Michael Ventura, Founder & CEO of Sub Rosa
Michael Ventura is someone I have admired in the branding industry for quite some time. And after this conversation with him, I must admit that I am even more impressed with him than ever.
Best known as the founder of Sub Rosa, a strategy and design firm that serves a multitude of Fortune 500 companies and progressive start-ups, Michael has developed a program to educate corporations and society at large on the importance of empathy.
Michael has grown Applied Empathy into a movement; hosting client seminars, a podcast, a live event series, an immersive cards game, a course at Princeton University, and he has also authored a book that every business person should read.
Early in his career, while being over-burdened by stress, Michael injured his spine when he passed out at the office water cooler. This event served as a catalyst to seek a change in his life by looking inward.
From this approach, Michael fostered many expressions of himself through business: Sub Rosa and Applied Empathy, an alternative medicine practice called Corvus, an event space called And&And, and a retail store called Calliope that he and his wife own and curate.
Below, please enjoy this enlightening conversation with the ever-impressive Michael Ventura.
- Founder & CEO of Sub Rosa
- Creator of Applied Empathy
- Author of Applied Empathy
- Podcast Applied Empathy
- Founder of Corvus
- Founder of Calliope
Topics discussed in this conversation include:
- Sub Rosa's mission and big name clients
- Corporate culture and Michael's strategies for having his business reflect inwards
- How Michael became trained by a curandera in alternative medicine and indigenous practices
- The catalyst that caused him to seek out work-life balance
- Failures as growing experiences
- What was the original inspiration for beginning the Sub Rosa business?
- The fruition of Applied Empathy
- Techniques for employees to look inward
- Michael's morning ritual that sets him up for his day
- How Michael measures success
- Attracting money
- The power of empathy to solve the world's problems
- Valuable advice for all humans
Michael Ventura is an accomplished entrepreneur and creative director. In 2009, Michael founded Sub Rosa, a multi-disciplinary studio that provides strategic, design, and implementation solutions. Sub Rosa's clients include a variety of Fortune 500 companies, as well as some of the world's most progressive start-ups. As CEO, Michael is responsible for setting and cultivating the organization’s vision, culture and growth.
Michael has served as a board member and advisor to a variety of organizations including Behance, The Burning Man Project, The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Friends of +POOL, and the U.N.'s Tribal Link Foundation. A dynamic writer and lecturer, Michael is frequently engaged as an advisor to entrepreneurs and leaders of some of the largest corporations across the globe. He is also an adjunct professor at Princeton University where he teaches design thinking and how to integrate empathy into the creative process. Outside of this work, Michael and his wife Caroline have co-founded the New York-based retail experience Calliope, as well as its adjoining gallery And&And. In his personal time, Michael is an active practitioner of eastern and indigenous medicine, often leading workshops on how to bring these powerful traditions into a modern life and workplace.
Tell me about Sub Rosa. What do you guys do?
I think at our core, what we're best at is helping brands discover or rediscover their North: Who are we, what do we stand for, where are we going, how will we get there? What are the types of people we need inside of this organization? What are the belief systems we need?
So a lot of our work sits pre marketing, if you will, at the business level, really helping leaders think about those types of big questions. And then once we cracked that code and figure out what the path forward is, then inevitably it ends up moving downstream into designing graphics. Design systems, brand identity systems or a communications program. Maybe something even as specific as a retail environment… We have architects on staff and all of that sort of stuff, so sometimes it shows up really physical, sometimes digital, or sometimes it just shows up strategically.
Is that what you guys did for Goop?
Goop, we did the Goop one-day Summit.
<in case you don’t know, Goop is Gweneth Paltrow’s ultra-successful lifestyle brand, rooted in wellness, and continually expanding across categories>
So, about 500 attendees, we produced the whole event for them. There's speakers who are onstage, there's brands who are selling their wares to the attendees. There's a bunch of experiences. So executive producing that whole event on their behalf was our project for them recently.
Who are some of your other clients?
Nike is a client we've been working with for a long time. Really helping them across a variety of both strategic and marketing initiatives. Right now we're doing a lot of work with Marriot.
Marriott and Starwood merged last year, maybe 18 months ago now. Um, so we're doing a lot of culture work to help bring those two enormous hospitality businesses together under one roof. In the next year or so, they will have as much as a million employees globally.
So how do you build a culture for a million people who probably will never meet each other? Right? So how does the culture transcend borders and languages and all that sort of stuff? So it's a super interesting project.
And then, let's see, I mean all the usual suspects have come in and out of the doors over the years. So General Electric and Google and Target and all sorts of multinationals.
We also, for a long while and worked with the Obama administration, which was a lot of fun. We had about two years of work with them. We’re not active with current administration.
<we have a chuckle>
It seems like you work a lot on other people’s cultures. How do you instill your own corporate culture?
About three years ago, we made a commitment to be our own best client, which is hard as a services business and you're always focused on everyone else's work. So we do a couple of things.
We do have a pretty regular cadence of communication, be that a weekly team wide meeting or a series of other weekly meetings that are just very reliably set and you know you're going to have an opportunity to sit with certain people, have a good conversation, but beyond that, something we've instituted and we refer to just colloquially as “Sub Rosa Day” – one day a month where we do no client work, where we only focus inwardly, so we'll do training and development work, we'll do updates to case studies or the website, or things that sort of often get moved to the back-burner.
And you know, the reason for that was, we said if you can't give your own business 12 days a year, you know, that seems really short sighted. So we wanted to make sure we at least have dedicated that level of attention on a monthly basis to keeping up with our own best practices.
Awesome. That's such a good idea.
And you are obviously very entrepreneurial and I know you have other projects other than Sub Rosa. What are they? Tell me about that?
So, there are essentially two other businesses that I run in addition to Sub Rosa. For me, they all kind of ladder up to the same overarching idea, which is: “How do I use empathy to get out of my own shoes, look at the world from a different perspective and provide a solution that will ultimately help someone.” So as we've just said, for Sub Rosa, that's pretty obvious how that works.
Since 2010 I've also run an alternative medicine practice where I treat in a busy week somewhere between 15 and 20 people a week in private practice.
And that's pretty normal. 15 is pretty normal. 20 would be a little busy. And you know, the ailments that someone walks in the door with are quite varied. Sometimes people will come in with low back pain or insomnia or they're trying to get pregnant or something like that. But sometimes people come in because they just kind of lost their way or lost the connection to their inner voice and want to try to rediscover that. Or they're going through a really serious medical issue at the moment. And they need to have an alternative practice to pair up with the western practice in order to keep their immune system up or things like that. So people who are going through chemo or radiation or things like that, I often end up on working with them in partnership with their Western doctors. So it's a really nice pairing.
I work in two forms – I work in a traditional form from Mexico, which is <originally from the> curanderos and curanderas of Mexico, who are the Mexican equivalent of a Shaman essentially.
So it's a very indigenous, very sacred, traditional practice. So I do that. And then I also work in Chinese medicine in a forum called, Qi Gong.
How did you learn these?
I trained with my curandera in Mexico. Her lineage and her tradition was passed onto me, which I'm very grateful for because traditionally it only gets passed to the curandera’s granddaughter – it’s a tradition that has gone down through the feminine line. Though I am not a Mexican granddaughter, she has taken a real liking to me over the years and we have bonded in a way that she felt safe to pass her lineage unto me.
And then the Chinese medicine, I got into because I was really broken during my mid-twenties running this business was very stressful and I had herniated discs in my back and insomnia and substance abuse issues and all kinds of crazy stuff.
Ultimately what got me better was not a medication or surgery. But it was meditation, tai chi, Qi Gong, acupuncture… So as those things got me better, I became more curious about them and ultimately trained in them myself.
And then the third bit, cause there's not enough things on my plate is, my wife and I, three years ago, started a retail store called Calliope http://welcometocalliope.com/
and it's also in this building and it's a home goods and furnishings shop. And so part of our gig is looking out into the world and seeing who's making beautiful stuff, and who’s putting the right intention into it and sourcing things the right way and are finding ways to make a house a home. And how can we be a clearing house for those things and sort of put them in a place for discovery. It's a small little shop, but we've gained a really passionate following and people seek us out because they know they'll find something interesting there.
So when you talked about being in your twenties and having these health issues, substance abuse problems, etc, was this when you were starting Sub Rosa?
Well <it was called Seed at the time> I had already started it… I started it when I was like 22, 23 and then the issues started happening about two years later because I would walk in the door and I would see 35 people who have to pay rent. Thirty-five people who have groceries to buy, 35 people who want to go on a date this weekend and pick up the tab. Right? And the stress of bringing in enough business to pay for all of those people and to make sure that they feel comfortable and secure and can do their job well sat on my shoulders and I didn't know how to deal with that stress and so I would bury it with drugs and alcohol and all these other things.
And then eventually one day I was changing the water jug and I just like – saw WHITE. And the next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and I was on the ground and the water jug is like glug, glug, glug, <pouring out on the floor>. And I had herniated three discs in my lumbar spine and could barely walk. And it was just, in retrospect, the way I view that injury was that I had piled so much emotional weight on me that at a certain point my body just said like enough is enough. And it was a signal to change my life.
Did you find that after that point, you changed your intentions how you were running the business?
I had to change my interior before I could change my exterior. And so I think a lot of what began, after that was about self work, about taking care of this <pointing to himself>, so that this can take care of others. And so that was like the wisdom of the airlines, as I refer to it sometimes – it's like, put your own mask on before helping others, right? Sort of like that. Once I felt good and stable and secure, and I knew how to stand on my own two feet. I was able to help others.
What would you say was your biggest failure or mistake that has now proven to be a growing experience?
It’s hard to pick one. <he says smiling>
There have been so many honestly, because, this is all I've ever done, right?
This is the only job I've ever had, I’ve been doing this for 16 years. Maybe a little bit more, and so all of my professional mistakes sit inside one company, which is kind of like a weird thing. Not a lot of people have like a singular container that all of their fuck-ups sit inside. But for me, that's sort of the way it goes. So, there have been ways that I poorly managed hiring and firing people. There have been ways I have poorly managed relationships with clients. There have been ways I’ve poorly managed my own time.
It's hard to point to one because I feel like there's this spirit of continual improvement that I've kind of embraced over the years because if you put things off long enough, you make big mistakes. But if you pay attention enough, you make small mistakes, and the small mistakes can be course-corrected before they become big mistakes. Right? So a lot of small mistakes. I try to prevent big ones from occurring.
What was the original inspiration for starting this company?
We started to think about helping. We started to realize that brands needed help behaving more like people. Like when a brand has to actually respond to your comment <on social media> they had a lot of questions. They're like, well, how do we respond? Who's responding? Who from this organization is going to actually do that and what's the tone of voice and are we going to be apologetic or we going to be sure of our comment? There was all of this stuff that we as humans learn from moment where this big <holding his hand low to the floor> how you behave and interact with people, that brands had never done. And so the emphasis really in starting was to help brands learn how to behave more like people. And that has evolved through empathy.
That brings me to my next question, which is about Applied Empathy, which is a program that you have developed...
Tell me about that!
Four years ago, we said we kind of need to declare a major, like stand for something you really do care about and that we do well. And after looking back over a body of work, that we have developed over a decade-plus, we started to see this theme of empathy emerge when we're doing our best to work. We actually get out of our own shoes and we sort of think about problems from a different perspective, then we can feel and sense how others are perceiving something. And in so doing, we're able to create a better solution. And so we said, if that's our thing, let's commit to it. That's not just like put it in a slide stack and make it a nice buzzword, but let's actually make it a thing that we care about the stand for it. And so, we began by building a one hour lecture that I started to give, and I was invited to go down to Princeton and give it at Princeton to a bunch of the undergrads.
In doing that, afterwards, one of the deans for from the university came up to me and said, I really like what you have to say. Would you be interested in creating a curriculum and teaching a class here about this? And we said sure. And so collectively a group of us here built a 12 week curriculum, started teaching it down there, that led to a podcast that we've been doing for over two years, on a live event series that we do every month. It led to the development of a whole host of week long, two day, one day, half day seminars that we run for clients. And then most recently the, the authoring of a book called Applied Empathy, which will be out in May, out in the world.
Why do you consider your business a conscious enterprise and what kind of higher purpose do you think you serve in what you do?
I think there's an inward and outward way of answering that.
Inwardly, I think what we try to do with our team is to have everyone be aware enough of themselves and who they are and what they're working on, and acknowledging and very much sort of broadcasting, even in our own brand book for Sub Rosa, that we admit and embrace the fact that we are a work in progress. And so I think part of being aware of yourself and conscious is knowing that it is a journey and that we're constantly learning. We're constantly improving and if we're aware of that, you know, there is no finish line. It's a process we go through and so collectively we all kind of work together.
On a more macro level or more external facing level, you know, some people might look at some of the companies we work with and take issue with them because of some practice they might have in the past and it had been dragged through the press for it's labor practices in Asia or you know General Electric has had bad press around their oil and gas business or things like that…
But for us, that's the point of the work we're doing –if we can go into organizations that have challenges, that are trying to play on a global scale or are playing on a global scale and doing really great work in some fields… Can we help them improve some of the areas where they're not doing so well? You know, if you can make a company that's doing something that doesn't feel right, behave better, that’s almost better than, you know, working with the (while we wouldn’t say no) working with the Patagonias of the world who are already doing so much, right. Go where the problems are, don’t go where the best of the best examples are.
When you talk about making sure everyone who works here “looks inward”, what are some of the techniques you use to instill that in your employees?
One of the things that we do is we have a fairly regular cadence of personal reflection and renewal time. So you'll do a self assessment a couple of times a year. You'll be assessed by your colleagues a couple of times a year. You'll have a sit-downs to really have a dialogue and a way to exchange that information so that you can understand what you're doing well, where you have opportunities for growth. But then beyond that, we do a two major day long, either off-sites or on-sites here every year where we will bring in different types of programming or thinking that will let you explore your interior world in a different way, be that in the form of meditation or some other tradition or maybe just a journaling exercise or something like how we met in part, which was through the use of those cards. [the Questions & Empathy cards are essentially like highbrow Cards Against Humanity, except asking deep questions]
[Utilizing these cards] with a colleague that you might have been working with for two years and spending 20 minutes doing that, you're going to know more about that person in just twenty minutes.
Do you have a regular morning ritual that keeps you aligned?
Yeah. I have a Taoist practice. So typically, I'll get up and have about an hour of Tai-Chi, Qi Gong, meditation, and then if I'm feeling extra stiff or like just off a plane, I'll throw in some Yin Yoga as well. That’s every morning, seven days a week, for the past five years. Like, don't miss a day.
And then after that, I'll usually get dressed and I see a client for my alternative medicine practice starting at 8am. So I go from 8am-9am with a client and then by 9:15 I’m in Sub Rosa go for the rest of the day and then see another client at 6:15pm. So those two treatments at the beginning of the end of the day really book ended my day and give me an opportunity to be wholly present with one other person because when I'm at Sub Rosa and we're sitting in [a conference room], clients aren't paying us for the present moment, they're paying us for what we're going to do together or what will happen next. So there isn't a lot of value placed on the now in the commercial world that we live in. But in a treatment that's all we have. Because I can't help what happened before you come in or can I help what happens at when you walk out the door.
So all I can do is be of service in that 60 minutes that we have together. And so it's a nice way to book end of the day being wholly present of another person.
How do you measure success?
I would say, by how comfortably I sleep…
I feel like if I'm going to bed without anxiety, without my motor running, then I'm probably doing the right thing. Money is a side effect of doing what you love. I've never really thought that money is the driver. Impact. Some people will say quantity is more important than quality. So people will say quality is more important than quantity. I think that depends. It depends on what the problem is and what you're trying to change. So for me it really is like, do I feel good about what I'm doing? And am I comfortable enough when I lay my head down at the end of the night to know that I did a good piece of work for that day.
So would you consider yourself a successful person today?
Yeah. For sure. Successful, with a lot of room to grow.
And while on the topic of money… It’s interesting to talk to successful entrepreneurs about attracting the right money. You mentioned in the beginning of your career, having this financial weight on your shoulders…
Did you have a catalyst that allowed money to start flowing to you?
Money doesn't find you until you value yourself. And you know, I had a teacher, my Qi Gong master was talking to me about as I began practitioning. In the beginning, I didn't want to charge [money for my services] because I didn't feel I was at a state of learning enough where I could. So I had proposed that I would just do this exchange, right? Because it's what was most meaningful was that you were to give and receive and to give and receive. But if you brought me a pie from the farmer's market, that would be fine. You didn't have to pay me in money. And I had been doing that for a little while and he told me that at the end of the day, there has to be a value you put on your time and there has to be a value you value your work at. Otherwise people will set the value for it for you. And that's true in any business, right?
If you don't value your time and value who you are in the work you provide to them, someone else is going to value it for you. And there's a very high likelihood they will value it less than you would value yourself. So, you know, don't be afraid to know what you're worth or declare what you're worth to other people because that sort of puts the right vibration in the air for things to come to you and find you.
What impact would you like to make on the world if you had unlimited resources?
I think empathy cures a lot. If we could make the world a more empathic place, I think we would see a lot of the other changes that I would like to see in the world. People wouldn't be depleting natural resources at the same rate. Indigenous communities would be protected and thriving. And the societal crises that we in this country are going through right now from Black Lives Matter to #metoo, to gun control to everything else would have a different perspective if we could just see and convince others to see each other's angles and meet in the middle and refine a bit more. So, for me, I've elected that empathy is going to be my path into that. And by virtue of that, collectively our path into that. So, that's really where we're putting our focus.
What’s a valuable piece of advice that you’d like to give other entrepreneurs who are creating businesses with conscious intentions?
You know, one of the early pieces of advice I got, which is true, not just for entrepreneurs, but also just humans… is to start to really find the comfort in the discomfort. The way it was phrased to me, which I've sort of evolved in my mind over the years is, if you don't get into trouble, you'll never learn how to get out of it. Right? And so do you always play it safe, and if you just do the easy thing, you're not creating any tension for growth, you're not creating any opportunity for expansion. So don't be afraid to take the hard risk or the overwhelming thing or the risky thing because that's where real growth occurs. That's where you're pushing your boundaries and ultimately will find something that's more meaningful.