Tech investor and entrepreneur Parveen Panwar used to think constantly about work, and it took a toll on his personal and professional life. “I never realized I was suffering from anxiety—and a lot of stress. My blood pressure would be high. My heart rate would always be high. I just wasn’t being in the moment,” he says. He worked nonstop and wasn’t focusing on his mental health. “I saw my friends going through the same thing. In this society, we just have to open up a little more. We look at things from the perspective of what is going on outside. We are not focused on the things that are going on inside.”
Panwar felt that he couldn’t talk about mental health with his friends, many of whom were also entrepreneurs, because he didn’t want people to think he wasn’t successful or a strong leader. “I just didn’t want to look weak,” he remembers. “I was pretending to live another life. I always wanted to be a strong man, a strong person, which I know after my experience is not the right thing to do. Being vulnerable and open gives you more strength,” noting: “I didn’t want to confront my own demons. I was just ignoring it for a long time until I saw that these are not my demons by myself—there are a lot of other people carrying them. I’m speaking of entrepreneurs.”
One in five American adults will experience mental illness in a year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. The impact is more staggering for entrepreneurs. University of San Francisco researcher Michael A. Freeman found that 49% of entrepreneurs suffer from at least one mental health condition during their lifetime and that they are six times more likely than others to experience depression.
Panwar eventually realized he had to focus on his mental health, and began making meditation and breathing exercises a regular practice. His experience motivated him to found the nonprofit organization Activated Life, a community of entrepreneurs that focuses on decreasing the mental health stigma, promoting a healthier lifestyle, and giving back.
“I was pretending to live another life. I always wanted to be a strong person. Being vulnerable and open gives you more strength.”
He found that when he spent time with other entrepreneurs and investors, they talked about activating venture funds, bank accounts, and businesses ventures. “Investors want returns,” he says, “They’re busy, everybody is running something, and nobody has time to sit and be silent to watch what’s happening around them or what’s happening inside them. Overall, as a society, as investors, as entrepreneurs, as partners, we are creating that.”
Panwar decided to talk to the entrepreneurial community about a different interpretation of “activation.”
“I’ve found that the stress-induced, startup, race-to-innovate lifestyle is the fastest way to burn out,” he observes. “An ‘activated life’ improves productivity and makes purpose, mental, and physical well-being a priority. Individuals become equipped with the business agility needed to build and maintain the sustainable companies of the future.” CNN reports that mental health is one of the biggest pandemic issues we will face in 2021, so making an effort to maintain an ‘activated life’ is more crucial than ever.
Panwar and other entrepreneurs host Activated Life meetups and volunteering days as well as several-day retreats. The retreats include a day of volunteering, a day of wellness workshops and support events, and a day for a celebration. “I think a combination of the three really enlightens people and gives them the power to be more open and make drastic changes in their life when they go back,” he says.
Activated Life participants come together for volunteer activities that have included painting a school, working at a homeless shelter, and cleaning up a park. “It definitely activates the happiness system in your body,” Panwar says. “It has been proven that you become more grateful for things. When we do retreats, the first thing we focus on is giving back.”
Commenting on the need for support events, Panwar says: “The reason for that was to get the vulnerability out and to let them know that there are other people who are going through the same thing,” he says, adding that people have shared mistakes they’ve made and stories they’ve never discussed publicly. The wellness workshops have included classes on breathing techniques, yoga, and meditation.
The goal of the celebration day is to feel grateful for the community participants have created and, most importantly, to discuss ways of sharing their new practices with friends, family, and employees. “Awareness is very important for people to understand what mental health is, the different elements of mental health, and how they can work on being more mindful,” he says.
Panwar hopes that Activated Life will start to host wellness workshops and mental health awareness events at companies because of how much it has helped him as a leader. He thinks it will assist all employees, not just entrepreneurs, in treating each other better. He plans to teach people about the practices that have benefited him: breathing exercises, meditation, giving back, creating a daily intention, and focusing on gratitude.
Activated Life hosted its official launch in San Francisco in September 2019 (with FE International as a sponsor of the kickoff event), and the community has been growing ever since. Hundreds of people have attended Activated Life events, and Panwar jokes that the community has grown so quickly because he wears Activated Life T-shirts to all the conferences and events he attends.
The organization now has a membership program. Entrepreneurs and professionals must be nominated by an Activated Life member, and they must be committed to mentoring others and raising awareness. They also follow what Panwar calls the “P.A.P.E.R. principle,” which stands for positivity, authenticity, passion, empathy, and resilience. These are the values he thinks are necessary to live a truly “activated” life.