Making a Dent

This article was published in the Spring 2022
By Clay Olsen, CEO, Founder of Impact Suite/Fight The New Drug

During my senior year of high school, I helped organize an event to build hype for the homecoming football game. We got a worthless old car and spray painted it with the rival team’s colors. Kids lined up by the dozens to take a swing with a baseball bat, as excited as if the car were a piñata full of cash. It was awesome. I was in line behind our football team’s 300lbs center, a kid we fondly called Tiny. His blow left a crater in the car and almost made the ground shake.

I wanted to make a dent like that.

Now, I don’t really remember what happened next. I’m sure my swing and subsequent mark didn’t quite match Tiny’s, but I walked away from that activity with the image stuck in my head. Throughout the rest of my senior year I wondered, “What kind of dent am I going to make with my life?”

My own path as a social entrepreneur has revolved around two ideals: the joy of creative innovation and the desire to leave a mark. Create an impact. Make a dent for good.

I’ve always been drawn to creating. In school, math drove me nuts. I felt like, “C’mon! We’ve already solved this problem—the answer is written in the back of the textbook!” I wanted to be given an empty canvas and be told, “Make something.” At first, this drive led me to filmmaking, and I founded a creative agency. As we built our clientele, I eventually realized that the agency only satisfied half of what drove me. I didn’t want to be advertising for cars or hotels. I wanted a campaign. I needed a cause that I believed in.

So I made what was, on paper, a terrible decision—I walked away from my creative agency just as it was starting to really build momentum. I didn’t yet have a detailed plan, but I wanted to start a youth-centric and science-backed movement spreading awareness about the caustic effects of pornography. It would eventually become the nonprofit, Fight the New Drug. I knew the message was important and I wanted to harness the powerful rebellious spirit that comes naturally to teenagers.

It was lucky that I had some of that rebellious spirit myself, along with a healthy dose of naïvety, because I didn’t know a fraction of the challenges that FTND (like any new startup) would face. Healthy naïvety is something I actually encourage in aspiring entrepreneurs—there are so many voices eager to point out pitfalls and obstacles that it can be hard to hang on to your optimistic vision or goal. Don’t listen to them. The only thing that “it can’t be done” actually means is “it’s never been done before.” You have to start climbing—without you, it may never exist.

Make no mistake—that optimism will be questioned and challenged. When we claimed we wanted to start a global movement, donors laughed in our faces. As we sought grassroots support in local neighborhoods, doors were slammed on us. That kind of rejection is only the beginning. I can't overstate the importance of pursuing a cause that you're passionate about as an entrepreneur—something you can't stop thinking about, something that gives you courage to get back up over and over again, something that makes you say, "I'll show them." Because getting knocked down is inevitable.

Don’t start a company just to start a company. Don’t sell a product just to sell a product. Like the impressively mustachioed philosopher Nietzsche says, "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how." Having a "why" in your work makes all the difference for stubbornly finding solutions when obstacles arise.

With effort, time, and some luck, Fight The New Drug has influenced millions around the world. It has been exhilarating to work through the creative challenges of spreading awareness about a taboo topic, especially for a teenage audience. Having tasted the feeling of waking up and working all day on something that really helped people, I could never go back.

Around this same time, I witnessed people close to me having intense battles with mental health challenges, challenges that were made almost unbearable by diagnoses pronounced like inescapable life sentences. After talking to experts and diving into research, I realized that this common view of struggling mental health as a permanent, unchangeable condition is not only depressing, it’s also not what the science says.

Invigorated by encouraging mental health research, I founded Impact Suite to promote a paradigm shift toward research-backed lifestyle techniques. Our team has built a series of award-winning apps that have empowered hundreds of thousands around the world to find hope, healing, and happiness, no matter where they fall on the mental health spectrum. Impact Suite has also partnered with the Malouf Foundation to launch a free program called Raise to support parents in guiding their kids through today’s digital landscape. I have seen these projects beautifully synergize my drive to create and my desire to do good.

As a highschooler swinging a bat at a beat-up old car, an idealistic filmmaker, and a stubbornly optimistic campaigner, I didn’t set out to start a HealthTech company, but I've learned the importance of trusting the inspiration that comes from lived experience and following opportunities to make a broader impact.

Look, I can’t answer every question about launching the perfect unicorn startup, and I don’t know all the answers about entrepreneurship. But I do believe that by doing work that you deeply believe in with creativity, determination, and just the right amount of naïvety, we can all make our dent.

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