Louis Gagnon, president of the carpooling start-up ride.com and former executive at the audio content company Audible Inc., is eschewing the usual tech and entrepreneurship conference circuit for a rather unconventional sort of speaking engagement.
Gagnon flew to New Delhi to speak to students from around the world about creating global harmony and inner peace through the practice of meditation. At the World Culture Festival's Global Youth Leadership Forum over the weekend, he shared his view that we can only reach our highest potential as individuals and leaders if we find peace of mind.
The social entrepreneur's fascination with mindfulness -- the practice of cultivating a focused awareness on the present moment -- started at a very young age. Growing up in Quebec, Gagnon visited the Benedictine monastery Abbaye Saint-Benoît-du-Lac every year to spend several days in silent reflection with the monks.
"I've always been a seeker -- someone who had an interest in spirituality, philosophy and well-being, widely defined," he told The Huffington Post during a break from his silent retreat at the Art of Living ashram in Bangalore, India.
Gagnon's early spiritual seeking ultimately led him to Eastern philosophy and meditation. Yet it was a fateful meeting with Indian guru and Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar that changed his life forever. Through Shankar's teachings, he learned the power of breathing for the first time, and decided to take up a long-term, daily meditation practice.
"My experience was dramatic and immediate," he said. "It changed my life literally overnight."
“It changed my life literally overnight.”
It didn't take long for Gagnon to transform from a stressed-out corporate executive who neglected his health and well-being into a purpose-driven leader who runs five miles, practices meditation and breathing exercises, and reads about spirituality every day.
He says that carving out two to three hours for these practices has become an integral part of his daily routine. "It gave me the energy... to reprioritize my life. It's all seamless, it's not a sacrifice," he said.
Gagnon is part of a growing tide of executives -- including Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, entrepreneur Marc Benioff, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, doctor and philanthropist Larry Brilliant, Bridgewater hedge fund founder Ray Dalio and The Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington -- who say that they use meditation to maintain their competitive edge. What these executives know from experience, science has confirmed: Meditation can boost focus and productivity, reduce stress, improve sleep quality and aid in creative problem-solving and effective leadership.
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of creating their own schedule around their meditation practice. But Gagnon insists that anyone can learn to use the breath as a tool to anchor themselves in the present moment.
"Whenever you find that your mind is agitated or the stress is high, take a moment to take a deep breath in while putting all of your attention on it," he said. "Feel how the air in gives you energy and how the air out makes you relax. Realize that when you are fully aware of your breathing, you are fully present."
Now, Gagnon's sharing what he's learned with his employees. He is a champion of meditation in the workplace, and says that the practice has helped him and his teams stay calm, focused and productive.
That prioritization of mindfulness seems to be working. Gagnon has noted increased collaboration among his employees in his various roles. He had taken teams on meditation retreats and taught them about mindful leadership, but it's not just about sitting and breathing. He tries to give his employees the tools and freedom they need to continue learning and growing -- not just at work, but in all areas of their lives.
“Whenever you find that your mind is agitated or the stress is high, take a moment to take a deep breath in while putting all of your attention on it.”
"There is lower turnover, higher collaboration and higher output because people are relaxed and centered. People are more happy and they love to go to work," he said. "It's the creation of that virtuous circle that corporate America very badly needs."
But is the mindful, compassionate approach to business fundamentally at odds with the American corporate ethos of more, better, faster? Gagnon doesn't think it has to be -- and in fact, the future demands that corporations take a new approach.
Aetna's Bertolini also offers his 50,000-plus employees free (and optional) yoga and meditation classes. The 13,000 workers who take advantage of the mindfulness classes report a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels and a 20 percent improvement in their sleep quality, in addition to an average gain of 62 minutes of productivity per week, according to company data. Thanks to the extra productivity, Aetna estimates that the company earned an extra $3,000 per year for each employee who participated.
"Corporate America is totally ripe for such philosophy and such an approach, which is basically about the evolution of the employees and the stakeholders, as opposed to the evolution of the company in and of itself," he said. "I think we've reached the limit of a corporate-centric system where it's all about the interests of the firm. Millennials don't buy that -- they want meaningful, fulfilling lives of their own outside the corporate interests."
The takeaway? Success in business is about more than just the company's bottom line.
"Invest in people and give them the means to be happier," Gagnon said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story described Gagnon as an executive at Audible, when in fact he left the company in October 2015. The article has been updated.