Why authenticity and a good spiritual compass matter now more than ever
Dear present (and future) CEOs of psychedelic companies,
This isn’t your first rodeo, you know the space, you’ve raised money, you’ve got investors, you walk the talk. Well, whoop-de-doo, congratulations! Today is your day, you’re off to Great Places! You have brains in your head, money in the bank, feet in your shoes. Policies are changing, you can see the returns on the horizon, your investors are excited.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose. Which will you choose and what will you optimize for?
My name is Sébastien Fouillade and I’ve been involved with spiritual work for 10 years, and with psychedelics for over 6 years. I talk with executives in this space regularly, wrote a book on my own healing journey (Stairway to Healing: The Crooked Path We Travel), and I help organize Ayahuasca retreats in Peru. I also happen to work at Microsoft, a company that had to go through its own share of soul searching over the last ten years.
I have never felt so excited about a new space since I discovered the internet back in the 90’s. And just like the internet, the psychedelic space has the potential to change billions of lives. Not only to heal individuals, but also to help their mental wealth, their creativity, their leadership, their relationships with one another and the planet. It could foster a new renaissance for humanity.
And while I see huge potential, I also see significant risks for companies getting in this space for the wrong reasons, or companies who lack authenticity and the spiritual backbone to make it long term.
Most of you think it doesn’t apply to you. You’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street. At the same time you need to optimize for shareholder and investor returns. And some of you believe what worked in the cannabis industry would work here as well.
But psychedelics are different. They’re not cannabis (though we can learn from the past work there), and they require very different protocols from legacy pharmaceuticals. Psychedelics give you the power to touch millions of souls. Let this sink in for a bit, “souls”. They enable therapists to open doors in a person’s mind that were previously inaccessible.
As a result this gives you an enormous responsibility both to the people you will impact, and to the resources that have helped you get there. You are standing on the shoulders of giants, elders, healers, doctors, researchers, ancestors, and indigenous tribes. This makes your work both humbling and daunting.
I have seen leaders in this space start with authentic desires to do good, get investment money and then change as pressure for returns increases or to increase company valuation. I have also seen leaders who have limited experience with psychedelics or spiritual work, leaders who have convinced themselves they’re in it for the right reasons. But as the need for growth mounts, even the most well-intended executives tend to deprioritize the “crummies in tummies”, or in this case the spiritual core and authenticity of their company.
“Business is business and business must grow, regardless of crummies in tummies you know.” – The Lorax by Dr Seuss –
What will happen if psychedelic companies trade their soul and authenticity for growth, if they forget why they got on the path in the first place, follow leaders who never had life-changing trips, and ignore the generations of healers who came before them. What will happen when the reality of for-profit hits our spiritual awakening?
First, as their customers heal and look for authenticity, they will see through these companies. They will migrate to more authentic companies and leaders. Same goes for the employees in these companies, especially millennials for whom authenticity is very important.
Second, we will miss an enormous opportunity for us (we’re all connected) to reach higher. One of the biggest learnings I’ve had in ayahuasca ceremonies is that humanity can accomplish amazing things. We owe it to ourselves to enable everyone to realize that potential. If we don’t, we limit ourselves and end up with big pharma 2.0, when we could go much farther.
This is all solvable however. It requires an intentional commitment to bring together a spiritually-driven operational mindset with a business-driven mindset.
I would recommend companies in this space put together their own spiritual charter in place and assign an executive in charge of championing that charter across the company, a person that is empowered to challenge actions at the right level. This charter should impact every aspect of the company from product design to employee culture. It is your spiritual compass.
You could also sign on to a pledge such as the North Star psychedelics pledge (https://northstar.guide/ethicspledge). But this isn’t just a checkbox, It has to be meaningful and has to result in proactive investments that shape how your company runs.
You can use the pledge as a starting point, modify it to your needs, and turn it into a clear action plan. There are proposed actions as part of the pledge itself and this is not a small amount of work.
As a product person, I would expect the most visible aspect of your actions to be seen in your products, the way you treat your customers, the way you give back to communities, and the way you honor tradition.
You could even hire a dedicated executive to drive that spiritual compass and empower this person to impact every aspect of your work. Unfortunately the title of Chief Spiritual Officer is already taken, otherwise it would have been the perfect title. A possible new title would be “Chief Authenticity Officer”, as authenticity transcends a person, and as transcendence is a big part of psychedelics, this role would transcend everything you do, from product strategy to how you give back to communities, to how employees are treated.
I do see some lights in the industry and get inspired:
- Ryan Zurrer from the Vine Fund – Read about the Vine Reciprocity Pledge here and make sure you listen to Ryan on Third Wave here.
- The North Star pledge – Internalize it and make it yours. The pledge lists many possible actions.
- Article by Sam Douglas at the Australian Psychedelics Society on Stakeholders vs. Shareholders: “why should psychedelics corporations embrace decriminalization?”
- Tim Ferris – Some thoughts on For-Profit Psychedelic Startups and Companies.
- Jemie Sae Koo from Psychable on how she started with socially-minded principles when founding Psychable on the High Performance Narrative Podcast. This is also a beautiful podcast full of passion and love, highly recommended.
- Nicholas Levich’s perspective with a simple powerful ask: “support those who truly support you.”
There is hope, and there are many well-intentioned and well-equipped leaders ready to step up to this challenge. I’m excited to see what the next 20 years in this space will look like and hope we can seize the opportunity to reach higher.
Please share the lights that bring you hope and resources that could help others as they travel this path. Thank you.