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Trauma Informed Businesses & Entrepreneurship: Part 1 The People

About 25 years ago, Willian Sahlman published a well-known article in Harvard Business Review on “How to Write a Great Business Plan”. In it, he outlined the four components that must be addressed with great care when creating your startup and articulating its business plan: The People, the Opportunity, the Context and the Deal (and beyond).

I frequently use his advice when, along with other, more recent books and resources, I teach community members and my students about business plans.

In a series of four blog posts, I’d like to offer my thoughts on updating business plans to include a trauma-informed approach.

When Sahlman wrote his original article, trauma-informed care was largely unknown in the business community. Yet today, as Kathrine Manning outlined in her 2022 HBR article “We need trauma-informed workplaces”, a large portion of the US (and global workforce) is impacted by trauma, and this reality must be addressed by modern workplaces:

“The reality, though, is that trauma is not new in our organizations. It’s not going away, either. Estimates are that six in 10 men and five in 10 women experience at least one trauma, and approximately 6% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Trauma and distress can arise from a wide array of causes, including domestic violence, sexual assault, racism, bias, harassment, economic uncertainty, political division, and more. New challenges arise every day, and conflict and strife anywhere in our globally connected world affect us all”.

Workplaces also contribute significantly to chronic illness and death, as Jeffrey Pfeffer points out in his 2018 book “Dying for a Paycheck”:

"Dying for a Paycheck (2018) reveals that 120,000 American die every year because of work-related health issues. This makes work the fifth leading cause of death in the United States – and as dangerous as second-hand smoke”.

These are just two anecdotes from a slew of recent publications that point to the need for a trauma-informed approach when a) creating new startups and b) addressing workplace culture, structure, and policy in existing corporate and non-profit environments.

To come back to William Sahlman, then:

How do we address the People, the Opportunity, the Context and the Deal when building or revising a business plan to be trauma-informed? How do we create trauma-informed workplaces?

It starts with People.

Sahlman recommends that we ask the following questions when building our team for a startup, seeking other founders, or when hiring for a business:


  1. Where are the founders from?

  2. Where have they been educated?

  3. Where have they worked-and for whom?

  4. What have they accomplished-professionally and personally-in the past?

  5. What is their reputation within the business community?

  6. What experience do they have that is directly relevant to the opportunity they are pursuing?

  7. What skills, abilities, and knowledge do they have?

  8. How realistic are they about the venture's chances for success and the tribulations it will face?

  9. Who else needs to be on the team?

  10. Are they prepared to recruit high-quality people?

  11. How will they respond to adversity?

  12. Do they have the mettle to make the inevitable hard choices that have to be made?

  13. How committed are they to this venture?

  14. What are their motivations?

While answering these questions undoubtedly is a critical component of a business plan when addressing potential funders, I would like to suggest here that given the urgency of addressing trauma, founders should also be able to address the following questions when developing business plans, for themselves, and for potential investors:


  1. What do my founding partners know about trauma in the workplace? Have my fellow founders – and/or employees – experienced trauma themselves? Do they feel comfortable sharing this experience and how it has shaped them as fellow human beings? How has it influenced their values, motivations and relationships? How do my fellow founders acknowledge the existence of trauma in the workplace, and its significance for potential workplace culture, productivity and outcomes?

  2. What do my fellow founders – and/or employees – know about creating safe, transparent workplaces, where addressing personal trauma is something that everyone feels comfortable to address, without repercussions? What evidence is there that shows my fellow founders' – and/or employees' – competency in creating safety and transparency in the workplace?

  3. What evidence does the founding team – and/or employees – have that their fellow founders – and employees - are trustworthy and transparent in their daily business practices, and in personal interactions?

  4. What evidence does the founding team have that their fellow founders – and/or employees – are familiar with peer support strategies and tools as a leader? What evidence of servant leadership exists in the team?

  5. What evidence does the founding team have that their fellow founders – and/or employees – are skilled in empowering their colleagues and workforce, as well as their customers? What evidence is there that shows the founding team’s knowledge of giving voice and choice, i.e. giving people opportunities to express ideas, concerns, and perspectives with authenticity and without fear of social or workplace consequences?

  6. How skilled are members of the founding team and the employees in addressing gender, cultural and historical issues of their industry? What evidence is there that supports each founding member’s understanding, support and active involvement in addressing contemporary injustices related to gender, race and sexuality?

These six core sets of questions are inspired by the CDC’s guiding principles for a trauma-informed approach, and are a starting point for conversations that I believe every CEO, leader, founder and caring employee should be able to have in their workplace.

Want to explore the development of trauma-informed workplaces in more detail, and work with me in transforming the way we have conversations about this important topic?


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