Karan Rai, Founder & CEO of Asgard Partners
Karan and I have known each other for a long time through a few mutual friends, and it has been such a pleasure to watch him rise to the top of everything he does. With an astounding reputation in the finance industry for building and transforming companies, his newest business venture is one that breaks every mold.
The financial industry, as most of you probably already know, does not have the best reputation for being immersed in wellness, mindfulness nor self-awareness, particularly in New York City. Which is why it has been so incredibly awe-inspiring for me to hear about the fundamentals upon which ASGARD Partners is being built.
In 2015 Karan suffered a massive panic attack while piloting his personal airplane. Below is our conversation about how this experience changed his perspective on life, the importance of holding yourself accountable, and his approach to integrating these principles into his business.
I am so thrilled to share this interview as the first in series for Conversations with Conscious Enterprises.
Founder & CEO of Asgard Partners
Interim CEO of Theodor Wille Intertrade
Former President of ADS Inc., growing to $1.5+ billion
Former JP Morgan Investment Banker
MBA from Yale University
Authored a paper about purpose-driven business for Chief Executive Mag
Featured in Thrive Global
Topics discussed in this conversation:
The fabric of reality and how perception is arbitrary
Karan's personal build up to a massive panic attack while piloting his private plane
How Karan began dismantling himself and his reality and his idea of being ultra-successful
Building a new paradigm for business
Affirmations creating accountability
Karan's biggest failures
Why dedication to higher purpose was the only choice for him
Karan's morning ritual
Asgard's unconventional "secret sauce" to success, practices from inside their coveted Tuesday morning meeting
How Karan measures success
Valuable advice for conscious entrepreneurs
Karan Rai is founder and Chief Executive Officer of ASGARD Partners & Co. a financial advisory and investment firm based in NYC. He loves working with and investing in entrepreneurs and inspired leaders who are building purpose driven companies.
Mr. Rai also, at times, serves as the interim CEO for ASGARD portfolio companies. Most recently, Mr. Rai dedicated some of his time to serve as the CEO for Theodor Wille Intertrade (TWI), a portfolio company that he has led since 2015. TWI is a multinational company that provides a range of supply chain solutions for U.S. Government agencies and the prime contractors who support them.
Previously, Karan was the President of ADS, Inc., a leading specialty distributor and supply chain solutions provider, serving all branches of the government. At ADS, Mr. Rai led the company’s turnaround efforts and helped grow ADS into a $1.5+ billion dollar global organization.
Prior to joining ADS, he worked in JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Investment Banking Group in New York, where he originated and structured over 50 deals during his tenure as a banker. During that time, Karan helped structure private equity deals for companies like Huish, Colt , Wyle, Armored AutoGroup, as well as recapitalizations and financing deals for large public companies such as Macy’s, Limited Brands, B/E Aerospace, and JBS. Karan was recently appointed to The Wall Street Journal CEO Council and currently serves on the boards of Bcause, LLC and Avadim Technologies, Inc.
He earned an MBA with distinction in Finance and Strategy from Yale University’s School of Management. Karan resides in Manhattan with his wife and two sons. He is also an instrument rated pilot with over 500 hours of flight time.
Where did the name “ASGARD Partners” come from?
It’s out of Norwegian mythology. [Karan’s lovely wife is Norweigian and they call their son the baby viking]
Asgard is one of the nine realms, and Asgard is the home of the gods. So Thor and Odeon lived in Asgard. It’s the home of the Viking warriers and the gods. And I felt like I was putting together this team of Vikings.
When did you start this business?
How would you describe your corporate culture and how do you foster it?
Here’s my thesis, I’ll tell you that, because that’s what I’m basing the business on:
If I can grow a leadership team that has done the work on themselves where they want to show up as the best versions of themselves, and then I can empower them to just live up to that with just some guideposts where that’s an expectation, [then] we don’t worry about what’s this policy and that policy. Our goal here is let’s show up in a highly empowered way.
And I’ll give you an example of how that manifests itself in terms of how we do it:
In order for you to work here, you need to figure out, who do you want to be, what’s the best and highest version of yourself, you have to have it written down. We call these your “I Am” statements. This is the highest version of yourself, and then you declare those to your teammates. And we hold you accountable for living into that person that you’re claiming that you want to be.
Is it aspirational? Absolutely. But we hold people accountable to show up [as who they claim]. It’s not an edict or a mandate. It’s not Karan’s way. If you go do your work, and you figure out that’s the highest version of me, then that’s the guy I want to show up at work, that’s the guy I want interacting as teammates, that’s the guy I want interacting with clients and investors. Because that is what you are being vs. what you are doing. It’s an inside-out revolution. So we literally work on let’s fix what’s going on inside, because the actions that will flow through you, from you, when you’re being a certain kind of person are just gonna be a different feel, texture, flavor, taste, smell to those actions. They show up in this Universe in a different way.
When you say you’re fixing from the inside-out, are you saying that the “I Am” statements are what causes this ripple effect of fixing while you’re declaring it to yourself?
Yeah, people have been talking about affirmations for a long time, and sometimes I think they can get a little trite. You can’t just plaster more stuff on. Finding yourself is about taking off the armour, removing more stuff until you get to your core. A lot of the time in our society and self-help, that’s more about putting more stuff on. Like if you buy this thing, then develop this skill, then create this ability, and there’s a time and a place for skills and abilities to participate here [too]. But our view is that it’s more about shedding all of the stuff you’ve accumulated over a period of time to get to the core essence of who you are. And then show up in your meetings, in your work, in your interactions as that authentic being. That’s a complete game changer.
One of the lines on your website says “We’re financiers that think like entrepreneurs.” What makes this so? And what do you think sets you apart from other financial firms?
Where do I begin?
What makes us entrepreneurs – that’s pretty simple. I think everybody that came in to start this firm – they’re all highly successful people. I don’t say that flippantly, I mean these are people that have big careers from big institutions. These are all highly accomplished folks who all quit what they were doing that was safe, to take a big risk to come start this platform. To me, that’s literally the essence of entrepreneurship. It’s easy to be an entrepreneur when you have no other options. But when you literally have every option that’s out there for you, and you make an active choice, that instead of taking that path, [what i do is] create something that doesn’t exist that I think needs to exist and I want to do it with like minded people.
It’s the willingness to go backwards before you go forwards even though you don’t have to. That I think is very entrepreneurial.
And what makes us different – our number 1 ethos is – and this is still new to some people – I just don’t understand why – We believe business is just a powerful platform to have a massive change in the world.
How is ASGARD changing the world for the better?
I think it all starts with intention. I think intention is incredibly powerful. Without getting all metaphysical on you, I believe (and this is experiential) that they way you show up and how you show up and the why behind why you do what you do… it’s almost like when someone has cooked you something with a lot of love you can almost taste it. You know what I mean? And so, to me it’s the intention behind your actions in my way of thinking it purifies those actions and gives those actions a lot more power. Intentionality makes us meaningfully different.
We’re not a non-profit. We’re a for-profit business for all intensive purposes. But we do not engage with a client unless we think that our values match. And one of the questions we ask about our clients – whether that’s a private equity business we’re looking to buy, or it’s a client on the advisory side that’ll engage and assist in capital raise, “tell us why your company needs to exist besides making a profit.” And if you can’t articulate that means we talk through it. And if that’s a question that’s like “why are you asking me that?”, then that’s a sign we’re probably not a good match.
There’s a lot of companies out there and our goal is to take a level of sophistication that really has not been made accessible to some of the smaller companies and early-stage companies that don’t have access to the JP Morgans or Merril’s of the world. But they deserve the same caliber of service and intellectual ability helping them think through their business issues.
So for us, it’s not about the size, it’s about the intention of the business, and I think that’s pretty unique to what we do.
You’ve been the CEO and President of multiple prominent firms. What do you consider to be your biggest career achievement?
Yet to be defined. I think my bigger career achievement will be ten years from now when people are talking about how ASGARD changed what it meant to – Let me take a step back...
The reason this firm exists is we’re doing an experiment. We have a hypothesis that we’re trying to prove. And our hypothesis is that if you truly show up and you take a view that business ought to be a platform to do good in the world and inside of that thesis is that my only goal and my leadership team’s goal is to empower the person that’s in any of the positions that we’re in to show up as the highest version of themselves – that to me is the most sound business strategy that you could ever have. And our goal is to say hey, let’s see if we just show up like that, what can we build in ten years.
And wouldn’t it be cool if you could change the dialogue, because (and I say this kind of flippantly)… tree huggers are tree huggers and wall street guys are wall street guys. So what I want to do is bring legitimacy to a conversation … where it’s like… I did it. I was top of my class at JP [Morgan], I turned around two companies, I launched a private equity firm, and oh by the way here’s what we believe. Because that conversation is not happening. Right? So bringing that level of legitimacy that, you know what? If you start with purpose, profits will follow. And it’s an incredibly powerful way to do good in the world and be profitable.
What’s your biggest failure or mistake that turned out to be more of a learning/growing experience in retrospect?
The first 37 years of my life. [he says jokingly, laughing] But listen, I’m only kinda half joking. But you are the product of your experiences. And I fundamentally believe that the obstacle is the way. Obstacles aren’t there for you to just go around. It’s not “life”, and by the way you have some obstacles. The obstacle is the way. You have experiences in life and they forge you and they mold you, and you do have free will. And I feel like, if I hadn’t had the experiences I had for the first 37 years of my life, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to the place where I was in the airplane [referencing a panic attack whilst flying an airplane in 2015] that got me to go down this journey, that got me here.
Given that today, my life is so different. The way I show up in the world, just the level of pride in who I am becoming as a human being; it’s so much deeper than it ever was. And that would have never happened had I not ended up in the hospital thinking about why they hell am I even here.
So yeah, I would say, the first 37 years of my life.
Would it have benefited you in any way to have left out your commitment to higher purpose when growing your business?
Why or Why Not?
No. That is such an interesting question.
You see, you have all these fears that are projections. There are things that we want, I’m not only talking materially, but spiritually, like when we’re in that place, being really romantic about our life, and it just feels so good to be like “this is how I’m gonna show up”. And then ten minutes later that moment passes and you’re kinda sitting there eating Cheetos watching TV, and you’re like oh that was cool, but that’s not real. And what I’m learning in my older age as I get wiser is those moments when you have those highly inspired visions of yourself – that is the truth! And everything else, the moments when you dull yourself back to reality – that’s the hypnosis that society wants us to live in. That’s not the truth. So once you make that distinction – and there is a clear distinction – that when I have those highly inspired moments – that is my truth! That’s what I’m supposed to be doing! And that is an inspired way of living.
And so, all of us have this thing in us. But it’s just never been ok, at least not in the finance world, to really have those conversations.
I just got to the point where I was willing to take the risk to be mocked, to people thinking that I’ve lost my shit. But I knew that this is what I want to create because it resonates. And that resonance is the first four people, my four closest friends that I spoke to left their jobs. I had those conversations in January, but March everybody had committed to doing this.
And since then everybody else that’s come in has come in because of this mission. We’re on a mission.
I know you talked about your morning ritual in your Thrive article about how you get prepped for your day and how it sets you in alignment for who you want to be for the day. How do you use this personal ritual to infuse your personal intentions into the company?
You talked about my morning ritual, that’s for me to get centered. But we have a morning ritual for the business, to get the business centered, because the business is also an organism. And for us it’s pretty simple. I don’t know if it’s unique or not, I don’t know anybody else who does it but anytime we talk about this with other people or other companies they’re like “That’s incredible. That works?”
So what does that entail?
It’s our Tuesday morning meeting. And it has nothing to do with our business pipeline. This is to get the team centered.
Here’s what we do:
The very first thing is we go through a gratitude practice. So everybody goes around and literally they’re being mindful of what they’re thankful for. That sets the tone.
The second thing we do, we have an acknowledgment practice. Acknowledgement is different than flattery or compliments. This is truly in a very authentic way, if somebody in the company in some way shape or form did something that you highly valued or they really showed who they are and showed up, you acknowledge that person in front of everybody. And that also fosters this environment.
The third piece is what I talked about. Everybody that works at this firm has to do the work and figure out their highest version [of themselves] , which is written in their in the equivalent of their “I Am” statements.
And so every Tuesday, each person will stand up and they will declare who they are.
For me, [for example], “I am a creator. I speak my world into existence. I am excellence personified. I am profound wisdom. I am divine intuition. I am completely authentic. I am unconditional love. I am massive contribution, I find a way to serve others in any situation. I am husband of the year everyday. I love and support my wife unconditionally. I am father of the year everyday. I love and support my boys unconditionally. I am unshakeable faith. I am my word."
So whatever it is for you, you literally go up and you speak it, you declare it. Everybody up there knows that this is you at your best. Words have power. And now you feel compelled to live up to the best and highest version of yourself because that’s the promise you’re making to your teammates of how you’re gonna show up. And it’s also you recommitting every week. Its about equanimity.
Every Tuesday there’s gonna be a practice of gratitudes, there’s gonna be a practice of acknowledgement, there’s gonna be a practice of you declaring the best version of you. And then we pick one of our ten founding truths – these are the basis of what we believe – the operating system of this business – and we go through it every week.
We’re not a company that has values on the walls. That’s not how we roll. We call it breathing life back into your values. So every week we pick one and the team discusses what it means to them personally and how we show up with it for our clients, for our investors, with our companies.
And then the last piece, when we usually have time, we go through a 10-minute visualization for what we want this company to be about, how we want it to look. Somebody will lead it as “three years from now, here’s where we are… here’s who we’re serving…”
And the reason we do that is because you can have a lot of words, and you can say the same words and different people will get different imagery. I want everybody on this team to have the same exact mental imagery of where we’re going so there’s no ambiguity about what this company’s trying to become.
You can read a vision statement and it doesn’t say anything. But we literally walk through it – 2020, here’s where we are. Here’s the kind of company’s we’ve served… I call it “pulling the future in”.
How long does this entire Tuesday meeting take?
An hour. We commit to an hour to bringing it back to center.
That’s what’s given us the velocity to where we’ve been in business 8-9 months, and the progress that we’ve had I feel like we’ve done 3 years worth of work. Because everybody knows where we’re going. Everybody knows what the best version of everybody else is. We hold each other accountable for that. And we come back to the equanimity of who we are and how we’re gonna show up everyday.
Oh and we do real work too. We’re not just sitting here singing all day long.
Did you require investors/funding to get your business started? If so, how were you able to attract the right money?
This goes back to the question you asked about us being entrepreneurs. We 100% self-funded this. So not only did people forego their big paychecks at the big firms, we’ve put money into this firm.
We talked about your many accomplishments at JP Morgan, being president and CEO of financial firms, I saw you’re now on the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council… Do you consider your business to be successful today? How do you measure success?
I do. But it’s not because of those things. I consider myself to be a very successful person because I’ve figured out for me, success is the process and how I show up, and that’s something that I control. I know that it’s not that I’ll have something someday that will define my success. If I wake up in the morning and I speak out my “I Am” statements, and I actually live them throughout the day, and I do my inventory before I go to bed and say “Did you live up to your virtues today?”. Guaranteed success.
What’s a valuable piece of advice you would like to give to other entrepreneurs creating businesses with conscious intentions?
Just love ambiguity. Live in the unknown. Know that something that has never happened in your life can happen.
That’s what entrepreneurship is about -
You’ve got to get to a place that you are so comfortable in ambiguity and the unknown that you get to a place that you give yourself certainty. The only person that needs to give you certainty is you. So work on yourself til you get there.