Business trips: why CEOs are experimenting with psychedelics

Elon Musk is not the only business leader dabbling with mind-altering psychedelics. A growing number of entrepreneurs say their hallucinogenic trips have helped them open up to new ideas, find creative solutions to challenges and become better leaders

Psychedelic image showing warped business charts, an all-seeing eye, the planets and images of nature

A small, faceless figure in a white tunic and pointed hat pulled back a curtain before Felix van de Sand to reveal a vivid, multi-coloured landscape. “Look, you can dance with your fears,” said the mysterious character, as it gestured towards a scene filled with strange geometric figures. Suddenly, a realisation hit van de Sand: the anxieties that had plagued him for so much of his life were learned and therefore could be unlearned.

Van de Sand had been running COBE, a Munich-based software development agency, for eight years when he first took the plant-based psychedelic ayahuasca. At the time, he felt “super exhausted” by his workload and was dealing with the fallout from his divorce. These feelings of burnout led to ‘the call’ – the way in which those who have taken psychedelics often describe their first urge to experiment with hallucinogens. 

Having previously never taken any drug stronger than marijuana, his fear eventually changed to curiosity upon hearing the positive experiences some friends had had. The resultant experience was transformative. “The ayahuasca helped me to become more aware of my needs, patterns and fears – and which ones I can let go of,” he says. “It changed my insight, helped me understand how I process things and made me put less pressure on myself.”

Van de Sand is not the first business leader to engage in mind-altering experiences. Elon Musk’s alleged use of drugs, including the psychedelics LSD and magic mushrooms, has been a cause for concern with some of his companies’ investors and Steve Jobs, who is still idolised by many in Silicon Valley, described LSD as having a “profound” impact on his life. But it is important to remember that possession of such drugs remain illegal in many countries, including the UK.

It can stimulate creativity and new ways of thinking, which can definitely be beneficial for a business leader

In fact, van de Sand’s experience was so life-changing that he invited the three managing directors of his business on his second psychedelic adventure. “It was an easy sell after I told them about my experience,” he says. Van de Sand believed it would be an incredible bonding experience for him and his leadership team but he admits this wasn’t the case. 

The ‘sharing circle’ – where people discuss what they experienced during their state of altered-consciousness – felt more awkward than when he attended on his own. “There was this co-worker layer in the way, so we weren’t completely open,” he adds. 

Some people also report vomiting and defecating after taking their first cup of the hallucinogenic decoction, which invariably adds more tension when consuming it alongside colleagues. Although van de Sand is still grateful they had this shared experience, next time he would encourage his colleagues to go separately.

Why are business leaders taking psychedelics?

Brandon Evans is the co-founder of 1heart, the company that organised van de Sand’s trip. The programmes the business offers – which culminate in an excursion to Costa Rica to take ayahuasca – have become increasingly popular with startup founders, entrepreneurs and business executives, he says.

“A lot of people who sign up are at a point of transition. They may have built a great career in the corporate world and are now looking to work for a more conscious company or to find a new way of doing business; or they might be entrepreneurs who have sold their company and want to find inspiration for their next business,” he says.

It can be a way for some people to become better leaders

Typically there are 35 people enrolled on 1heart’s programmes. A recent surge in demand has encouraged Evans to add two more trips to the schedule. “There’s definitely been a stronger interest from people wanting to be part of these journeys,” he says. 

Van de Sands believes that the interest in psychedelics among entrepreneurs and business leaders is a result of a “growth mindset” that many share. “Entrepreneurs want to become the best version of themselves, build something great, learn new things and take risks,” he says. “It’s a way for some people to become a better leader; to become more empathetic, authentic and open about their strengths and weaknesses.”

A new perspective on business

Alexandre Lang-Willar, founder and CEO of pet food delivery company Pawy, is another business leader who has been on 1heart’s psychedelic course. A former financial analyst for Goldman Sachs, feelings of unfulfilment led him to seek a change in 2015. 

He left finance to join his father’s latest business venture – a dating app called Invite and Meet that had ambitions to compete with the likes of Tinder. The pair worked together for three years until, on 18 January 2019, his father suddenly passed away. Sixteen days later, his brother passed away too.

It taught me that you don’t need to be that Goldman Sachs guy who just plays with ones and zeros

Lang-Willar was left grief-stricken. “My heart felt broken.” To begin the healing process, he joined one of Evans’ trips to Costa Rica in order to take ayahuasca. It was an experience that Lang-Willar claims gave him a new outlook on life and changed his approach to business. 

“It allowed me to fully let go of any internal blockages and find true alignment with, what I felt, was the right way to offer my services to the world,” he says. “You don’t need to be that Goldman Sachs guy who just plays with ones and zeroes. You can be that and, at the same time, have a super expressive, artistic mind and create incredible things.”

Soon after his trip, Lang-Willar founded HIIT Tribe, an eco-friendly fitness studio that plants trees every time someone uses its classes. He remains committed to ensuring that each business he has founded since does good for the environment and the local community. Pawy, for instance, uses ingredients sourced from local farmers and from cuts of meat and odd-shaped vegetables that are not normally sold in supermarkets. It also supports work to remove plastic from the oceans and donates a portion of its profits to animal charities.

What impact do psychedelics really have?

David Erritzoe, a clinical director at Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, has been researching the medical applications for psychedelic substances for the past 15 years and believes that many of the changes made by Lang-Willar and van de Sand could well be the result of their experimentation with psychedelics.

“The experiences that people have as a result of taking these compounds can make them feel very connected to others and the wider world,” he says. “There’s typically a profound sense of enhanced relatedness to nature and a feeling that you’re part of something bigger.”

He believes these feelings have the capacity to shake people’s beliefs and change their behaviours, encouraging them to think and lead in new ways. “It often increases people’s degree of openness to other ideas and sets of values,” he adds. “And it can stimulate creativity and new ways of thinking, which can definitely be beneficial for a business leader.”

Changing attitudes towards psychedelics, alongside their use by influential business figures such as Musk and Jobs, may be persuading more people to experiment with these drugs – possession of which remains illegal in most countries. However, they should not be seen as an easy solution to any challenges executives face. While van de Sands and Lang-Willar found the experience life-affirming and constructive, Erritzoe warns that some will find it “overwhelming” and may need psychological support afterwards. 

Business leaders must also be wary of the signal such excursions send to the rest of the business and how it will be perceived by employees. “There were one or two people who joked that we were going on a drug trip and probably thought it was a bit strange,” admits van de Sands.

Although certainly not for every business leader, it’s hard to criticise those that have turned to psychedelics at difficult points in their lives. If it can help leaders become more empathetic and build businesses for the betterment of the wider community, a little experimentation might not be such a bad thing.