Cory Smith is the co-founder and CEO of Wisdom Labs. Wisdom Labs delivers science-based solutions for mental, emotional, and social wellbeing to companies such as LinkedIn, Healthline, GoPro, Kauffman Foundation, Merck, and Salesforce. Previously, Cory was CEO of Impact Hub in the Bay Area and prior to that the CEO of SOCAP and Web Cast Solutions.

 

Gino Borges:

I’m here with Cory Smith today, the co-founder and CEO of Wisdom Labs. Wisdom Labs delivers science-based solutions for mental, emotional, and social wellbeing to companies such as LinkedIn, Healthline, GoPro, Kauffman Foundation, Merck, and Salesforce. Previously, Cory was CEO of Impact Hub in the Bay Area and prior to that the CEO of SOCAP and Web Cast Solutions. Thank you so much for joining us today, Cory.

Cory Smith:

It’s great to be here, Gino.

Gino Borges:

You’ve done a lot of things in your life in terms of leading and starting. Where does that inspiration come from? To be out in the front of what’s happening in impact world, either as a leader in the form of being a CEO or a founder.

Cory Smith:

I had a couple of different pivotal events that moved me from being an entrepreneur to becoming a social entrepreneur. It goes back to two companies around early 1997. I’d been an entrepreneur for quite a while. In 1997 we were working with the United Nations; during a UNESCO event, I got caught in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. It turned my world upside down and made me reevaluate at an early age as an entrepreneur what am I doing, why I’m doing it, what’s the reason behind it, and how I’m impacting other people. This event rocked my world and made me start to think, “well, if I’m going to be an entrepreneur, I want to do things that are of benefit.” That was the big pivotal event for me that moved me from entrepreneur to social entrepreneur. The more I got involved and interested in it, I started inquiring about the levers of social change. How do you do it? Where can you have the most impact? What has been drawn toward a scale? How do we have impact at scale in those questions? I’ve been on that journey ever since.

Gino Borges:

What, in particular, was it about the Jerusalem bombing? Tell us about your experience. How close were you to this? How old were you?

Cory Smith:

I was in my 20s. We had done work with a previous company called Media Cast, webcasting internationally with the United Nations and UNESCO which led to a lot of work we were doing including some interesting things like the first online peace summit. We had Nelson Mandela live from Pretoria with Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel from Israel speaking with Jimmy Carter from Atlanta and a group of Nobel Laureates on the eve of the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. It was really the first time, in that case, where people were coming together to look at a cross-cultural piece on this new medium, the web. It was actually called the multicast backbone at that time as the precursor to the web.

That led into this idea of working with the United Nations and UNESCO to travel around the world documenting world heritage sites with a team of people for an entire year. When we came into the Middle East through Egypt at the Great Pyramids and we came into Jerusalem, we were interviewing people who were making cross-cultural peace initiatives happen against the backdrop of the world heritage site in Jerusalem. We had just finished an interview and were sitting at a coffee shop in Ben Yehuda Square eating lunch when the bomb went off. It was right by us. I literally grabbed my colleague and ran with everybody else out of the square. I got her into a cab and then I had a second thought, “Well, here I am, I’ve got my camera.” I went right back into it with my camera. I found myself face to face with some young girls that got blown up among others. That in and of itself was quite impactful, of course. When I went back to the hotel afterwards, I met my team and they had said that I should take your footage to CNN, just around the corner of the Jerusalem Bureau. I ended up walking over there and as I walked over there processing everything that just happened, I realized that the one book I had brought on that trip was a book by Joseph Goldstein called The Experience of Insight. I finished the last page of that book that day. I was trying to reflect on what could be helpful from that. I was trying to slow my breathing and think. I went into the CNN headquarters and they said, “Oh, you were just at that bomb? Can we put you on air?” I had been thinking on my walk over that I didn’t want to just feed them this content; I wanted to be intentional about it. I had that in mind just enough. I agreed to go on air, “I’ll do it direct.” Next thing I’m connected from Jerusalem to Atlanta and they’re asking me questions about the footage. We ended up in this cross-talking situation where I wanted to talk about something more than just me describing the footage. I realized just about five minutes into this that I was just a pawn in the game of a bigger picture. I realized almost in a flash that just after this trauma I’m talking to people that are basically just wanting to use this as another “if it bleeds, it leads” type of thing so they can sell more advertising. I realized that the three Hamas guys that blew themselves up simultaneously were getting their message out through me. I also realized that, in the backdrop of that, we were working on something looking at cross-cultural peace initiatives, something completely different with a new medium that wasn’t traditional media. What I took away from that was maybe media and this new medium the internet could be really impactful outside of the traditional sphere. I set my sights from there on on how to use that medium. It’s interesting as we fast forward and look at where we are right now, but it hasn’t changed a lot. We have almost the same traditional media components still in place, but that’s what got me going on it.

Gino Borges:

Where’s that thread at now? It seems like it still resides in your body, this experience. You’ve had these leadership opportunities and now you’re Co-Founder of Wisdom Labs. How have you taken that experience and translated into Wisdom Labs? How have you manifested Wisdom Labs in the way you have wanted as opposed to the imposition of the CNN experience?

Cory Smith:

That first experience was me personally asking “How do I want to show up?” I had another experience with my next company, Webcast Solutions, where I just had been running so hard. We had a successful company that got acquired by a public company. I was running and running and running. I actually came very close to burning out. That was another personal experience of thinking, “Well, if I’m going to be a CEO and move forward, how am I going to do so in a way that I can thrive?” Then, as I started to get more and more into the impact space, working with social entrepreneurs, it all became a lot less about me and more about how we could help others. I started shifting a lot from this is my experience to but how can we actually serve. I think what we all realize in the impact space, a lot of us anyway, is that the real change is going to happen through business from the inside out with one team at a time, one individual at a time, one culture at a time and one business at a time. There was no shortcut to create positive change within an organization. It’s really going to be an inside job. There’s lots of things that can help, of course, but a really important part of that is to look at the mental, emotional, and social wellbeing of the individuals’, the teams’, and the companies’ overall culture.

At Wisdom Labs, we focus, as you mentioned at the outset, mental, emotional, and social wellbeing at work and in a way that can scale with an organization. That looks like science-based learning and practices around three main areas: self-awareness primarily through mindfulness, emotional awareness, and social connection with collaboration. Really, those three things create the foundation for building resiliency in an organization. We quickly found by working within organizations that the number one issue was that people are chronically stressed. Stress is not a bad thing, but stress is really a big issue with people. We started to adapt a lot of our content to address that big pain point in organizations. I could talk more about that, but that’s how I got from my personal journey to where we are today at Wisdom Labs, thinking about how we could be most impactful in scale within organizations and realizing that organizations are the place to make the biggest social change at least in this particular political environment. Business is where we have the most impact, most quickly.

Gino Borges:

Let’s look at that those terms that you threw out: mental, emotional, and social wellbeing. That’s said so often and so fast that I notice that people rarely stop to actually feel into what all that actually means. Then, when you do stop and pause to feel what it means, it has a lot of variability with an element of wildness and irascibility to all of that. All those categories get reduced down. You talked about the importance of resiliency, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and social connection. Where does the body fit into this? I see the mindfulness, the emotional intelligence, and the social but I don’t hear the body being talked about. Is the body just merely a carrier for these activities or is there a somatic relevance for the body as well as part of this resiliency campaign?

Cory Smith:

You’re exactly right, Gino. The body is critically important. We do have some somatic exercises on our app and other things, but it was also a decision that we made early on that we need to remain focused on the areas that we can have the most impact on. We’re not downplaying the importance of the body. I have my own daily practice that really involves the body. We’ve got all kinds of body practices from yoga to all types of exercise, but we focus on the mental, emotional, and social components we thought we could really make a giant contribution to. These other areas were fairly well-established. That’s the decision there. It’s certainly important. It’s just that from a business perspective, we decided to focus in those three areas.

Gino Borges:

How do you parse it out? Where does the leap come for you in terms of focusing on mindfulness and emotional intelligence and the social life? To me, I feel like the body is relevant to all of that. It’s not performance-based activities, like you mentioned. Yoga is largely a performance-based activity. People rarely do yoga for the sake of setting it up for a meditation. It’s more of an exercise activity for the bulk of America. You mentioned exercise, but what I’m talking about is this idea that the body may be a feedback loop for these very things where unless you tune into the Soma, it’s very difficult to understand how the mind works because the mind and the Soma are interrelated. It’s very difficult to understand my emotions without understanding the feedback loop of my body. There’s a tendency to over-cerebralize those categories you’re talking about. How do you ground those activities so that they don’t feel like, “Boy, that’s really interesting talk, but I don’t understand how it’s like being integrated into my physical existence?”

Cory Smith:

That’s a great question. Thanks for the clarification. On a practical level, we do focus a lot on understanding emotions, and emotions, of course, show up in your body in all types of different ways. We also focus a lot around breathing. That is both a voluntary and involuntary process that affects your physiology, your wellbeing in that case. We have a structure that we found to be very effective for introducing these, what people would call softer skills. They imply that they’re soft but not important. I would argue that they’re more important than ever, especially in this time. We start with science-based lessons and learning. It’s a short science-based lesson on a particular topic, like say set-mindset or open-mindset followed by an actual practice, essentially a meditation on that topic. Everything we do is pretty much paired with that combination. We work in a lot of tech companies with engineers and skeptical folks. What we’ve found is that until people can understand why they’re doing this from the science perspective, they can’t relax enough to move it from head to heart and into the body. That’s why we’ve structured things the way we have. Once you’ve given people the science, they can then practice it themselves and see objectively how it fits and shows up in their body. Then, they have the full picture there. That’s how I think it gets to that place of moving out of conceptual into an actual body-knowing, if you will.

Gino Borges:

How do you navigate the obsession of the business world to lock in on outcomes in advance of practices and processes? They want the language of the bottom line. Consultants often are faced with this. It’s one thing to make a product and focus on an outcome of a product, but you’re dealing with such subtle energies and invisible landscapes, both external and internal. There’s so much going on that frankly we don’t even know about. How do you navigate that institutional imperative of wanting to know everything in advance and making sure that X causes Y and then yet, honor the reality that so much of what’s happening is unknown?

Cory Smith:

We’ll start by talking with people who are in HR learning and development. They’re in wellness or they have medium or small-sized company and they know that they want this for the organization. We talk about what is the cost of attraction and retention of talent in the organization first of all on a big level. Then, we give people the real stats. One stat that stands out is that there’s an estimated $300 billion job loss each year in US businesses due to employee stress. 53% of people consider leaving their job. There’s the absentee part of it as well. We also talk about the stats as you go into the next level, not just on the business costs. What are the actual individual costs? People get this intuition, seeing chronic stress all around us. Things like the World Health Organization just recently declared a massive global problem with 260-some million people living with some type of anxiety disorder. And, there’s burnout. They’ve defined burnout as a symptom of resulting from chronic workplace stress. It’s not been successfully managed. There’s a whole lot on the stress level that people were reporting that. I think about 79% of workers, a year and a half ago, of US individuals said they are stressed at work. Now, it’s 83%. I would imagine in this current time, it’s even going higher. Then, there’s another interesting thing: loneliness. I was recently talking with and listening to the former surgeon general Zack Murphy, who talks a lot about this. We did a big webinar with Harvard on this topic of loneliness in the workplace. The younger the population, the more pronounced it becomes, where 40% of Americans generally say that they’re lonely. For the millennials in the workplace, it’s 60%, and it’s even higher for Gen Z. There’s a lot of reasons behind that. Loneliness is the equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day in its health impacts. How do you get to that with a purely digital solution? These are the issues and questions we start with. Then, we also do a lot of things like pre- and post-scientifically validated baselines to get people results. We’re doing everything we can to give organizations the information. But, you know, people are just looking around, asking colleagues, asking next door neighbors, what’s your level of chronic stress? It’s always head nod.

Gino Borges:

I have two questions to wrap the conversation. One, where’s Wisdom Labs at now? What’s your role in it? And then, what would your ideal situation be like? What would an ideal culture that supports these organization look like?

Cory Smith:

To frame that, I can talk about one of the companies we work with that that’s taking a forward view, LinkedIn, one of our clients. We started working with them as a peer-to-peer community pilot. They expanded that community to others. It’s run by LinkedIn employees. It’s a half an hour a week every week, the science-based lesson and the practice. People are coming together for a half an hour and learning about the science together. Then, they’re doing a practice, a closed-eyed meditation together, and then they’re discussing how that thing shows up in this organization for a half an hour a week, every week. When they’re not doing that, they have access to the app to deepen that experience. With LinkedIn as an example, we started with a few communities. Those communities got access to the app and we were invited to participate in the 30-day mindfulness challenge that they did. Because of that, we are now offering our app to every one of the employees in those organizations. We’re the mindfulness app for all of LinkedIn, but just as importantly, we’re seeing now, the communities that we started with are in every major global location where LinkedIn is operating. These communities are starting to infuse the culture. They’re all over Asia and all over Europe, all communicating together as well. They’re all learning and practicing separately and together they’re using the app. What we’re seeing in real time is how companies like this can have 20 or 30 of these global communities, the entire population using an app, like Wise@Work, which basically gives them strategic mental, emotional, and social content where they need it, when they need it. People don’t have to suffer in silence. They can know that other people are also suffering with them or working together to get around it or just learning, rather than it’s all about the negative. It’s about how can I actually collaborate better? How can I actually be more focused at work or adapt these kinds of other positive attributes? That’s what it really looks like today. I don’t think we have to even look out five years. I’m very hopeful that this thing can instantly scale in these organizations. Another interesting piece is that we can have a dashboard which gives us aggregated, anonymized data, all the activity of all the mental, emotional, and social wellbeing of that organization. When we see a spike, say towards a specific activity of people looking for calm and balance, we know that we can alert the organization that there’s something up and provide content directly out into the community leaders that addresses those issues while also offering content on the app that will help with resiliency, emotional awareness, or anxiety — whatever they’re dealing with in real time the day. This can essentially stabilize an organization that may be going through a difficult time. It’s both the potential of the future and it’s here now. That’s the exciting thing that we see about getting this out to other companies similar to LinkedIn.

Gino Borges:

Such a wonderful evolutionary work. I really enjoy your story, Cory, because there’s so much blurring of the lines between your personal experience and what you’re doing in the professional world. It’s been one of my journeys as well. It’s nice to find a fellow peer that’s working with that migration between the inner and the outer world, honoring our history of experience and trying to move forward in life of service. Cory, thank you so much for this conversation. It was a very rich conversation and you have wonderful way of sharing about a topic that is just starting to get some good traction.

Cory Smith:

Gino, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

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