The thread that runs through Rich Fernandez’s life—unifying his undergraduate degree in literature; his pursuit of mindfulness practices and martial arts; his master’s in organizational psychology, and doctoral work in counseling psychology; his years with corporate giants like JPMorgan Chase, eBay, and Google; and his eventual shift to the nonprofit sector—is a simple question: What makes us thrive? How, Fernandez, asks, can humans flourish at work and extend that flourishing to other realms of their lives?
To that end, in 2013, he cofounded Wisdom Labs, whose mission is to provide workplace wellness and mindfulness via digital platforms. In 2017, Fernandez took the helm of the Google-born Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), a nonprofit global initiative whose face-to-face programs include mindfulness and emotional intelligence training for individuals and organizations. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and their teenage son.
Victoria Dawson: It’s interesting that your life’s work—career and calling—has revolved around the subject of work.
Rich Fernandez: Most of our productive time, energy, and attention is spent at work. We spend about 40% of our waking life working—90,000 hours across a lifetime. For me, the essential question is how can work be transformational? How can it benefit people and the planet?
Victoria Dawson: Can you identify any sources of inspiration for that optimistic view?
Rich Fernandez: My mother grew up in the Philippines. She came to the United States when she was twenty and she had me in her mid-twenties. A year later, her marriage dissolved, and I moved to the Philippines for three years to live with my maternal grandmother and aunt. After I returned to New York City, we continued to visit the Philippines often, and the culture and language are still very much alive for me.
There is an expression in the Filipino language, Tagalog, that has guided my own work. In Tagalog, you don’t ask someone, “What do you do for work?” You ask, “Ano ang hanapbuhay mo?” What is your search for life? It’s a beautiful way to talk about work. It’s not just your livelihood. It’s how you make life. It’s what makes you feel fully alive and allows you to bring the best of your gifts forward.
Victoria Dawson: I’m curious if, elsewhere in your youth, there are hints of your eventual dedication to mindfulness and other awareness practices?
Rich Fernandez: I went to a parochial school about three blocks from my apartment in Manhattan. In middle school, I started going to church for ten or fifteen minutes, before school, to just sit there. It was the only place I found quiet and stillness. My mom wanted to know why I was leaving early for school. “Well, I’m going to church,” I’d say. She was very suspicious: “There’s no Mass now, why are you really going? What are you doing there?” I’m just sitting.
Victoria Dawson: Were you in particular need of quiet?
Rich Fernandez: My mother had remarried, and I shared a bedroom with my baby sister. So, there I was, a middle school boy with an infant waking up every three hours and crying. We were this blended family starting to come together, in a small apartment. It was a bit tumultuous. So, church was an island of calm and repose and peace. I didn’t use those words at the time. All I knew was that I liked to go. The sacredness of the space itself connected me to something beyond myself.
Victoria Dawson: It’s not unusual for the path to mindfulness to begin with a personal crisis. But that wasn’t the case for you, was it?
Rich Fernandez: In my freshman year of college, a dorm-mate invited me to a tai chi class. Neither of us had tried it before, and I didn’t know anything about tai chi. But in that first session, I felt a real shift, an opening up of consciousness. I didn’t have the words to name it, but it was a kind of embodied mindfulness experience. At the end of class, I asked the instructor, “What were we doing?” She said, “Meditation in motion.” I asked, “What’s meditation?”
I felt a real shift, an opening up of consciousness. I didn’t have the words to name it, but it was a kind of embodied mindfulness experience.
Victoria Dawson: And that was it?
Rich Fernandez: It was a “wow” moment. The instructor recommended books by Thich Nhat Hanh, Stephen Levine, Lao Tzu, Zhuang Zhou, Alan Watts—and I read them. From that class onward, meditation—mindfulness—became a formal pursuit. Suddenly, there was a model to follow. I came to mindfulness through a gravitation toward the innate goodness of life that, through formal practice, I could finally access.
Victoria Dawson: After you earned your PhD you had a successful run in the corporate world, from Bank of America to eBay—the latter move occurring in the throes of the financial crisis.
Rich Fernandez: As a retail business, eBay was severely affected. People around me were freaking out. I was worried, but I like to think I’m fairly grounded—and I practice, right? Some of my colleagues were curious. “We’re facing a crisis, how come you’re so chill?” I told them that I find my ground every day. “How?” they asked. I told them that meditation helps, and they asked, “What’s meditation?” I started holding sits for about five of my colleagues, teaching them to cultivate awareness using their breath. Before I knew it, 20 people were showing up.
Victoria Dawson: The arc of your life seems striking for the absence of bad career decisions.
Rich Fernandez: My practice has been an anchor point for me. Each step of the way, my convictions have been informed by an underlying sense of what my life is about. I feel very fortunate that I’ve managed to find my way, to live and do what I love.