Becoming a Mental Health Entrepreneur in 2020 with Jacqui McGovern

Jacqui McGovern has been a friend of mine for a good long time. We had the pleasure of traveling together in the mid-90s with an international musical organization called Up with People and have stayed in touch ever since. I wanted to interview her now to have a conversation about entrepreneurism, as she’s recently transitioned from working as a clinical social worker in Ireland to running a mental health training company. Listen or read on to hear about Jacqui launching her own business and orienting herself to her passions, figuring out how she could bring together the things she’s interested in and create a new chapter in her life—and how she went about doing it in 2020.

Brandon Green: Alright, welcome, everybody! Thank you so much for joining us for another interview. I am really excited today to have Jacqui McGovern join us. Excited to have a conversation with you today. Let’s start with giving people a sense of your background and how you’ve become an entrepreneur in 2020.

Jacqui McGovern: Yeah, I’m still getting used to that idea, actually. Even the word “entrepreneur” seems a bit strange. So, my background is that I graduated as a social worker in 1998. I did my master’s in social work and I started working with a specialty in mental health. I have primarily worked with young adults and children in child and adolescent mental health services.

Our system is quite different in Ireland. We have a public health system. We pay our taxes, and everybody has access to most health care. We also have a private health care system and that kind of runs alongside. So, if people want to have private health insurance, they can maybe speed up the processes and cut through the waiting lists. Most people have access to health care, including mental health services. I was employed by the National Health Service as a social worker and eventually as a senior social worker, working mostly with young people, but adults as well. Over the years, I spent a little bit of time working overseas and I took a career break for a year and lived in Italy.

Did a few mad things, had three kids along the way, but mostly I’ve been employed by the Irish Health Service. For the last 17 years, I’ve been working in child and adolescent mental health. I suppose the nature of that work is pretty intense. I’m very passionate about mental health. I’m passionate about helping people, but our work resources were reducing and reducing. Our workload kept getting bigger. For example, around 2014, there was a part of the Mental Health Act that meant our service, which had previously taken up to 16-year-olds, was now taking up to 18-year-olds. So, that was a large cohort of more severe mental health issues. I think that had a big knock-on effect on staff because we weren’t given more resources to handle it.

That was the start of me kind of thinking that maybe feeling a little bit more burnt out and tired of doing that work. 17 years is a very long time to be working in mental health. When you’re working with children and young adults, it’s a bit of a partnership with parents. Having experienced working in adult psychiatry, you can at least go home at night and say, “OK, well, they’re adults and they’re going to make their own decisions. And if they make a bad decision, I’ll be very sad about this as a therapist. But I can at least live with myself and say I provided a good service. And I hope that will stand and they make good decisions.” But at the end of the day, they’re adults.

BG: Right.

JM: Whereas when you’re working with teenagers, and it’s a kind of a partnership with parents. Some of the teenagers we worked with maybe didn’t always have the support of parents you might like them to have. Sometimes you were key adults in their lives, kind of helping them hold it together. That’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s a lot of holding. Gosh, when I started working in mental health, we worked with young people with mild issues to severe issues. Then as the workload increased, it became moderate to severe. So, my caseload became a lot more intense over the last few years. Stuff starts getting more intense and staff get burnt out, leave, and weren’t replaced.

The pressure was kind of mounting those last few years, and I started to think, “You know, my own family is starting to lose out here. I give an awful lot to my work.” I was finding that I would give everything during the day and then come home and have very little left for anybody else. That’s a very typical experience of people who do experience burnout. I wasn’t realizing that, I suppose, and didn’t know how to deal with it on a bigger level. Because this is not an agency [IHS] where you can kind of talk about those things (like in a private company) where you might be able to go to your manager.

I mean, I had a supervisor and they were very sympathetic, but they were in the same boat as me. And none of us had any say in it, because it’s those at the government level who are making the decisions or people we didn’t have access to most of the time. There was a bit of frustration and a fair bit of tiredness and having given a lot for a long time, I thought I needed a change. Two years ago this process started. I worked half-time and I thought that might help because I’d be home more in the afternoons with the kids. I thought that would ease a little bit of the pressure. Actually, it made things harder in a way because my caseload never halved!

BG: Oh, So they were like, “Well, you can half time, but we’re not going to half-time you.” 

JM: Exactly. I felt terrible because I was working like crazy, but I was at work and not getting everything done, then I’d come home and try to be there for the kids and, you know, it’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s hard for working moms generally, but I think it’s hard to try and be all things to all people. I started thinking about making a change. I had been through this process before because I had a bit of burnout before I went to Italy that year. That was probably 2007 which was the year after I got married. 

I took a career break for a year, but at that stage, I was nearly ready to walk away from social work and the whole nine yards. I was contemplating it, but taking a break made me realize I actually do love this work. I just don’t like the politics of it.

Even then, I suppose I had started the process of thinking, “What else would I do?” When I went to Italy, I had a year of thinking about what else might I do. I always thought, you know, I’d love to set up in business but I have no clue what I would do, you know?

BG: Are there entrepreneurs in your family?

JM: No, not really. Well, I suppose my brother is a little bit of an entrepreneur, he’s self-employed. But again, he kind of came to it later in life. It hasn’t come from my parents, but they’re very hard working. But I just have this idea of [running a business] because I suppose I’m a creative person and I’m quite resourceful. I always thought I’d like to do something different. I’d like to challenge others. So, I had been toying with it then and had a couple of ideas. When I started to dig into those ideas, they were already done. Somebody else had already come up with this and that. So, when I came back from Italy, I was refreshed and I was able for a few more. Then the last two years, when I was half time, I kind of went, “I’m halfway out the door now. I need to go. 17 years is too long for anybody, no matter how committed they are.” I think everybody who is a clinician in the mental health service should be encouraged to take a break after every five years.

BG: For your own mental health?

JM: For your own mental health. It’s a lot to carry when you’re meeting several young people who are feeling depressed, suicidal, and/or anxious. It’s very hard.

BG: Weighs on you.

JM: It’s hard to walk away from that and just shut the door and not hold onto that at some level.

BG: Did you end that job entirely before starting the business, was there a gap there?

JM: No, it was a bit of a crossover. There was a bit of a crossover. I spent a couple of years exploring other options, maybe thinking of moving into a different area of social work that might be a change. But I wasn’t excited about it. I was open to all possibilities, exploring all possibilities, but not really knowing what I was going to do until January 2020 when I met a friend just before all of the COVID stuff started.

Breda, my friend, was talking about how she brought the MindUp program into Irish schools, which is with the Goldie Hawn Foundation. She does a lot of mindset training, resilience training. It’s all about mental health, education in primary schools primarily. She was talking about her work and how she had gotten a lot of schools up and running and they were, more or less, maintaining themselves. So, she was looking for something new to do. And she said, “You know, what I’d love to do is mental health training with corporations and organizations. But I don’t have a mental health background and I don’t know if they would take me seriously.” Then I say, “Would you do it with me?”

I was just, I was kind of joking, but I’ve always loved running groups. I’ve always loved doing training. I’ve been a tutor of the master’s in social work course in Galway for years. I love adult training. I’ve done some lectures and quite enjoyed it. So I kind of got all excited and rang her a week later and said, “Were you serious about that because I really would be up for it.” She was. Within about two weeks, I told everyone at work I was leaving. Which was a bit mad.

BG: So interesting. You were in this space of transition for a few years, really. And then you had one key conversation with one key relationship, and then it was like, Bam…Aha! This is not uncommon. I hear this from a lot of people that ultimately go to launch something who was just missing that one relationship. And then as soon as that person shows up, everything comes together.

JM: Well, I have a theory that if you’re ready for something, you recognize it when it comes. You don’t know when necessarily, but when it comes, you recognize it straight away.

BG: And you may not even know for sure what you’re looking for, but when something happens, a conversation occurs, and you get that feeling.

JM: I felt like everything was aligned. And so we started having conversations and we very quickly came up with what we wanted to do. Neither of us had a huge amount of time at that stage, but we started meeting more regularly, forming ideas and talking, trying to figure it out. I told my work that I was going, mostly to give them enough time to advertise my position. Also, I knew that if I didn’t finish in the service I was working in…well, usually there’s a little bit of a lull over the summer because all the teenagers are out of school so that anxiety drops and you get a little bit of breathing space. 

Then September is just crazy and it’s full-on from September into Christmas. I knew that either I was going to finish at the start of the summer or at the end. I had time to pass over some cases. I made the decision I would go in August and announced it at work very quickly.

From then on, I suppose it became real, and then came the entrepreneurial stuff. It was amazing how–as soon as that decision was made—all this overpowering creativity started. It’s so bizarre because I went from not having a clue what I would do to having five or six ideas for businesses. What am I going to go with? I had this one idea with Breda, but I had several others too. It was lovely because I thought, “Oh if this thing with Breda doesn’t work, I actually have loads of ideas.”

BG: So, that ended up with you launching Mind Ed [Link]. And I love your tagline here: “Healthy minds are good for business.”

JM: We decided we’d go with the Ronseal idea. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this product.

BG: No, I haven’t.

JM: It’s a garden fence paint and the ad says, “Ronseal. It does what it says on the tin.” We love the simplicity of that. The fact that it was just honest and straightforward, no crap, just that’s what it says on the tin and so was, “Healthy minds and good for business” because that’s what we wanted to say.

BG: So tell me, what have you discovered now that you’ve been doing this and also doing it during a time when, with COVID, mental health has come to the forefront of the conversation in businesses across the globe, in all contexts. I feel like I’ve had more conversations with my business partners, investors, and colleagues around mental health in the last year than I ever have before. I’ve been very happy about that because I very much believe that is the driver of so many things for us. So, what have you found moving directly into the business at a time when it’s never been more talked about and important?

JM: Our plan from the beginning was to do in-person training and that just went out the window with COVID. So, we went, “OK, we’re going to have to go online and that’s not our preference.” But then, suddenly, we were thrown into the deep-end of figuring out Zoom and Teams and Prezi, all sorts of other things that we weren’t that familiar with.

We were turning it on its head and trying to figure out how do we keep doing the interactive stuff, because that’s so keen. What we do is about personal contact. We were very much on one wavelength from the get-go. We did not want to be a tick-the-box form of mental health training. From what I had seen, what was out there, there’s a lot of one-hour webinars where somebody is just talking at you and you can just get the information online. What’s key for me is the personal contact. I think that’s what people are craving right now. They’re missing it because they’re all working at home. It’s very timely that we decided to do mental health training in organizations when they need it more than ever.

People are feeling more fragile and more isolated and a bit depressed as well with the long-term nature of the lockdowns. So, I think the timing was just perfect for us, in some ways. We moved fairly quickly. We went on a steep learning curve and threw ourselves in the deep end and said, “OK, well, let’s get our content together. What do we want to teach? How much time do we need to do it and how can we make it as interactive as possible?” That was the goal. And I suppose that’s what we did. We got up and running as fast as we could. Our goal was to run a pilot and maybe a freebie to just test it out before Christmas. We ended up getting booked quickly by a series of coincidences. So we had to sort of pull it out of the bag and make it happen.

BG: Better build it now, because you’ve been booked!

JM: Absolutely! But it was great and it went down a storm. They rebooked us immediately. For the second booking, we were booked in twenty-five minutes and now they’re looking for a third run and that was very exciting.

BG: That tells you that you found the right market fit. What I see a lot of folks do, and I’ve done this myself, is you build something because you’ve got a good idea, and then when you go sell it, nobody buys it. And then they think, “I thought it was a brilliant idea.” It looks like you put out the concept and the ideas, built some of it, but then people bought it. Now you’re like, “Well, we better finish this and deploy it.” Then you’re getting feedback about how to make it better and iterate on the product itself. That’s what entrepreneurs should do.

JM: You’ll be tickled by this, but I’ve never done any web design or anything like that. I couldn’t tell you how to set up a Web page. And my husband, Gene, is a technical writer. He did stuff like this, but years ago, you know, so it’s not his forte. Breda’s husband, Mark, is into I.T. So, he’s a little bit more tuned in than Gene would be, but he’s really busy.

We started looking at websites, Internet sites, and Mark recommended one. He said, “I can help” but Gene said he’d do it and Mark would clean it up if it got messy. So Gene was showing me on a Saturday. We got this very basic website and we were trying to work with this. He was showing me how you do the code stuff when I was watching him. We got a little bit done on this and he said, “OK, well, you go away and write the content and we’ll have another go at this on Monday, then Mark can polish it up, put in some nice pictures and we’ll make it look OK.

On Monday morning, I was at work, my new job, and I went into the office and I kind of had a look at this website stuff and I was like, OK, let me inspect this page or however he was doing it. By lunchtime, I had the website nearly done and when Gene came in he nearly fell over. So, it’s been a mad steep learning curve, but it’s been really exciting. I more or less made our website which is mad because I’m not an I.T. person. Those kinds of things are fun. I think if you’re open to throwing yourself into something and giving it a go, have a lash at it, give it a try. Sometimes, you surprise yourself.

BG: Let me ask you a couple things. People listening right now may very well be interested in your corporate training. So, what exactly are you doing? If I have an organization, what would be indicators that I should bring you and your business partner?

JM: At the moment, we have three core modules. They’re 90-minute modules and some of the people we talked to before, we did talk to some business people and asked them what they would be looking for. What kind of topics are relevant to you? What kind of training? What time of day would you do training? It was interesting because most of them kind of said it needs to be short. People don’t have the time. So an hour. I thought, “God, mental health in an hour kind of defeats the purpose.” 

BG: (Laughs) Mental health on Mondays for an hour.

JM: And lunch is the best time to get people. I was thinking, “Wow, this is really interesting because these are businesses that are saying they value mental health, but the subliminal message is, “Do this much and do it on your lunch break.”

We looked at that and said the absolute minimum where we can do this interactively, we’re pushed to do this in an hour and a half. And if we’re doing that, we can’t have more than twenty-five in a group. It’s too much to do any more than that. We said that’s our boundary. No less than an hour and a half and no more than twenty-five people.

I suppose that made us a little bit different because I think a lot of people do the big, quick way of webinars and we could do that ourselves. But people don’t get it if they have their headphones on and they’re listening to something. They’re probably working on something else if they’re just watching a screen. In our modules, they’re doing activities. They’re talking to each other. They’re talking to us. One of us is presenting. We use Prezi, so our face is on the screen the whole time. They feel like they’re talking to us. So we’re talking to them. That’s the personal bit and they also have the chatbox. When one of us is presenting, the other is on the chat, answering questions. There’s a two-way interaction going on the whole time and people get very involved.

The first core module is “Science of Stress,” because both of us feel strongly that if you understand how stress works in your body and how your brain works and what happens to you when you get stressed, then all the strategies and all the self-care makes sense.

The second module is “Stress Management: A Practical Toolkit” which shows practical strategies that people can do. The third module is on self-care, and it’s a slightly different slant on self-care. For example, I think that a lot of people get the message that to do good self-care, you have to take something up. You have to start doing yoga or meditate or you have to start taking a mindfulness course or go out and start running. I think most of us are already feeling overwhelmed and overstressed, partly because working from home is more stressful for a lot of people. There are a lot more distractions and it’s harder to manage your time, especially with families trying to homeschool as well. Our slant on self-care is less is more. Maybe it’s about taking away. What’s not working or what’s too much? Maybe it’s about saying no to things. I don’t know about Americans, but we are dreadful in Ireland for saying yes to things. We’re so inclined to agree to things first and then go, oh, I shouldn’t have done that!

And we have a very hard time letting people down. There’s a lot of learning in talking about the art of subtraction, actually taking things out that are not helpful. Maybe looking at your relationships, even things like scrolling mindlessly on your phone and not doing something that feels better for you, maybe cutting back, having a digital sunset. Maybe saying no more often or maybe slowing down your yeses. Your yeses are all that stuff. One of the things we look at in our Self-care module is the benefits of sleep, that you don’t have to do anything but go to bed and what that does for your body and your brain, when you dig a little bit deeper into it, it’s extraordinary.

BG: I really like your approach. I have this sense that people are very overwhelmed. I mean, we’ve all experienced it, but “overwhelm” is a very ambiguous term. So, what is overwhelmed? I think you’re right that if you can understand the science of stress, that can help our structured brains accept some remedies to that by saying, “This is having an impact on me. It’s not just how I’m feeling. I’m feeling down. This is creating issues for me in my life.”

I absolutely love this idea of self-care being about subtracting things. Who has time to add things? Nobody. If you could take a bunch of stuff: commitments you’ve made to other people, past goals, old relationships, or whatever, you can reassert new priorities, but not necessarily add to the total volume of things, which is what’s stressing you to begin with.

JM: Exactly, along with the whole idea of prioritizing and not worrying so much about perfectionism. Getting that idea that “done is better than perfect.” A lot of people struggle with that notion, especially when working from home. I think they feel they need to do ten times more than is expected or required. I asked a group of participants this week about how many actually worked the hours they’re meant to be working, and how many of them are working more than those hours because they’re at home. They all put up their hands.

BG: I think we are wired to achieve to some degree. I think some of that is deeply embedded in our culture. Some of it’s based on our personality types. The challenge, though, is there’s always an achievement on the other side of the other achievement. So if you’re, like, punting your happiness to the other side of the achievement, you get there and you’re like, “Wait, there’s another one, and another one.”

JM: Busy is glorified. It really is. It’s kind of ridiculous. And I know that there’s a phrase that came across and it’s like, stop the notification of this. Just stop. Stop the glorification of busy!

BG: And stop the glorification of not sleeping enough. Like, “Oh Martyr me, I only got four hours of sleep.” That’s not good for you.

JM: It’s dreadful. I’ve been doing a lot of research on sleep. Sleep is one of my little soapboxes, even though I don’t get enough of it, which is probably why I’m passionate about it.

I have a six-year-old who wanders regularly into my bed and keeps me from sleeping! One of the things I have been researching is that sleep has never changed with evolution. Even though our lifestyles have changed, we still need sleep, but we don’t get as much as we used to, but we still need it as much. Our bodies have adjusted to all sorts of other lifestyle changes. But we need sleep.

It’s in the same way that we need to eat. There’s no shortcut. You can’t survive if you don’t eat. It’s as key to our functioning as eating. You know, you can’t run on an empty engine. Breda, in one of her chats, and talks about the phone. When you see the phone battery sign going down and down, you go running for a charger. And you might give it a bit of a top-up, but are you going to keep living your life by just plugging in for five minutes here and there?

BG: So, let me change directions and ask you some future-oriented questions. A couple tactical things on your business. You started with this idea of doing in-person training. You’ve moved to virtual. As 2021 comes around and we get a vaccine and things open back up again, from a business model standpoint, are you going to stick with virtual,c or are you going to bring it back to in-person? Is it going to be a combo?

JM: Both. I think. We’ll do whatever is required, but our preference would be to do in-person. I mean, there’s nothing like sitting in a room full of people. You can have so much better communication. When you can read body language, you can see the room, you can get a vibe going. There’s nothing like in-person.

But, you know, if people continue remote work, we may do both. Our goal with that would still be to try and make it as personal as we can. One of those ideas was developing new modules. I’ve nearly finished a new module on burnout, mostly aimed at managers. I might even turn it into two modules and do one first for managers, the other for staff. My next module that I’m dying to start working on is attention management, which I think is just so key with remote work.

BG: I’m loving all of your modules, by the way.

JM: We’re kind of going for the jugular. This is what we want to try and figure out. How can people manage their attention? Not their time, their attention. Because there are a billion distractions when you’re at home. Many that I’m experiencing myself. Maybe what helps us is that we’re living it as our clients. This is not just your life. This is my life. I’m not preaching from a pulpit that I don’t understand. I get this because I’m a working mom at home with three kids.

BG: This is not a concept. This is our lives, tackling these issues and becoming more effective at them over time. Helps our mental health and makes us happier, more.

JM: I’m thinking, What do I need? and make a module for it.

BG: You are your best client.

JM: Breda’s doing some stuff on conflict resolution, doing one on workplace culture and conflict resolution. So, I think that’s going to be a couple of modules.

BG: These are excellent modules. I hope you keep a heavy digital presence so that we in the US can take advantage of these modules.

JM: Well, we’re delighted to get new clients. So many of them are 90 minutes. That’s what we try and do, and we’re not prepared to compromise on that because I think that’s the little bit of magic that we have: the interaction. One of the things that have come out of the courses that we’ve run so far is that people are loving the connection with each other. Interestingly, they’re talking about how much they enjoy the breakout rooms because even though they’re staffed in the same organization, they’re not seeing each other anymore because they’re working from home.

BG: That conversation isn’t happening.

JM: It’s not. There’s a lot of information they’re missing out on. Gene, my husband was saying this to me the other day. He was reading an article and it said, tacit knowledge is gone because those little informal chats in the coffee room are not happening. So all those little snippets of really key information, they’re not getting communicated anymore because it’s just become formal time.

So, my latest new idea, and I have a hundred of them, is to start MindEd Connect for past participants of MindEd that for maybe one or two Saturdays a month for an hour, I provide a sort of my MindEd online café where people can just come and talk about stuff. They’ll get it because they’ve done the core modules, so they get the science. We wouldn’t have to start from scratch. It’s not about training people, it’s just about giving them a forum where they can have a chat and have a cup of coffee.

BG: I will say it here and now, you are on to something. This is going to go big. You’re going to do some really great work. This is the perfect alignment of time, opportunity, the marketplace, your expertise, your passions, your interests, it’s all coming together.

JM: I hope so because–here’s the strange thing–and this is honest and genuine: I’m not in this to be a big hoo-ha well-known company. Words like “scale up” freak me out because it’s just me and Breda. I have this amount of hours of my week. I don’t want to be as busy as I was before. I want to have time for my family. I certainly have a lot more energy for my family now. I’m much happier with myself, having taken a break. It’s not that I was unhappy in my old job. I loved it. I’ve always loved working with people. It’s just that I’m excited to have found another avenue where I can use my skills because I have a need in me to serve on some level. I’ve always felt a bit guilty about finishing work in mental health because if you can do that kind of work, you should do that kind of work.

It’s very hard to leave because I feel like I’m abandoning all these teenagers. But at the end of the day, I can look at the service, step back from it, and say I gave twenty-two years. That’s a long time and it’s OK. At that level, it’s OK to do something different. Well, it helps me to have aligned myself to not be losing those skills and to be sharing some of the stuff I’ve learned.

It helps me to be able to step back and not feel like I’m going down a different route that’s just about money. I love that people benefit from what we’re doing. You know, there’s lots of aha moments, which is lovely.

BG: I think that the best businesses come from that place of doing what you love. You’re doing it because it’s really helping people. And, by the way, people value it and will pay for it. Bam! it all comes together.

I love the fact that you’re not thinking about how you’re going to scale this benefit. People that are overly thoughtful or obsessed with scaling the company struggles to scale the company. The company should scale based on having an incredible product or service a lot of people want to buy. Then you add people to the team over time to accommodate that boom five years later or whatever. So I’m super excited for you. But how do people reach you if they’re interested and just learning about you or hiring you to come in?

JM: Through the website really on MindEd.ie. You can contact me on LinkedIn. I’m Jacqui McGovern.

BG: So, if you didn’t catch that, it’s MindEd.ie.

JM: It’s kind of funny because in Ireland we say if somebody cared for they’re minded. So, we mind people and I love when people come out of our courses feeling minded and it’s mind education. It’s a very Irish thing to be minded.

BG: We do what it says on the tin.

JM: That’s the plan.

BG: So let me ask you a final question here and then we’ll let you go. What are you most excited about as you think of 2021? In your life, business, whatever, what comes to mind?

JM: I’m excited about the creative possibility. The creative stuff. I am loving coming up with new stuff. I’m loving it and I love contact with new people. I feel really excited about it. And I haven’t felt like this in a long time. I’m just awash with ideas. I’m awash with plans. I know I will never have enough time in my life to do them all. But, you know, the possibility, it’s lovely.

BG: It’s a contagious energy and we can all take a lot away from that. So, Jacqui, thank you for joining us today and having this conversation. Really appreciate your time. Excited about what you’re doing in the world in general. And, hey, it also happens to be a great business.

JM: Thanks Brandon, appreciate it.

BG: So thanks, everybody for tuning in. Please make sure that you are following our content. You can subscribe to our newsletter by going to brandongreen.com, and also follow us on social media at LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram @brandonagreen, and Twitter @brandongreennow.