| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Vimeo RSS Feed

Features

Voices: Girls With Guts founder on choosing her health over her nonprofit

Jackie Zimmerman

It was just over a year ago that I reached out to my contact at Model D to tell him the good news: I had quit my day job to work full-time for the nonprofit I had started four years earlier. Model D had been kind enough to write about me and my organization, Girls With Guts, a few times. And I wasn't just looking for a little press and bragging rights—I was also hoping they'd be able to share in our success. I mean, after all, I did it. I made it. Dream accomplished. 

Girls With Guts turned five years old this year. And while there's a large part of me that is incredibly proud of what I've accomplished, I am so overwhelmingly relieved that I will soon no longer be apart of it. 

"Relieved" is probably the best word that I can think of to describe my departure from my dream, my baby, my purpose. "Relieved" is the exact opposite of what I have been feeling for the last few years, which was crippling anxiety, and ironically enough, fear of failure and letting people down. 

Girls With Guts was created after I went through the toughest years of my life, battling ulcerative colitis to the death. Spoiler alert: I won and was so empowered from that victory that I wanted to shout from the roof tops, that not only did I win, but you can too! I felt so alone during my fight with UC, the subsequent six surgeries, the countless hospital stays and ER visits, that once I was in remission I knew I had to do something to change this narrative for every other person who was also living with Inflammatory Bowel Disease. 

So I started a non-profit. But really it was a movement, and the movement took off—quickly. 

We grew faster than I could have ever imagined. Women were motivated and empowered by Girls With Guts. We were being praised as a catalyst for self-love. I was beaming. I felt like I had found my purpose in life and all of the tough years were worth it to get to this point. 

Each year we have a women's retreat, which has been held in different spots around the country. These women trust us with their time, money, and health for a weekend and most leave ready to sign up for the next year. I watch these women come to the events alone and shy, then blossom into empowered patients who feel supported by all their new "sisters"—a term they started using on their own. 

I don't think I've ever been more proud of a group of people before, myself included, than I was after that first year. All the panic and fear ahead of the event went out the window and was replaced by a steadfast drive to make the next year even bigger and better. And just like that, we were off. Year one was in the books. 

But if we're being honest (and we are), that was the last time I've ever felt that good about one of our events. 

In mid-2016, we announced that I'd be working full-time for Girls With Guts. I was nervous and excited. I felt like I deserved to take this leap of faith, and that if I just jumped, someone would put out a net. 

But the net never arrived. 

The weight of this decision was heavy and gained a few pounds every day. If I didn't find grants or big sponsors, I'd be out of a job within a year. And worse, I'd bankrupt my own company. I was scared but tried to turn that into motivation; I would find a way. 

But I didn't. 

We didn't qualify for many grants, and many of our sponsors understandably didn't want their donations to go to my salary. Six months into my dream job, I secretly started to look for another. The good news was I found one that's a great fit. The bad news was I had to try to explain my plan to drop down to part-time for Girls With Guts after I had just made such a huge deal about going full-time. 

I already felt like I had failed a little and that everyone was judging me. But each time I got a paycheck from my new job, my anxiety quelled a little and I knew I had made the right choice. 

I went back to working for Girls With Guts the way it was for the first four years, on nights and weekends. So while I was more financially stable, I was now drowning under the responsibility of a full-time job and a part-time passion project that I wasn't feeling all that passionate about. 

But Jackie, why didn't you ask for help? I did … sometimes. I was admittedly a control freak about the way GWG was run and liked to just do most things myself. I know I'm reliable. And in defense of those I'd asked for help, many of them were IBD patients themselves, which means their health was understandably unreliable. In hindsight, having a company for sick people, run by sick people, was probably not the smartest business move I could have made. 

During this time, in therapy, I would talk about how overwhelmed I was. That I was always disappointing someone, that I already felt like a failure to someone somewhere at any given moment. My friends, family, and board members were frustrated with me and I was frustrated with them. Something had to give. 

The obvious answer was GWG, but I felt like I'd let so many people down, and maybe if I just stuck it out, it would all be fine. But after months of going back and forth, I had one very stereotypical breakthrough session, where I just said out loud that I didn't want to be apart of Girls With Guts. It didn't make me happy anymore. I wanted to breakup with my passion project. 

I left therapy that day feeling calmer and resolute to making that happen. I wrote my board a few days later and let them know that I didn't want to continue my work with GWG. That as of October I'd no longer be in a leadership role and by December I would have no further association with GWG. 

It didn't go over well and frankly it's still a sore spot. I will probably lose some long term friendships from this, but I need to put myself first and make this choice to preserve my physical and mental health.

Figuring out how to move forward with the company has been difficult. It's caused arguments and some permanent damage, but I haven't doubted this decision once. It feels like the finish line is close, there is finally a light at the end of the stress tunnel. 

As someone who lives with two autoimmune disease and depression/anxiety, all induced by stress, I needed to make this change and cut ties with GWG before it made me sick. I never dreamed that the thing that was once my purpose, was now putting my physical health at risk. 

Over the years, a lot of our clients would graciously make comments about not understanding how I was able to "do it all." And the truth is that I can't do it all. 

Walking away my heart is hurt for the way it's ending for me, but not because I’ll miss it. When given the choice between busting my ass to make the world a better place or living a quiet happy life, I'm going to chose me. In many minds, that may make me a failure in business, but I have to say, I am one hell of a happy failure these days. 

This article is part of a series where entrepreneurs tell their stories of failure. It is sponsored by TechTown Detroit. Read more articles in the series here
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts