Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in mental health but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Susan Bearden, Founder & CEO of Agape Therapy Institute, located in Orlando, FL, USA.
What's your organization, and who are your members?
Agape Therapy Institute is a nonprofit mental health counseling organization located in Downtown Orlando. We provide mental health counseling to individuals, couples, and families in the local community but also all across Florida by providing secure telehealth counseling services as well. Our mission as an NPO is to provide affordable and accessible mental health counseling. We do this through a financial assistance program that reduces the rates of counseling based on someone's income and based on the level of provider they see. We partner with accredited university graduate programs as a training site for counselors in development, which helps us offer lower-cost options to the community.
Tell us about yourself
One of my mentors told me years ago, "Just start your own nonprofit!" I kind of thought she was out of her mind, but a few years into working in the field, I felt both inspired and prepared to move forward with the idea. My vision was to create a counseling space that was safe, reputable, affordable, and accessible for clients, and also a space where counselors felt supported and enjoyed working. Burnout is a big issue in the mental health field, and I wanted to create a space where a professional in the field looked forward to going to work. I also found that, in the wake of the Pulse shooting that impacted Orlando and the country so much, there were many providers who held personal values against any fluidity of sexuality, and it was not only a barrier to care but harmful to individuals, couples, and families who needed counseling support to heal from this tragedy. I wanted to create a safe space where the marginalized and stigmatized felt safe and welcome to be their real self and felt valued for who they were. What motivates me each day is my team and the clients we serve, knowing the difference we are all making to actively contribute to creating the kind of experiences that makes life better.
What's your biggest accomplishment as an organization?
I'm most proud of our growth through COVID. COVID was a turning point in our country, especially in healthcare. We had to pivot quickly to becoming 100% online and virtual while also expanding quickly to accommodate the increase in demand without compromising our quality of care. Scaling a business quickly, under a lot of stress, and in response to an unexpected global epidemic was challenging but exhilarating! I am so proud of our team for how they adjusted to providing counseling to others who were stressed and fearful at a time when they, too, were feeling the stress and fear as they faced all the same unknowns as their clients. Our company more than doubled through COVID, and every team member played a crucial role in the success of our care for the local community and now throughout the state!
What's one of the hardest things that comes with being an organization?
Oh, it's hard to say just one! There are really many things that are very hard about being a business owner. The never-ending multi-tasking and wearing of many hats, finding ways to scale and delegate (and let go of something you curated), and never feeling like you're truly off or able to take a break or vacation. But, if I had to say just one, I would say the pressure of the overall responsibility and liability of the business. At the end of the day, even in a nonprofit organization, I feel the buck stops with me, and no one else shares that same load quite the same way. I'm admittedly a perfectionist (I'm working on it), and that comes with a certain level of anxiety. There are many times I find my thoughts worrying about doing something wrong, making a mistake, and not even knowing it. Time has proven otherwise (and that others give grace when I do end up making a mistake), but this sits with me almost always. I try to remind myself that, on the flip side, it keeps me honest and means I have integrity. I care and always want to do good and the right thing. I give myself as much grace as I can when I do realize I am making a mistake or doing something wrong. I remind myself that we are all human and ask myself what I would say to someone else in the same situation.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow an organization today?
- First, gather 2-3 people you most admire and trust to support and guide you on the endeavor. Some days are very stressful, and you'll need social support, even if they're just a shoulder to cry on.
- Second, be prepared for very long hours for the first few years. The first few years are a big learning curve, and you learn a lot about how to effectively run your business just by doing it. You won't know everything from the start, but you'll figure it out along the way.
- Lastly, be strategic and conservative in scaling your business. Do not bite off more than you can chew. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time...
- Don't exclusively focus on profit and money. It's important, but consider that your passion and your purpose are equally, if not more important. A business is an opportunity to create a part of our social landscape. Be intentional about what you want to create and share with the world.
- Don't forget that your business is your teammates and your clients. You are definitely important as the head leader and should take pride in that, but without others, your business is nothing. Support your team, and your team will support your clients, and it will all, in turn, support you, too. It's the most sustainable business model.
Where can people find you and your group?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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