Sam Duboc is the Chair and CEO of CBT Associates and MindBeacon Health, and also President & CEO of Elkland Capital Inc., and co-founder of EdgeStone Capital Partners. Previously, he was MD at CIBC Capital Partners and co-founder of the Loyalty Group Inc. (now called LoyaltyOne). Sam also served as the Clifford Clark Visiting Economist and Special Advisor on Venture Capital for the Department of Finance Canada, leading a team in designing and implementing the Government of Canada’s Venture Capital Action Plan.
Sam Duboc shares his experience with depression and how it inspired him and his wife to create the mental health company they now lead. He also shares what he has learned as a serial entrepreneur and why mental health needs to be solved, one person at a time.
I have a lot of respect for the work that you're doing with mental health. Thank you for making the time, Sam.
Well, thank you for what you're doing. Everything we do is to let people know that this is everyone's issue, that this is everyone's experience, that this is everyone's problem. The more we do that, the better we'll all be.
Thank you. I know you’re a serial entrepreneur and you do amazing work in mental health. But I would love to learn more about you as a person. Can you tell me how you got here?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved to fix things. I love to build things. I love to go out and experience new things.
If you look at my career, it's less of a career than say someone who started a bank and worked their way up there. It's more of a series of plays, a series of acts, a series of projects, a series of events. And it's something that I always wanted to do because I consider myself to be very privileged to have lived four or six different lives. I've gotten to live life as being in the government. As a startup entrepreneur at Air Miles and EdgeStone Capital. As a non-profit leader for Pathways to Education.
And I consider myself very lucky. Some of my success or some of the things I've done have simply been about being aware. Being aware of my surroundings, keeping my head up, and then being willing to jump when I saw something I could impact.
In this case, I jumped because not only did I see something, I experienced something directly. For me, it was the anguish of going through a mental health event [depression]. Mine was relatively mild compared to many. Going through that event, that journey, that fixing, trying to get better. It is very tough and in the mental health world, it can be traumatic in and of itself.
If you're sick with a sore throat, you start by going to the pharmacy to get cold medicine. If that doesn't work, you can go to a clinic or see your GP. We have that here in Canada.
In mental health, there’s usually no guide, no path. If you're lucky enough to have some assistance at work, maybe you get help through one or two phone calls. After that, you're largely on your own unless you're willing to deal with 8-10 month-long wait lists. And in the public system, psychology isn’t covered. You're on your own to fend for yourself.
And I should have been the poster child for having it be easy. I'd been on the board of the CAMH Foundation, so I knew the hospital. I knew actually what treatment I wanted. I was able to afford treatment on my own. I should have been the poster child for, “Hey it was pretty easy for Sam.” But in actuality, it was hard. It was really hard.
Stigma, having to leave work, having to find help. Mental health in one person affects the entire family. With a cold, as long as you don't pass it to your family members, it doesn't affect their lives much. When you have a family member that's depressed, the whole family is materially affected.
When we came out of it, it was me and my wife and my kids. But when my wife and I were talking about it afterwards, in realizing how hard it was for us─ we knew it must be extremely difficult for the vast majority of Canadians today.
Yeah. I can totally relate, as someone who has been experiencing grief. I was trained in the field of psychology, have multiple certifications. Yet access points for mental health were difficult for me as well. I love that you're really helping people on that front.
And I'm deeply inspired by the fact that you and Claire [your wife] came together to create Beacon. If it is okay, could you tell me more about your experience with depression? And how Beacon came together with you and Claire?
Sure. But you really have to start at the beginning of the journey. The journey actually began in 1991, together. I'm an immigrant to Canada. What brought me to Canada is starting Air Miles and Claire was our 13th employee. That's how we met. We actually fell in love working together. One of the things we always said is we would like to work together again.
But for us, the journey began 29 years ago. It didn't begin with this. It really began as Claire spent many years on the SickKids Hospital Foundation board. And I've spent time with the CAMH Foundation board. We've seen our kids evolve and our kids’ friends evolve. We've seen our friends and our parents evolve.
We've been fortunate to be part of a generation that is changing their view on mental health.
There's an “ignore it” way to deal with mental health issues. Lock it away; forget about it. But the problem is the vast, vast majority of us don't have perfect compartmentalization on an infinite basis. Fortunately, we're part of a generation that is willing to talk about it, as opposed to suffer in silence. And so, we've done this journey together. We've been married lots of years now and together even more.
I had mild to moderate depression in 2012. When we were coming out of it, Claire had a vision of it from one side. Trying to understand how to help me, figuring out how to help the kids deal with it. I had the vision of Beacon from experiencing depression first-hand. And together, it gave us a very rich perspective.
Today, if you're having issues with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and a number of other conditions, you can go on Beacon and get help. In the near future, when you go on Beacon, your caregiver can go on and get help too.
And that's important because a part of our business is the largest psychology clinic operation Ontario . We see tens of thousands of people in our clinics each year. We have deep, rigorous basis in evidence-based psychology, ever since we partnered with Dr. Farvolden and Dr. Denisoff. It's been the heart and soul of the company from the very beginning and it's the heart and soul of Beacon.
Thank you for doing the work you do, not only in supporting survivors but their caregivers as well. When you look back at your journey, with Beacon and everything else, what has been the most surprising part?
One of the most gratifying parts for me has been the number of people that have reached out. It usually goes relatively the same way. I get a call, I get a connection, and someone says, "Hey, you don't know me, but I wanted to reach out."
Much like at Pathways to Education, all the Pathways kids, there's thousands of them that called me. I talked to them because it was important to me. I listened and it's the stories... It's an honour. But the stories I get to hear about real people with real things, what happened to them, and how they've dealt with it.
The quite surprising thing to me is, it always ends with, “I just wanted to tell you that you made me feel better. I just wanted to let you know this.”
In my business world you're always waiting for the ask. There's never an ask. Beacon is my first foray into a mix of purpose-driven initiative and business, where it merges. Where is the purpose, other than making money? I was a private equity guy and private equity guys are there to make their limited partners money. That's what the job is.
I know how the numbers look, but hearing that social impact is actually happening, that somebody out there has actually been affected, that they've actually been touched… It’s been helpful. I wouldn’t have expected to get those phone calls. I never got those phone calls in my old business world.
I’m not surprised that so many people have reached out. Talking about mental health can feel vulnerable and so many people feel alone or not seen. I love that you are leading by example, by making yourself available to people who reach out.
There were a lot of people in my life that have taught me to lead by example.
There's two things I would say. One is that I feel quite fortunate in that the major barrier for many people in mental health, which is the stigma, is not one that exists with me. I've been fortunate to have a chip that says, “What I really care about is how I feel about myself. And about my family feels about me.”
I'm not really worried if someone down the street says, "Oh, can you believe Duboc talked about mental health issues?" That's their problem, not mine. Not my problem. I've been blessed by not having the stigma chip.
The second thing that I would say is that leaders are important, but remarkably insufficient. At Beacon, we have dozens of leaders that are leading us in different areas. All performing important contributions. I'm honored to be interviewed by you, but I think it's important understand: Beacon is a team. They come together, lots of people who have had similar experiences to me, people who all have the same vision, who are all contributing.
I may have been the first one to have articulated it, but it is a common goal in the organization. I take no personal ownership of this goal. This is a common goal that we've rallied around that everyone in the organization is there to help solve and is working hard to do it.
That is wonderful. Mental health affects so many people and we can do better work when we come together. What has been the hardest part of your journey?
In my whole journey? Perspective. These journeys are not easy. It wasn't easy to create Air Miles. It wasn't easy to create Beacon, it wasn't easy to create Pathways, it wasn't easy to create EdgeStone Capital. In retrospect, all great journeys aren't a straight line upwards.
But the mind has this beautiful way of ameliorating the worst parts of it, blanking it out or whatever else. It's the same thing I would say about starting businesses. To all of the founders that you talk to daily and all the tech startups… The illusion that this is an upward and onward journey, is only an illusion.
There are lots of times when a customer doesn't come in or you lose a key person. Or the system has issues or you get some weird results or whatever can happen. Sometimes those things happen over extended periods. The hardest thing is to keep the perspective, the eyes on the prize. And to acknowledge the downs. Don't ignore them; acknowledge, deal with them, and work with them.
I've had my share of massive splats, like full speed onto wall, boom splats. But you have to keep in perspective. One of the things that my dad used to say to me is “Remember, Ted Williams only batted 0.400 in a lifetime.” That means he failed more than he succeeded, yet he was the greatest hitter in the history of baseball.
It's an interesting thing to keep in mind, right?
It is. Thank you. It’s an important reminder to all of us that the entrepreneur journey is a zig zag, not a straight line.
Mark Cuban had a great line when he sold his business to AOL.
The person said, "Hey, congratulations. This has been a great overnight success." And he goes, "Yeah, 15 years of overnights." I thought that was a great perspective.
It's like you said, maybe we didn't know what it took for that person to get there. It could be their fourth business or they have been pivoting for six years.
Right? Social media can be tricky that way. When people talk about the person with the IPO, let’s not confuse that outlier with the centre of the curve. No one Instagrams themselves crying over a bad job and sometimes, we think everyone is living at the top of the wave.
We need to get out there and have real conversations with people. Life is not perfect.
In terms of your journey and just how you live, what has helped you in terms taking care of your mental and emotional health?
We're all on a journey. No one has mastered this. And no one ever will master it.
I wouldn't pretend to sit here and say I've mastered the journey. But a couple things really helped me. One is, I now recognize that avoidance is like putting air in a balloon. If you have a good strong balloon, and I had a really good balloon, I can avoid and not deal with stuff for a very long time.
But eventually, every balloon pops. And you can let air out of the balloon in two ways. You can wait till that big balloon pops and it's a big bang. Or you can let air out of it incrementally as it goes in. And it's a smaller bang or no bang at all.
And that's a little bit like people that aren't dealing with their mental health. What's going to happen is one of these days that balloon's going to burst. Just because of the force of the pressure. You didn't let the pressure out of the balloon. That's one way I think about it, which helps me do what I do.
The second thing that comes with age is that I had to admit to myself I was depressed. Although I look back on my life now and go, "Okay, I was probably depressed then.” That acceptance that it's okay when I wake up has changed me. My wife who I love dearly, who knows me super well, will look at me and go, "It's bad day, huh?"
And I will answer, "Yeah I'm having a bad day." And then, that's all it is. It's just a bad day. It's not, "Oh my god, something's wrong with me.” Just like I'm allowed good days, I'm allowed bad days.
Acknowledge your bad days and then begin to rebuild yourself back with the good ones. Allow yourself all these little variations, with perhaps lower amplitude, and certainly shorter duration, as opposed to building that balloon up. With that balloon burst, you can drop deep and you drop long. That view’s been helpful for me.
Thank you for your openness in sharing that. Something about it makes me smile... it's just very human. There's something just compassionate about it as well. I feel like we are our harshest critics.
We are and we should be. Because you're only going to get better if you recognize your failures and fix them. So you should be.
But don't set an unattainable level of what's okay for yourself. Also acknowledge that, “Hey, you're going to fall off that level once in a while.” And that's okay because you're not perfect.
My last question is, what can people in our community do to move mental health forward?
I believe roads are paved one stone at a time, buildings are built one brick at a time, and life is made one moment at a time. It’s the summation of those moments that lead to an outcome.
What I would say to people is, if you really want to help with mental health, start very locally. Educate yourself on how to recognize problems and how to talk to someone who may be having a hard time.
And don't be afraid to say to a friend. "Hey, you okay? Your day okay today? Anything going wrong?" We're going to solve mental health, one person at a time. And then if you help somebody, then maybe they go help two more people, then maybe those two will help two more people. Pretty soon you have a movement.
There are certain things we can do that have some scalability. Beacon is our collective everyone. Beacon's goal is to provide a scalable opportunity for people. But in the end, wars and this is a war, beating mental health is a war won in the trenches, one person at a time.
Thank you Sam. Thank you for being in the trenches with me.
You know what we need more of us in the trenches. Thank you.