Reflections on being a Misfit: Entrepreneurship in College, Mental Health, & Why I'm leaving the company I helped build
After four enriching, life-changing years, today I am transitioning from a full-time operating role to an advisory position at Misfit Foods, the company we started to fight climate change through delicious food products. While this hasn’t been an easy decision, I have never been more excited for the future and vision of the company than I am now. I wanted to take a moment and tell you how I got here, share a few thoughts on mental health, and talk about my experiences as a founder who grew up in a low-income household.
A few months ago, I decided to go to therapy. The unique stress of being an entrepreneur hit its breaking point. On a consultation call, a therapist asked me if I had considered whether or not I was depressed. As someone who has built a reputation around being unusually charismatic, I had not. I’ve since learned that entrepreneurs are 30% more likely than the average person to experience depression.¹
The conversation felt like one of those moments where a painful memory reaches that gushy point where you can start to laugh about it a little. I hung up and scheduled another appointment. It’s been hard for me to abandon a scarcity mentality, even when it’s your job as an entrepreneur to dream up much bigger possibilities for yourself and the world — possibilities far beyond the stability that many immigrant parents want for their children. Investing in therapy has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have made a lot of progress, but in the past few months it’s become clear to me that I have to prioritize my mental and physical health in a way that is incompatible with a full time role at Misfit. But wow, it’s been like a game of snakes and ladders.
Four years ago, my co-founder Phil and I bought four crates of aesthetically misfit, but perfectly lovable peaches from the farmer’s market on Georgetown’s campus. The peaches weighed over 100 pounds, and Phil with his marathon running, Iron-Man competing athletic confidence assured me that “we would be fine” carrying the crates almost a mile away to his college house. A few lopsided steps later, Phil and I dropped our crates and rubbed our raw hands on our thighs. We needed help. At that exact moment, a golf cart rolled next to us. Mike, who worked for the facilities office at Georgetown, introduced himself and offered us a ride. We were stunned that in our moment of need, someone serendipitously offered to help.
Soon after, we made our first batch of juice from a borrowed blender (thanks to a woman I babysat for). It was messy. It was delicious. It was the beginning of what we would articulate in the future as our mission “to turn supply chain inefficiencies into delicious food products.”
Since then, many, many people and organizations have been versions of Mike and his golf cart to our company. I don’t believe that entrepreneurship is about founders “disrupting” the world with their ideas. Rather, I believe that entrepreneurship is an exercise in how to build community well. Misfit is the accumulation of a thousand favors from people we love.
That mentorship and community allowed us to create our first business plan and set of products in the Halcyon Incubator. We were accepted to the Chobani Food Incubator, named Forbes 30 under 30, and had the honor of selling our products with amazing partners across the East Coast. We told our story with our friends at Banza on Good Morning America. Thanks to the fine folks at Gander, the rebrand for our humble little startup was named one of the Top 10 Brands of 2017 by Under Consideration. I tried my best to talk about being a female founder in Cosmopolitan and Seventeen. We brought on a third amazing co-founder, Dave.
Phil and I are also first-time founders who have never had real jobs or real bosses before. We made tons of mistakes, moved quickly when we should have moved slowly, got stuck in analysis paralysis, said sorry too quickly and thank you not enough.
Misfit is entering a new phase — after raising a second round of financing, we decided to stop juice production in order to focus on new products that have a larger impact on consumers’ diets and the planet. We have identified our next product, created prototypes, found the right partners, and are positioned to launch in a few months with the infrastructure to scale. The future is very bright and Misfit is in the capable hands of Phil and Dave. Dave comes to us with over a decade of work experience, most recently at One Acre Fund, an organization that Phil and I both deeply admire. He leads with humility and makes everyone in the room feel more comfortable.
Working with Phil as my co-CEO has been the biggest honor of my life and I look forward to remaining his biggest supporter. I also look forward to continuing to try to make him laugh with my conceptually excellent, yet poorly executed jokes. As Phil endearingly puts it, “Ann and I are different species in personality type but siblings in our values systems.” I am forever grateful that he’s my best friend.
Entrepreneurship has been the best and most complicated learning opportunity I have ever had. It has been both world expanding and deeply lonely. I am the co-founder of Misfit. I am also the daughter of two Chinese immigrants and I grew up in a low-income household. I am a Gates Millennium Scholar, a program created by Bill and Melinda Gates to send low-income kids of color to college.
I am also so, so lucky. And grateful. The world of entrepreneurship has felt like a gift to me. Without graduating from college without debt, founding a company was not a risk I would have been able to take. UC Berkeley economist Ross Levine, notes that “If one does not have money in the form of a family with money, the chances of becoming an entrepreneur drop quite a bit.”² I also have the privilege of attending a prestigious school and benefit from its network of accomplished alumnae. My parents taught me what true resilience and love looks like and their life as immigrants has been one, large and beautiful entrepreneurial project.
These dynamics sometimes make my head spin. One time, early on, we pitched the business in front of a public speaking coach and a group of potential investors and advisors. After we finished presenting, the public speaking coach pulled me aside. He told me that I spoke with an uptick, which made me seem unconfident. He told me that speaking with an uptick was linguistically common for women and people from low-income backgrounds, and that we could work together to correct it. There was something jarring about having my background deduced from a single linguistic quirk. I felt simultaneously too visible and completely invisible at the same time. Experiences like these helped me contextualize larger trends in venture funding. In 2018, less than 2.2% of venture capital funding went to female founders — and for women of color, that number is 0.2%.³
Thus began four years of internal dialogue. Was I being too emotional? Was I apologizing too much? Did people think I was being too aggressive by trying to be confident? Why were there four forks at this seated dinner, and should I pretend that I understand the culture of the ultra-wealthy? Why did that person assume that I was Phil’s assistant? Why did they ask him all the questions during the meeting? I stumbled my way through various phases of self-doubt, code-switching, and imposter syndrome — with an immense sense of guilt that I wasn’t making more money to give my parents the life they deserve after all the sacrifices they have made for me. Phil was the greatest ally and advocate for diversity and inclusion through all of it. I also met many founders and mentors who recognized the inequities of the game and provided resources for support.
In a weird way, I think the life of being a Misfit is connected to all of this. The brand we built tries to find community in liminal space. Misfit is counterintuitively universal; everyone has felt out of place at some point in their life. There’s unity in the feeling that at the end of the day, we are all just trying to figure it out. We are all just trying to find safe places to make mistakes. We are all trying to build things with people we love.
This has not been easy to write. It’s deeply personal. But it’s always been my style to wear my heart on my sleeve. I believe that leading with vulnerability is a powerful way to create a more empathetic world. I hope that sharing my experience is a small but impactful contribution in the fight to level the playing field for all types of founders with diverse backgrounds. I hope this opens more conversations around mental health and entrepreneurship. I hope more people ask for help.
I have never felt more existentially nauseous and more 25 years old in my entire life. I am taking the next few months to reset and reflect on the past four years and I look forward to staying close to Misfit as an advisor. And who knows, maybe in a few years I will have the audacity to try to build something from scratch again.
P.S. I have set some time next week in my calendar to connect on the transition. Feel free to schedule a video call here. We figured out how to handle this transition emotionally and tactically, like all things at Misfit, by talking to mentors and other founders. We would love to pay it forward.
A special thank you to Amelia Friedman, whose post inspired mine. And to my personal advisory board (you know who you are) thanks for holding my hand in the leap.
About the Author
Ann Yang is an empath, co-founder misfit foods, which she founded during her time as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, was featured in Forbes 30 under 30 and is a Gates Millennium Scholar.