Optimize for energy and let inspiration lead the way

August 7, 2023

With the academic year around the corner, Reporter checks in with COB graduate Suneel Gupta, a work and happiness expert who lectures on the intersection of well-being and human performance at Harvard University.

Photo of Suneel Gupta, Class of 2000 alum

The beginning of a school year offers a chance to start fresh and learn something more about yourself.

With the fall semester right around the corner, we spoke with an alum who knows all about beginning something new, and who teaches others by reflecting on experiences — Class of 2000 graduate Suneel Gupta. 

Gupta is the founder of RISE, a wellness and nutrition coaching startup and app, which is now owned by Amazon. He lectures on the intersection of well-being and human performance at Harvard University. And he was named “The New Face of Innovation” by the New York Stock Exchange. Even with these accolades and achievements, Gupta remembers where he came from.

“My story, my family’s story, is very much rooted in the Dearborn experience,” said Gupta, a College of Business alum. “That’s why I’m always excited to connect and help people who were once where I was whenever I can.” Gupta served as UM-Dearborn's commencement speaker in 2017 and participated in the Renick University Center dedication in 2022.

Always looking for ways to share inspiration, Gupta discussed things he wished he knew in college, the importance of doing something that excites you, and why people should optimize for energy and not time.

What do you know now that you wish you knew as a Dearborn Wolverine undergrad?

“College is your golden opportunity to learn about what you want from life. It might be different than what other people want and that is OK. Tune into who you are and what makes you come alive and act on it. When you do this, focus on what will lead to inner success — purpose, meaning, joy — for you. We often focus on outer success first. I’ve made that mistake and it’s hard not to because our whole world is oriented toward outer success’ fame, money and status.

There is nothing wrong with outer success, but it’s important to realize that it doesn't lead to inner success. You can have the nicest things, but still feel like it’s not enough because you don’t have that feeling you are looking for on the inside. If you begin with purpose — with inner success — your work will fulfill you and your likelihood of achieving outer success goes up dramatically. People will see that you believe in what you do. That conviction and confidence will attract people to back and support you.”

You’ve started a few businesses, including RISE — a mobile app that offers nutritional coaching at low cost and which Apple called the “new app of the year” when it came out. What makes a business idea successful?

“It’s not enough to figure out whether your idea fits the market — you have to figure out whether an idea fits you. In the past, when I was considering a new startup, I created a spreadsheet of business ideas. The columns were all the classic entrepreneurship factors like market size and competition. These were solid ideas and I was trying to figure out which I’d pursue. When I shared this spreadsheet with a mentor, she asked me, “which one of these ideas actually sets you on fire?” I talked about how compelling the ideas were and why they’d succeed. She replied, ‘That’s not what I asked you.’

After scanning the spreadsheet, a harsh reality hit me —  I was beginning with outer success, not inner. They were good ideas, but none of them made me come alive. I needed an idea that was both a solid business idea and that gave me purpose. I scrapped my spreadsheet and created a new one. Column A listed ideas and column B asked a simple yes-or-no question: In love? That exercise forced me to begin reflecting on ideas that truly made me come alive. That’s when I remembered how a nutritionist helped save my father’s life and where my idea for RISE came from. It came from a deeply personal place.”

Can you talk more about that?

“A nutritionist gave my father a second chance at life. When I was about 11, my father had an emergency quadruple bypass surgery. He was only in his 40s. The doctors gave him 10 years to live. It was very scary for our family.

Because we had good health insurance, my father was able to get a nutritionist. I watched a nutritionist coach my father to better health. It was this Rocky Balboa story in our home. My father did not go to the gym before the surgery; after, he was going every day before work. Before, drinking water wasn’t a focus in our house. All of a sudden water was everywhere; it became the go-to drink and our meals had more vegetables. Everything was changing and so was my father. Thirty years later, he is here. He still takes walks every day and eats healthy. He’s one of the strongest people I know. It literally saved his life,

But unless someone is very sick with good health insurance or is very rich, a nutritionist is not accessible. That wasn’t lost on me — I know how lucky we were. My whole idea behind RISE was to take my dad's story to expand nutrition coaching to people who might not normally have access by making it affordable. The purpose and meaning behind the idea is ultimately what made the company work.”

Gallup’s “State of the Global Workplace 2023” was released earlier this summer and revealed that workers around the world indicating they are very stressed is at a historically high number. Have you thought about solutions for emotional well being too?

“It’s no secret that we are exhausted right now and on the verge of burnout. Two out of three people in the workforce say they are more exhausted than they have ever been in their careers. Thinking about this, and feeling it myself, I took lessons from my childhood about Dharma, which is an ancient Sanskrit word that can be interpreted to mean ‘your true calling’ or what it is you do in life because of who you are.

One element of Dharma is this idea of optimizing for energy instead of optimizing for time. We’ve all experienced moments where we are trying so hard, but got nothing done — and then get a burst of high energy and have everything done in 20 minutes. So I thought: how do we optimize for that? In addition, research shows high performers in business, art and science aren’t waiting for vacation to restore themselves — they are taking frequent focused breaks throughout the day, with an average of eight breaks per day. 

Thinking about realistic ways to put this idea into practice, I discovered the 55/5 rhythmic renewal model. After every 55 minutes of work, you have five minutes of focused deliberate rest or recharge. Go for a short walk. Do breathing exercises. Pet your dog. Do whatever lifts your energy back up. We are so back-to-back-to-back that we are depleting ourselves. It is not sustainable. And research conclusively tells us that those five minutes of rest lead to higher creativity, productivity and collaboration during the next 55 minutes of work.”

You’ve had many experiences and traveled the world. To you, what makes Dearborn special? 

“Dearborn means a lot to me. My mom was Ford Motor Company’s first advanced-degree female engineer. She was a refugee who grew up in a challenging situation. One of the first books she taught herself how to read was a story about Ford Motor Company. It was the Google of that time — everyone heard of it, even a little girl who lived in a poor village on the border of India and Pakistan. Her dream was to one day move to that place and work for that company. And she made it happen. Dearborn has so many of these stories.

I remember being 18 and deciding where to go to college — UM-Dearborn felt like the right place for me. And, every time that I’m back in Dearborn, it still does.”

Gupta’s book Backable was recently donated to the College of Business for students to use in the classroom through a gift from Tooploox, a software development company that has supported Gupta’s endeavors.

Gupta shares work-wellness balance-based practices in his latest book Everyday Dharma, which HarperCollins is releasing Sept. 5.

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.