When Henrik Zillmer, the CEO of flight compensation startup Airhelp, signed up to drink the psychedelic Amazonian brew ayahuasca, it was not just for personal growth, he says, “but also for the development and the good of the company.” He felt ready for the experience, having tripped on mushrooms and LSD many times, but, in retrospect, says it was far more profound than anything he’d ever done.
“I wasn’t afraid, but with ayahuasca I soon found myself on a space rocket that I couldn’t stop,” he recalls. “It was such an extreme experience.”
Zillmer encountered, what he remembers as a “life or death situation” as he resisted what was trying to emerge for him during a psychedelic journey at a 12-day retreat in Peru, the centerpiece of a three-month program offered by Entrepreneurs Awakening at a cost of $10,000 per person. After a couple of hours of strife, he became exhausted and surrendered, allowing the DMT-containing concoction to fully take effect.
“It removed all the clutter,” he says of that March 2016 trip on the Awake Forward podcast. “I, for the first time, connected with the real Henrik or my heart, if you will, the spirit of myself.”
The reverberations of his trip with ayahuasca, a substance consumed as a sacrament by indigenous communities for centuries, profoundly impacted the way he ran his company, which has more than 350 employees. “It made me focus more on the people than the numbers in the Excel sheets,” he tells DoubleBlind. “HR wasn’t a priority before: there was almost no resources and we did what was absolutely the minimum.”
READ: The Ayahuasca Privilege
Following his epiphany, the human resources team soon doubled in number and employee benefits were expanded to include language classes, yoga, lunches, and more flexible work arrangements. A trendy architecture firm was hired to design a new Berlin office in 2019. “Investing in employees and helping them build career plans became a big priority: I trace that back to the retreat. We began shifting the focus from what our employees need to do for me to what I can do for them.”
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Business leaders have traditionally undergone training programs, educational seminars, and motivational speaking workshops in order to become better head honchos. In the last decade, mainstream media has covered the exponential increase in Silicon Valley workers who microdose psychedelics like LSD in order to boost their focus, enter a flow state, and spark their imagination, following in the footsteps of Apple Founder Steve Jobs. It also emerged recently that Twitter CEO Elon Musk uses ketamine for his mental health.
But more and more CEOs are going full tilt and undergoing ceremonies in which they take hallucinogens like ayahuasca or the more rapid-acting 5-MeO-DMT. This is all part of, what WIRED referred to, as the “shamanifaction” of CEOs, which has also fueled a growing interest in soul readings, ascetic diets, and silent retreats.
“We’ve seen leaders, both young and seasoned, leave our ayahuasca retreat with a renewed sense of belonging, discipline, and commitment to expanding beyond anything they ever thought possible. So what are you waiting for?” read a recent newsletter put out by retreat provider 1heart. It promised participants the opportunity to amplify their leadership abilities during the upcoming 19th retreat, following in the footsteps of some 600 “leaders and creators.”
It can be difficult not to grimace at such promo, but Kevin Canella, founder of Thank You Life, a nonprofit subsidizing psychedelic therapy, says that many business leaders, following their journeys, end up donating to help others have transformative plant medicine experiences, too. “I can’t think of a single high net worth individual donor who has not had their own very profound experience with psychedelics,” says Cannella. “They want to give back.” His nonprofit has so far enabled five people to undergo legal ketamine-assisted therapy, after some $250,000 was donated, with the majority of those funds going toward startup costs. 1heart says they also subsidize ceremonies to support diversity and inclusion, having granted 75 people scholarships thus far.
Some executives, inspired by their own plant medicine experiences, have also begun to look at how they can provide psychedelic therapy to their employees, while the founder of Toms Shoes recently pledged a quarter of his net worth, $100m, to psychedelic research. Last year, Dr. Bronner’s soap company became the first company to offer employee insurance coverage for psychedelic-assisted therapy through company Enthea. So far, eight percent of staff have utilized the benefit, and Enthea recently said it has letters of interest from another 26 companies and is in conversations with a dozen more. Meanwhile, Bloomberg recently reported that workplace ketamine retreats could soon be a reality for San Francisco tech workers.
But what about those who do not have hip employers who go to Burning Man? Microdosing got at least one CEO fired, while another lost the role after it emerged that he had encouraged staff to take LSD. Questions also remain over whether companies are driven by employee care—or just greater productivity.
“The motivational driver of capitalism is productivity,” says educator Charlotte James, founder of the Psychedelic Liberation Training. “The narrative around the microdosing movement in the western world, which to a great extent emerged out of Silicon Valley, was not about how we are improving work environments and culture through working with sacred molecules and plants, but enhancing algorithms and AI capacities.”
What’s more, concerns over the future of many naturally-found psychedelic medicines—and the ecosystems they come from—have never been greater.
“Hopefully, CEOs can become informed and aware of how to be in ‘right relationship’ with Indigenous peoples in order to ensure their behavior doesn’t cause harm to the sustainability of traditional medicines or the communities working to preserve them,” says a representative for the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, an Indigenous-led philanthropic vehicle working to support five keystone medicines and their stewards.
The Psychedelic House of Davos at last year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Switzerland may have raised eyebrows (“Oh good, just what billionaires need: a looser grip on reality,” quipped comedian Stephen Colbert), but there is optimism that if more business leaders trip that, perhaps, levels of global avarice may decrease. “It could be beneficial for people in positions of great power and privilege to be guided through an intentional practice of expanding their consciousness,” says James.
Joseph Mays, ethnobotanist, and program director of Chacruna’s Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative of the Americas, said the widespread availability of basic needs like socialized medicine, public housing, and food security would be far more beneficial than CEOs taking psychedelics. “There’s this idea of trickle-down psychedelic healing, but the structural reform that needs to happen to, for example, support indigenous communities’ struggles for autonomy, can only happen politically,” he said. “Things only change when there is demand from a large enough amount of people connected in a struggle.”
This widening phenomenon of business leaders doing psychedelics—and the impact trickling down to their employees—has recently attracted academic interest. Last July, researchers at the University of Maryland’s school of business began investigating what sort of changes powerful psychedelic experiences can have on business leaders, beginning with a small pilot in which they attended a retreat and interviewed CEOs, partners, and directors.
Data will be collected before, during, and after psilocybin-assisted leadership retreats held in legal settings. They are planning to survey up to another six cohorts by the end of next year. “Preliminary results from the pilot cohort indicate sustained increases in perceived connectedness to self, others, and the wider world,” co-principal investigators Dr. Rachelle Sampson and Dr. Bennet Zelner tell DoubleBlind jointly. Participants also reported subtle but significant changes, such as an increased ability to relate to and work with personality types they previously found challenging, as well as more dramatic changes such as a greater sense of connectedness to the wider world that now guides their business decision-making.
This was something experienced by James Wallman, a trend forecaster who founded startup The World Experience Organization in 2020. He first drank ayahuasca in 2010 and has sat with it periodically since. “It’s just the most amazing psychospiritual and emotional reset,” he says. “It’s very easy in the modern world to get a really narrow focus, especially living in the city.”
Wallman is frank about the challenges his companies have faced, such as falling behind on paying debts and taxes. But after his first retreat, he claims, he began to “get my shit organized: I came back cleaner. And since then, I’ve been a bit braver in my decision making. To be a leader, you certainly have to have belief in yourself and I now feel more connected to myself. It’s powerful—it changes pathways.”
Not all CEOs come back from their psychedelic experiences with newfound passion to care for themselves and their employees, however. Sometimes, instead, they realize they’re no longer aligned with their companies. “Some participants have either shifted the direction of their business or left a business they founded to pursue an entirely new path,” say Zelner and Sampson of the initial cohort in their study.
That’s what happened to Nathan Hesselgrave, former CEO of a youth leadership company. He was previously a workaholic, doing 80-hour weeks, and viewed his jobbing life as “an uphill battle toward the end of his working career.” In 2021, he went to Tandava Retreats in Tepoztlan, an hour south of Mexico City for a 5-MeO-DMT ceremony. This experience helped him become more efficient and compassionate, including towards himself, he says. But six months after sitting with the medicine, he decided he wanted to expedite his plans to retire. “I realized I have enough money to retire: why continue just working myself to the bone when I don’t need it?”
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There’s no shortage of C-Suite executives seeking to access psychedelics. Journalist and author Anne Phillippi, host of the New Health Club podcast, recently founded concierge service Penelope Ventures to help them navigate the psychedelic treatment world. “CEOs in their 30s are approaching me and saying, ‘Well, I kind of feel like my life’s falling apart. I would like to do this,” she says. “They really feel like they’re on the way to a burnout or en route to a conflict with their co-founder.”
More than half of “high potential” startups are believed to fail due to conflict among co-founders and immature leadership. “Almost all of the people that I’ve talked to in Silicon Valley have tried or are regularly using psychedelics,” Zillmer adds. “You won’t hear from all of them, but the world has changed a lot. I don’t feel the need to hide: psychedelics make you be unapologetically who you are.”