Getting Real: Reflections on the First 100 Days as an Impact Solopreneur in Suicide Prevention

Sally Spencer-Thomas

On February 27th, I resigned from a company I co-founded. A company named in honor of my brother who died of suicide. It was one of the biggest decisions in my life.

Since then, I have received hundreds of messages from family, friends, colleagues, partners, even strangers – some celebratory, some concerned, some devastated, some curious. Most confused.

This week marks:

·        My 100 days since the start of my new company “Sally Spencer-Thomas LLC

·        My oldest child’s graduation from high school

·        My 50th birthday

At this moment of multiple transitions in my life, I am reflecting on what it all means, where I am, and where I am going. So in the spirit of “getting real,” here we go.

At least once a day this week I found my heart was so full of gratitude for the blessings in my life, I wept.

I am grateful to have healthy children who are engaged in school, their family and community, and who are learning important lessons about growing up. Grateful for my husband and parents who enthusiastically supported my announcement that I was stepping off the cliff of the familiar into the unknown. Again.

Grateful for all of the partners, colleagues and friends who came to my side and asked, “How can I help?”

Grateful for the opportunities before me to serve in what I believe to be the calling of my life.

I am excited about what the future holds. In between flights to speaking engagements, prepping for my son’s transition to college and planning our first out-of-Colorado family vacation trip in over two years, I have spent much of the last 100 days strategizing and learning.

With the job transition, my horizon opens, and I see new possibilities for bold, gap-filling work.  I am excited to embrace a role in the Zero Suicide Initiative, a stronger commitment the Lived Experience and Peer Support efforts, and a journey of engaging new and needed voices in the movement. I continue to be “all in” with the Man Therapy program (a partnership that continues with Cactus and Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention, and workplace suicide prevention and have lots of ideas on how to make these efforts bigger, better, more. In addition, I am learning about innovative ways to bring new content to those who want to get involved – through twitter chats, podcasts, blogs and webinars. Stay tuned!

I feel relief.

Relief to start this new decade free from a work situation that no longer worked for me. Don’t get me wrong. I love the team we had at the Carson J Spencer Foundation, and the programs we developed were exceptional. But like most founders I struggled with the mid-stage of development of our evolution. I’m best when creating, innovating and leading. As we moved from start-up to stabilization, I felt jammed up, out-of-the-loop and irrelevant.

And sad.

As my job description moved from being in charge of all aspects of the company to a restricted role of the upward and outward facing spokesperson, I was first optimistic and then frustrated. I hadn’t fully realized that this change meant I was no longer in a position to determine programming and financial decisions for the company. Like many founders, I was coached to let go and trust, and to have reasonable expectations for the team. As a fast-moving entrepreneur with a big vision, this was hard. Especially, when I didn’t agree.

Now I feel free. I am back in full-force creative drive, and I love it.

There is a reason why I am a marathoner. One of the things I’ve learned (a few times), is that I’m best when I’m on my own, digging in and working through challenges one step at a time. This doesn’t mean that I think I can do it all by myself; I know I need to surround myself with people who are smarter and better skilled than I am. But what it does mean, is that I don’t do well when weighed down by the bureaucracy of complicated systems and processes. To me, it’s stifling.

I also know my way of being can be exhausting to others around me. While I’m strong at getting small teams to bring a project over the finish line, I have learned that I can be overwhelming to long-term, and larger work teams, and I just don’t want to do that to people any more.

This challenge is life-long. How do I stay nimble and independent while connecting with others who can contribute to the achievement of the vision? At this point, I feel optimistic that I can make progress in finding my way in this balance. Let’s see how I feel in another 100 days…J

Which brings me to my next feeling. Resolve.

Turning 50 does put a perspective on one’s life. “Time left” comes into focus. The number of potentially productive years to make a difference in this world seems limited in a way it didn’t before. I see so much work to be done in suicide prevention, and I am filled with determination to make the most of the time I have.

Eight days before I left the Carson J Spencer Foundation, I ran the Lost Dutchman Marathon in Arizona. The week leading into the marathon was rough. The company was starting to go off the rails, and I felt helpless to change the trajectory. I didn’t sleep or eat for much of the week leading into the race, and I thought to myself, “I have no business running an endurance race in my current state.” I showed up on the morning of the race conceding to walk it and see how far I was able to get. At about mile six of a walk-jog pace, “All Time Low” came through my headset. Fight stirred my soul. I ran the rest of the way with a fire in my chest and crossed the finish line with a fist in the air; my best time in about four years.

The remaining feelings are fleeting, but I can’t pretend they do not exist. I am sad to see the programs we built in jeopardy, and more importantly I am concerned about people that were being served by them no longer receiving their benefit. I am hopeful that others will be able to pick up the baton to continue the implementation of the iCare Packages (suicide grief support), Working Minds training and the FIRE Within social entrepreneurship program for teens. I get choked up when I think about the people and partners who were negatively affected by the closing of the Carson J Spencer Foundation – the stress, discouragement and anxiety has been intense for many. My mantra through the whole experience is “I will do this constructively and collaboratively, so that everyone stays standing.”

I have been doing my best to achieve this.

My own moments of anxiety within the crisis and moments of anger at the way people treated one another during the transition came and went. I watched the feelings go by like leaves floating on a stream, knowing that one day we’d be on the other side.

People – myself included -- have been wondering why I’m not a puddle on the floor.

Partly because I think I’ve been grieving for the past two years for the loss of the vision I had within mission of the Carson J Spencer Foundation. But I also came to the realization that I didn’t have to leave behind the things that matter most to me. I get to take my brother with me and honor him in new ways. I get to take the relationships I have made with me, and hopefully continue to deepen and expand them. I get to take the knowledge I have gained with me.

So, I guess as I sit here – on a plane coming home from Toronto about to embark my vacation with my family in this milestone week – I feel so lucky. To all of you who supported this moment, I thank you.

See you when I return, ready to rock.

Mexico – here we come!


Sally Spencer-Thomas

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Known nationally and internationally as an innovator in social change, Spencer-Thomas has helped start up multiple large-scale, gap filling efforts in mental health including the award-winning campaign Man Therapy and was a recent invited speaker at the White House. Her goal is to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities. Spencer-Thomas has also held leadership positions for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the International Association for Suicide Prevention, the American Association for Suicidology, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. She has won multiple awards for her advocacy including the 2014 Survivor of the Year from the American Association of Suicidology, the 2014 Invisible Disabilities Association Impact Honors Award, and the 2012 Alumni Master Scholar from the University of Denver, the 2015 Farbarow Award from the International Association for Suicide Prevention and the 2016 Career Achievement Alumni Award from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

She has a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Denver, Masters in Non-profit Management from Regis University, a Bachelors in Psychology and Studio Art with a Minor in Economics from Bowdoin College. She has written four books on mental health and violence prevention. She lives with her partner and three sons in Conifer, Colorado.

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Sally Spencer-Thomas