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Female Disruptors: Erayna Sargent of Hooky Wellness On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Take the timeout before you need it. I wasn’t kidding when I said my therapist put me on time out. At the end of 2019, I decided to take a short-term disability leave. I was at the peak of my most intense burnout experience and, as I put it, “life was life-ing” and was taking more of the bandwidth that I realized. My dad’s fight with cancer and other aggressive health issues was intensifying, the family stuff that comes with that, dual career, cross country moves.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erayna Sargent of Hooky Wellness.

Leveraging her 15 years in brand innovation at companies including Nestle and Intuit, she uniquely blends mental wellness tools with a digestible Design Thinking inspired approach.

Her personal experience with Burnout set her on a mission to make navigating this experience more accessible. Erayna has coached professionals across organizations, including Google, Accenture, Molson Coors, P&G, and Teach for America, about the power of being proactive with your well-being.

Erayna is the founder of BLEND; a non-profit focused on supporting young professionals of color. She has an MBA from Indiana University and is a member of the Mental Wellness Initiative at the Global Wellness Institute and the AllRaise Visionary Voices Speaker Bureau. Erayna has guest appeared on podcasts including NPR Life Kit, Dribble Overtime, Balanced Black Girl, Ozy Media, Hour Detroit, and Architectural Digest.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was born and raised in Detroit, where hustle is just a part of our DNA. So I took that baton and ran, building a career in brand management & innovation.

I’ve been a nomad living in cities including Chicago, Cleveland, Bloomington, Indiana, St.Gallen, Switzerland, San Francisco, Kansas City. Last year my husband and I moved to Charlotte, NC, where we recently purchased our first home.

I recognized from an early age that I wanted to build a career that I was passionate about and even recall declaring, “I’m not going to spend the next 40 years of my life working jobs that I don’t like”. So, in my sophomore year, I shifted my focus from the very Detroit career path of computer engineering into marketing.

Since then, I’ve worked at companies including Haworth (workspace design & office future ), Nestle, Intuit, and early-stage startups, where I’ve had the opportunity to work on some of the world’s biggest and newest consumer brands. In addition, I’m a huge foodie that loves wellness experience, and design and I am grateful to have built a career where each of these elements played a significant role.

My cross-industry exposure and design thinking experience have connected me to some fantastic people and enabled me to develop deep empathy and a unique perspective as a workplace cultural anthropologist.

I say that I found my way into entrepreneurship because my therapist put me on time out….literally. As someone whose perpetual curiosity often led to timeout as a kid, it’s ironic that it is what opened the door to my life’s passion.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

In 2019, I left my career in tech to found Hooky Wellness to provide complete burnout relief for today’s workplace. Our digitally integrated experience equips mid-career professionals with a toolkit, expert mental wellness support, and a community of peers to help navigate work, wellness, and the gray area in-between.

After a personal experience with burnout, I transitioned into entrepreneurship and opened my eyes to how rampant it was yet, how alone everyone felt.

For years, burnout has been a taboo topic, ignored by individuals and companies alike. Before the pandemic, burnout was already claiming 77% of the professional workforce, yet people lacked the essential awareness and understanding. Fast forward to today, burnout is top of mind for individuals and workplaces around the world.

What I’ve learned is that people and many company leaders do care. However, they just don’t understand burnout and its impact, and they know even less about what to do about it.

Burnout is a systemic issue with an individual impact that requires a collective effort.

We’re facing it head-on. There’s a lot of talk about “normalizing” mental health and wellness, but instead of saying it, Hooky is about action.

From our workshops, training, and Hooky Day campaign, we’re working with corporations that understand that we need not shy away from combatting this complex problem. Instead, we’re equipping hustle culture with a common vocabulary, practical tools and helping them drive engagement with the underutilized resources that can keep burnout at bay.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Then, can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There’s plenty of mistakes in the entrepreneurship journey, most of which I wouldn’t call “haha” funny, but for some, I can’t help but chuckle and shake my head.

As a brand marketer, I know that the right design aesthetic can significantly impact, but I didn’t recognize that some things can wait, unlike my experience incorporate. As a result, I wasted a lot of time, energy, and money trying to get just the right color, font, etc., when things were still changing.

The concept of 80/20 has never meant as much as it does now. Now, before I start a project that requires a lot of time, money, or other resources, I pause to make sure it’s needed and define what’s good enough. It sounds simple, but it’s so easy to be in the weeds that you forget to step back to determine if it’s essential.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who has been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I would have to say my family was my first set of mentors. As the baby of the family, I watched my parents and sisters grind and learned the importance of a strong work ethic. During my childhood, my parents had a crafts business in addition to their full-time jobs. We would spend the weekend in the gym or hallway of a different school to sell blankets, clocks, and other handmade crafts. As early as 9, I remember setting up the display and being the salesperson. I would take my time setting out the crafts to ensure that our top sellers had a prominent position that made my other role as a salesperson easier.

Looking back, I think this was my first learning in understanding people and communication, and I built on that foundation in my early jobs as a waitress, university tour guide and now using those same skills in what I do today.

Professionally, two of my core mentors are my company advisors- Ray Luther, Ph.D. leadership, and Mahima Muralidharan, Psy. D.

I met Ray during the second year of my MBA when he joined the Kelley School of business as a faculty member. I met Mahima because cold outreach works. She was a panelist at a LinkedIn conference, and I just knew I wanted to learn more about her.

I appreciate them both because despite coming from academia and mental health industries, they understand that life is more than theories and whitepapers and about pragmatic, practical solutions that people can incorporate into real life.

They have both been instrumental in not only providing insights and perspective in their areas of expertise but realigning me when I lose sight of my vision. Founders and entrepreneurs wear so many hats that they can easily get pulled into the weeds and lose sight of the path. I’ve learned that having mentors that I can trust to hold me accountable is invaluable.

Brene Brown, Michelle Obama, Kristen Bell, and Big Sean are other life mentors though they don’t know me from a can of paint.

In today’s world, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

As a child, I read the poem “Invention Shel Silverstein” to the entire school when I was in kindergarten, so I guess I’ve always had the “innovators bug.” My career helped me acquire a deep appreciation for the power of true disruption.

There’s a ton of research on disruption. One of my favorite descriptions is that disruption is all about radical change and uniquely filling unmet needs in a way that can turn nonconsumers into consumers.

A leading and personal favorite example of disruption is Netflix. They started by simply mailing movie DVDs and have now completely changed how we access and interact with video content. Movies and shows are how I decompress. I am thankful that my days of driving to Blockbuster are over. My relaxation starts as soon as I put my laptop down and hit the couch.

What’s most exciting about impactful disruption is that it can support individuals that existing structures and processes have overlooked; however, the biggest issue I see with a disorder is when we disrupt only one part of the problem vs. the entire model.

For example, it’s great that apps make therapy more accessible; however, this has created issues in other parts of the system.

Using technology and traditional startup playbooks to build mental health solutions bears plenty of challenges in itself. For example, startups are expected to be lean and are judged by engagement metrics like time in-app vs. impact. So without changing the KPIs, how can we expect them to help individuals spend less time on their phones or even pay therapists the wages they deserve.

Significant problems like this need to be solved holistically held to different more impact-focused KPIs, and engage key stakeholders from the beginning to ensure end-to-end thinking.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. Take the timeout before you need it. I wasn’t kidding when I said my therapist put me on time out. At the end of 2019, I decided to take a short-term disability leave. I was at the peak of my most intense burnout experience and, as I put it, “life was life-ing” and was taking more of the bandwidth that I realized. My dad’s fight with cancer and other aggressive health issues was intensifying, the family stuff that comes with that, dual career, cross country moves. My therapist set me right and put me on timeout. This was life-changing! As someone that has been on the go from a young age of “burning the candle at both ends,” as my parents would say, the idea of stillness and not working is a foreign, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar process.
    It’s so easy to get caught in the grind that you lose yourself in it. This timeout forced me to slow down and work through this unnecessary guilt of prioritizing myself. I am so thankful that I did because it not only forced me to do more of the fun things I wanted to do but rarely made time for, it also gave me the mental space to think through the creative opportunities for Hooky and is a big reason that I named the company “Hooky.”
  2. “Do it afraid” is one of my mantras. This came from my experience in Founder’s Gym, an online program for underrepresented entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is one of the most challenging things that I’ve done when the leaders, Paige and Mandela, said this — it just hit home. Fear can keep many people from pressing forward, but the power isn’t in acting like fear isn’t real but recognizing the fear and still keeping going.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I’m excited to bring greater approachability and access to the world of mental wellness. We often think of wellness as one-dimensional, but it is so much more. I’m excited to merge markets and create dope experiences that reflect real life and have a real impact.

In the near term, I’m focusing on unlocking the practice of grace, personal agency and eliminating the expectation of perfectionism. Perfect should never be the goal. We put so much unneeded pressure on ourselves, our leaders, and our organization to be perfect, which is just unrealistic.

We’re working on some exciting offerings and partnerships for burnout relief. From bringing more accessibility and impact through elevated wellness experiences to equipping MBA students with well-being grounded leadership toolkit, we’re creating solutions that impact both immediate needs and the future of work.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

With women, it’s the mental hurdles of pushing past what we are conditioned to believe, follow the rules, play nice, etc…

It’s even more complex as a Black woman because despite knowing your power, sometimes it feels like the world is doing everything in its power to bring you down and hold you back.

I’m grateful for a support system, community, family, and friends that are cheering me on and contributing their expertise as well.

Steve Jobs said, “…and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones that do.”

I love that quote, but it took me a while to realize that I was resisting this because the idea of “crazy” and “woman” is not commonly viewed as a positive thing.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Ashley Kirkwood is a confidence coach with the podcast “Speak your way to Cash with Ashley Kirkwood.” She just seems to know what I need when I need it.

Recently, I was feeling nervous about pitching my most significant proposals to date; thankfully, she had an episode where she broke down how important it is to recognize the value of your thoughts and ideas and how culture has driven us, especially Black women, to discount the power of our knowledge and abilities despite our expertise, experience, and credentials.

As someone building a service-based business, this was huge! Frameworks and tools, I needed to hear this to recognize the power of all of my professional and personal experiences. Thanks to this podcast, I’m walking into partnership discussions with confidence and the receipts for the transformation that I can create.

The book “Start at the End” by Matt Wallaert helped me internalize that behavioral science is more than a degree; it is about the ability to create change. This was another big thing for me because my work in burnout requires equipping people to change their lives and community. Thanks to the power of Twitter, Matt and I have connected, and I am thankful to have his insight and expertise throughout this process.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’ve been setting little fires for what I call the anti-burnout movement with a mission to get people to play hooky more often. It’s not about being lazy or irresponsible. It’s about creating the space to enjoy the life that you’ve worked hard to create.

Our annual Hooky Day celebration is our fun way to catalyze this movement. On October 19th, we will celebrate our 3rd yearly Hooky Day as a professional skip day for mental wellness and partner with organizations that understand authentic engagement is created through action, not words.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead. Walk beside me… just be my friend”. This was my senior yearbook quote and still holds. I think the best leaders are the ones that understand not only how to lead others but how to follow.

It’s the partnership within relationships that gets us to where we need to go. This is the philosophy that I’ve held throughout my career leading cross-functional teams, as a non-profit founder, a wife, and now as a CEO.

Where can our audience keep up with you?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Female Disruptors: Erayna Sargent of Hooky Wellness On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.