Andrea Lee, part of the Lyles Center at Fresno State, started the HiLow Podcast to discuss bipolar disorder. Photo contributed by Lee
Written by Gabriel Dillard
Mental health became the focus of many conversations as the pandemic gripped the globe. A Fresno State business student is amplifying that conversation to the business world with her own podcast.
Andrea Lee graduated as valedictorian of her class at Clovis North High School and this month she graduates with highest honors from Fresno State. But behind the accolades was a mental health struggle.
In 2020 she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental health disorder associated with extreme mood swings of emotional highs and lows.
The disorder affects millions of Americans, but Lee decided to turn it into a business opportunity when she realized she didn’t have many role models in the business world. Her show, The HiLow Podcast, gives a voice to business leaders, students and mental health advocates. Available on Spotify and Apple, the podcast launched in March and has five episodes so far.
Her goal is to create a sense of community and understanding and inspire others to function despite the disorder.
“I really wanted to find somebody who had bipolar disorder and was able to live with it so that I could see through my future, but it was really difficult and pretty much impossible for me to find that — especially when we were isolated,” she said.
The idea was formed in a business class at Fresno State, and Lee further developed it at the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
“Every problem that you encounter is solved by an entrepreneurial project or endeavor, and I thought that my biggest problem was not having inspiration when I was diagnosed,” Lee said.
She was selected to be part of the Student Hatchery program, a business incubator where 10 students have access to business contacts, their own office space and business mentors. Students in the program are also exposed to investors.
Anna Borgeas, part of the faculty at Fresno State’s Craig School of Business, met Lee in her entrepreneurship class. From the start, Lee came to Borgeas’ class with The HiLow Podcast in mind.
After hearing about the idea, Borgeas invited Lee to apply for the Hatchery program.
“We have space for up to 10 students and we’re pretty selective on those that we do ask to come. We offer them support services to help them launch and grow their business,” said Borgeas.
Lee said the podcast was a great way to start something that was feasible, and different than a blog or website. Her advice to future business owners and entrepreneurs is to just start.
“I think a lot of the issues for young adults wanting to start a business is they don’t press play — they keep on writing things down and then they don’t necessarily take action. It’s a common trap because we’re such perfectionists. We want everything to be perfect before we launch,” she said. “I went on my laptop, I got a microphone and I started.”
Nelson Sebra, entrepreneur in residence at Fresno State, helps choose the students for the Hatchery program at the Lyles Center. He’s been part of the process for more than 10 years.
“Occasionally we’ll run across a student like Andrea who’s just really an exceptional student,” Sebra said.
Vartuhi Tonoyan, Lee’s mentor and business professor, described Lee as creative, a leader and an intellectual.
“She’s a truly unbelievably talented human being,” Tonoyan said.
Tonoyan met Lee last year when teaching an entrepreneurship class and said that she’s one of the most exceptional students she’s ever taught.
Tonoyan said Lee’s business plan is particularly attractive because many people talk about physical disabilities, but not many people describe the mental health disabilities as Lee has started doing.
“I think what makes her stand out more than anything is that she just has a seriousness of purpose. She is driven by her experience and a desire to fill a void that she encountered as she was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” Borgeas said.
Borgeas said Lee’s story is remarkable because of the challenges she has risen above.
“I think it’s just a beautiful thing to see somebody blossom in such a way through such adversity — kind of turning it into an opportunity to do something that’s meaningful,” Borgeas said.
Jorge Cruz, one of Lee’s business professors at Fresno State, is an entrepreneur himself. He says that Lee stands out among her peers because she wasn’t afraid of risk and has used her own challenges as a business opportunity.
“Entrepreneurs always have a sense of urgency and work under those conditions,” Cruz said. “They see failure as a learning opportunity.”
Lee has enjoyed connecting with others who suffer from bipolar disorder.
“It’s kind of like, I’m not alone. And it’s a moment where you realize that I’m not the only one who’s experienced this,” Lee said.
She attributes her strength throughout the past two years to her therapist and her case manager. They both helped her set goals and helped her see the silver lining.
Once you accept the diagnosis, you can find ways to help yourself, she said.
Lee has used her vulnerability to her advantage and has asked her loved ones for help once she identifies her needs.
She encourages other entrepreneurs to transfer their business plan off the notepad.
“Yes it’s important to do the paperwork, but just get talking to people. Start making your business a real thing,” Lee said.