Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dina Kaplan.
Dina Kaplan is Founder of The Path, which teaches meditation for the modern mind. The Path has taught thousands of people to meditate around the world and at festivals including SXSW and Sundance. Dina leads The Path’s certificate Meditation Teacher Training program and is host of The Path’s curated meditation retreat for global leaders called Mela. Dina also leads meditations at conferences, for brands, corporations and individuals around the world. She has written articles about meditation for the New York Times, Forbes.com, Time.com, and many additional publications.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My first job after college was actually in politics. I worked at the White House and learned very quickly the importance of attention to detail. I once spelled the Secretary of the Treasury’s last name incorrectly, and that prompted a note from the Treasury Department to the White House asking if the President did not consider a member of his Cabinet to be important enough to spell his name correctly! That is one way to teach someone early the importance of working slowly and carefully and with awareness of the impact of your actions and language on others.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I started in business many years later, I was so insecure about my role as Chief Operating Officer (of the web video company blip.tv), that I worked nonstop, even during vacations. I remember going with my family once on a bike tour through Puglia, Italy, and stopping at each red light not just to read but to process every single email that came in and then racing to the next stoplight and doing the same thing again. I was not a lot of fun to be with during that time! I also lost sight of strategy. I did a lot of work, but looking back I’m not sure it was the right work to have been doing!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When we were just starting out at blip.tv, I was a young, ambitious entrepreneur. I’ll never forget Gerry Laybourne (who was running Oxygen at the time with Oprah Winfrey) stopped me after a meeting in which we had just forged a big revenue deal between Oxygen and blip.tv to say: “I know what I’m doing. I am enabling the next generation of women leaders. And when you are able, please pay this forward.” Since then I have gone out of my way to help and support other women founders, and I always will.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My current company is The Path, which is meditation for the modern mind. When we started, we were hosting group meditations in Manhattan early Monday mornings. My vision was to make meditation fun and accessible. I wanted to give people the tools to start a daily practice and to bring people into a community of meditators because it’s easier to stay on your path if you are surrounded by other people who are meditating as well.
Because of my background in entertainment (I had also worked at MTV News) and in tech, I knew people who had a lot of impact. And who were stressed. I thought — if I can get these people to meditate, it will help meditation seem less distant to others. I can help push meditation towards the mainstream. It was a gamble. There was nothing like it that I knew of anywhere in the world. But soon after we launched, we ended up on the cover of the New York Times Style section as one of the best places in NYC to network, which was ironic because people were in silence most of the time! After that piece was published, we had lines around the block! We sold out every meditation in minutes. It was wild. It was like we were running the hottest nightclub in town. It turned out that people were hungry for spirituality and meditation brought to them in a modern, playful way.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When the pandemic broke out, I really had to think. First I will share that we were so fortunate. Every year now we host a curated, in-person meditation retreat, and in 2020 ours took place literally the day before the pandemic really hit the United States. It was a beautiful retreat, and no one got sick, and the fact that we were an in-person meditation company and we got our event done in 2020 in time is beyond fortunate. But we had no idea when we would be able to host another Mela, and at the time this was the main thing our company was doing.
I had no idea how we would make money. I had no idea how I would pay my team. But I had read in Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success about the importance of keeping money in flow. If you keep money in flow, he writes, it will come back to you. So against all reason, I sent extra money to everyone on my team and to all of the key vendors who had helped us produce Mela. I literally wrote a check for $500 to a consultant who had helped me come up with the idea for Mela three years earlier. It was terrifying. It defied logic. My father is a professor at Harvard Business School, and he said the companies that would survive the pandemic would be the ones who hoarded cash. But the good karma of my actions, in supporting people who worked in the events business, came back to us, and we ended up launching an online Meditation Teacher Training program that has been really successful and actually scales, unlike Mela!
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I thought about giving up. But I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. I was motivated by helping people. We started hosting free weekly meditations during the pandemic, and I could see how thrilled people were to come together and be in a positive, spiritual, uplifting community. Our community sustains me and fills me with joy. It literally delights me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to be real. To care about the people in your business. Your team of course, but also your vendors and partners and customers. I treat everyone as a real person, not someone I am doing a deal with. I ask about their families and their health, and I truly care. I think this comes across and helps to fuel and support our success as a business, even in the field of meditation. I also share with my team when I don’t feel well, when I’m exhausted and might say something awkward, and I ask for their help as much as they ask for mine.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think it’s important to let people work however they work best, as Tony Schwartz writes about with his energy project. Take a yoga class in the middle of the day. Take three days or a week off whenever you need that. Keep your mental health positive, and your work will be better, and also everyone will work together with more kindness and support. I also believe in no gossip. No one is allowed to come to me with a complaint about anyone they haven’t tried to address directly with the person first. With this, we have zero personnel problems at The Path, and we all sincerely enjoy working together. I also think you need to operate from kindness, so we bend our official rules more than I would like to say to be accommodating, and kind, to our customers. If you have a culture of kindness, that will permeate everything your company does and how you are perceived by your customers and potential customers as well.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I think it’s important to be direct and clear. We have a strict no-lying policy at The Path, and everyone has to abide by that, including me, and even in marketing. When people know they can trust your word, they can trust you, and that builds a great culture at a company.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think you can plan one year out and just keep moving forward, staying close to your market and answering your customers’ needs, and hoping your good karma in constantly planting positive seeds pays off. I truly believe that it does!
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The most important principles at a company are honesty and trust. This has to be 100% of the time, and it has to apply to everyone at the company, including the leader. We recently had an issue around people nominating themselves for Mela who weren’t quite right for the retreat. We had no idea how to respond to them. I was visiting my parents, and my mother said we could write to people and say, “We have filled up the spots in this category,” i.e. if an artist nominated herself and wasn’t quite right for any reason, we could respond that we already have enough artists for this next Mela. I suggested this to my head of operations, and she said, “We could say that. But that would be a lie.” And she was right. I love that she said this! So I wrote a long note to applicants saying that Mela is curated in a specific way, with a number of factors at play, and that unfortunately they weren’t a good match at this time, but that we would love to invite them to join our teacher training program or another offering at The Path. It was honest, and it was the right thing to do.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- You can’t only offer things for free. A company has to be sustainable, even now! Find products your market will pay for, and focus on these.
- You can’t hoard money and hope that things change. You need to put products out there, even if all of them are digital and you were focused on in-person offerings in the past, and hope you quickly find your product market fit. We did this, and it worked with our meditation teacher training, which was thrilling.
- You can’t just cut salaries and expect that to work in the intermediate term. It’s so important to take care of the key people whom you work with, and just focus your energy and mind on creating products to support you during this time of great change! I always prefer to think about growing revenue rather than cutting expenses.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Ask for help. Partner with friends. Experiment with paid media, including paid SEM. Write more to get links back to your site. Keep going, keep working it, and you will succeed because more people are buying more things online than ever before! And believe. I find daily meditation, which we teach during our teacher training, is key. Keep your attitude positive, and people will want to work with you — customers and partners, and your team as well!
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be honest. Even if you are feeling down or stressed one day, share that. In this way your team knows they can trust you.
- Meditate. When you meditate, you start to believe, over time, that the world is supporting you, rather than out to get you. Meditation gives you a lightness that makes you a joy to be around. That is a huge asset right now.
- Focus on the gaps in your market. Stay close to your market and look for the holes. We saw a gap in a great Meditation Teacher Training program, and we decided to create an online one. It’s been more successful than we could have imagined.
- Care about your team. Show your team that you care about them not just as workers but as people. As I said, when the pandemic broke out, I gave everyone a bonus. I had no idea what the company would do, since we had been focused on in-person products, but I didn’t want them to worry about money or paying bills. It was scary, but it was the right thing to do.
- Be yourself. Be funny and quirky and silly or whatever you are. At this time especially, people, as my co-founder Charlie Knoles says, crave authenticity. Find your true north, as Bill George from Harvard Business School would say, and be yourself. In this way people can relate to you, and they will trust you (see #1, above!).
Can you please give us your favorite, “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I once said, “The Most Important Quality in a Team is Trust” during my time at Blip, and I still see that quoted everywhere. I try to be fiercely honest with my team, about good and bad things, so that they trust me. That is the foundation for any business, small or large.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We are at @the.path on Instagram, and I am at @dinakaplan. Or find us at thepath.com!