Be compassionate: The highs and lows of entrepreneurship can often feel like whiplash. This is why it is so important to have compassion towards yourself. For both of us, the mindfulness practices we had in place, including daily meditation, journaling, exercise and good nutrition helped us ensure we prioritized self-care. It was our way of showing kindness and deep compassion for ourselves which helped us bounce back from bad days.
Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheba Zaidi and Genevive Savundranayagam, founders of Mahara Mindfulness — a contemporary lifestyle brand with a mission to create products and experiences that offer people a stepping-stone into a world of mindful practices and personal transformation. Mahara’s first product, The Human Being Journal, was created as a direct response to the global pandemic to help people manage mental health and reflect holistically. The journal has been featured in Oprah Magazine as part of Oprah’s Healthy Living ‘O’ List and Jessica Alba’s wellness guide. Learn more at maharamindfulness.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
We are the founders of Mahara — a contemporary lifestyle brand with a mission to create products and experiences that offer people a stepping-stone into a world of mindful practices and personal transformation. From years of personal experience with journaling, meditating and breathwork, we came to deeply understand the immense healing power of a lifestyle rooted in mindfulness and wanted to share that with others. In early 2020, we left our decade-long corporate careers to launch Mahara — never anticipating a global pandemic to hit just weeks later. But with every challenge, comes an opportunity. We decided to develop our first product, The Human Being Journal as a direct response to the pandemic to help people go inward, gain perspective and live more fulfilled lives — something we are all craving during this unprecedented time.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
It’s hard to pin down one specific “aha moment” as there were a series of events that led up to building Mahara and creating The Human Being Journal. We like to think the universe had a bigger plan for us when we met over a decade ago at a PR agency. Despite our vastly different backgrounds (Sheba was brought up in the Middle East to Pakistani parents, and Genevive was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Canada) we were instantly connected by our curiosity for spirituality and mindful living. Not only were we colleagues, we became fast friends, roommates and travel buddies. We also started our first side hustle together with our friend Erin Bury, a wine tour company, five years ago. Once we got our feet wet with part-time entrepreneurship, we knew we wanted to do something bigger together.
The catalyst for wanting to launch a mindfulness business came about after seeing high performers all around us struggle with stress and anxiety but unable to find tools to manage their mental health effectively. We knew how mindfulness practices benefited our lives and saw an opportunity to share what worked for us with others. We were also at a crossroads in our careers and wanted to move into something more mission-driven.
We took a leap of faith, left our corporate careers behind, and went all-in on building Mahara in 2020. Our intention was to launch with mastermind events, but when the pandemic hit, that was no longer a viable option. We quickly had to pivot and decided to create our first product, The Human Being Journal. We knew that journaling was scientifically proven to be one of the easiest and most cost-effective mindfulness practices to help manage mental health, and with a third of Americans showing signs of clinical anxiety and depression amidst the pandemic, we wanted to do something to help.
The “aha moment” for the journal concept actually dates back a couple of years when we watched a webinar series with Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle where they discuss Tolle’s book “A New Earth.” Tolle talks about what it means to be a human being. The human side speaks to what we do in our life — our outer selves and earthly identifiers of success. The being side refers to the true essence of who we are — timeless and formless. It is only when we bridge both worlds that we can unleash our full potential. This was a pivotal moment for us. The ultimate “aha”. At the time, we didn’t know what we were going to do with it, but we knew it was a simple but powerful concept.
Fast forward to 2020 with a global pandemic underway and so many people feeling lost, uncertain, anxious and trying to find meaning in their lives. We recalled the concept that always stuck with us and it inspired the overarching idea for our journal. Our intention with The Human Being Journal is to help people go inward, gain perspective and live more fulfilled lives. It invites people to dive deep by answering guided questions rooted in the 10 fundamental pillars of a happy life — including health, spirit, career and relationships.
In hindsight, it was a series of “aha moments” that led us to build our business. We have learned over time, that if you are paying attention and connecting the dots, life is a feedback loop that’s pushing you in the right direction.
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
We would say we are both natural-born leaders. From a young age, we were driven by solving problems, serving a community and inspiring others. Coming from immigrant backgrounds, we innately understood the importance of adding value in order to be indispensable — whether it was in our careers, social circles or philanthropy. However, our aptitude for entrepreneurship developed in different ways.
Sheba’s desire for entrepreneurship was inspired by the immigrant experience of her parents. She saw what made them fighters and extremely resilient in the face of setbacks. Watching them sacrifice in order to give their children a better life informed her worldview and helped her naturally develop the characteristics that a lot of entrepreneurs possess — from work ethic, delayed gratification, optimism and the belief that you can build a better world for yourself.
Genevive always had an entrepreneurial spirit and knew as a child she wanted to work for herself one day. She thrived in challenging situations, questioned how to make things better, loved being creative and taking risks. Throughout her career, she gravitated to roles that enabled her to dive in headfirst, influence operations and build strong teams. She helped build a PR agency from the ground up — learning the ins and outs of what it takes to build a successful business. Every career choice was a lesson in entrepreneurship. But most importantly, similar to Sheba, her parents were a source of inspiration. As many first-generation children from immigrant parents can relate, she witnessed daily the resilience it takes to build a new life from scratch despite immense obstacles.
It was our unique life experiences, skills, and shared vision that made us quickly realize we could be a power team. After building our first successful business together in 2016 (a wine tour company), it gave us the confidence we needed to leave our careers behind and begin our journey into full-time entrepreneurship.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
In many ways, we would say we inspired each other to start Mahara. Although our entrepreneurship journey was significantly inspired by the immigrant experience of our parents, the idea to start Mahara was inspired by something deeper.
For Genevive, a powerful conversation with a friend who questioned why she was not living to her full capacity (something no one wants to hear!), challenged her to dig deep and figure out what she wanted to offer the world. Around the same time, Sheba was traveling around Europe and was hungry to make some changes in her life and move into something more purposeful.
After Sheba returned from Europe, as good friends do, we spent hours catching up. We shared our epiphanies and what we wanted our lives to look like in the future. We had similar visions and goals. We didn’t fully realize it then, but that conversation was the turning point in our lives. A light bulb went off and we realized we needed to build a business in the mindfulness space.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re a small business with a big heart. From day one, it was extremely important for us to understand our “why” and deliver value to our community at every touchpoint — from products we develop, our online presence, partnerships and social media content. Giving back is also baked into our philosophy, and a portion of all product sales support charitable organizations globally.
Being clear on our “why” from the onset made it easier to deliver value. It was our north star that helped us build a unique brand that stood out in a crowded space.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Integrity, intuition and courage are three characteristics we find are key to being a successful business leader. These are also an integral part of Mahara’s core values.
- Integrity — Approaching our business and relationships with integrity has enabled us to build an engaged community and customer base that is rooted in honesty, transparency and trust. It reflects how we treat each other, our customers and our partners.
- Intuition — Having the ability to think broadly, leveraging intuition and unique ideas to position Mahara for success has been crucial to our success. Being able to cut through the noise and complement our knowledge and market research with our gut instincts has helped us gain the confidence we need to make decisions quickly and move forward faster.
- Courage — We believe in displaying grit, without ego. Being able to persevere, take risks and push through when the going gets tough without letting ego get in the way has been key to achieving many business milestones.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
We have long held the belief that patience is an overrated virtue. Most of our lives, we were given the advice that you need to exercise patience to get what you want– and although it is an important trait (aka don’t be entitled!), there is a point at which it stops serving you.
Understanding that you are the master of your own destiny and that life is short propels you into action. We wish that we had chased some of the things we wanted earlier, instead of patiently waiting for them to happen. Knowing the limitations of too much patience is important when it comes to business success.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
The underlying mindset of a business has a direct impact on work culture. To prevent burn out, wellness needs to be a priority, and every employee needs to be aware of it. Communication and managing expectations are key to developing a culture where employees thrive. It is important to lead by example and to influence workplace culture from the top.
At Mahara, prioritizing employee health and well-being are non-negotiables — it is not just a business. We encourage each other to make sure we take breaks, meditate, exercise and take mental health days. It is baked into our ethos and celebrated.
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
In order to build trust, credibility and authority in their industry, leaders need to have a compelling vision for their organization, display humility and need to stay curious.
- Have a compelling vision. Leaders need to know what they stand for — their north star — and be able to articulate that consistently both internally and externally. Having a compelling vision means providing clear direction to employees, leading with a sense of purpose, and providing customers value in your offering.
- Display humility. There is a confidence that exudes from leaders who are humble. They are not afraid to seek input from others, they encourage people to speak up, and respect different points of view. They are confident in their abilities and are able to say “I don’t know.” This openness and willingness to be vulnerable helps in building lasting trust.
- Stay curious. It is important to be plugged-in in order to evolve with the times. Leaders who are in the know, are open to learning, and constantly innovating, will continuously shine in their industry. They are game changers because they have a growth mind-set.Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
All of the above are essential today as it is so easy to get lost in the noise. Clarity of vision means there’s focus, humility means you’re always willing to learn, and staying curious keeps you ahead of the curve.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Three mistakes we often see CEOs and founders make when they start a business are:
- Not enough market research: We often find that founders get attached to their ideas and don’t do enough market research to really validate their concept. It is important to check your ego at the door and conduct enough focus groups with your target audience to know with certainty that you are solving a real problem that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of the consumer.
- Planning paralysis: Small businesses need to learn to leverage the one inherent advantage they have compared to their larger competition — the ability to move fast and pivot quickly from business planning to execution. We see founders spending far too long in the planning phase. As an entrepreneur, your only real advantage is speed. You have to move quickly and feedback from the market will allow you to iterate faster and continue to stay competitive.
- Not trusting their gut: Despite the importance of market research and understanding your customer needs, there also comes a point where you have to trust your own instincts and not rely too heavily on feedback. As Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” There are times when people don’t know what they want until you show them. Market research is the first step. The next, as Steve Jobs says: “Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” Inspired by Jobs, we believe that in addition to market research, founders need to strike a healthy balance between feedback and innovation — and innovation comes from trusting your gut.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
Unlike regular jobs, as a founder, the buck stops with you. You understand that the results you see are often a direct result of your strategy, hard work and instincts. At early stages, wins tend to be small and incremental. The highs are often quickly balanced with lows as you manage through the excitement of launching a new product while dealing with the day-to-day realities of running a business. We remember when we closed our first retail partnership, we were over the moon. But in the same breath, we received a product shipment where a quarter of our journals were damaged. It was devastating for us as a small business. Although we eventually solved for it, it reinforced the idea that even when you are celebrating wins as an entrepreneur, you are simultaneously putting out fires. You’re constantly riding the emotional pendulum.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
As a small bootstrapped business, we often have days where we have high highs and low lows. Having launched just four months ago, our wins and failures are a daily occurrence. However, we remember one particular 48-hour period in January where we got three pieces of amazing news back-to-back. Firstly, we found out that the Oprah Magazine was going to feature The Human Being Journal as part of Oprah’s Healthy Living ‘O’ List — a full circle moment for us as the journal was inspired by a conversation Oprah had with Eckhart Tolle. Secondly, we closed our first North American retail partnership with one of our favorite stores. Lastly, Jessica Alba, who we admire and respect for her socially conscious brand Honest Company, showed her support for our journals on her social media channels with over 18 million followers. Needless to say, those two days were a whirlwind and we felt unbelievably high from all the positive traction our product was getting so early in our launch.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
There was a day a few months ago where we felt unusually low because we woke up to news that our biggest competitor had just launched a product that was extremely similar to ours. Compared to them, we were a small fish, and we had just launched a month prior. There was a period of 24 hours where we felt defeated. We were a team of two and poured our heart into developing our journal. After many setbacks, and with the pandemic layered on top of everything, we experienced one of our lowest moments that day. We felt that we would be drowned out by competitor noise because they were bigger, more established and had a massive marketing machine behind them.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
Our bounce-back came from changing our relationship with competition. That moment taught us an invaluable business lesson — that competition is healthy. It helps validate your idea, reminds you that you’re on the right path and that there is a market for your product. Despite the low moment, we turned it around and it motivated us to keep going and understand that there is room for everyone as long as your product can speak for itself. We also reminded ourselves that our vision and mission was much bigger than one product and we were just getting started.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
A video about this can be seen here.
- Know your WHY: On bad days (of which there will be many!) you need to be able to come back to your “why.” What is driving you to solve this problem? Why do you care to put your blood, sweat and tears into this every day? For us at Mahara, our intention was clear from the start. It was deeply personal — we wanted to make a meaningful difference in the world and inspire humanity to live mindfully.
- Stay Curious: Curiosity arms you with the ability to stay hungry and find new solutions to problems that will inevitably arise as an entrepreneur. We experienced this early in our journey with Mahara — just two weeks after quitting our careers, the global pandemic hit, and we had to change course. Instead of wallowing, we got curious about what problems we could solve, and we decided to move into creating a product that could help with the mental health crisis that was unfolding all around us.
- Display grit without ego: Courage allows you to display grit, without ego. This is one of the most important qualities an entrepreneur needs in order to navigate the daily highs and lows. When the pandemic hit, it would have been easy to give up, return to our corporate careers and chalk everything up to bad timing. Instead, we had to dig deep and find the courage to move forward with Mahara and trust the process, despite not having a clear roadmap in front of us.
- Keep perspective: Perspective for us is defined by the ability to ask yourself; will this issue be important in five days, five weeks, five years or five decades? And accordingly, assign the accurate weight to the problem at hand. Perspective allows you to remain optimistic, while keeping your eye on the long game. Having perspective helped us manage extreme shipping delays resulting from COVID, deal with damaged inventory, not having warehouse space to store product (so we converted our apartment into one!), and so on. We knew these struggles were part of our journey and that in a few years we will be able to look back and appreciate the lessons we learned during these early years.
- Be compassionate: The highs and lows of entrepreneurship can often feel like whiplash. This is why it is so important to have compassion towards yourself. For both of us, the mindfulness practices we had in place, including daily meditation, journaling, exercise and good nutrition helped us ensure we prioritized self-care. It was our way of showing kindness and deep compassion for ourselves which helped us bounce back from bad days.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience to us means facing change with optimism and dealing with difficult situations calmly so you recover quickly and emerge stronger. Being able to withstand adverse events and stressful situations without falling apart is a sign of strength, and showcases the ability to treat pressures as stimulating challenges rather than hopeless obstacles to overcome.
We find the most resilient people are the ones who have acute self-awareness. They function effectively under pressure, dealing with tough situations fairly, decisively and calmly. They react to stressful situations in a positive and healthy manner and are productive when there are deadlines and pressures. They are also receptive to criticism and use it as a tool to learn and improve.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Despite our different backgrounds and upbringings, we both developed our resiliency muscles very early on.
Sheba was born in Canada to Pakistani parents and then moved to the Middle East when she was five to a country called Oman. At an early age she had to learn to navigate vastly different worlds — the extremely liberal and Western education she was receiving at her international school, with the conservative environment outside. Her ability to dance between these different cultures allowed her to not only develop deep empathy and awareness but also build the resilience that is required to grapple with big identity questions. From a young age, she was quickly forced to figure out what she believed in and stood for.
Being born in Sri Lanka during the civil war, Genevive learned very quickly how to be resilient. Growing up, she was witness to some extremely traumatic events and was confronted with stressful situations on a daily basis. She was fortunate to be surrounded by family members who were the epitome of resilience. They always remained calm under pressure and taught her the strength that comes from going inward to find peace and cope with external life challenges.
Reflecting back, we both recognize how important those foundational years were for us in building our resiliency — not only in life but in business.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
We are extremely positive people, even during the most challenging situations. Like everyone, we have our bad days, but we quickly bounce back and have an optimistic outlook. We credit this to our years of mindfulness practices — including meditating, journaling and breathwork. By increasing our awareness and learning to be present, we find we are able to see situations more objectively and not allow them to have a lasting hold on us.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
We believe positivity is energy, and we live by the idea that you are responsible for the energy you bring into a room. This was inspired by a story we read about Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist, in her book “My Stroke of Insight.” She talks about experiencing a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. As she observed her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, or write, one thing she didn’t lose touch with was her intuitive and kinesthetic right brain. She said as she lay in her hospital bed — seemingly lifeless — the energy of the people around her played an important role in her recovery. Taylor says she could feel the energy of the people who walked in her room and could even tell which nurses made her feel safe. The nurses who would make a connection with her, simply by making eye contact or touching her foot, made all the difference. As opposed to someone who just came in, dealt with the machinery and ignored that there was a person in the bed. Taylor’s story is a reminder to us all that the energy we exude — including positivity — has a ripple effect that impacts everyone around you.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” — Mae West
This quote embodies what it means to embrace every moment and live life to the fullest. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that our time is limited, and you can’t hack your way to a dream life — ending up somewhere beautiful requires thoughtful examination (which is why we developed The Human Being Journal!). The more we get to know ourselves, the more we can live with intention, and never look back with regrets.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!