“I was just not myself”: Entrepreneur Sheryl Thai on COVID-19, mental health and the power of asking for help

Sheryl Thai

League of Extraordinary Women co-founder and chief Sheryl Thai. Source: supplied.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australian shores, it threw the economy and thousands of small businesses into chaos.

For Sheryl Thai, founder of Cupcake Central and co-founder and chief of the League of Extraordinary Women, it also marked the beginning of a personal journey of fear, grief, vulnerability and resilience.

The League is a community designed to connect women in business, largely through events and networking.

Like most events-based businesses, it was badly affected by the virus.

“About 90% of our revenue was gone overnight,” Thai tells SmartCompany.

“It was really quite scary, and the plan we had for the year ahead completely went out the door,” she explains.

“There was a lot of uncertainty.”

This story has a happy ending. Thai was able to pivot the business and launch an online community for League members.

But, it hasn’t by any means been an easy journey, and, in the spirit of the community, Thai has been open and honest at every step of the way.

It’s been a personal battle, and a grieving process, she explains.

“The first few weeks were really tough. I remember being really down.

“I just kept reading the news and refreshing the news, and it was really fuelled by fear,” she says.

“I felt like I was being swallowed up by negative press, and I couldn’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

For Thai ⁠— an extrovert who typically spends her days at events, surrounded by people and flitting between coffee meetings ⁠— it was a huge lifestyle shift.

“I’m normally a very active person,” she says.

“I didn’t know how to quickly change that … it just hit me a few weeks in that the world was never going to be the same again.”

About three weeks after the crisis hit, Thai realised she had to reach out to someone for support.

She’s part of the Entrepreneur’s Organisation, a community for business owners based on confidentiality, and designed to allow people to show vulnerability and share concerns.

“When I opened up to my group of core entrepreneurs … I started to realise I was not in a good space,” she says.

Murky moments

Through the Entrepreneur’s Organisation, Thai reached out to speak to a professional psychologist to help her understand the way she was feeling, and start to manage it.

Ultimately, she was spurred to action after hearing about an entrepreneur who tragically died by suicide shortly after the COVID-19 crisis hit.

“That made me realise this is quite serious,” she says.

“There are a lot of people out there who have lost everything … overnight it’s been uprooted and it’s completely gone.”

And she herself had had that moment of not quite knowing what to do.

“It’s the end of everything. If I have to close everything down, how am I going to support myself? What does the future look like?

“In those murky moments, it’s easy to let your mind run its course and come up with all crazy scenarios.”

But she doesn’t see it as a weakness, or something that should be taboo.

“I tell people about it. I’m quite frank about it,” she says.

“Actually, it’s not a weird thing to do to book in a session with a psychologist. Prevention is better than a cure,” she adds.

And, Thai still has a business to run.

“I need to be leading,” she says.

But, in order to do that effectively, she realised she had to look after herself first.

“And so, I allowed myself to work on myself,” she explains.

“For me, having a trained professional helped me understand the mechanics of why I felt feelings of grief, anger at times and hopelessness, made me put a plan in place to strengthen myself so I can continue to lead.”

Advice and inspiration

For Thai, chatting to the psychologist hammered home the awareness that “I was just not myself”, she explains.

“It’s one thing to speak to friends and family,” she says,

“But, having someone who is trained and professional at what they do, but also is just that outside person, looking in and giving you a different perspective in life … really made it easier for me to understand how I could focus on what I could control.”

For example, she explains how she found herself constantly refreshing her news feeds, following the COVID-19 statistics. But she didn’t really know why.

“I realised, through talking to my psychologist, it was because I was searching for answers in a state of uncertainty,” she says.

“Because I felt so uncertain, I felt like the news would give me answers.

“But the thing is, the news doesn’t really give you answers in terms of stability and certainty. Sometimes it can can breed a bit more fear.”

The psychologist also advised her to engage in mindful activities like meditation and exercise, she explains. It seems like obvious advice, she admits, but sometimes everyone needs a nudge.

“I had been meaning to do it, but I didn’t,” Thai says.

“It was only when someone I didn’t know gave me that advice did it sink in.”

Now, she limits her time spent reading the news, and has even muted social media posts from some friends who are sharing things from unreliable sources.

Instead, she’s surrounding herself with “really positive people”.

Many of the entrepreneurs in her network have found new business opportunities, or pivoted their existing offerings.

“Being surrounded by people doing stuff and taking action has made me feel so much better, and hopeful.”

A safe space

Of course, Thai has also now made her own pivot, launching the League’s online offering of live Q&A sessions, weekly meet-ups, virtual events and resources.

It’s designed to be a positive, safe and virus-free space, she explains.

“I think everyone else is overloaded with news about COVID, and wants a safe space to not talk about those those things,” she says.

“That resonated with heaps of our members, and heaps of people who joined up as members.”

Thai has been running virtual events and inviting people to engage in the community in new ways.

“Human connection is so important,” she says.

The League of Extraordinary Women was founded to counter feelings of isolation, she adds. It’s important for people to feel they have a connection to others, and a feeling of belonging.

“That makes people feel like they’re valued, that what they’re feeling is okay, and that they’re not an outcast from the rest of society,” she explains.

“It’s been really exciting just to start being more engaging online.”

If you or someone you know need to talk to someone, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.

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