Mindful Ambition

From chimps to generals, from Wall Street bankers to Deepak Chopra – few have spent more time studying alpha males than Rebecca Parekh. What her abundant life reveals about the nature of ambition, and the importance of mindfulness...

Deepak Chopra gchats boys for her. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is looking to revamp the way the U.S. military is trained...because she had an idea. She doesn’t always travel to Tanzania to save chimpanzees, but when she does, it’s with Jane Goodall. Rebecca Parekh could be The Most Interesting Woman in the World.

But unlike a carefree character in a commercial, Parekh had to make major sacrifices to get there. At age 29, she found herself working 80 hour weeks as the Head of Cross Product Sales at Deutsche Bank on Wall Street. She swears she loved the job, despite a period where she cried herself to sleep every night and sobbed herself awake each morning. She gracefully handled the maximum-toughness, alpha-male dominated world for ten years. It wasn’t until 2011, a few nights before a meeting with Larry Ellison, that she decided she had had enough. She returned to her pre-Wall Street passions with Odyssean flair. 

Today, the dust has settled somewhat for Parekh. After working as the COO for Deepak Chopra, she is now using her inimitable experience to build something of her own. She’s in the process of creating a membership-based wellness center in New York City called The Well. It promises to be a paradigm shift in the world of healthcare as we know it, a perfect balance of Parekh’s two pastimes: Western ambition and Eastern mindfulness.

But how did she get here? What sets her apart? Lucky for us, Parekh’s intelligence is matched by her honesty. She didn’t hold back as she told us one of the most fascinating Breaker stories we’ve heard yet…

Unlike many New Jerseyans, you spent your summers growing up in India. Is there anything particular about those summers that shaped you?

Absolutely. We would fly into Bombay and move into my dad’s family home. We had weeks of intense family time. It was really something special. In the Indian culture, there’s no way we would have stayed anywhere but the family home. We would never stay in a hotel. Even now, my brothers are all married with kids and my parents are really—it means a lot to them when everybody comes over and stays in their home. In India in the early 90s, a shower was a faucet with a bucket of water that you poured over your head. It was so different and it was a very important perspective to have growing up in suburban New Jersey.

Did it make you feel separate from the people back home in America?

Of course. But it’s helped me in many ways, too. I think a lot about how much of the India that’s “trendy” today—the meditation and the yoga and the Ayurveda and all these things—is in my blood because I grew up around it. I think that’s really unique in terms of the business that I’m building. There’s authenticity. I’m building on what I believe in and on what I know.

As somebody who actually lived it, do you ever feel a bit of disgust at the Western appropriation of Indian culture?

I try really hard to not be judgmental about it, but it’s not easy. I think that there are people whose lives have been profoundly impacted by finding these traditions and it’s awesome. But it’s not great for those who jump on a trendy bandwagon when there’s not a lot of respect for understanding the culture from which these traditions stem.

What’s an example of the good and the bad sides of appropriation, if you don’t mind sharing?

I think a positive example is Western yoga. Is some of it extremely commercial? Yes absolutely, but that’s okay. It doesn’t bother me because I think—it’s America. You need things to be commercial and financially viable for a business to exist, and the fact that they do exist means more people are exposed and ultimately that’s a good thing. But yoga, meditation, the healing artsthese are powerful things and I believe they deserve respect and devotion. When I’m at a cocktail party and someone tells me they’re a “healer,” I want to understand that a little bit more. Like, what is a healer? What is your definition of a healer? I’m just curious as to where people are getting their information from.

Rebecca with her hero chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall

Rebecca with her hero chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

Talking the way you do, you would never think you’re a Wall Street alumni. Why did someone so concerned with mental wellbeing decide to go into finance?

Very good question. Kind of accidentally. I went to college and studied biological anthropology. I always had a fascination with primates and chimpanzees specifically. There was a Phd study program in the Bornean jungle and I went to Southeast Asia after college to figure out if I wanted to do it. Amidst all that, my oldest brother had a white water rafting injury; he broke his neck diving in Yosemite. He needed a lot of help that summer, and we moved back into my parent’s house. That was the first time I thought, “Maybe I need to get a job and live in New York City.” My brother’s girlfriend worked in banking and encouraged me to interview for an internship at Deutsche Bank. I figured, I’ll try this banking internship for 3 months and save a little money. I think it was like $12 and hour, which seemed like a lot at the time. I thought it was going to be the most boring thing in the entire world, and I absolutely loved it. I found it to be so interesting and intellectually stimulating. I was blown away by how smart everybody was.

What did you do at Deutsche Bank?   

I started out in a group called The Hedge Fund Capital Group, raising money for hedge funds and private equity funds. This was the early 2000s when hedge funds were a fairly new concept. A lot of the individuals who are now famous were just leaving investment banks and going out on their own.  It was a really exciting time to be in the business.  Then in 2004, I started hearing about a new financial instrument called a credit derivative and I took night classes to learn more.  Towards the end of that year, one of the guys on the credit desk reached out to me and said, “we’re building a new business and we’d love to have you be a part of it.” So I started working in a group called Structured Credit in January of 2005. It was sort of the birthplace for everything, you know, that people read about in terms of the 2008 financial crisis. Then in the fall of 2008, I was asked to create a new business called Cross Product Sales. We built a multi product specialist group to cover macro funds. It was a direct response to what was happening in the financial markets. I later went on to run the Private Institutional Client Group before resigning in the Spring of 2011.

So you’re saying you went from saving the monkeys to selling CDOs? 

Well, I did write my Senior Thesis on primate social behavior and alpha males in their natural habitat, so it was actually quite relevant being on the trading desk!

Now that is funny. Do you feel any kind of guilt or responsibility for having a hand in the financial crisis? 

Wow, what a question! No, I don’t think the responsibility lies on any one party i.e. the investment banker, The CDO manager, the investor, or the borrower.  A lot of really bad things happened all at once and the fact that banks created derivative products which provided tremendous amounts of leverage on fundamentally broken assets, well that turned bad into catastrophic pretty fast. Was that reckless and irresponsible in hindsight? Absolutely. Do we need regulations to prevent that from happening again? For sure. But was it the fault of Wall Street? I don’t think so. So few of us were paying attention to the details. We were living in this world of “it’s all going to be okay.” Life takeaway: read the fine print.

Why did you leave Deutsche Bank?

In early 2011, I was supposed to go and meet Larry Ellison in San Francisco to talk about this new business I was building. It was such a huge opportunity, but it was a really complicated business trip to schedule. It required a series of red eyes and there was some huge conference in town so we couldn’t get a hotel room. My assistant kept showing me these convoluted travel options and I was like, “I just don’t want to go to this meeting!” Weirdly, it was the last straw, and I went to my boss and said, “I’m so sorry but I quit. I’m not going to the meeting, I’m not going to San Francisco, I just don’t want to do this right now.” I should have been jumping through hoops and been so excited for this opportunity, but I was just done. I’ve always wanted to live a really big life, and it felt very small to me at the time. Being an investment banker at a trading desk…it just wasn’t enough for me.

Rebecca with Deepak Chopra.

Rebecca with Deepak Chopra.

"We glamorize busy. It’s almost like a calling card. It’s weird to say you had a calming week and weren’t too busy. Can you imagine someone saying that?"

So how did you start working for Deepak Chopra?

After leaving Deutsche Bank, I co-founded a healthcare non-profit called The Global Foundation for Eating Disorders (GFED). There was this woman I knew who was an eating-disorder treatment doctor, a brilliant woman, very talented, and she reached out to me for advice on how to get funding for research grants. That turned into a three year partnership which indirectly led to Deepak. It’s a long story! But he was looking for someone with a finance background to help streamline his businesses. I began working for him as his Chief Operating Officer. Such a cool job.

Do you have a favorite story that encapsulates your time with Deepak?

Oh man—there are so many. He's like family. There was a time I went into work and he looked at me and said, "What's going on? You don't look like yourself." I had had a fight with a guy I was dating, and if you work for DC, you know he's very perceptive. It resulted in him taking my phone, reading my text thread, and him trying to give me boy advice. I was all, "I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do!" And he said, "There's nothing to do; just be."

Of course that’s what he said!

Yeah. He always offers such perfect perspective and is so funny about it.

How did all these frankly astonishing experiences culminate in White Radish?

Dating back to Deutsche Bank days, I had this idea that I wanted to open a wellness center. It was while working for Deepak that it became abundantly clear to me that the time was right and I just had to go out on my own and do this—it should exist, it’s crazy to me it doesn’t exist, there’s a market for it, there’s a huge demand for it, I think it’s important and it’s what I’m most passionate about now.

Rebecca with Nancy Pelosi, Deepak Chopra and Steve Israel

Rebecca with Nancy Pelosi, Deepak Chopra and Steve Israel

"I didn’t cry! It was a great morning."

What is it exactly?

Best-in-class wellness meets best-in-class hospitality. It’s sort of like the health club redefined. Instead of going to play squash or golf, members go to have reiki and reflexology. We’ve put together a team of doctors and practitioners —acupuncture, functional medicine, yoga, sports rehab — to create a holistic wellness experience in a beautifully designed place.

What is the difference between health and wellness?

That is a really good question. I don’t know if there is a difference between health and wellness—I think maybe some of it comes back to your mental state? So many entrepreneurs have this mindset similar to what I experienced in the corporate world, which is this mind frame of, “the harder you work the more tired you are, the more drained you are, the more battle wounds you have—the better of an entrepreneur that you are." We glamorize busy. It’s almost like a calling card. It’s weird to say you had a calming week and weren’t too busy. Can you imagine someone saying that?

I love that: “glamorizing busy.” Americans, and particularly those in alpha male industries, wear busy-ness like a badge of honor.

Yeah! Those first few years at Deutsche Bank I had to be at my desk by six thirty and I was sometimes there until two in the morning building pricing models. There was nothing glamorous about it. I basically spent all of 2005 crying. They were tears of exhaustion, not sadness. My best friends birthday happened during week one in my new group. I insisted on making it out in time to take her to dinner. I cried the entire evening. That was the beginning. I fell asleep crying, woke up crying and repeated that cycle most of that year. I’d take a cab to work in the morning while it was still dark out. The driver would drop me off on the corner of Broadway and Wall and I’d wipe my face and say “You’ve got this.” There was one day, many months later, where things started to feel less overwhelming. I felt like I was getting the hang of it. I didn’t cry! It was a great morning.

You lived to work.

It defined me. There were times I had to sleep with my blackberry under my pillow because I had to answer calls at 4 in the morning. You had to really show up—you had to figure out how to be fully present with your shit together at all times.

How do you reconcile the wellness-focused environment you’re building with White Radish that rejects that “live to work” mentality, with the fact that you really loved your time at Deutsche Bank because it was challenging? 

A couple things: One, I think that that time, which I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world, was great training for life. There’s a great quote from a book I love by Pema Chödrön called When Things Fall Apart.. She talks a lot about the power of pain and suffering, and at one point references a quote, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” I think there’s a lot to be said for putting yourself in a really intense situation to figure out who you are and what your values are; what you’re willing to compromise and what you’re not. I saw my health deteriorating from not sleeping well, I was stressed all the time, sick all the time—I was not willing to compromise those things, so that was a deal breaker for me. I think that the wellness center is an extension of that realization. The challenge allowed me to find my right path. I couldn’t have one without the other.

Ok last question. Will you ever go back to monkeys?

Yes! I am trying to get back to monkeys in November, to see the orangutans at Camp Leakey in Indonesia. The first thing I did when I left Deutsche Bank was go to Tanzania and trek with chimpanzees with Jane Goodall. I was there for two weeks and we met all the researchers living amongst the chimps. It is by far the coolest thing I have ever done.

Rebecca praying in Cambodia

Rebecca praying in Cambodia

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