When Dilan Dane sold his first company, a search engine called Scoopler, to Google in 2011, he had a windfall of money and time on his hands. He knew he needed to invest some of it in himself.
“I wanted to get myself really ready for the rest of my career on a deep, emotional level,” he said.
It wasn’t executive coaching he was after. Or an MBA. Instead, Dane traveled nearly 5,000 miles from San Francisco to the Sacred Valley of Peru to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony. He had heard from friends—fellow startup founders— that the Amazonian psychedelic plant medicine was positively transformative.
Having grown up in a dysfunctional family in Sri Lanka against the backdrop of a civil war that started just after he was born and lasted until well after he had emigrated to the U.S., Dane said, “I had a tremendous amount of childhood trauma. I was very much still suffering from this baggage from my past.”
As an adult, this baggage became depression, crippling social anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Friends in the startup world told him that ayahuasca could help with all of that.
From his first sip of the psychedelic brew back in 2013, Dane became part of a growing trend among his peers. “Psychedelics are absolutely exploding in the startup community,” he said. “So many founders are doing it. It used to be a bit more under the radar, but now more of them are doing so openly.”
Many of those who’ve tried other psychedelics in addition to ayahuasca say the Amazonian plant is a more intense hallucinogenic than any other. Some are finding that the psychedelic trip helps them break down the barriers to reaching their full potential as business leaders and entrepreneurs.
Pronounced i-ya-was-ka, the bitter, dark brown brew is made up of two plants both native to the Amazon—the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub.
The vine contains MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), the active ingredient in early antidepressants, which helps activate the leaves. The leaves contain the psychedelic chemical DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine). When combined, they form a potent drink that alters a user’s sense of time, and induces hallucinations and feelings of euphoria. It can also cause nausea and vomiting, dizziness, increased heart rate, and seizures.
In the U.S., DMT on its own is an illegal Schedule I Controlled Substance like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. But the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows for the use of ayahuasca in some churches because the plant medicine has roots in indigenous Amazonian religions—some of which have U.S. outposts.
For thousands of years, natives of the upper Amazon basin, across Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, have consumed the medicinal distillation in religious ceremonies to make connections with supernatural forces or forest spirits.
Ayahuasca ceremony 6am Colombia #ayahuasca #colombia #backpacker #nomad #travelphotography #travelblogger #psychedelics #lyos #liveyourownstory pic.twitter.com/0iAmOYVUoP
In the 1990s and early 2000s, ayahuasca ceremonies started cropping up in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. They were attended by modern Westerners seeking a psychedelic trip, a spiritual experience or maybe healing. A smattering of research suggests that the ethnobotanical may aid in the treatment of depression, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health problems.
While many people turn to it as a treatment for depression, it’s dangerous to mix it with other antidepressants, including MAOIs, SSRIs, and the herbal St. John’s wort. These combinations can cause serious side effects. Reputable retreats ask potential participants about their medications and advise them on which ones aren’t safe to mix with the plant medicine.
Whether entrepreneurs try ayahuasca for a specific benefit or just the novel experience, there may be something in their nature that draws them to it.
“Startup founders are antiauthoritarian. We shirk the traditional career path, go off on our own, and do something that everyone tells us is crazy,” says three-time startup founder Dylan Beynon, who runs Mindbloom, a mental health and well-being company that offers at-home therapy with ketamine, an anesthetic with hallucinogenic effects used to treat depression. “To go and do something like an underground ayahuasca ceremony, you have to be a bit antiauthoritarian. You’re doing something that’s off the beaten path.”
It might be the mental health effects of ayahuasca that keep founders coming back.
Research shows that past trauma is fairly common among entrepreneurs. A 2022 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that early-life exposure to hardship increases risk tolerance and the likelihood that a person will become an entrepreneur.
“I think a lot of startup founders come from some sort of brokenness,” Dane said. “They feel the need to prove themselves in some way.”
Some research finds that ayahuasca-assisted psychotherapy for trauma, in which a person takes ayahuasca and later rehashes the experience with a therapist, can accelerate their progress in repairing this “brokenness.” It helps patients “cut to the chase,” so to speak.
Imagine having a session of 10 years of psychotherapy in 1 day..what ayahuasca did for me ❤️🩹 #ayahuasca #psychadelics
“Often the dynamic in the business world is that those who are the most competitive, the most driven, are the people who are the most disconnected from their inner world, their own emotional state of being,” said Jonathan de Potter, who left a high-level position in the corporate world to launch Behold Retreats, which offers ayahuasca retreats tailored to leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs. “I had significant childhood trauma that went unresolved and suppressed. I was disconnected from it.”
Neurological research suggests that ayahuasca acts on certain receptors in the brain that both unlock repressed memories—common in those who suffer from PTSD—and eliminate the fear around those memories. That is, a person can face the traumatic events of their past without being retraumatized by them.
De Potter says that after a few ayahuasca retreats he was able to relive that trauma and release it. “I felt 30 or 40 pounds lighter immediately.”
Ayahuasca’s effects may feel like “talk therapy on steroids” because the hallucinations reveal what many interpret as a deeper truth about themselves, their life, or life in general. Often called ayahuasca “teachings,” these visions may provide the type of self-awareness critical to being a good leader.
Many take years, decades to reach nirvana. It took me one night. Pachamama guided me through it, saw and felt my ancestors, felt the light but also darkness. Died and was reborn 🙏 #ayahuasca #Nirvana #healing
When Zaharo Tsekouras drank ayahuasca at a retreat in Oregon, on the second night, she saw a grandmother figure holding a rag doll that was stuck all over with thorns. Tsekouras knew that the rag doll was her. The old woman asked Tsekouras, Why do you do this to yourself? Why do you have these thoughts about yourself? Why do you think you’re not enough?
“I understood this was a lesson about self-love and the false beliefs we have about ourselves,” said Tsekouras, chief of staff to the CEO at lifestyle services startup Spruce.
But it wasn’t all wise grandmothers and self-love for Tsekouras. The first night that she drank the magical brew, she had no hallucinations. She just sat on her mat and shook. “My entire body was convulsing. An outsider looking at me would have thought I was having a seizure.”
Seizures are a possible side effect of ayahuasca, but Tsekouras took these convulsions in stride. She said it was her body’s way of “making room for the gifts, intuition, or knowledge I would receive on the following nights. It was a way of opening my heart and cleaning house.”
A few years after launching his first startup, Michael Costuros hoped that ayahuasca would offer a teaching that might cure his severe burnout.
“My biggest fear was that I would realize that I shouldn’t be doing this job—like I had outgrown it and needed to move on, but that felt like throwing away eight years of work,” he said.
Instead, his first ayahuasca retreat revealed everything that was holding him back. Costuros remembers sitting on a mat in a dark temple in Peru and trying to follow the primary instruction that the shamans give: Surrender. Frustrated, he felt he’d surrendered all he could and couldn’t let go any more.
Then a voice that identified itself as ayahuasca offered to show Costuros what was preventing him from surrendering. He was taken on a walk along a fence around a ranch. He stopped at each fence post, which represented a belief or an experience that was holding him back. Then he found himself wearing a tight-fitting, corset-like jumpsuit. At each fence post, he shed another jumpsuit in order to rid himself of that barrier.
“I would unzip the jumpsuit and step out of it and get bigger. I just kept unzipping. I must have let go of hundreds of them—childhood limitations, the self-doubt and impostor syndrome of a first-time CEO—and with each one there was more life force, joy, and freedom.” Costuros now runs Awake Forward, which offers ayahuasca-assisted executive coaching.
When founders and entrepreneurs release these barriers or “energetic blockages,” de Potter says, it may eliminate what’s standing in the way of achieving their vision for the company.
When Costuros returned to work after that first retreat, his previously strained relationship with his CEO was transformed. “We were always at odds before, but now I could empathize with the challenge and incredible responsibility that my CEO had taken on and my attitude was ‘How can I help?’”
De Potter says the impact on interpersonal relationships is one of ayahuasca’s greatest benefits for business leaders. “A lot of executives are spending their time and energy on helping their teams with emotional regulation,” de Potter said. “You can’t talk about next month’s targets if your team is not in a state to engage in that.”
Business leadership research shows that when leaders can regulate their own negative emotional responses, they can better identify their team’s needs and provide them the encouragement or motivation they need.
our emotional reactions are a useful indicator of our inner state and mindset
i think any initial emotional reaction that doesn't sound like "WOW, that's amazing, i’m really happy for him" re Adam Neumann's raise means there's an opportunity for introspection
A small 2019 study in Psychopharmacology found that after taking ayahuasca, people showed better emotional regulation. That is, they were less prone to negative judgment and knee-jerk emotional reactions in response to triggering situations.
This effect may explain why many founders and CEOs report improved interpersonal relations in the office after ayahuasca.
“People problems are the trickiest, most challenging problems in companies,” Mindbloom’s Beynon said.
Before his first ayahuasca ceremony, Beynon was dealing with a lot of people problems at his first startup. The visions he had during the psychedelic trip reminded him of the importance of both his personal and professional relationships.
“It fundamentally transformed how I related to others in the world nearly overnight,” he said.
After ayahuasca retreats, people may return to work with more empathy for their colleagues due to a common experience that Dane describes: “I felt this oneness. I felt connected to everyone and everything. I felt a lot of love for all the people in my life.”
Whether ayahuasca brings them relief from trauma, burnout, or depression, or it imparts heightened compassion or emotional intelligence, many entrepreneurs report the effects on their professional lives that Dane experienced.
“I went back feeling a sense of purpose, more committed to the mission of the company, knowing on a deeper level why this work was meaningful to me and that this is how I want to make the world a better place.”
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