.  But in order for this to happen, there first needs to be a strong foundation of trust and transparency.  As an investor, I am 100% committed to helping my companies and my founders. But I cannot help solve a problem that I don't know exists.

I would encourage founders to seek our investors with whom they can have candid conversations.  Part of this is finding investors who are driven by doing what is best for the founders and their companies.  But the other part is structuring agreements such that investors’ and founders’ interests are aligned.

The other thing for founders to remember is that their problems are rarely unusual.  You might feel as a founder, “Oh, I can't tell my investor about this situation because it shows that I'm struggling.”  But the reality is that very likely, you are not the only founder who has had this type of problem.  Often your investor will have seen this situation before and may be in a good position to help you and/or to introduce you to other founders who went through the same thing several months previously and have learnt from it.

 

I’m curious to ask then, what does mental health mean to you?

For me, it’s being able to face the daily challenges and stresses in a way that is productive. It is about being able to bring your full intellectual power to the table because you're mentally healthy.

It’s also important to be able to experience joy in life. This doesn't mean everything is going to be joyous, but it does mean that you have the ability to experience joy and happiness.  That could be going skiing or taking a long bike ride, or spending time with family and/or friends, or playing a musical instrument or a game.  To me, being mentally healthy means that you can handle the challenges of life such that they do not prevent you from experiencing happiness.

 

Thank you for sharing that. For founders, it means a lot to hear that there are investors who feel that way. What can we do as individuals in this industry to move mental health together? What would you like to see our community do?

It starts with really caring about each other and thinking about people as human beings. We've talked a lot about founders but it is not just the founders. It is everybody; it affects everybody in every walk of life.

I would like for everyone to be able to get the support that they need. That support could come in all sorts of different forms.  But ideally, I don't want any founder or anyone else in our community to be suffering and suffering alone.

If there's anything that I can do, if there's anything that our community can do to make sure that people are not suffering alone, that's the biggest thing for me. We need to work as a community to help people.  If I can be helpful, if I can connect people in any way to help them, I would be more than happy to do so.   

 

I feel like you're already doing that. It means so much to other people that you have been such an advocate. It takes courage to lead. I am honoured that we shared that panel [mental health at CIX] together. Thank you for leading by example.

Thank you for all you're doing and for taking the time to talk to me. I very much appreciate that.

 
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