Psychotherapist, podcaster, author, and relationship expert Esther Perel has a new gig: advising early-stage venture fund and startup incubator Human Ventures. While her role has yet to be fully fleshed out, Human Ventures CEO and General Partner Heather Hartnett says that Perel’s primary area of focus will be—you guessed it—relationships.
“Increasingly, emotional intelligence is a super power that a lot of leaders have now,” she says. “We are putting much more emphasis on how founders build their culture, how they’re resilient, and what their relationships look like. That’s why a relationship expert was such a good partner for us.”
Perel says that prior to her joining the team, Human Ventures employees had been playing her card game (which shares the name of her podcast) Where Should We Begin, with each other and with founders from their portfolio companies because they found it useful for initiating difficult discussions. Hartnett then decided to reach out to her directly as she felt Perel’s work aligned with the mission of companies in its portfolio, including women’s telehealth company Tia and Spora health, which focuses on providing healthcare to communities of color.
Perel, who has served as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies and hosts a podcast related to workplace relationships called How’s Work?, says that the pandemic has forced many workers to reconsider their relationships with their jobs. “Equity, identity, and belonging all involve relationships, and they are important in the workplace,” she says.
While the parameters of her role are still being figured out, Perel says she sees herself as the firm’s “relationship philosopher.” “I see myself as coming and being a thinker, not just a fixer. I have the opportunity to work with relational systems and ask, ‘What are the essential questions around relationships at this moment? And how do we look at these expectations [and] who meets them?\’”
People’s personal relationships can inform how they act in the workplace, she says. “People come to work with two résumés: they have their official résumé [where] you can read [about] where they’ve worked, and then they have their unofficial résumé, which is often, their relationship history,” she says adding, “That relationship history is at the core of how they work and how they lead.”
This “unofficial résumé” is often ignored, according to Perel. “When co-founders choose each other, they never look at that. And when people introduce co-founders to each other, they never look at that. They don’t look at what kind of relational system could two people like this create together.”
According to her, VCs should also take into account the “emotional résumés” of executives at companies they are thinking of investing in, too. Regardless of industry or position, Perel says major emotional issues faced by workers fall into just a few key areas: boundaries, transparency, trust, communication, and conflict resolution.
As COVID-19 has forced many workers back into their homes, Perel says it has also caused them to rethink their priorities and deal with conflicting desires. “People want to experience belonging, but they also want to experience autonomy. They want to belong somewhere, but they want to be able to be anywhere,” she says. She thinks of two recent work trends—burning out at work and The Great Resignation—as related to a sense of moral injury. “When people think there’s a gap between ‘what I do’ and ‘what I value,’ that is what leads to burnout. The mistake we make is that we tend to look at burnout from its behavioral features only, whereas from its psychological emotional features, burnout has a whole other component to it.”
Ultimately, Hartnett hopes that Perel will bring her insights on work culture and relationships to help the VC firm spot and nurture talent. “She’s on the forefront of thinking about practical applications and solutions in the workplace,” says Hartnett. “She has helped me think through tough questions and is already a beacon for founders who resonate with her thoughts on relationships.”