Tech Entrepreneur Pivots Mid-Career, Finds True North
Five years ago, Bart Foster, YPO member and founder and former CEO of SoloHealth (now Pursuant Health) made his biggest life pivot yet when he segued from running the technology company he founded, to selling half his material possessions to journey with his family into the great unknown.
Foster shares his leadership journey, telling Ignite the story of how thinking he ‘had it all,’ led to believing he’d ‘lost it all,’ which resulted in finding his true north.
Leadership journey: From a scribble to a roar
In 2007, I scribbled an idea on a napkin. It said something along the lines of: ‘Create a tech company that empowers people to take charge of their health through interactive health kiosks.’ Which is just what I did, launching first a vision-screening booth and evolving into kiosks that included health screenings for blood pressure, weight and body mass index, a symptom checker and an interface that could locate nearby health care providers. I grew the business into a high-growth success story with a national footprint, impacting over 50 million people.
For seven years I thrived, inspiring and empowering an expanding staff and creating a nurturing work culture that grew and grew and grew. But with growth, comes tradeoffs, which in this case included a powerful board and diluted ownership. I had to face the devastating fact that I had lost control. Soon thereafter, I was forced out. The conceit that I “had it all” suddenly felt like a lie. I was devastated by the loss of my “baby,” and became mired in depression and confusion, unable to tell whether I was terrified of change, or of no longer being a CEO. Because without that as my identifier, who was I?
Zip code strategy
That summer, in 2014, I took off to travel with my family and to discover my identity without the CEO title. By taking the time to reflect on what I had learned over the past 10 years instead of focusing on how to leverage my success for the future, I found the courage to let go of my ego. I reconnected with friends and family I hadn’t seen in years and engaged in deep and meaningful discussions with my wife, reflecting on what was most important to us. What we realized was that we were comfortable … too comfortable … and needed to make some changes in order to “expand the circle” for our family. As we were considering what that meant, Jim Sharp, a 25+ year YPO member and Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard Business School, told me about the “zip code strategy”: pick a place you want to live, then figure out how to make it work. We decided what we needed was a major change. So my wife and I Googled the things most important to us:
- Best places to raise a family
- Best cities to walk
- Healthiest cities
- Best cities for entrepreneurs
- Best places for outdoor adventure
It turned out that Boulder, Colorado was near the top of every list. So off we went. Within hours of walking around a city ringed by dramatic mountains, breathing the crisp, clean air and talking to the kind of people we could easily imagine having as neighbors, we knew what we had to do. Over the next three weeks, we sold more than half our material possessions, packed the rest into our car and took the long, scenic drive from Atlanta, Georgia, into the great unknown.
Not long after, the kids were settled in school, we’d unpacked all of our boxes and one looming question remained: What was I going to do professionally? Start another company? Buy a business? Continue to travel around and think? (This wasn’t really an option but enjoyable to entertain.)
Right around this time, my YPO forum engaged in two exercises that would help answer these critical questions. One was finding your unique ability, or what some call your zone of genius. The other was figuring out your personal values, then using them to craft your personal value statement.
My unique ability turned out to be creating authentic relationships, getting people to think differently, and turning a vision into a reality. My top personal values were personal freedom, family, curiosity, health, adventure, and lifelong learning. These were essential to my happiness. So, with the support of my forum mates and my family (and a little more thinking), I decided to follow my heart and pivot to helping big companies innovate through purposeful facilitation, strategic consulting and executive coaching.
Bridging the gap
That was five years ago, and I can confidently say that I have found my calling. Bridging the gap between entrepreneurship and big business by getting executives to lean into their vulnerabilities is the most satisfying job I have ever had. When I meet executives at a trailhead to discuss their challenges as we walk outdoors, there’s a sense that anything is possible. In doing what I love, I feel personally fulfilled and in turn, am able to help executives and startups fuel their own creativity and be inspired to make bolder, more personal connections.
This leadership journey — from ‘having it all’ to ‘losing it all’ to finding my true north — has taught me to be unafraid of letting go, to check my ego at the door and live outside my comfort zone. And most importantly, it has taught me that who I am is more than a title. Now, I get to spend my life passing that message on.