In December, Orange Silicon Valley hosted a women in tech event that discussed the importance of health and wellness in the tech industry. Guests included a handful of top women executives from Silicon Valley, as well as featured speaker Kari Sulenes, the executive director of Project Atlas.
Sulenes has a PhD in clinical psychology, and after her undergraduate experience, she learned that change happens at a higher level, and she wanted to have an impact on institutional change. Project Atlas is a wellness program that works with early and mid-stage startup founders in order to increase their effectiveness as leaders through physical wellness, emotional intelligence, leadership, and business skills. Currently the company works with twenty clients.
Julie Leclercq, who oversees business development at Orange Silicon Valley, helped organize this event. She interviewed Sulenes, and their discussion primarily focused on how changing aspects of one’s health can affect performance, why stress in the tech world is so common, and how different genders deal with the pressures of stress in the workplace.
“We wanted to show that Orange Silicon Valley fully supports gender’s equality and offers the opportunity to meet and exchange perspectives on this topic. We also decided to focus on wellness, because this is a topic getting momentum in Silicon Valley,” said Leclercq. “Women working in tech especially have a lot of pressure on them, as this is a male dominant sector. It’s not emphasized enough that wellness is key to accomplish a successful professional life.”
Silicon Valley is the center of innovation, which naturally attracts startup founders and entrepreneurs from all over the world. “Entrepreneurs in particular are more prone to stressing themselves out. Most people I work with come from a family origin where achieving was the highest source of praise, so they are driven from a core place to achieve. Achievement is such a big part of who they are, and a startup can actually become like ‘a baby.’ If a startup fails, it can actually be experienced like the loss of a child. this can cause identity confusion, in both work and life, and is a huge source of stress,” Sulenes said.
Sulenes is interested in this startup mentality, which ultimately led her to working with founders and “founder types” at Project Atlas. She identifies founder types as “people that get confused between their work and their life.” They can find it especially hard to shut their brains off, and it is challenging for them to leave office issues at work, without carrying them over into their personal lives. Sulenes also noted that “startup founders experience stress at a higher level than the normal population, as well as anxiety and depression.”
The initial step of Project Atlas is to do a 360 survey, which interviews people in a client’s personal life. The interviewees give objective feedback on the client’s leadership, emotional intelligence, stress resilience, anxiety and depression, management of emotional and mental issues, physical health, sleep, exercise, nutrition, and personal and processional relationships. This is modeled after a test called a life 360 assessment, which is a form of feedback for leaders in which their skills, effectiveness, and influence as leaders is evaluated through interviewing coworkers.
The feedback from the 360 survey is put together in a comprehensive picture, from which Sulenes forms a personal life board of directors for her clients. This is built from a pre-vetted network of coaches, chefs, organizers, therapists, mindfulness teachers, physical trainers, and anyone who can help her clients realize their potential and reach their goals.
“The purpose of the life board of directors is to build a team that circles around you. I recommend you use this network for at least six months, and even after you leave Project Atlas,” Sulenes said. “This is a team of people who care about your and your success. Everyone should really have a life board of directors from the minute they’re born, because it is so hard to find the right balance in life sometimes.”
The survey’s purpose is to assess one’s life, find what could be lacking and hindering potential, and inform the implementation of healthier habits and lifestyle changes, resulting in improved physical and mental health, as well as reduced stress.
According to Sulenes, addressing unhealthy aspects in a one’s life — such as poor sleep, unbalanced nutrition, and lack of physical exercise — can increase productivity in the workplace and achieve a more stable emotional balance. In a high stress work environment — the likes of which can be see throughout the world of Silicon Valley tech — she places high importance on keeping everything in balance to achieve optimal performance.
Sulenes also spoke to how women and men act differently when it comes to seeking help. “The majority of the people that utilize our resources are men,” she said. “I think this is because it is harder for women to feel as deserving of care. They are usually the caretakers, and feel an internal need to please their peers, and make everything okay. But they are just as deserving of seeking help.”
The overall goal of this event was to emphasize how important health and wellness is succeed in one’s personal and professional life. “It was a first time for us to organize an event centered around wellness,” Leclercq said. “I was amazed by the results, how engaged the audience was, and all the amazing feedback we got.”