The spiritual dimension of business innovation

Business innovator Steve Jobs said he wished for one book to be given to every person who attended his funeral. The Apple founder’s choice was The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, one of India’s greatest spiritual thinkers of modern times, and the first to live and teach in the West. To find out a little more about why this book was so important to Jobs, and how a spiritual approach can make a difference in matters of commerce, Business Innovation Leaders Forum podcast host and writer Lionel Snell spoke to two people who combine entrepreneurial flair with a spiritual outlook – Nalanie Harilela Chellaram and Shaman Chellaram.

Nalanie recalls an era, around two decades ago, when there was much scepticism in the mainstream media over the perceived dangers of religion and the folly of New Age spirituality: “Yoga was widely practised in the West then, but most people felt more comfortable treating as a sort of keep fit exercise,” she says. “In recent years, however, the tide seems to have turned. People now seem less afraid to admit to an interest in spiritual matters. When I first started teaching yoga, I was called a witch. Now I do a lot of spiritual counselling for people full of anxiety, fear, nervousness about the future. They are looking deep within and asking about the purpose of life. Why are we here? They have been trying to deal with anxiety the material way and now they are looking for something deeper, something to give them peace.”

Shaman believes that the events of the last two years have helped drive people look for deeper meanings in both life and work: “No matter how much we search on the outside, sometimes the only true way to realise some form of peace, and to get over our anxiety, is to start to look within,” he notes. “That’s the same in an individual context and also in a business context.”

He sees evidence that many businesses are embracing a more holistic approach, looking for a purpose beyond profit: “I think this is key to securing long term success,” he adds. “It’s also very important for staff retention. Employees today want to be part of something greater, to sense a shared vision which can actually make a difference in the world. Business leaders have to create, curate and nurture that vision to enable their staff to thrive. For example, I work at Colliers [a real estate and investment management company], and our mission is quite simple: to maximise the potential of property and to accelerate the success of our clients, and also our people. Collaboration and entrepreneurship are encouraged, and essentially form a platform for growth. We have developers, investors, hoteliers, advisors, financiers, designers, architects, but ultimately, we’re stewards of the land with a goal to sustainably create places where people and communities can thrive. And to me that is linking back to a purpose beyond profit.”

Nalanie says she has been invited by many business institutions to give advice on spiritual matters, as well as on improving teamwork and fostering cooperation through meditation, mindfulness and focusing: “I have been talking to many businesses on that front, and advising that they introduce a meditation and yoga scheme. Yes, I see that businesses are becoming more and more interested in spiritual values.”

As for Steve Jobs’s favourite tome, The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, exactly why was he so posthumously keen for his friends and associates to read it?

To answer, Nalanie considers the term ‘yogi’: “It means connection to one’s higher self,” she explains. “That book is about Paramahansa Yogananda connecting with that higher self. Some people call it God, some people call it spirit, some people call it nature, but it doesn’t really matter. You just have to think of the intensity, the depths of passion in the book, how his entire life was one of service, love, giving. It’s this that really caught Steve Jobs’s heart.”

Nalanie reflects on Jobs’s early years when he travelled to India, searching for the meaning of life: “He had such a great gift, creating a computer world. He questioned how he received this gift and wanted to know more. He seemed to be able to tap into answers that other people couldn’t, and I think he wanted to know where it all came from. The book helped him to reconnect. He meditated a lot in his life, and I think that helped him to focus on what he was doing, and on his dreams. He was a passionate man and he was passionate in his work.”

Shaman invites consideration of other spiritually aware business leaders, such as Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, Russell Simmons from Def Jam Recordings, and broadcaster and business leader Oprah Winfrey: “They have meditation as part of their daily practice,” he observes. “And this helps to give them some clarity, some focus. Russell Simmons referred to it as success by stillness. It’s about a quiet, focused period where the mind can be creative, make clear decisions and grow, perhaps a time where we tap into our own intuition.”

Shaman trains in a form of Chinese Kung Fu that is based on similar teachings: “Wing Chun is very much about focus, discipline and practice,” he says.

The past couple of years have seen business leaders forced to take some tough decisions, he notes: “They’ve had to weigh up investment returns and assess risk on multiple levels, as never before. If I were to bring in the teachings of Swami Satchidananda by way of advice for these leaders it would be along these lines: a perfect action is one which causes no harm to anyone, and some benefit to someone, including yourself. It’s a simple mantra by which to lead life and make decisions, both in the workplace and on a personal level.”

But was Steve Jobs really in touch with his spiritual side? To some he came across as somewhat domineering, perhaps even self serving.

“He was a businessman, right?” says Nalanie. “My spiritual master used to say in business you have to act like a business person. And in spirituality you have to act like a spiritual person. You can apply spirituality to business, in a different form. Maybe he was a bit of a tyrant. But I think he was certainly determined to make his business a success, and I think he tried very hard to incorporate teamwork. If you listen to some of his videos, he talks about passion and the highest order of perfection, while not making your goals too high so as to become unrealistic.”

“While we’re talking about spirituality and business, I think every leader also has their own leadership style,” adds in Shaman. “Sometimes in business you need to be tough, and you need to make hard decisions. But at the same time you do need to be receptive to those around you so as to create the right team and be set up for success.”

He observes with approval that many companies are increasing their focus on ESG: “The environmental, social and governance side of things are essential parts of the decision making process,” he notes. “We’re seeing businesses try to be more sustainable, and also maximise their positive social impact on the world. They are looking at the future of the business, but also the wellness of their staff.”

So what book might the pair want given away at their own funeral?

“I would give the Yoga Sutras of Sri Patanjali, translation by Swami Satchidananda,” volunteers Nalanie. “Why would I give this book? Because it is psychology par excellence. It’s a roadmap to help you look within teachings from 3,000 years ago, applied today. You follow this roadmap and it takes you deep within to your own consciousness, your own intuition to a place that we call Satcitananda, which means ‘in truth, in consciousness’. You end up feeling bliss.”

If you’d asked Shaman a couple of months ago, he would have recommended the classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie: “It’s a book that you need to be reminded is there,” he believes. “Just looking at the title can help you shift your thinking. However, I would now give a book called Loss, Life, Love. It’s a new book which was written by my mother Nalanie. It has had a deeply positive impact on so many people’s lives in such a short time. I think this is really an important text for people moving forward.”


By Guy Matthews, Editor of Innovate! a Business Innovation Leaders Forum publication


  • Nalanie Harilela Chellaram and her son Shaman Chellaram are members of the famous Harilela family, based in Hong Kong and known worldwide for business interests that include hospitality, hotel management, manufacturing, exporting and product development. Shaman is Senior Director Asia at property company Colliers having run his own real estate business for 16 years. He works with private equity real estate investors, developers and hotel groups. Nalanie has had over 30 years as an international speaker on yoga and the science of the mind. She is also the founder of Gibraltar’s Integral Yoga Centre and the George Harilela Hall in Sotogrande. In 2008, Nalanie was recognised in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s New Year’s Honours List for her services to humanity. She has also received a Humanitarian Award from the Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia, USA.

The podcast is available on Blubrry here.

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Book of the Month*

The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck

By Dr Christian Busch
Serendipity is an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. To other people it looks like “good luck”, but it is more the ability to recognise and seize an opportunity, rather than have good fortune thrust upon one. Finding a wallet stuffed with money on the conference room floor is good luck, whereas holding it up and asking if anyone has lost their wallet might be the beginning of a valuable friendship – that would be serendipity.

Chance encounters, or strokes of fortune, feature in countless stories of business success. This book looks beneath the surface, reveals and teaches the mindset that can transform pure chance into opportunity. The author is director of the Global Economy Program at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, and a lecturer at the London School of Economics.

Serendipity is an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. To other people it looks like “good luck”, but it is more the ability to recognise and seize an opportunity, rather than have good fortune thrust upon one. Finding a wallet stuffed with money on the conference room floor is good luck, whereas holding it up and asking if anyone has lost their wallet might be the beginning of a valuable friendship – that would be serendipity.

The author says “This is a book about the interactions of coincidence, human ambition and imagination”. In the above example: finding the wallet is the coincidence; ambition is the desire to make something of the discovery; add imagination and you open up a whole menu of possibilities: from spending spree to earning a reputation for honesty – or even making a wealthy friend.

Business is typically forged on human ambition and imagination, but early success often feeds an appetite for control – and “control freaks” can be blind to the opportunities thrown up by the unexpected. They only see chance events as distractions. If plans go awry, they may blame the failure on “bad luck” rather than admit their own inflexible attitude.

The author himself admits to being “a German who is used to planning” and prone to feel anxious when something unexpected happens. That makes him an ideal teacher, because he has worked hard to discover and analyse the mindset that enables one to “connect the dots” and cultivate serendipity. He presents a goldmine of examples from science, business and life where an apparent mishap or failure lead to a breakthrough.

Indeed, studies suggest that around 50% of major scientific breakthroughs emerge as the result of accidents or coincidences. A well-known example is Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, launching the whole field of antibiotics. Other examples include X-rays, nylon, microwave ovens, rubber, Velcro, Viagra and Post-it Notes – where would we be without these!

The book goes beyond the ability to recognise and respond to opportunities in chaos, but the subtitle – The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck – is actually a bit misleading. True, he does show ways to develop better fortune, but it would be better to call it “inviting” or “encouraging” good luck. For example, he suggests better ways to start a conversation with a stranger – ways that will make it more likely to lead to chance connections or shared interests.

The publishers may have chosen the word “creating” to make the book appeal to the human desire to control – for control freaks are exactly the readership that would benefit the most from this book’s wisdom and practical advice.

For the rest of us, it offers a great way to rediscover the sense of play that is so important in life – and too often lost in business.


“Following the success of The Serendipity Mindset hardback, a paperback edition has also now been launched under the title “Connect the Dots”.

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