94. Faisal Hoque: Bringing mindfulness to work and life

Faisal Hoque talks to host, Sue Stockdale about how mindfulness has helped him in his life and work by enabling him to be present, patient and accepting the different circumstances he has found himself in. Whether it was at university where he had to work several jobs whilst studying, being let go by the investors that took control of the company he founded, or supporting his son through cancer treatment, Faisal has used mindfulness to stay calm and see beyond the challenge.

Faisal is the founder of SHADOKA, NextChapter, and other companies that focus on enabling sustainable and transformational changes. Throughout his career, he has developed over 20 commercial business and technology platforms and worked with public and private sector giants such as the US Department of Defense, GE, MasterCard, American Express, Northrop Grumman, CACI, PepsiCo, IBM, Home Depot, Gartner, and JPMorgan Chase.

As a thought leader, he has authored a number of award-winning books including the #1 Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller Lift – Fostering the Leader in You Amid Revolutionary Global Change (Fast Company), and the #2 Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller Everything Connects – Cultivating Mindfulness, Creativity, and Innovation for Long-Term Value (Fast Company).

His work has appeared in Fast Company, Business Insider, The Wall Street Journal, Businessweek, Fox, CBS, Financial Times, Mergers & Acquisitions, Forbes, and Leadership Excellence, among others.

Connect with Faisal Hoque via LinkedIn and his website 

Key Quotes

‘Mindfulness can transform your business’

‘Every human being is an entrepreneur of some kind’

‘It’s the ability to make something and try to create an economic and a social construct that allows you to thrive – that’s how I define entrepreneurship’

‘Everybody is struggling with something and everybody has a various level of emotion that runs through their daily lives’.

‘Patience comes from mindfulness and empathy’.

‘I wrote Lift and my message was that if you want to lift others, you have to lift yourself first’.

‘When I face adversity, somehow I get very motivated to do something’.

‘My greatest strength is perhaps being mindful and staying calm and seeing beyond the fog’. 

‘You can’t be constantly happy, but you can find momentary joy and momentary impact’.

This series is kindly supported by Squadcast –the remote recording platform which empowers podcasters by capturing high-quality audio and video conversations.

Connect with Access to Inspiration on Twitter : Facebook : Instagram : LinkedIn : Read our Impact Report

Faisal Hoque Transcription

[00:00:00] Sue: Hi, I’m Sue Stockdale, your host of Access to Inspiration, the podcast with a social mission to help you be inspired by people who may be unlike you. We hope their experiences and insights cause you to reflect on your own perspectives about the world. And make you think. If you want to read along with a transcription of this episode, as you listen, you’ll find all the transcriptions for all our episodes on our website, accesstoinspiration.org.

Well, today our guest to kick off series 13 and episode 94 is Faisal Hoque, who is founder of Shadoka and Next Chapter, and several other companies focused on enabling sustainable and transformational change. He’s also author of two best selling books: Lift and Everything Connects, and he explains to me how as a boy in Bangladesh, he dreamed of going to college in the US and how that was the start of a journey of a successful career in that country. Faisal also talks about how food and music have played a significant role in his life. Welcome to the podcast, Faisal. It’s great to speak to you today.

[00:01:23] Faisal: Thank you for having me. Great to be here.

[00:01:25] Sue: I always love having conversations with guests who’ve got a really interesting background. Doing some research on you, Faisal I can’t wait to dive in to hear about your life story, and, how that has really shaped who you are today. Perhaps we could kick off with one of the phrases that I read from your website that said, mindfulness can transform your business, and I’m wondering how did you find that out?

[00:01:47] Faisal: You know, it’s an evolutionary process and I think I was introduced to mindfulness when I first came to US and I was working as a graveyard shift janitor in my southern, in my University campus. There was this older gentleman who was the supervisor and he would correct me by saying, be one with the floor. And I said, what do you mean be one with the floor? How can you be one with the floor? And I was this typical late teen, early twenties, I think I was 19 or something like that. And I just didn’t quite get it, but it kind of stayed with me.

And over the years I’ve kind of gone back to that conversation, but I also gone back to my eastern roots. I originally come from Bangladesh and there’s a lot of these spiritual elements that hovers around that, that area. And then later on with one of my board member, I ended up in Japan and became very good friends and we went to a lot of Zen monastery and I kind of got into this mindfulness and the whole idea of that, thinking about nothing and be in the present moment and trying to calm yourself down and as a result, kind of really get to know you, but also channel your creativity and as a result you can be more innovative. So it’s an evolutionary process over like 20, 30 years. It didn’t come in one shot. It says I got to know myself. I tried to hone it. And so I found out that the more mindful I have become, not only it has made me a better version of myself, but it also helped me with a lot of the things that I do in terms of my products I developed or customer I deal with, or the companies that I’m trying to build, or the writing obviously, or cooking. You know, those are all whole array of effect from mindfulness.

‘Mindfulness can transform your business’

[00:03:29] Sue: Well, you’ve brought masses of things into the conversation and different routes we could pick up on and go down Faisal. One of the things that you mentioned there is that you come originally from Bangladesh. And then you were studying in the US. As you were a young boy in Bangladesh. What were the hopes and dreams that you had?

[00:03:48] Faisal: I was very fortunate to go to one of the great missionary schools in Bangladesh. It’s called St. Joseph, and that school produces somehow these students, it was a all boys missionary school. It produces a lot of these high driven, high achievers. We didn’t know that then, but… They all turned to be pretty driven and very impactful with their lives and career over the years. And so I was driven and I was very entrepreneurial because I come from a typical, you know, middle class family where my father was a engineer and my mother was a teacher and a homemaker, and my father wanted me to be an engineer and I didn’t want to be an engineer of his kind.

He was a civil engineer, so I would hang around a lot, a lot of time with British Council and what they used to call the US Information Center, at that time. It was kind of like a British council, but we had lots of books and had access to a lot of LPs and, what not. And I would flip through these booklets and and catalogs of universities and it kind of triggered the thought that I wanted to come to US to study computer science. I got exposed to computer at that time, you know, with those big floppy disc and you know, I wanted to study computer science. So that started my journey. So I figured out, okay, my parents being middle class couldn’t possibly support my finances. And as a foreign student, you don’t get a whole lot of scholarship.

But I did find, managed to find a little scholarship and then I had to figure out how to save up some money by selling stereo equipment to buy for my ticket and come together a semester worth of expenses. And that’s kind of started it. So this entrepreneurial spirit and idea of exploration and adventure was probably ingrained in a very beginning. At the formative estate of my childhood. So, and that kind of stayed on with me and it sounds very romantic and all that and looking back, but it, it wasn’t. It was quite tough coming here at a foreign country, not knowing anyone and putting yourself out there. I don’t know whether I would be so bold to let my son, who’s now 22, do what I did, but things were even more disconnected. Now we are super connected, but we’re talking about mid to late eighties. Right. No internet, no phone. You, you wanted to make a phone call. It’ll cost you like, you know, $300 for 15 minutes, that sort of a thing.

[00:06:09] Sue: What I’m hearing, Faisal is really that ability to be resilient and to use your resourcefulness to make things happen when you’re in a foreign country and you have to fend for yourself, and those are really important entrepreneurial skills. I know that you were studying at university, and as you mentioned earlier, you were doing cleaning work to support you in terms of finances. And that’s then when you were learning about mindfulness initially, how were you able to afford to continue on with your studies?

[00:06:41] Faisal: It was very difficult because I would be up in the middle of the night because, you know, it was graveyard shift, so it’s, we’re talking about midnight to three o’clock in the morning, and then in the next day I would have to go to school. And not only I had that job, I had also another campus job whether I would work in the campus cafeteria. So it was very, very hectic and emotionally draining because I come from a middle class family, so at least had a foot over my head and food on the table and never cooked in my life before or, or taken care of myself.

So this was a shocker, a sink or swim time. Right. And I realized that right after the first semester, I had only like $600 left after paying first semesters tuition and, and if you’re going to university, that’s nothing. I mean, you can’t barely survive. So I didn’t even know how I pay for my next semester’s tuition, but I figured out a way and, and then I managed to get a full scholarship from University of Minnesota.

So I moved to University of Minnesota that, so that helped because at least my tuition was taken care of and I started working a slightly better job. And actually that. It had a profound impact on me later in life. I started working at a French bistro and met this wonderful lady who kind of adopted me as one of her kids and taught me a lot of things about cooking.

And so that kind of gave me a grounding and it went on from there. Entrepreneurship is very human journey. Every human being is an entrepreneur of some kind. Entrepreneurship and I’ve actually written about this, you know, I don’t define entrepreneurship just you build a business and, and you. become successful at the business, and that’s what’s defined as entrepreneurship. Is all kind of entrepreneur now, social entrepreneurs, solo entrepreneurs, even in the corporate world, there is entrepreneurs within the corporation. It’s really the ability to make something and try to create an economic and a social construct that allows you to thrive. That’s how I define entrepreneurship.

Ad when I went to University of Minnesota, I got very much involved with the International Student Club, which I became the president of the club and I got very involved with multicultural students and try to build up that organization. So it kind of helped these, you know, as Steve Jobs used to say that you cannot connect the dots forward, but he can connect the dot backwards if you look about, and so it’s always the case, right? So I couldn’t connect the dots how those things will help me, but it did. It stayed on with me. You know, how you interact with people, how you try to rally people behind your ideas and thoughts and how do you be resilient and resourcefulness. These leadership traits or learning or lessons, whatever you wanna call it kind of stayed on with me and I’m very grateful for the bad and the good. That I was able to do that because adversity and challenges comes in all form, and that’s life, right? It’s a journey. And professional, personal adversity is, some days are good, ,some days are bad. That’s how it is.

[00:09:36] Sue: Sometimes the the biggest learnings we get are from the setbacks and the things that are difficult for us in life. You’ve also talked about the role inspiration had for you right from the start in terms of being inspired to want to study in the US. From a leader perspective, if you were giving some advice to a leader about how they can be inspiring, what would you say to them?

‘Patience comes from mindfulness and empathy’.

[00:09:59] Faisal: I think, you know, two, three things. First, inspiration can come from any, anywhere and everywhere, right? And anything and everything. So whether that’s the food that you’re trying, or watching a chef cook or a musician playing a music, or reading a book or looking at that you work with, or some conversation you’re having on the street or watching a movie. You can find these nuggets of inspiration in all sorts of form. At least I do. You know? And I think many people do, right? So that’s number one. Cause when you find that, that allows you to reflect what you are doing and however you are trying to interact with other people, leadership at the end of the day is about interaction, right?

So now let’s talk about that interaction. I think that interaction comes from being mindful because you have to be present and be cognizant of the situation and the people that you’re interacting with, but also a deep sense of empathy to put yourself in the shoe of other person and where they’re coming from and where they’re may be going through. Everybody is struggling with something and everybody has a various level of emotion that runs through their daily lives. So being able to be very empathetic of other people’s situation allows you to connect with people better. By the way, that’s not easy thing to do because we are self-preserving species.

So we think about ourselves before we can think about other people. So it requires a conscious effort to think about other stuff, somebody else, and put themself first. And also, this requires a lot of patience. So for example, if you look at a, from a business context, let’s say, you’re expecting somebody to tell you what needs to happen next, and you’re not getting the call and you’re getting irritated and like, okay, how long do I have to wait for this? And often enough you kind of have to kind of put yourself, maybe something is wrong and so maybe they’re busy. So you have to give the benefit of the doubt and that helps you to build other patience. So, patience comes from this mindfulness and empathy.

The next thing is that you have to be, have a open mind. This whole notion of having this ability to listen, absorb and having your open mind to experience whatever that’s happening around you, that allows you to explore different things, and it also allows you to learn different things. These three, four things. So fundamental and so human. Right, but that kind of sets the stage of leadership.The most impactful leaders have this gentle way about them and they inspire more people than just bolding through the walls, and that’s not long lasting.

[00:12:28] Sue: It’s interesting that you raise the different ways people can lead Faisal. I’m also minded that in your experience of growing the businesses that you’ve had, from one of those businesses, I understand then you were let go as chairman and you had to then watch that company crumble and not survive in the way that you would’ve hoped. How did you manage to keep an open mind at that time?

[00:12:50] Faisal: It was very difficult because I was also very young, right? So this is when I was like 26 years old. I’m now early fifties, so it’s been quite a time. So this was at height of my, at that time, the height of my professional journey because I felt I made it. I had already one company which successfully got molded inside GE. I worked for a couple of Fortune 500 by that time, and then I started this company and immediately got some pretty big customers and lots of buzz. Typical internet tech entrepreneur, and I raised a lot of money, and as a result I lost control. When you raise a lot of money, obviously your shares get diluted and you, you don’t have the same level of control. So the investors had very different ideas how to grow the company and you know, when I was feeling that, have to build a foundation before you can go for growth. You can’t run a marathon from day one. Right. But those days, 1999 timeframe, 2000 timeframe. So there was this massive push towards taking companies public and makes a lot of money, and that’s craziness. So I got fired and we did a totally different vision. They thought that they could bring a different leader and grow the company faster.

It was the farthest thing from the truth, they lost all the customers immediately because the customer lost faith. And then they hired a lot of people, moved the company at a different location, and it was misguided. Well intentioned maybe, but misguided, and the company went bust. And it was not only that, what was very hurtful was that my first book is really my first second book, which I really don’t talk about it. My very first book, I was actually writing a book at that time and arguing that new business model are going to be not just driven by tech, but you have to look at it from a holistic point of view and see how the whole ecosystem works and whatnot.

And they said, well, it’s our intellectual property, right? Because you work for the company. So they kept the book and kept the manuscript and actually published it under a different employee and different team that was there. So I felt really betrayed and totally disheartened and I kind of said, maybe entrepreneurship is not what I want to do.

Maybe I should go and take it easy and and whatnot. But once entrepreneur is always entrepreneur. So within next nine months, I started my next company. I also wrote a totally different book, and this is where my writing career really started because it came from a place of adversity. So my first book, or which is really my second book, got published from Cambridge University Press, which was called the Enterprise and it went from there. And then obviously I had other adversity going on that you think that, okay, well one chapter is over. Next chapter is all steady as she goes, but it’s never the case, right? So I started on the company 2008 and 2009. Came along, the market crashed and, and things got very difficult.

At that time, I had a pretty thriving business and by that time I already had several books under my belt. But even until 2012 timeframe, I wasn’t really talking about these things that we’re talking about now. You know, meaning the mindfulness and leadership are. So I found a profound change in me in terms of really how do you understand yourself and how do you connect with other people?

And this Japanese gentleman who was Toshiba Chairman and CEO of US, he took me to Japan and exposed to me to these elements of spirituality. Totally put me in a different trajectory. And here I am and I’m doing a lot of work with our US Government I wanted to give back, so that’s been very rewarding in many ways.

But then my mom got sick, so I had to deal with that. She’s fine. She’s now in, in nursing home. Then the next blow came in a couple of years ago, 2020 where my 18 year old son, he was at that time, freshman in college, got diagnosed with cancer. So we’ve been dealing with that for the last couple of years. And, but this kind of started the next chapter for me where I picked up the pen again and wrote Lift and then my message was that if you want to lift other, you have to kind of lift yourself first. And it’s a really a message to his generation, given post pandemic, the fourth industrial revolution, social disruption of all kind, isolation, the impact of social media, et cetera.

So how do you conduct yourself with some level of sanity? And so it comes from that. And each time, anytime I have a blow of some kind, like anybody else, None of us are special in that context, right? We all have blows. It’s just how it happens. We get a lot of ups and downs in life, but my approach to things is when I face adversity, somehow I get very motivated to do something.

And nowadays that do has to be more about others than for me, because I’m more mature, I’m more capable, I have more resources. So it gives you an opportunity. Do lot more things. As an example, all the proceeds from the books are pledged to cancer research because of my son, so you can crumble and, and it’s our only son, so you can crumble and hide out of the blanket or you can take it with the calm approach and see what can you do.

[00:18:04] Sue: It seems you’ve had a myriad of challenges that you’ve faced in work and life Faisal, and you’ve found a way through them. What would you say are your greatest strengths?

[00:18:30] Faisal:Your strength and weakness I think change as you mature, and I think these days, my greatest strength is perhaps being mindful and staying calm and seeing beyond the fog and create opportunity beyond the fog.So if you listen to this whole conversation each time, I forged a path that’s with positivity, not with negativity. It’s not a naive positivity in the sense that all will be okay, you know, things just aren’t always okay, but you can come up with a plan and try to make an impact. And out of that comes some positive result. And that’s just life. You have to accept it. And I say this all the time where I say you can’t be constantly happy, but you can’t find momentary joy and momentary impact. And if you have more joys and more impact, maybe you can have greater happiness. where you are and your measurement yardstick is you. It’s not anybody else. I’m not trying to compare myself with anybody else. It’s just totally a battle within yourself and a battle with yourself where you want to go.

My greatest strength is being mindful, staying calm and seeing beyond the fog

[00:19:18] Sue: The two of the things that you have alluded to in our conversation so far Faisal that I’m wondering whether they have any impact on your mindset and your approach is your love of cooking and music. You’ve spoken about both of those things. What role do they play in your life these days, and are they relevant to your outlook?

[00:19:37] Faisal: Both of them. By the way, if you want to talk about universal language, food and music is a universal language, and it’s not just universal language between conversation and interaction with people. Culture, I think there’s a deep spiritual tone to it, right? So I mean, when you listen to music, it somehow talks to you and greatest musics are about a joy, sorrow. And inspiration. So it has always been part of my life and music of all kind. By the way, I, I’m not one of those people. That’s okay. You have to listen to classical jazz. If you listen to something else, it’s, I draw inspiration from all kind of music from all over the world. So same with the cooking, by the way. I think it’s a language that allows me to show love for my family and for my friends and whatever, but also it allows me to think about the cultural undertone, where it comes from, and what was the circumstances a particular dish was created. Some are from happy occasions, some are from deep adversity. So I mean, we can look at Jewish culture, Muslim culture, African culture. Food always came from the Hindu culture. They all come from some level of that cultural tone. And lately, especially last couple of years because of my son, I’ve taken it to the whole next level of nutritional value. And how do you lift your spirit, but how do you lift yourself with food. So I’ve been kind of doing a lot of these as I cook, I, I look at the, these different notion of nutritional value and what makes you happy. When you eat something, it makes you happy, and that comes from texture, color, not just making something up and eating it. There’s a saying that the Zen monks have two critical tasks every day, cooking and cleaning, and that’s where their fundamental foundation of mindfulness, Abbott practitioners are both. It does give me a level of meditation without actually doing meditation. You know, I do meditation, but it’s a different kind of meditation. So, you know, I mean, those two things are very important that it defines me.

[00:21:39] Sue: And if we were to see Faisal at his best in the kitchen, cooking something and listening to music, what would be on the CD and what would be getting cooked?

[00:21:49] Faisal: Well, it depends on the occasion. I mean, we are just going through an holiday season, so our last few days I’ve been cooking up a storm. So in holiday time my dishes are very colorful and it comes from many different cultures. So, I mean, since you are in, in UK, I mean I liked lot making a lot of pastries and whatnot. So I made a fish on Croute and. Lots of colourful salads and, and Middle Eastern beet salad with Greek yogurt, that sort of a thing. So I find myself that it, it’s very seasonal and very occasional, and you talk about music and while I was cooking, I was obviously listening to a lot of these, the classical and holiday music, but also my son is really into these new genre of indie music. So like Alex Turner and Arctic Monkey, those are all part of our, but we found that as a family, we still kind of listen on LPs as much as we listen to the digital music. So it’s, it’s like old school in many ways. ,

[00:22:45] Sue: I think you’re describing to us how any of us can be mindful and just enjoy the experience of what we’re doing. If we are cooking wonderful food, listening to great music, having people around us that we love, it can just relax any. As you’re looking ahead then into 2023 Faisal I think you have another book coming out and know that other projects on the horizon, what are your ambitions for the year ahead?

[00:23:08] Faisal: These days it used to be that I gotta grow my company at a certain level. If you talk about professional level, And I have to generate certain level of revenue. Oddly enough, I don’t have that sort of goals anymore. So to me, I do many projects, as you said, you know, so this book that’s coming out, it’s actually in association with IMD Business School, and this is very unlike Lift and Everything Connects, which was focused on leadership and creativity innovation. This is about organizational transformation. For-profit, nonprofit, government, it doesn’t matter. And there is a leadership bend to it, but also there’s an organizational bent and technology bent to it. So I did this in association with the IMD Business School, and it’s for the next generation leaders who are trying to transform large organization, but also you know, the entrepreneurs who are trying to build new companies and whatnot.

So that’s one project and there’s a whole series of thing associated with it that I’ve planned out in terms of creating digital courses, having a digital platform that people can self use whatnot. But getting involved more with education, increasingly finding that that kind of running, you know, as an undercurrent, I’m trying to team up with a number of these world class educators around the globe. IMD being one of them. There’s others here in the US. I live in East Coast you can imagine the variety of schools from MIT to Rutgers. There’s a whole variety of schools and I will probably keep doing the work that I’m doing with our government, which is very important for me because I think an efficient government allows you to create opportunity for citizens to thrive. So I’ve always believed in that. And then I’ll probably end up doing some private sector work. And as I said, I, cancer research has become a, like a thing for me because of my personal situation. I’ll do anything and everything to generate any kind of revenue I can for their research.

[00:25:02] Sue: Well, it sounds like you’re going to be a busy man in the year ahead, Faisal. It’s been really fascinating to talk to you just to learn about how you’ve turned adversity into triumph and how you’ve brought some of the skills of mindfulness and being present and open-minded to your work and your career. If people want to find out more about you and the books that you have and the work that you do, how might they do?

[00:25:26] Faisal: I mean, obviously I’m on the internet. You can find my website, which is FaisalHoque.com. But I am very active on LinkedIn. I try to post something twice a day, a nugget of inspiration or an article on various topics, all the topics that we talked about. And then I’m also on Twitter. Books are available on all the major bookstores like the Amazons and the Barnes and Noble, and Airports. So I’m easy to be found

[00:25:54] Sue: fantastic. Well, again, it’s been a real pleasure to speak to you today. I wish you well with all your activities and I look forward to thinking about what you’re gonna be cooking next as the week develops.

[00:26:04] Faisal: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

[00:26:06] Sue: Thank you, Faisal I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Faisal and we wish him well in all his endeavors. Next week I’ll be talking to Ray Martin who after a number of significant life events, decided to sell his house and most of his possessions and go on a six month sabbatical that ended up lasting 14 years. I can’t wait to find out more about that. Look forward to speaking with you then.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)

Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)