Rahul Kulkarni, MBA ’16 and CEO/Co-Founder of The Sukhi Project, joins Christopher Reichert, MOT ’04, to detail the importance of prioritizing your mental health and how his startup works with companies to provide customized wellness solutions.
The Sukhi Project recently launched a free mobile app aimed at front-line workers to provide quick, bite-sized meditations specifically adapted for healthcare shift workers.
Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is a conversational podcast with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Google, and Spotify.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So, what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you will hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one, here at MIT Sloan.
Hi, I'm your host Christopher Reichert and welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. I'm with Rahul Kulkarni, a 2016 graduate of Sloan's MBA program. Welcome Rahul.
Rahul Kulkarni: Thank you. It's good to be here.
Christopher Reichert: Thanks for joining us. Rahul is the CEO and co-founder of The Sukhi Project, a social enterprise in D.C., which provides mental wellness services to diverse communities and their solutions include tech-enabled workplace meditations, wellness pulse surveys, and data visualizations, as well as culturally sensitive therapists matching.
Sukhi translates to “happy” in Sanskrit, and one thing that caught my eye was the Sukhi Project's dedication to reducing the stigma of seeking help and wellness within the Asian community. I want to circle back on that a bit later on.
Just a bit more about Rahul, he has two degrees from Tufts. One from the University and the School of Medicine, with a Master's in Public Health. He has studied in many different places including one dear to my heart, Barcelona.
He’s also worked in USAID's ASSIST program in Uganda. I want to cover some of your trips because we've had a bit of a conversation about how you've come to create the Sukhi Project in D.C. So, tell us a bit more about where you grew up and start there.
Rahul Kulkarni: Absolutely. I think throughout my life I've certainly been a collector of different stamps on my passport. I think right now I'm around 60 different countries and so I'm a little bit of a nomad. I actually looked up what my name meant on Wikipedia the other day and Rahul, it means “traveler.”
Christopher Reichert: Awesome!
Rahul Kulkarni: Yes, I was like oh, they got it right! My parents, they could see it. But I grew up in New Jersey and sort of in the shadow of the New York skyline, about 30 miles outside Manhattan. A lot of me growing up was both going into the city—my brother went to NYU— so as a teenager I definitely, probably, was more precocious than I should have been and would just hop on the train and explore New York City.
But also, because my parents were from Pune and Bombay. I would go to India a lot as a child and I remember, the first time that I traveled alone I was actually just a teenager. I was really exploring the streets of India by myself and that was certainly a culture shock.
Christopher Reichert: I'm also a first-generation American. My parents are from Spain and Germany and I remember doing the same things as a kid. They would send us over to my grandmother's house in Spain and we would go alone without our parents. But then once you got there, my grandmother wasn't necessarily walking around towns and villages with us, so we would just go off and discover. I think it's a great way to experience places. I still do that now where it's not so much about finding a resort to hide in but really get out and move around. You've done a fair bit of that in your travels.
Rahul Kulkarni: Yes, and it's funny because yes, they would leave me at the New York airport and then the journey would start. And this was early back in the early 2000s where these airports, when you landed, they were not as nice as they are now. So it really did feel like you were traveling to this developing nation and there were like thousands and thousands of people in the waiting rooms.
Christopher Reichert: Right.
Rahul Kulkarni: It was just chaos. I remember one time I landed in the Mumbai airport and my parents had told me, "A woman, she's your auntie. She'll pick you up and she'll have a sign with your name ‘Rahul’ on it." And so, when I landed there, I expected to just see a few people waiting and then be able to see my name on it. I got there and I just saw this huge sea of people and I probably saw like 30 different signs with the name Rahul on it.
I had no idea which one of them was my auntie that was there to pick me up. I talked to a lot of them who had signs with my name on it and none of them knew who I was. So what I did was I ended up taping a sign to my chest saying, "I'm Rahul from the U.S," and I climbed on top of the statue that was in the waiting room.
Christopher Reichert: That's awesome.
Rahul Kulkarni: And just started yelling until a woman came up to me and she's like, "Yeah, I'm here to pick you up."
Christopher Reichert: How old were you?
Rahul Kulkarni: I would think I was 16 when that happened.
Christopher Reichert: That's amazing, because I think, you know as a father of three kids, the oldest of which is 12, the letting go and just letting them go out of your sight, particularly like in this case to a whole other side of the world, I think it's kind of an alien concept. But I guess maybe we didn't wear seat belts back then and we also didn't really shepherd our kids across the world. I don't know. We all turned out, right?
Rahul Kulkarni: Exactly. I think my parents' mindset were a little, “Yeah, we did just fine being over there. He will too.”
Christopher Reichert: Right.
Rahul Kulkarni: And for the most part they were right.
Christopher Reichert: Did that sort of sense of freedom and independence... I mean, how did you use that?
Rahul Kulkarni: I remember during that trip I actually was shadowing at a hospital and it was one of our family friends, they owned a private clinic. They let you do a lot of things you wouldn't be allowed to do in the U.S., especially at that time. I was really in the hospital, in the emergency room helping the medical providers.
That was my first taste of the Indian medical system, as well as my first taste of the kind of disparities between that system versus our system. It was actually during one moment, and this is kind of a theme throughout my life, where I've seen people with very poor mental health. There was a woman that got rushed into our ER room and she had just tried to commit suicide. She had drunk a bunch of cockroach repellent and we were struggling to save her. Well, I wasn't doing anything, I was just trying to get out of the way. But they were struggling to save her. And as this was all going on, her husband was in the waiting room just screaming. He was irate, completely angry and he was yelling, "If she wants to die, I'll kill her myself." And that was a huge moment to me because I looked at the doctors and I said, "What are we going to do?" And he said, "There's nothing we can do. We have to work on her and then her husband will take her."
For me, that was a dawning that just treating patients doesn't necessarily always fulfill the problem. In fact, in a lot of cases there's huge systemic errors. That's really kind of why I went to school for public health and why when I first got to Tufts, I was so interested in their Community Health and International Relations program.
Christopher Reichert: So oftentimes when it's so obvious to even to non-medical professionals, it's quite late in the process, right?
Rahul Kulkarni: Yes, absolutely. Since then I've kind of looked at it. My brother, he's a pediatric neurologist and so he very much focuses on very specific problems, versus me, I've always been kind of a big picture dreamer type. I like to look at the systemic issues that are going on and really try to plug more upstream.
Christopher Reichert: Tell me about some of your travels in Africa and Asia and South America.
Rahul Kulkarni: Yes, absolutely. So, a lot of that traveling I've done since I graduated from Sloan, actually before Sloan as well, because after I graduated from Tufts Medical, I joined the UN where I was working at the World Food Program in Ecuador. We were looking at ways that we could increase childhood dietary diversity, especially amongst Colombian refugees that were malnourished. We did that by linking schools with local farmers and creating that connection and really creating a school program that can be beneficial.
But after that I moved to Uganda where I was working with USAID and I was doing HIV work. I was basically looking at ways that we could help HIV-positive mothers get the medicines they need so when they did have the baby, the child would be born without the virus. Then I really wanted to focus on social entrepreneurship, I wanted to focus on building businesses with just more than a fiduciary responsibility. That's really the reason I went to Sloan. Then afterwards I returned to Africa to do some more passion projects.
Christopher Reichert: You early career seems to be much more in kind of, like a mainstream, let's say Western medicine. Is that maybe too broad, a generalization?
Rahul Kulkarni It was international development in global health. That's how I would describe it. It was very much like macro-level, big multi-laterals that are working in different parts of the world to improve their health care.
Christopher Reichert: This is like the World Food Program and USAID ASSIST Program?
Rahul Kulkarni: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Exactly, yes. I really didn't get into more of the Eastern philosophy towards medicine until after Sloan. It was at Sloan, one of my mentor was [Senior Lecturer] Jason Jay. I knew that I was going to be taking time off after graduating and so I asked him, "I have a year to kind of focus on different projects both personal and professional after graduating. Is there anything I should do?"
And he looked at me and without skipping a beat he said, "You should do Vipassana." Which is 10 days of silence and meditation. It seemed extremely daunting but also pretty, pretty interesting. And so, I immediately Googled it and found a Buddhist Ostrom in India that was offering a course.
After school I went to India and did Vipassana, which got me really into the idea of meditation and mindfulness and the cathartic powers and transformative powers it can have on someone. Afterwards that kind of fed into the work that I'm doing right now with Sukhi.
Christopher Reichert: I was thinking about what we chatted [about] before, about the importance of routine and mindfulness and building new neural paths within your brain.
Rahul Kulkarni: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher Reichert: So here we are, we're all self-quarantined or enforced quarantined during COVID-19.
Rahul Kulkarni: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher Reichert: How do you see those skills that you've learned helping you personally? And how could other people take advantage of them?
Rahul Kulkarni: Yes, and that's exactly like how you described it. It is a practice and most people, I think they can do meditation one time or two times and they feel better afterwards. And they're like, "Oh, I'm good. I'm all set." And just like when you build a muscle, just like any other muscle in your body, if you go to the gym once, you're not going to leave looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The same is true with building those neural pathways in your mind.
So, creating a routine and really developing kind of that mindset towards it and those neural pathways is so important. And it's really hard for people to carve out that time to do it. I tend to tell people, try starting out meditating 10 minutes, twice a day. And if you don't have time to do that, then you should probably double it. Just because those are the people who need it the most.
Right now, we're all forced into isolation and in a lot of that external stimuli, whether it's physically getting together with friends or going out or commuting, whatever we were doing beforehand, a lot of that time we're given back right now. And so as we're forced to stay inside, I think it's a great opportunity to try to kind of dive inside as well and do some of this mindfulness work.
Christopher Reichert: I tried meditation and I think, my aunt did meditation back in the 70s and I remember, she used to recite “Prana, Prana, Prana” or something like that. I think to clear her mind or at least help escape other thoughts. But for me, the hardest part really is not thinking about responsibilities in your life that you're neglecting while you're indulging in this separate time. And not feeling the guilt from people around you saying, "Where's Christopher? He should be out here helping with the kids." Or whatever it might be. I think that's still probably a challenge, particularly for parents at the moment.
Rahul Kulkarni: Yes, absolutely. But you know at the same time, it's really hard to take care of others if you're not taking care of yourself. One of the things that I like to think about is not exactly what we're doing—there’s always so much of a focus on the what. “Okay these are the list of things that I need to do.” But rather with meditating, you're also focusing on the how.
You're focusing on, how are you showing up today? You're focusing on what's your mindset when you're doing those actions? And you're actually learning to do the actions that you're normally doing, but be less reactive to external stimuli while you're doing that. That's why it gives you that sense of Zen or internal harmony. I would say that if taking 10 minutes to focus on your breath, it makes the moments where you are being a parent more pleasant or more effective, then in that sense it's a solid ROI.
Christopher Reichert: How did you choose Sloan and how did it change you on the path to what you're doing now?
Rahul Kulkarni: A lot of my work that I was doing beforehand was very much mission-driven but it was focused on development work. It was very much in that system of international development. I think probably the developers are the most critical of the international development system itself. They kind of see little bits of neocolonialism mixed in there or they see how the money is tied up in it. People can be very critical of that type of work.
When I was in the field though, the people that I was learning to admire the most were the social entrepreneurs who kind of operated in this sphere in between the nonprofit systems as well as the for-profit systems. They weren't as dependent on foundation or grant money. And when that money ran out, they were also able to keep sustaining their work because it was self-generating revenue.
So that's what I really got into. On this idea that you can do social entrepreneurship and you can do development by building these types of businesses. When I was looking at business schools, I still really wasn't convinced that this school was the right option for me. But then I saw Sloan, and not only was it such a huge focus on international or on entrepreneurship but also using it for good and having principled leadership.
They even had a club called Social Entrepreneurs for International Development, which is exactly what I wanted to do and that was really what sold me on it. When I was living in Uganda, I remember I did a Zoom call with the President of Social Entrepreneurs for International Development (SEID). We got along so well and our values were just so aligned that I knew that I was going to apply. When I got in, I ended up becoming the President of SEID and it was just a really transformative experience for me.
Christopher Reichert: I know that music has been a big part of your life. Tell us about that. Beyond the Rolling Sloans, also your hip-hop experience.
Rahul Kulkarni: Yes, absolutely. So actually, before any of this stuff, before global health and all of that, I think music was my first love. I wanted to be a rock star since I was a little kid. I would have posters of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon above my bed. And I remember I was so proud when I heard about Freddie Mercury from Queen, that he was half Indian. I was like, "Oh my God, it's possible!"
Christopher Reichert: What happened?
Rahul Kulkarni: So first career actually after Tufts was in a rock band out of New York and we had gotten signed and did four albums together and-
Christopher Reichert: Wow.
Rahul Kulkarni: Yeah, we did a lot of touring. It was this band called Keeping Riley. It was…think of John Mayer having a drink with Billy Joel. You know, it's basically like
Christopher Reichert: Nice.
Rahul Kulkarni: Our main fans were teenage girls and their mothers. Yeah, that was fun music.
Christopher Reichert: That's further than most people go in their rock and roll fantasies.
Rahul Kulkarni: Yes, exactly but then, once at Sloan I got to be one of the leaders of the Rolling Sloans and the guitarist. And that was so much fun. We had an annual battle of the bands with HBS. That was just a ton of fun.
Christopher Reichert: That's awesome.
Rahul Kulkarni: And then afterwards, actually after I did this Vipassana experience, I went to Kenya in Nairobi. And I was helping a friend, who was actually a Sloanie named Caitlin Dolkart, working on a startup called Flare which is essentially creating the 911 for all of Kenya, by creating an Uber-like application for ambulances. And so I did a stint helping her launch a product and her MVP.
Then afterwards I actually got a gig on the radio as a hip-hop DJ in Kenya. I went by the name DJ Furry Curry and I did six months on air. Kind of just broadcasting and talking about early nineties hip hop and how it influenced me as a child growing up outside of New York and how that was part of my roots. So music is certainly a big part of who I am. And still to this day, I'm in a nineties cover band called Matchbox Thirtyish
Christopher Reichert: Nice. That's great. So now, you started up The Sukhi Project, you graduated in 2016, we’re in 2020. So tell me how that sort of started up? And how's it going now with the quarantining and COVID-19?
I'm curious, from a business perspective. In other words, how you're sustaining the business in this time? How do you see it emerging at the other side of this?
Rahul Kulkarni: Mental health was always a huge priority for me. I actually remember when I joined MIT, it was a tough year for MIT. They had four suicides and I think three of them were people of color. I was already really sensitive of how marginalized populations and people of color were experiencing stress differently and what that would lead to. And so then, after my hip hop days, I actually did more of a traditional route and I went into management consulting and I worked for McKinsey. Mainly on their global health practice. And, just like MIT you are drinking from the fire hose at McKinsey. I was working really long hours and I was getting pretty stressed out. I was having some trouble sleeping. So that's when I got a therapist and I was talking to my therapist—who was of Caucasian descent—I was talking to her about some of the nuances of Indian culture and what it was like growing up in a South Asian household in New Jersey. Talking about arranged marriage and the caste system and how all of these different things are having a role in my life.
I could tell that theoretically she could totally understand what I was talking about. But there was still such a huge cultural disconnect. There was just this lack of lived experience where she just couldn't relate to what I was talking about. That's really what got me interested. I started thinking who out there is building a bridge between mental wellness and mental wellness resources, as well as cultural nuance and cultural expertise? I didn't see anyone doing that at the time. And so, that's when I left my job and started Sukhi, to really try to focus on doing that. It has been quite the journey just like any startup has been.
But the real big shift has just happened recently. While most businesses are really kind of suffering during this period of self-isolation and pandemic, we've actually been thriving. I think that's because we were largely focused on wellness solutions that could be remote anyways. We were doing teletherapy, we were doing remote meditation and we were focusing on measuring and aiding employee wellness.
Now as all these teams and employees are forced into working from home and those teams are being physically pulled apart, they're really looking for solutions that can allow them to still build commraderie with each other as, well as be able to check in on each other and reduce that sense of stress that everyone's feeling in this era of kind of ambiguity and uncertainty.
Christopher Reichert: What's some of the projects that you were working on before group therapies or one-on-one and kind of portable across the company? We talked earlier about the wellness pulse surveys but is that the kind of thing you're doing now? Where you might get a number of people from a company together or organization together?
Rahul Kulkarni: Yes. That's the thing that kind of makes this a little bit different than a meditation app, where that's a pre-recording and it's really focused on an individual versus, I've done so many different experiences of group meditation. Whether it's remote or whether it's in person, where actually everybody focusing on the same thing at the same time can be really important and cathartic for a group to bond together.
We actually take these pulse surveys to get a view of what's going on in terms of team dynamics? What's the level of stress? What's the average number of friends people are having at work? How are they feeling about the transition to working from home?
Then we take all that data and we visualize it but we also give it to our meditation coaches who are then able to tailor their meditations to exactly how that group is feeling in the moment. We do calls where everyone is able to join in on at the same time for a live group meditation together. That seems to have an added value even though we don't necessarily know why. Why is this better than a recording? But it definitely seems to be bringing people together—both emotionally as well as allowing them to work better together as well.
Christopher Reichert: You know, I get that. I've been on, as everybody has been over the last few weeks, a lot of Zoom calls or webinars or streams and there's something to be said when it's live, that you pay attention more as opposed to something prerecorded that you're watching. You feel like you can pause and you're not missing anything or you could always pick up where it was.
I get that, it makes sense to me. Do you think some of your clients, which include Bain, the World Bank, Resonance, Lyft and others, do you think they self-select on your vision and therefore it's kind of the staff are more, already kind of in tune with what you're trying to do? Or is it the kind of thing that you can get skeptical clients on board?
Rahul Kulkarni: Most of the people that have been joining our meditations do not have a background in mindfulness or meditation. A lot of them, it's their first time. Like today [recorded on April 21, 2020] we just did a meditation for Verizon, with I think it had 90 people on it. An overwhelming majority had never ever done it before and so that's part of this interesting challenge too. How do we introduce meditation to people without those backgrounds in a way that's bite-size, a way that's digestible, in a way that's valuable to them?
And we also think through like who the client is, what is the company culture that they're coming from? And how can we tie that to the meditation that we're working on? For example, we knew that Verizon, they use this analogy of “are you above the line or are you below the line?” to describe like what everyone's emotional homeostasis was and how they were feeling at that moment. So, we can utilize that terminology and that imagery to kind of bake it into the meditation that we were doing. Another thing that we've been doing recently is we know that there's this huge amount of stress on frontline workers at the moment, in the healthcare setting. So actually, next week we are releasing an app for free that we just wanted it out there to help people and it's called Sukhi Frontline. They are bite-sized meditations for before shift or during the shift or after the shift, and they're focused on like energy boosters or stress reduction or helping those medical providers go to sleep at night, so that they can actually utilize these in the moment. Mindfulness doesn't become something that's just for people who are living on a yoga mat but also something that can be very tangible for any audience.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. I'm going to send it out to my network as well, to pass that on. Because, I think you're right. I think there are people, the target audience seems to be frontline, but I think in some ways everyone's kind of coping with the stress of the day so...
Rahul Kulkarni: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher Reichert: How's your definition of success changed and what is it now?
Rahul Kulkarni: Absolutely. So, I think there's so many different ways to define success. For me personally and professionally, I think for success personally, I'm always trying to get a better balance of or balancing what's happening with my relationships. Being close to and having a close network of friends and family together. And right now as we're physically apart, I really want to focus on building successful relationships in my inner circles, using whatever platforms we have, whether they're Zoom or phone calls.
I'm really trying to not just text and get on the phone with people. But then there's the professional aspect of what is Sukhi going to look like and what does success mean for Sukhi? We measured [it] a few different ways. I think one of the ways is, you know the quality of impact that we're having on our users. Is this something that's actually making the transition to working from home something a bit more bearable? Or is this something that's improving relationships amongst team members that are under stressful situations right now?
Then there's also the financial impact of can we create a viable business model where we can scale this, where we can employee different corporate meditation coaches? Where we can give ourselves a salary. All of those kinds of pressures of a startup. And would this be something that could ultimately look attractive towards investors or are other people outside of Sukhi?
I wouldn't say it's weighing on me but that bar for success is constantly moving. For the longest time when we had an MVP out in the market but couldn't get our first customers, like success was really, can we just get an unpaid pilot?
Christopher Reichert: Right.
Rahul Kulkarni: Or can we get into an incubator? But once we hit those milestones, now it was like, "Okay, now we have our first 10 customers. What does success look like for us?" And it's really, I think, about finding a sustainable revenue model that's still managing to stay true to the mission of why we started this.
Christopher Reichert: Yes. What you just said is, I think, a universal truth for startups, right? And it's if you believe in your idea and you think that it has a future, it's still getting buy-in and credibility I suppose from other people too to join on. So then hopefully it snowballs right?
Rahul Kulkarni: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes, absolutely. Either way, even if this whole thing doesn't work out in the end, I know that we've been helping people especially during a time that's been very trying for a lot of people. So in that sense, you know I can walk away from it being like, it was successful by some definition.
Christopher Reichert: You did good. Absolutely. So, any parting advice for prospective Sloanies?
Rahul Kulkarni: Oh man, there's so much to do when you're a student at Sloan. I actually heard this advice when I got to Sloan. Someone told me, it was probably a consultant because they use the word buckets, and they also made it three options, which consultants are notorious for doing. They said, "You're going to want to divide your life into social, professional, and academic. And there's no way you can do all three, so just focus on two." I will say it is hard to do all three fully but I definitely think you can do it. With my experience, those lines become increasingly blurry. What was work and what was not work ended up... That line dividing the two became very [blurry] tut in a good way. It didn't feel like I was working all the time. But rather it felt like I had the autonomy to allocate my energy in my schedule of how I wanted it to be. Just keep that in mind when you're thinking about what classes you want to take, what the workload is in the classroom versus out of the classroom, what you want to do professionally, whether it's a startup or whether it's going down the consulting route or going into tech. There's a lot of different options but the resources are there. The people, they are surprisingly humble and it's definitely a great place to be a student and to launchpad some of your ideas and try to make them come to fruition.
Christopher Reichert: Well that's great. Thanks very much for spending some time with us today on Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. I'm your host Christopher Reichert and my guest today has been Rahul Kulkarni, a 2016 graduate of Sloan's MBA program and the CEO and co-founder of the Sukhi Pproject.
Hey so, Rahul, I want you to close us out in your DJ Furry Curry mode with one of your hip hop songs you might've introduced. So close us out on that.
Rahul Kulkarni: Oh man. So, you want me to introduce a song right now?
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. “I'm DJ Furry Curry and this is...” you know, whatever.
Rahul Kulkarni: Okay. Oh man. All right, here we go. This is DJ Furry Curry. You've been listening to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies and we're going to bring you out with DMX's, “Ruff Ryders' Anthem.” Here we go. Don't worry, be Sukhi. It's been a pleasure. Peace. Enjoy.
Christopher Reichert: Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the Office of External Relations at MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website, mitsloan.mit.edu/alumni or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the Sloan annual fund which provides essential flexible funding to ensure that our community pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting giving.mit.edu/sloan. To support this show or if you have an idea for a topic or a guest you think we should feature, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.