Meet Suraj Sodha: The Entrepreneur Who’s Not Shy When It Comes To Talking About Mental Illness
Meet Suraj Sodha:
The Lawyer Who Gave Up A Successful Present for an Entrepreneurial Future
Suraj Sodha is proof that it’s never too late to follow your true passion. He’s as legit as they come. Suraj gave up a promising career as a lawyer to embark on his own entrepreneurial journey. Along the path, mental health issues began to form a roadblock in both his personal and professional life but despite the obstacles he faced, Suraj has and continues to conquer his fears, while sharing his journey with the world. He now speaks to thousands of people, both kids and adults, every year on how to find their entrepreneurial path and effectively deal with the anxiety of mental health challenges. Thought Bakery chatted with Suraj to learn about his personal struggles with drastically changing careers, the importance of mental health wellness, and how the two are constantly becoming intertwined.
Early in your career, you ditched a career to become a successful lawyer and jumped into entrepreneurship. What was your ‘ah ha’ moment that pushed you to reinvent your life as an entrepreneur?
My ‘ah ha’ moment occurred 10 years ago and is still embedded in my mind to this day. I’ve always had a passion for all things digital like the internet, websites, and technology. When I was a teenager, I used to buy domain names with my mom's credit card. I would flip domains and build websites. I knew that I had this real passion and skill but I didn't quite know what I was actually doing. Somehow I figured out how to monetize with affiliate marketing. I had an Amazon widget which would create revenue for me if anyone purchased a product from Amazon through my link. That’s how I ultimately learned affiliate marketing, traffic generation, and web design & conversions.
As I grew older, I followed a very structured academic path. I winded up completing my law degree in England and coming to New York to take the bar exams. I had this dream of working in New York long before the Harvey Specter days. My ‘ah ha’ moment occurred just after a big case that I was working on in my law firm. My boss, Peter, approached me at the end of the case, placed his hand on my shoulder and said “Suraj, great job on our last case. 15 more years of work like that, and you'll be a partner here.” I didn’t know how to reply. That time frame is considered entirely reasonable in a city law firm in London. I calculated in my head how old I would be in 15 years, and knew I wanted to be a lot more than just a partner in a decade and a half.
Wow. 15 years?
His words opened my eyes and I realized I needed to do what I loved, and now was the time. Despite the dismay from friends and family, I took a sabbatical after only two years of working.
It took a lot of time and effort to convince and show people that this career switch was more about doing what I love, and the money would eventually follow. Money comes and goes, but what doesn't co-operate, is time. If we're wasting our lives doing things that we despise doing, it's going to just inevitably bring us down. I didn't want to come to the end of my life realizing I regretted everything and still remained in this state of unhappiness.
You speak openly and advocate for mental health awareness for men, a topic that’s still fairly taboo for some cultures. What gives you the drive to put yourself out there on this huge challenge men are facing today?
This is a real issue for men and even more so for men in ethnic minority groups; people are suffering in silence. This may not be true to everyone and not everyone will agree, but I feel that women have these amazing support groups naturally within their social circles. So what I've seen is women have their various groups of friends where they can open up to you about different stuff going on in their lives. Men tend to not have that same support or at least feel they don’t. Men can go out for a night with the boys but if they bring up problems of feeling overwhelmed or problems at work or with their home life, often times the reaction is to ‘man up’ and have a beer.
The phrase ‘man up’ is what this organization that I’ve worked with, Being Mankind, is trying to address, eliminate and educate against its usage in the world today. The theory is that who knew the words 'man up' could bring a man down so much, without realizing. ‘Manning up’ or overlooking our issues is how a lot of men deal with issues. We ignore them or we distract ourselves hoping that the problem goes away. For men, mental health issues are a real taboo and we need to make it okay to talk about it. There’s a massive campaign called ‘It's Okay To Talk’ which works to break this barrier.
Do you think everyone understands how big a challenge this is in terms of personal well being?
Mental health affects everyone from young children to adults. Often times we don't realize it or give it much importance. We all talk about our physical health — we go to the gym and we try to eat healthy— but all too often we completely ignore our mental health because it can be too taboo to discuss.
Society, media, and movies have made mental health issues sound like a disease. When I'm training for a Spartan race, I often tell people, I won’t be able to join them for a night out or will catch up with them after dinner because I'm training and looking after my physical health. This reason makes complete sense to most and there's no drama about it. On the flip side, if I was to say I'm not coming out tonight because I need to look after my mental health, people will think strangely of me and probably think I’ve gone off the deep end. Because society has done a poor job at educating on the true nature and impact of mental health, people can get really weird with you when you’re upfront about it. This challenge definitely needs to be spoken about much more often as a society, to help smash the stigma and taboo surrounding its causes, symptoms, and impact to millions of lives around the globe.
Are there any ways that men can raise the issue of mental health within their organization or with their peers?
There's a big misconception that you need to do something big — as in you need to make this massive statement and do something drastic. In life, it's usually the small steps and changes that make the biggest impact. One way to make a change is by simply talking about it. There's no magic formula that's going to fix everything overnight. As a society, we shouldn't berate or belittle men for opening up nor should we label them as weak. We need to recognize it's okay to feel down and encourage folks to seek help to get them back on the right track in terms of mental health and stability.
There are initiatives that can help you start the conversation. In the UK, there's a concept called Tea & Talk. In collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation, individuals can download a free Tea & Talk pack and set up a Tea & Talk event in their workplace, local community, or place of worship. The event aims to bring people together to chat about mental health issues over tea and sweets.
How has mental health affected your day-to-day life and what in what ways have you coped with it?
When life isn’t going as planned and you're not feeling your best, it’s difficult to recognize how your mental wellness can be taking a toll until after the fact. I only realized what was affecting me afterward — as they say, in hindsight, everything is 20/20. Steve Jobs once said, “you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward”.
I started my business in my early 20’s without realizing the pressure and challenges of running a business. People say running a business is like riding a roller coaster, there are ups and downs, and you sometimes go through a loop — I’d have to agree.
I'm grateful I had a good support network around me. I went to counseling which really helped to focus on myself. As an entrepreneur, you can easily lose the focus to care for yourself. Some people believe it their life's purpose to serve and help others become the best version of themselves. The truth is, you’ve got to become the best version of yourself before you can help somebody become the best version of themselves.
The analogy I like to use that best emphasizes this point derives from when you buckle in on an airplane. When you’re ready to take off and the flight attendant begins to provide safety instructions, they always say “In the unlikely event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, the oxygen masks will drop down, secure your own mask before helping others.” If your loved one is struggling to breathe and you’re struggling to breathe as well, you will be of no help to them and those in need. In life, by putting on your own ‘mask’, and focusing on yourself to become the best version you can be, helps others become the best version of themselves because you’re equipped to take on the strain of their challenges by having addressed your own. Help yourself first, there's nothing wrong with that at all.