You are your best thing. When I first read the title of Tarana Burke and Brené Brown’s book, I read it over and over again, recalling when the character Paul D says it to Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It became an affirmation for me. These women were indeed right; we are our best thing. Saying it and putting it into practice are different exercises, though, because being our best thing is often sacrificed for the work we are aspiring to do. As a Black woman entrepreneur, our best is defined as being a trailblazer above reproach, closing deals, articulating and executing vision, building a solid team, and most importantly, giving the appearance that it is effortless.
What’s often left out in the celebration of the hustler’s mentality for entrepreneurs are the real sacrifices required of the mind, the spirit, and our bodies.
One day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I was startled by the woman looking back at me. I looked tired with red, strained eyes. The natural glow of my skin looked deprived of attention. Though I have spent the last several years of my life making conscious choices about my environment and my plant-based diet, my body was suffering.
I started to experience immense body aches and chronic fatigue, and of course, I Googled my symptoms. Never do this. I scared myself back into my doctor’s office and told them to run every possible lab. My doctor said three clear things to me: “You are not drinking enough water, you are not sleeping well, and you are stressed.” She added, “If you do not listen to your body, it will make you.”
Of course, I half listened to her, and like most of us, I told her half-truths. Omitting what was probably most important, I didn’t mention my chest pains, and I didn’t tell her that I had moments where my breathing was weird and rapid. I had too many deadlines. I had too many important meetings. I was too close to my dreams to now defer them. I also got too ingrained in the mindset that rest interrupted opportunities. Uneasy, I got in my car and drove to the first meeting of the day, on a day where I had scheduled nine of them — back-to-back.
My temples throbbed through every single one. The brain fog only lifted when I got to my car, but I could not stop my tears. I cried for over 20 minutes, trying to remember things that I had learned in my yoga classes to calm my breath. After several deep breaths, my heart stopped racing, my breathing calmed, and I finally stopped shaking. Normally when I cry, it’s because my friends tell me inspiring or heartbreaking news or I’m watching a rom-com or coming-of-age movie. This was the first time I cried because I was exhausted, under pressure because of the weight of my dreams.
I have always and still do consider myself mentally poised for pressure. However, when I looked at myself in the rearview mirror that day, I did not recognize the woman I saw with her tired eyes, the tears that ran down her cheeks, and that uncontrollable breath. Those eyes, that moment in the car, still haunt me. I was in the sunken place of my own design of perfection and fear of failure. The dogma of entrepreneurship, the daily decathlon of the ups and downs, the tough decisions, the pains of growth, and the management of expectations were gnawing at my spirit and body.
That day, I went home and I wrote it all out. I journaled about the experience I had in the car, how mentally drained and physically sick I was. I wrote about my feelings, my thoughts, my body, and my spirit. I cried, but I kept writing through it.
During a forced staycation that followed that episode, I juiced in the mornings, actually cooked meals, practiced my breathing, had my herbal tea both in the morning and night, and went for long walks and bike rides. In those moments of clarity, I realized that other entrepreneurs had to be experiencing similar waves of emotions and anxiety. Most of my friends and peer groups were first-generation college graduates, first-generation business owners, and we were all building our planes as we flew them. As much as we leaned on each other for entrepreneurship advice, we rarely spoke about the personal costs. Many of us were building incredible businesses, but we were too exhausted and stressed to fully enjoy it. We were too tired to celebrate victories. There had to be a better way.
I began having conversations with entrepreneurs and my therapist friends about our experiences as business owners. From those conversations came the ideas that eventually became a series of wellness and business events devoted to a different kind of support: I created Her Village, the Will to BE Well, and Anchored, partnering with therapist friends on the journey.
In March 2020, when the entire world (except Florida) went into lockdown, I was able to finally slow down. Like everyone else, I was forced to. The pandemic has wrought mostly tragedy and frustration. There has been so much loss. There has also been time to focus on mental and physical health. During that time, I began to design what would become ELEVATE, a 12-week incubator run through my nonprofit, Our Village United. My goal was to ensure that entrepreneurs’ businesses not only survived the pandemic but also that the entrepreneurs themselves were able to mentally, spiritually, and physically survive as well. My team and I began to survey businesses and worked with therapists on how to thoughtfully incorporate wellness into our incubator program.
Through surveys, my team and I found that 48 percent of the business owners polled were experiencing burnout, 32 percent acknowledged depression, and 56 percent said they were suffering from decision fatigue. A Gallup poll found that 62 percent of women and 51 percent of men who owned small businesses reported experiencing higher levels of daily stress during the pandemic. Based on our findings, we knew that we were embarking upon something that would not only be good for businesses but essential for the CEO as well. As a former educator, I knew teaching the student meant seeing and serving the whole child, beyond the curriculum.
I built ELEVATE with the same consideration. I wanted Black business owners to have a place where they would feel seen and be heard. Since launching the program, the participating businesses have reported that they have placed more focus on their individual needs, more attention to their stress level, incorporated more movement, and prioritized scheduling that supports their time. Many shared that before the program they’d never talked about their stress levels nor engaged with a therapist.
As we continue to welcome entrepreneurs in the program, we focus on asking the heart-related questions. We ask about their stress, their mindset, and their environment because as deeply as we want entrepreneurs to be highly successful and competitive business owners, we need each other to be well. Only in wellness can we be in better relationships with each other. We are not simply building stronger businesses — we are building strong communities.
As we celebrate National Self-Care Awareness Month, extend well-wishes to your favorite businesses. And, to entrepreneurs, remember you, we, are our best thing.
Dr. Lakeysha Hallmon is a transformational leader, speaker, educator, and the Founder and CEO of The Village Market, an Atlanta-based business dedicated to empowering entrepreneurs by connecting them to engaged consumers, impactful resources, and investors. A leader in bringing national exposure to Black businesses, The Village Market has served 1440 businesses and facilitated 5.3 million dollars of to Black-owned businesses.