Kayley Reed is the CEO and Creative Director of Wear Your Label, a clothing line dedicated to starting conversations around mental health and spreading the idea that “it’s okay not to be okay.” She embodies what it means to be a strong, independent woman while embracing vulnerability. I met Kayley two years ago through Jack.org, and am so lucky to consider her a Role Model in my own life – from sharing her successes and failures, to always finding a balance between taking care of herself and being there for others. Thank you, Kayley, for showing me that a person can have a mental illness AND be successful. -AL
AL: How has dealing with mental illness or mental health issues impacted the way you conduct yourself professionally? In what ways has your mental health impacted business decisions or how you make them?
KR: It can be challenging, because there is still a stigma in the workplace – especially in the startup scene. Entrepreneurs are pressured to do it all, to be successful, to build and grow companies quickly, and to endure/overcome obstacles because it’s part of the journey. We’re expected to carry the ship (even when it’s sinking) and to always bring optimism and encouragement to our employees, investors, partners, and customers. But depression and suicidal ideation among entrepreneurs is pretty astounding – just look at: http://www.cnn.com/videos/cnnmoney/2017/03/08/mostly-human-silicon-valleys-secret.cnnmoney
I often struggle to find that perfect balance – between being a leader to my team, playing the startup “role”, and being authentic to my brand (and my mental health). In business settings, it’s not always professional to be transparent about what you’re going through. However, with internal business decisions and establishing our work environment, mental health has played a big role in making decisions.
For example, being very flexible in work hours and scheduling. I’m not a morning person, and trying to establish a 9-5 routine was really difficult for me. So I decided to allow myself and our employees more flexibility to fit with their work style. Also, being really understanding with mental health issues and encouraging employees to talk about whatever they might be going through – and to take a sick day for their mental health if they need it. Every Friday morning is also considered “Self-Care Time”: everyone takes the morning off work to do something for themselves, whether it’s go to the gym, sleep in, or hang out with a friend. It’s a small gesture that helps boost moral after a long week!
AL: What is the hardest part of being a successful entrepreneur and someone who deals with mental illness?
KR: On the outside looking in, things seem much more successful than they are. And when you struggle with mental illness, the obstacles seem that much grander. People are constantly asking “What’s new? What’s next?” and sometimes I feel like just getting out of bed was an accomplishment. I think that over-glamorized picture of a startup founder is harmful – the glorification of “the hustle” over our own mental health. People expect you to give it 150%, 24/7. But entrepreneurs need down time, too. We need self-care. It shouldn’t come with the stigma of being lazy, or not being fully committed to your startup. It should be encouraged.
AL: You chose to integrate mental health with your career. How has that impacted you?
KR: I often say that starting Wear Your Label has been the best, and worst, thing for my mental health. The best, because it’s forced me to share my story, to be completely transparent with what I’ve gone through, and to surround myself with an amazing community of people who “get it”. The worst, because building a business is really, really hard. The emotional and financial stress, the expectations you put on yourself, and the expectations from others… It’s all very challenging. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I’m fortunate that I get to travel a lot, and speak to different audiences both about my mental health journey, and startup journey. I’ve met some of the most amazing people – from musicians and celebrities, to grassroots non-profit organizers and advocates. The best part of my job is being able to connect on that level of “I understand. I feel you.”, and be inspired by the stories of others. There are so, so many people doing really important work towards changing the stigma, and I’m grateful to be one small piece of the puzzle.
AL: Many people believe that having a mental illness can hinder your professional development or progress, whereas yours has been at the forefront of your success. What has that been like?
KR: It can be hindrance, for sure. But something we talk about at Wear Your Label is turning your struggles into something that make you stronger. We just co-hosted a panel at Dalhousie University, titled “Your Struggle is Your Sword” – and I love that quote. It’s really a shift in perspective that has helped me turn my mental illness from a negative in my life, to a positive (in a sense). It’s taught me empathy. It’s taught me understanding. It’s taught me self-love, confidence, and self-care. It’s taught me the importance of advocacy (not just in mental health, but other causes, like intersectional feminism). My mental illness has taught me the importance of speaking out, of sharing your story (whatever it is), and of taking action on things you care about.
Having struggled with an eating disorder, a lot of my backstory with mental health issues is focused on the narrative of perfection. Seeking perfection in myself, my body, and things that I do; I have a fear of imperfection and being recognized as flawed. However, channeling that same care and energy into something positive – like building a brand – rather than something destructive – like ED behaviour – is one of the ways I’ve tried to use my struggle, and turn it into a strength.
AL: What are some of the benefits and challenges of having your mental health and your profession be so closely linked?
KR: Benefits: I think many people look to me as a Role Model. At least in the sense of mental health advocacy, being open about my struggles, and encouraging others to practice self-care. Every day I get messages on instagram from friends, and strangers, reaching out about what they’re going through and thanking me for sharing my story. It means a lot to know that others feel a little more comfortable, and a little less alone, because of the work I do.
The challenges: I think leaders, and mental health advocates, are often expected to be “fully recovered”. As if we’ve figured everything out, and are totally happy and healthy now, and that’s why we can talk about it. However, I think that’s a misconception. A lot of leaders that I know still struggle with their mental health – they’ve just learned to manage it better, and speak openly about it.
AL: IMPACT is about sharing our stories, but also about how our mental health can impact the stories of others. What kind of impact do you think your mental health, or sharing your mental health has had on other people?
KR: Well, I’m really lucky in the sense that my story has had a lot of exposure – through press, on social media – and I’ve had a ton of positive feedback from people, all over the world, sharing how important it is to them. It honestly still surprises me to this day, how impactful Wear Your Label is, and has been, to other’s recovery journeys. To me, I just wanted to create something that I wish I had when I was struggling. That’s my motivation. I don’t often take a ton of time to reflect on the impact I’ve had, because it’s my job now. I live this (mental health advocacy) every single day. It’s not something I want to do, it’s something I feel I need to do. So recognition and stories that people share really is amazing. I was honoured with the Young Alumni Achievement Award from my alma mater, the University of New Brunswick, and I definitely cried receiving that and fully realizing the impact that I and Wear Your Label have had in less than 3 years.