Silicon Valley's Secret

Dinner at Meredith Ackley’s house is like stepping into a dream. The walls are painted pink and purple. There’s a heated patio and arching branches over the backyard. The sun beams through the windows, music plays and three beautiful girls dance with their mother in the kitchen.

The missing piece of the fairytale is Ackley’s husband, Eric Salvatierra. It’s been four years since he called to say his last “I love you.”

In 2012, Salvatierra stepped in front of a Caltrain, abruptly ending his life. He was 39 years old.

Salvatierra was an executive who helped build eBay from the ground up. He was the former CFO of Skype, a VP at PayPal, and always one of the smartest in the room, according to his colleagues.

“They would say he could write an Excel spreadsheet like a symphony,” Ackley said. “He was one of those people who could go all the way up and go all the way down into the details.”

Dinner at Meredith Ackley’s house is like stepping into a dream.

Salvatierra would stay up all night coding and occasionally writing his wife love poems. The moments of brilliance when he did his best work -- and channeled extraordinary passion -- turned out to be manic episodes. They were symptoms of Salvatierra’s ultimate struggle: a crippling battle with bipolar disorder and depression.

According to the CDC, one in four people suffer from mental health issues. Scratch the surface in Silicon Valley, and the seemingly open-minded mecca is not necessarily welcoming to them.

In 2016, a study by psychiatrist Dr. Michael Freeman identified the relationship between entrepreneurship and depression. It found that many of the personality traits found in entrepreneurs -- creativity, extroversion, open mindedness and a propensity for risk -- are also traits associated with ADHD, bipolar spectrum conditions, depression and substance abuse.

When Salvatierra was on he was unstoppable.

Ackley’s husband had some of these traits. When Salvatierra was “on,” he was unstoppable, she said.

“I think Eric's managers saw that his brain operated differently than other people and they could use that to their advantage to help the company,” Ackley recalled. “And I just kind of accepted that as part of his work culture, not part of him.”

It wasn’t until her husband was hospitalized and diagnosed as bipolar in 2011 that the reality sunk in. He was battling mental illness.

His bipolar disorder gave him extreme highs manifested in wild bouts of creativity, and incredibly low lows -- he would be paralyzed by feeling like he’d made a mistake and couldn’t forgive himself.

“He would ruminate on these for months,” Ackley said.

While Salvatierra was hospitalized, the couple went to a psychiatrist who advised them to keep it secret.

“I thought I was going to throw up. I thought Eric was going to just disintegrate,” Ackley remembers. “It was instant shame on both of us ... She was like, ‘You don’t want to show weakness; you don’t want to show that your brain is anything but 100%.’”

In Silicon Valley, where your biggest asset is your brain, the stigma is magnified, according to Penelope Draganic, whose husband Zarko also struggled from depression and ended his life. Like Salvatierra, Zarko was lauded for his all-night coding sessions, which were a byproduct of his battle with depression. He was a Silicon Valley success story: Along with other tech titans, he worked at mobile device company General Magic in the early '90s and later founded a startup he sold for millions.

“He slept in a bed in his office, would roll off the bed and write code throughout the night," Draganic says. "They loved his perseverance and his resilience. He was able to perform superhuman tasks because he was biochemically off-kilter, and he wasn't even aware of it because he managed it so well.”

The pressure made it difficult to talk openly about his mental health issues.

People viewed Zarko’s confidence and work ethic as a sign of his brilliance, Draganic recalled. But she said the pressure made it difficult to talk openly about his mental health issues.

“It's particularly relevant in the Valley because hypo-manic productivity is a sign of strength and opportunity, and even in your weakest moments you're not supposed to present anything other than your game face,” Draganic said. “It's not the culture that creates the illness, but it's a culture that actually makes this illness even harder to grapple with.”

The fine line between creative genius and mental health can be hard to decipher. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who worked closely with Salvatierra, was blindsided when he died. Whitman personally recruited Salvatierra, who opted not to attend Stanford Business School so he could take a chance on eBay.

“Silicon Valley is a cradle of creative geniuses. And so Eric was not, in some ways, out of the ordinary,” Whitman said. “People had zones of genius, and I just thought, 'OK, this is a really smart, really gifted young guy.'”

Whitman, whose sister struggles with bipolar disorder, says the myth of mental illness is that people are unable to do their jobs.

“Eric was highly functioning. My sister is highly functioning,” she said. “People think, ‘Well, maybe you can’t do the job.’ Actually, it’s often quite the opposite.”

Whitman says tech companies have a responsibility to ensure health plans cover mental health and employees have an open forum to talk about these issues. Now the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Whitman has opened an onsite medical facility for employees.

She’s one of few high-profile CEOs to speak openly about mental health, but a movement is beginning to happen in the Bay Area.

A group of entrepreneurs and investors gathered at a members-only club in San Francisco to talk about mental health.

One night in late January, a group of entrepreneurs and investors gathered at a members-only club in San Francisco to talk about mental health.

Robin Williams’ son Zak spoke openly about his father’s struggle with bipolar disorder and the demons he faced. For Zak, speaking about his father’s death will never be easy. But battling his own depression has given him the courage to speak up.

Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley talked about creating a video game to treat depression that’s on the pathway for FDA approval. Dave Morin, an early Facebook employee who also worked at Apple, asked what would happen if you treated depression like a startup, spending millions of dollars and brainpower to solve it. He recently started an organization called Project Sunrise with the goal of finding a cure for depression.

An impromptu branding session happened later in the evening. The effort to destigmatize mental health should start with a better name, someone joked.

To talk so openly about mental health in the Bay Area is a rarity. The event, organized by Bring Change 2 Mind, a nonprofit focused on destigmatizing mental health, was an effort to start the conversation.

The irony is that in this mecca of creativity, all-night coding sessions and promises to change the world, it’s harder than ever to talk about the dark side of that success.

“It’s almost like a badge of honor to show how busy you are,” says entrepreneur Rand Fishkin. “Sleep is not cool, pregnancy, not cool. All these things that normal human beings do and need -- people need families, they need to go to sleep at night, but somehow that is excluded from the acceptable portion of the culture.”

Fishkin, a successful entrepreneur who documented his struggle with depression, says it’s commonplace. He co-hosted a CEO retreat with investor Brad Feld, who has been open about his battle with depression. Founders were asked if they struggled with severe anxiety or clinical depression while running a startup.

Every single hand in the room went up except two.

“Every single hand in the room went up except two,” Fishkin recalled.

During his struggles, Fishkin visited “CEO coach” Jerry Colonna, who helped him understand that he wasn’t just having a bad day -- he was clinically depressed. Colonna, a former investor who has also struggled with depression, has gained notoriety in the tech community for his ability to cut through a culture that focuses on “crushing it.”

“There’s this dirty little secret in our industry, which is we don’t take care of those people,” says Colonna. “And we’re taking advantage of them, and not treating them.”

He described the startup environment as a perfect storm for people who may struggle with mental health issues.

“Imagine having that personality type, that propensity to drive yourself, and then having investors say, 'You better be hungry, otherwise I’m not going to fund you,’” he says. “You take away sleep, and you’ve got a prescription for depression.”

Colonna says the issue isn't unique to Silicon Valley.

“It would be a mistake to think, ‘Oh, these poor little rich kids,’” he says. “It’s that the tech industry -- and the startup community specifically -- brings to the surface forces that are at play in every aspect of our society.”

Meanwhile, five years after her husband’s death, Ackley breaks down when discussing the worst day of her life.

“All of a sudden, my body went cold and I just knew, I knew in every inch of my body that something had gone absolutely wrong,” she says, choking up. “[Eventually], police officers sat next to me and held me down and said, ‘We have some news to tell you.’ And they told me that Eric had died.”

For years after that day, Ackley would walk into her husband’s closet, where his clothes still hung. She would hug them because they smelled like him. Now she holds a quilt made from her husband’s Silicon Valley uniform -- the pastel shirts and khaki pants fashioned into a patchwork of little squares.

Over dinner, Salvatierra’s daughters remember their father’s sense of humor and his corny jokes (“Can you do me a quick flavor?”). They describe him as camera-in-hand, always ready to record the special moments. There were many of those.

Through Bring Change 2 Mind, the girls have created stigma-free clubs at school where they talk about their father’s struggles.

Through Bring Change 2 Mind, the girls have created stigma-free clubs at school where they talk about their father’s struggles.

They speak with youthful openness about the secret that cost their father his life.

“I know why I want to end the stigma,” Lia says. “It’s just this big taboo.”

“It’s not a character defect,” Eva says. “It’s just a disease, like cancer is.”

For Ackley, the hardest part is watching her daughters grow up without their father. It's why she's determined to change the narrative, starting in Silicon Valley.

"He just was in awe of what we created together," Ackley says. "I just miss his heart more than anything. And I really wanted to raise these girls together."


Produced by Erica Fink, Laurie Segall, Jason Farkas, Justine Quart, Roxy Hunt, Tony Castle, AK Hottman, Benjamin Garst, Haldane McFall, Gabriel Gomez, BFD Productions, Jack Regan, Cullen Daly.

Article edited by Aimee Rawlins.

Web design & development - Stephany Cardet, CNN Digital Labs.