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Rob Volpe: One Thai Chi Session Away from Unlocking Intuition

Driven by a boundless curiosity about human nature and a passion for exploring what motivates people, Rob Volpe started Ignite 360. The intention of the company was to push beyond asking ‘why’ in order to deliver real-life business implications for his clients in creative ways that help the clients retain the learning. 

Rob continuously draws on his years of marketing management and promotions experience with the likes of Kraft Foods, Wild Planet Toys, Pepsi, Sprint, and Science Diet Pet Food. As Rob went into research he started developing insights for industry leaders such as General Mills, Target, Pinkberry, and Warner Bros. 

“Some people have a natural gift of empathy but most of us have to work at it, and even then, we can only achieve sympathy. As the saying goes, you have to understand what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes, as them. That means letting go of your own biases and stereotypes. True empathy requires you to let go of what you know and consider the 360 of a person.”

Rob Volpe

Takeaways:

  1. To take on the perspective of somebody else is a tenant of empathy. It’s always about turning things around and twisting it to see through a different lens.
  2. It’s one person at a time. You never know those chance encounters and how they’re going to change your life.
  3. You do not need to change yourself, or sacrifice anything for who you are.

Transcript:

BRYAN WISH: What would you say is a One Away moment for you?

ROB VOLPE: There are obviously many as you move through your whole career. The consistent theme for me is being aware and present in your interactions with people. You really never know who you’re going to meet and how they might actually profoundly impact your life. The one story that I love to tell was from a research project we were doing. It was before I started Ignite 360. I was working with another firm and we were engaged by a client that wanted to get to know boomers and particularly boomers that were on the cusp of retirement or had just retired and what that life change was like so that they could go out and develop better products and services for them.

We were going around the country and spending like four hours in people’s homes. We called it the day in the life kind of study. You got to sit and explore and talk to people, get to know them, and tour their house. We were in Philadelphia and I was one of the moderators. You get your assignment of who you’re going to go visit and it’s arbitrarily assigned by whoever is doing the scheduling. There’s an element of fate in this in who you’re going to end up meeting.

We go to this one house in suburban Philly but kind of inner suburbs and not too far out.  Really nice home and there’s a woman that we were interviewing. Her name was Ardella, mid 50s, really wonderful, black woman, that we instantly connected with. Her story was so fascinating to me. As we were going along, she explained how she had a job in corporate America and had done that for a while but then she was a road warrior traveling, etc. Then she started to develop a carpal tunnel in her wrists and she needed to have surgery to have it corrected. She had that and while she was recovering, the doctors recommended that she do tai chi to help her heal and get better. She was reluctant at first but then she finally went ahead and did it.

It made a profound impact on her to the point she started teaching tai chi to inner city children in Philadelphia at a youth center. She kept making these movements with her hands as though she had a ball that she was holding onto in between the palms of her hands. She kept turning things around. It turns out that was actually a tai chi movement. Because this was a long session and she was so fascinating, we had her do a tai chi class with us. We moved the furniture out of the way. Myself, the clients, we all did a little bit of tai chi with her. She explained some of the basics which was really cool.

Later on in the interview, she kept talking about how you need to turn things around and look at things from a different perspective. She kept taking that ball she had in her hand that wasn’t really there. She kept moving it and she’d say, “You’ve got to turn things around. You’ve got to look at things from the other side.” I remember the powder vest she was wearing. I remember exactly what she looked like and where she was sitting in her living room. She kept saying that and moving her hands back and forth.

It really resonated with me because I’ve always felt it was important to do that, to be able to take on the perspective of somebody else which now, as my career has progressed, I understand that as a tenant of empathy and being able to have a perspective of somebody else. For her, it was a combination of having empathy and also even coping with the way you deal with the world. You’ve got to look at things from the other side. Don’t be on the dark side. Look at the bright side. It’s always about turning things around and twisting it with things. That really stuck with me. The Tai Chi really stuck with me. I was at a place where I was kind of wanting to get into yoga and explore my spiritual side a little bit. That introduction she gave to tai chi just ignited a little something in me related to that. 

It’s a four hour session and one of the things you do is you tour the person’s house. You want to see what their life looks like and where they live and how they move through their space. She had taken us around and showed us the kitchen, her bedroom, the basement, and took us into the bathroom. We went outside and she showed us where she hangs out and lives her life. While you’re doing that, you’re taking a look at the things on the wall and pictures, objects, and everything.

After we had done that, we took a break. People needed a bio break. I had two female clients with me and a female videographer and Ardella herself. The clients went to the bathroom, one at a time, and came back. As we were getting set up to start again, I thought, “Let me go use the bathroom as well because we’ve got two more hours.” I walked into the bathroom and we’d already  been in there. It was a long, narrow bathroom and there was a big bathtub with a shower curtain hanging over it. The toilet was at the other end of the tub from the door.

When you’re standing in the doorway, which is typically where we were when we were on the house tour. We could see into the bathroom but we didn’t step all the way into it, but she was pointing stuff out and everything. I go in and I’m a guy. So, if I need to pee, I’m standing up often. Lift the lid. I start to do my business, get everything going and I look up and I see my reflection in a mirror. I see myself looking back at me. Okay, she’s got some sort of a mirror and then I started to widen my field of vision and noticed that it’s a mirror but there’s stained glass around it. What is the actual shape of the mirror? I start looking at that and all of a sudden, I’m like, oh, that is actually an erect male penis and balls inside this stained glass frame. Interesting. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s kind of cool but she never mentioned it and my clients didn’t notice it when they came in and used the bathroom. 

We got to unpack this and talk with her about it. I finish my business and I go back into the living room and I sit down and say, “So, Ardella, I couldn’t help but notice…” And I couldn’t even finish and she started laughing. She had this really wonderful laugh that was filled with life and energy. The clients were like, “What? What?” I’m laughing along with Ardella. I’m like, “Just go into the bathroom and take a look.” They go back in and they look and I hear them start laughing. They come back out. She goes on and tells us about how she had that piece, what I call the penis mirror, custom made. She had come across a stained glass artist at an arts and crafts fair and she asked the guy, “Can you draw anything or do anything?” He said, “Yeah, sure.” She sketched that out.

The reason why and wanted to have that was so that every day, when she woke up, she could look at that and know that she had that and she didn’t need to change herself or sacrifice anything for that and that she was her own person and she’d seen too many of her friends give themselves up for dick, basically. She didn’t want to have to do that and put herself in that situation. The penis mirror became a reminder for her to be herself and to not change herself or sacrifice something or make compromises merely for dick because she was like, “I’ve got that. I can look at that any single time that I want.” She was telling us that and we’re like, “Yay, go Ardella. This is so awesome.” 

I always like to tell that story because I think there’s an amazing female empowerment message in that and a message of empowerment for anybody because it is important that you shouldn’t sacrifice yourself for somebody else or change yourself merely to satisfy or to get dick or whatever the equivalent is that you’re looking for. 

All of this is happening. I had the penis mirror experience. I’ve got this tai chi mind opening, spirit opening thing. Then also this soul perspective shifts things all in one amazing four hour period. When people ask me of all the people I’ve met, she always comes to mind and is always at the top of the list and I talked to her over 12 years ago. 

BRYAN WISH: Do you think there was symbolism in the mirror in the same vein of being able to look at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself from another side?

ROB VOLPE: The word vein was an interesting choice of words. You haven’t seen a photo of the penis mirror but there was a vein running through the middle of it. I think there is a connection on a deeper level because everything that she was doing was around reflection and self-reflection, the way that you look at things and view things. The penis mirror is a mirror but it stands for so much more and is a reminder on how you reflect back on yourself and how that reflects back on you and not to let it do that. I think all of those things, there’s definitely a connection. 

BRYAN WISH: How do you think you maybe saw the world differently before coming in contact with Ardella? You are such a listener and deeply care in conversation. How did that conversation with her shift your world views?

ROB VOLPE: Hopefully everybody has had a moment or will get to a point in their lives where they have that moment where they realize they shouldn’t be changing themselves for somebody else. I had moments like that right before I met my husband. To me, the penis mirror was the living embodiment of that message and kind of one of those, “Damn, I wish I had thought of that” types of things. Just such an amazing artifact. My husband, Charles and I were in need of a vacation because I was working a lot. I was trying to figure out what we could do. We had toyed with the idea of maybe something like a yoga retreat but in more of a beautiful location, spa type thing.

Meeting Ardella and having the tai chi lesson helped cement, “Yes, this is what I want.” That feeling of calm and clarity that came about was definitely through the yoga. We didn’t have a strong yoga practice. I think I had done yoga for about three weeks in New York back in the early 2000s. Since then, there was nothing, but there was this inner desire. Having that experience with her definitely lit the spark. I remember being in my hotel room in Philly. If it wasn’t that night, it was the next night. It was on that trip and within hours after meeting Ardella. I was Googling. It motivated me and lit a fire to find the vacation place that would allow us to do what we wanted to do. I Googled yoga Thailand and then we also wanted to be able to have colonics done.

Two places came up. One of them is a place we ended up going to. Had this really incredible experience. It’s called Kamalaya on the island of Koh Samui. Had this magical experience there and have been back four times now. We go every 2-4 years. Some really awesome things have happened in just helping connect to myself and understand the way I see the world. It’s one of those places where I’ve had experiences where I’ve gone in thinking, “I’m going to have this type of vacation. This is what I want. I’m going to do yoga every day and I’m going to go to the gym and workout.” That’s not what’s actually going to happen. Kamalaya had its own plans for me. Other things happened but on reflection, it was more of what I really needed. It’s one of those really special places. 

Ardella definitely helped provide the spark for that. The other piece, looking at things from a different perspective, which was always something that I tried to do but really helped ignite and give some understanding around the principles of empathy and how you actually go about building empathy with other people and that it is about perspective taking ultimately and then how do you get there? In my overall journey, I’ve been able to draw on experiences with Ardella and countless others on understanding what those steps are and figuring out how to get to empathy and using myself as the guinea pig and thinking about how I show up and how I relate to people. Now it’s been a while since we’ve cracked that code and now we’re at a place where we’re able to coach that and help other people become aware and tap into their empathy skills. 

BRYAN WISH: Do you think you were as reflective before this?

ROB VOLPE: I’ve always been gay from the moment I was born but there is a moment of awakening or awareness of when you start go, “Hmm, something’s different. I’m not like the other boys.” Then to identify what it is and then getting to the point you’re able and comfortable to act on it and ultimately express it yourself. To tap into that, that’s self-awareness on some level. I feel self-awareness has always been something that I’ve had as a skill. I grew up in a small town in Indiana; had like 13,000 people in it.

Everybody knew each other. It was a small town. We were the outsiders and I was a different boy. That made for a rough childhood in the 80s or rough for me. It’s so interesting because everyone has their own experience growing up and their own pains and situations, but you can never compare those to other people because it was your experience and because kids don’t talk about what they’ve gone through, you have no point of reference. 

Connecting to Your Intuition

There was definitely awareness there and some of that awareness was about how I was showing up and learning the ways I needed to show up in order to not get harassed or bullied and survive. It became kind of a survival technique. Empathy went along with that as well; trying to get into the heads of my classmates to understand, “Why are they doing this? What did I do?” Self-awareness has always been there. What Ardella started to unlock in me in Tai Chi, yoga, and the trips to Kamalaya is probably a greater, stronger connection to my intuition. Yoga is about connection between the body and the spirit; I think you have to have that to clear those channels for it to really fire.

Intuition is really incredibly powerful and people don’t understand it. It’s like emotions. People don’t understand that they’re afraid of it. I should say Americans. It makes us uncomfortable just like empathy. It’s an e-word. It’s emotional. It’s scary. Intuition is the “I-word” and it’s all this whole other stuff. Yet we all have it. We all experience it from the hair standing up on the back of our heads to that sensation in our gut telling us whether to do something or not but we don’t listen to it. We’re letting our heads override what our natural gifts are telling us and guiding us.  

BRYAN WISH: You said Ardella helped you unlock your intuition through spiritual practices and things that you took action on to dive into which is incredible. Once you unlock this and your gut starts speaking to you more clearly, how did that play out?

ROB VOLPE: Starting my company was definitely part of that. It’s a lot easier to tune into a radio station now than it used to be where you had the dials and needed to hone in and get the right station. You needed to be at 99.9 because if you’re at 99.7, there’s static and interference. By the time you get to 99.5, the station is gone. Intuition is kind of like that. There’s a lot of noise and you’ve got to be able to dial it in and really understand is this the actual “signal” or is there noise and the noise is coming from your head and mind? It can also be coming from your heart or other factors. It’s this thing you’ve got to try to dial into. It’s not like I’m dialed into it every single moment but I do know when those feelings or sensations come up and to tap into it. 

Two’ish years after Ardella and I met, I had been consulting for this company and had done a lot of work with them. I was enjoying it but they needed to make me an employee. Apparently, my face would scrunch up every time the word employee got mentioned with my name. I didn’t realize I was doing it but we had a laugh one day. She’s like, “Your face bunches up every time the word employee comes up in relation to you.” They needed to make me an employee and I was like, “I’d be open to that but I’d really like to have ownership and equity in the company.” I work really hard. I’ve taken risks to do this and am willing to take more.

Unfortunately, we went back and forth and spent a lot of time talking about it and looking at it. They got to a point at the end where they weren’t able to do that. I said, “I understand it. Let’s now talk about what an employment contract would look like.” They put something together and I sort of dodged looking at it for about two weeks. They started following up, “Hey, have you looked at this yet?” “No, too busy.” Finally, I needed to do it. I was here in my house and I traveled a lot. The fact I was here was this random thing. I had my laptop on my kitchen table. I opened it up to look at the contract to see what it was. It was a very generous offer. Tons and tons of money. I saw in the very first paragraph, my name and then in a legal contract they define your name with the parenthetical and the quotation marks. I saw my name, Robert Volpe, and then the word employee in quotation marks and parenthesis and the legal definition.

Forever throughout that contract, I would be referred to as an employee. I can still feel it now. I saw that and every fiber of my being – this wasn’t thought of, but it was that moment where you tune into the radio station and that signal is 5×5 and it is coming in loud and clear. Every fiber in my body was screaming, “No, this is not you. Do not do this. This is not right for you.” It kept going and my mind was like, “Well, maybe. It’s a lot of money. I enjoy the work. Starting your own business is kind of scary.” But the message kept coming through loud and clear. I took a deep breath. I was like, “I’ve got to listen to this and do something.”

I started to figure out what it would mean and how I would go about launching my own company. A couple months later, Ignite 360 got started. You couldn’t not listen to that one. It was so loud. Sometimes you get a little message and you’re like, “Is this really or is this not?” This was a freight train coming right at you and you’re on the track. Like you can’t miss this one. I’ve listened to my intuition at other times. I’ve never had one that was so loud and clear. There’s a fork in the road and all signs are pointing, go that way. You kind of have to listen to it.

BRYAN WISH: My mom told me a quote one time during one of those fork in the road moments. She said, “When the pain of staying is greater than the pain of leaving, that’s when you know it’s time to go.” 

ROB VOLPE: The pain for me was more around the idea of being an employee. What Ardella helped unlock was this idea of turning around and looking at it from a different way. I could go out and start my own thing. What does that start to look like? I started going down that path. She helped on several different levels in that. It wasn’t a direct, “Hey, you should start your own company,” but she helped me unlock the tools, that when the moment presented itself, I was able to select a different course and path and ultimately, a better path for me. 

BRYAN WISH: You’ve used the word perspective and empathy and something that follows is ignite. I’m not saying that’s subliminal but you’ve named your company Ignite 360 which has a lot of perspective and intuitive understanding and empathy behind it. Tell us about Ignite 360 and how you think it’s a reflection of who you are. 

ROB VOLPE: I started Ignite 360. We launched January 2011. It’s an insights and strategy company. We go out and listen to people, ask them questions, find out how they think and feel, and then help our clients turn things around and look at things a different way; look at things from the perspective of their clients or their consumers without whom they wouldn’t have the business. Kind of an important voice to be paying attention to.

Yet, what I was finding at the time in the way the Ignite 360 name came about – the 360 is 360 degree view looking at everything, taking things into consideration. I was on the phone with a  client one day, as I was working through starting up the company and I hadn’t landed on a name yet. She said to me, “You know, the thing that you bring is that perspective. It’s that strategic thinking and thought starters. That provides the ignition for business teams to take action and do something.” I think that was also an intuition kind of moment. As soon as she said ignition, it was like, ding, ding, ding; that’s it.

I started playing around with that word in combination with 360 and landed on Ignite which was a little more action sounding and fit a little bit better than ignition. That’s our purpose to help our clients see the world as their consumers see them and understand what to do about it. It’s shifting their perspective, helping them build empathy, and providing the ignition that they can then move their business forward. 

We’ve been really fortunate since we’ve launched. We’ve worked with some really amazing and Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies from technology to CPG food and personal care products and retailers, coffee shops, travel, and all sorts of amazing companies. They’re all hungry to understand how other people think and feel. We get so caught up in our own lives and our own way of seeing the world that they need help breaking out of that and seeing it as somebody else sees it so that you can understand what to do and how to offer a better product, meet a need that your consumer has, and then ultimately, it’s about growing your business or maintaining your business. 

BRYAN WISH: These core values that are so true to you and your company, can you maybe share a use case where you were able to take something, apply this, and then see a turnaround on a more business level?

ROB VOLPE: One situation that comes to mind is General Mills’ yogurt division, which primarily consisted of Yoplait at the time, back 10-12 years ago, started to have a lot of trouble because this thing called Greek Yogurt came onto the scene and Chobani and FAGE, and it was kind of unheard of, at the time, that people were spending $1.25 for a cup of yogurt where you could get a cup of Dannon or Yoplait for 55 cents. Why in the world would somebody pay so much for it?

We did quite a few projects helping General Mills understand why people would want to do that, what the appeal was of Greek yogurt, but ultimately, they decided a few years ago, it’s time to create a product from the ground up that really meets our consumers’ needs in an effort to win back those consumers that they had lost over the years. They did an intensive sprint but it was over several months. They brought us in for part of it to help them reconnect with some of their lost consumers like the people that loved Yoplait but now have drifted away from it; to try to figure out what was going on and what was that about and what they were looking for. The underlying work that we did was going out and chatting with these folks and meeting them in person.

We were able to come back with insights around who these different consumers were, how they viewed the brand, and how the brand might be able to win them back in this new landscape, in this new world. Shared that along with some principles around how consumers look at different premium products so that they understood the nature of a premium product. Like if you’re going to make something, you can’t just take something that would normally cost a buck and then charge $2 for it and expect that people are just going to buy it. Everybody is looking at things differently and evaluating whether something is actually worth it and is actually the value determination.

We helped them understand that. To their credit, they really listened and they followed the guidelines that we set out and they had some other insight, inspiration, and works that they were doing, but they really stuck to their guns and they had the difficult conversations internally in the organization to not sacrifice some things because the resulting product that they launched is called Oui and it’s French style yogurt. It’s in a glass jar. It costs $1.25 but it’s really good and it’s very premium. It’s not what you would typically think of from Yoplait but it’s this whole new thing. It took off like a rocket and it made over $100 million in year one. This is all publicly available.

They’ve talked about it. It’s continued to grow from there. It was so popular that they had to turn off their advertising because they couldn’t make it fast enough. Retailers don’t like empty store shelves. You have to get the production ramped up. It was a huge hit; the insights we were able to do and the way we were able to help them connect to that consumer again and see their perspective. So much of it, they carry so much judgment around every one of us and you’ve got to be able to know that’s the first step to building empathy. Getting them over that hurdle so they could look at things from the perspective of their consumer was huge.

Once they heard that and were able to do that, they were then able to go in and have more intelligent conversations with leadership that weren’t just, “From a business perspective, we could do this.” They were also able to talk from the heart and talk about what the consumer was really looking for and marry up the data in their head with the empathy they had in their heart to make a much more compelling argument. They were able to successfully get that product through. Product development is a very fragile thing; you get just one thing wrong and the whole thing is going to fall apart because it doesn’t stand up to the consumer scrutiny.

It’s very difficult to keep going towards that sort of north star that the consumer has laid out because there’s so many different factors tugging at you one way or the other. That’s an example where we were able to help our clients see the point of view of their consumers and then understand how to act on it and what to do. It was the ignition. I’d never say, “Oh, we did this.” We gave them the ignition to get there. It was that rocket fuel that they needed to move forward. 

BRYAN WISH: Your life is a beautiful pattern of infusing, reflection, understanding, questioning, curiosity, and all these attributes that have allowed you to go through the world in a mostly aligned way and make hard decisions at different times. To watch that come into a corporate world is really an extension of what you embody at scale into a product that’s touched millions of people. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you as a person and building this relationship. 

ROB VOLPE: It’s one person at a time. You never know those chance encounters and how they’re going to change your life.

BRYAN WISH: Where can we find you and your company online?

ROB VOLPE: Our website is www.ignite-360.com. You can email me at rob@ignite-360.com. Please also find me on LinkedIn. I’d love to share thoughts and hear from people through LinkedIn. You can just type in my name. You know you found me when it says CEO and Empathy Activist in my description. I also encourage people, when they’re on our website, to go to Sparks, which is the far right hand side, of our site. It’s our blog posts. Check out Navigating to a New Normal which is our ongoing study where we’re talking to people about life and what’s happening with the pandemic, the recession, social injustice, and the journey that we’re all on collectively towards getting to a new normal. There’s some really great, thoughtful pieces there and are really grounded in human stories. 

One Away Podcast
Leah Walsh

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