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“First Person,” Michael J. Mackey: Connecting the Dots of Mental Health, Fame, and Happiness

By Michael J. Mackey, BBA ’93
Tags: Alumni

I had severe anxiety and depression my first year at the University of Michigan, in 1989.  I wondered if my issues were exclusive to me. Did I cause this? What were my options? I needed answers; but times were different, depression is debilitating, and I didn’t know enough to take action.

Maybe it was more of a testament to U-M, but despite all of my mental health challenges, I successfully graduated with a business degree from Ross, became a CPA, and went on to a very stable and successful career on Wall Street as a chief investment officer at a prominent hedge fund.  

I remember watching Steve Jobs give a commencement speech in 2005 about connecting the dots in our lives. It made sense to me on many levels. At the time, I, like most people, focused on my future, although I didn’t fully appreciate how profoundly the future is determined by the past and present. 

That “aha” moment was a game changer. I no longer was ashamed about the stigma of my mental health battle. I began to speak in private to those who appeared similarly challenged. No doubt sharing my experience helped others, and that was a positive adrenaline rush. It was so liberating and cathartic that I literally made “counseling” others part of my own therapy regimen. At one point, after successfully helping a friend’s child, I had a vision of walking down State Street holding up a sign reading: “Mental Health Mess, Come to Mackey and Confess.” 

I continued to reflect on how my feelings, actions, and life were fated by my DNA, my friendships, family relations, and of course my choices. I embraced the latter and realized it was time to do more.

By 2013 I had reached my proverbial “number,” as many on Wall Street like to say. Mine wasn’t considered lofty by industry standards, but my motivation to reach that number was to be able to live a comfortable lifestyle, travel, provide my children opportunities, and to give back. That year I made a financial pledge, and more importantly a time commitment, by joining the University of Michigan Depression Center as a National Advisory Board member. I’m most proud that we created the TRAILS Program, which brings effective mental health care to students across the country who suffer anxiety and depression.   

Simply making money was no longer satisfying me. I performed some meaningful self-reflection.

As my work for the center continued, I knew it would be a colossal mistake to neglect my own happiness and well-being. Therefore, in 2018, I made the decision that it was time to move on from Wall Street. Simply making money was no longer satisfying me. I performed some meaningful self-reflection. As a numbers guy, I tried to engineer a spreadsheet to predict future outcomes to determine what should be my next endeavor. I soon realized the process wasn’t necessarily a science and there were no guarantees.

Around the same time, I invested money into the company 15 Seconds of Fame (15SOF). 15SOF is a technology company built to seamlessly deliver fans their videoboard and television appearances from sporting and entertainment events. For a user, it’s seamless — download our app, take a selfie, and show up at a U-M football game, for example. Whether a user, known or unbeknownst, appears on the videoboard or TV, they will receive their video moment to keep and share forever. Simple idea, complicated technology. I wasn’t an entrepreneur, but my gut, that one Steve Jobs also mentioned trusting, kept telling me to do more than invest. Candidly, I didn’t need a stellar U-M education to see all of the “signs,” but there were many. Most notably, the company got its start at Michigan. So, I joined 15SOF, and I now work 18-hour days for no pay and have never been happier in my life. 

The pandemic forced us to reevaluate deficiencies at 15SOF. I was keenly aware that this unprecedented time could have been devastating both personally and professionally. I leaned on my life experiences and learnings from my work at the U-M Depression Center to guide 15SOF’s pivot, and it has been epic. 

Staying thematically consistent by focusing on fans, over the past six months 15SOF developed a new virtual audience platform. We created a first-mover solution that provides unique AI tools for production companies to curate content and offers fans the ability to watch from home and literally be part of live events. We launched to rave reviews in partnership with The Drew Barrymore Show on CBS. Fortuitously, our partnership with the Ross Living Business Leadership Experience program was instrumental in assisting us in the collection of data and market analysis, which contributed to our superior product in the market. 

What really connected with my soul was the nostalgic resonance from unearthing precious memories for others. That feeling is euphoric and oddly made me feel connected to my own past. It’s not necessarily easy to articulate the effect on me, but observing countless priceless moments of people visibly going from frown to joy is very heartening. I don’t know these people or their personal challenges, but I do relate to the arc. Sometimes I laugh and think, wait; it only took 15 seconds to go from sad to happy; it’s taken me decades.   

I never fully appreciated the empowerment of choice. I chose evolution and it still brought me home, happy, and depression free.

Michael J. Mackey is the chief business officer of 15 Seconds of Fame; founder of Fanthropic; and former chief investment officer at Kingdon Capital. He is on the National Advisory Board of the U-M Depression Center and the Dean’s Advisory Council of the U-M School of Education, and collaborates with the Living Business Leadership Experience at the Ross School of Business.