(Photo courtesy of Charbel Zreik)
One recent Wednesday, Charbel Zreik was looking positively centered.
The CEO of the 120 employee-strong, Syosset-based DCI Design Communications had just gotten back from a weekend retreat an an ashram in upstate New York. He’d finished his morning meditation practice and was ready for whatever the day would bring. Through a career that included spells at JPMorgan, McKinsey and now as CEO, Zreik has dealt with some of the most pressure-filled situations possible in the boardroom, most recently taking over a company and creating a new culture in it.
“If I ever skip a day, I can feel it,” he said. “If I don’t meditate, I become way more caught up in the ups and downs of the day. Elated when good things happen and down in the dumps when bad things happened.”
Zreik’s path up the corporate ranks to enlightened executive did not go through Westchester County and prep school and the Ivy League.
Wait, actually yes it did, but maybe not in the way you’d think.
Zreik was born into a Catholic family in Lebanon in the midst of that country’s civil war. He emigrated with his parents to the United States when he was eight and they settled in a working class part of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. Zreik didn’t speak English. His parents were both uneducated, and he said, could not read or write in any language. His dad had been in the Lebanese army for 25 years. For the majority of his childhood, the family was on food stamps.
Zreik’s “break” as he put it, came when he was accepted to Regis High School, on the Upper East Side. The all-boys Jesuit high school is free for all students who attend, and looks to admit kids who’ve shown a high degree of academic achievement and whose parents wouldn’t otherwise be able to foot the bill for private school. The school propelled him to Cornell University, and then to JPMorgan. Then to an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and on to McKinsey until Zreik found himself where he is now: the CEO of DCI Design Communications, a mid-sized firm that handles telecom and IT services for hotels and resorts.
Zreik’s been the CEO there for nearly four years, and although the company is based on Long Island, Zreik works out of a coworking space in Greenpoint, the neighborhood he lives, on Wednesdays. The coworking space, PencilWorks, is also the HQ of Technical.ly Brooklyn, where we ran into an uncommonly calm Zreik one day at lunchtime.
As an executive, Zreik said that the calmness and emotional detachment he’s trained himself for is one of his “cornerstones.”
“A lot of running a business is people,” he explained. “The only way I’m able to do that and interact with that many different people and lead them in the right path is by being super centered myself and I wouldn’t be able to do that without being grounded in my meditation.”
It’s also a way to manage stress, Zreik said. Despite a career at JPMorgan and McKinsey, Zreik said that his current role as a CEO is the most stressful job he’s ever had. Four years ago, when he took over as CEO is also when he got deeper into his meditation practice.
“A lot of it was driven by the stress of my work,” Zreik said one evening after a busy day in a conference room at PencilWorks. “It became a necessary part of coping and being productive. Otherwise I had too many things coming at me each day. As I started seeing its effects, I continued and grew the practice. It’s probably been one of the best things that’s happened to me since leading this company.”
These days, Zreik’s meditation practice looks like this: First thing in the morning when he wakes up, he’ll have a glass of water and get down onto his meditation and yoga mat before his mind can convince him to put it off or stay in bed. He has a corner in his apartment set up with the mat, a candle and a little bell. He’ll meditate for 25 minutes, trying to focus only on his breathing, and bringing his mind back to his breath when it wanders. Then he’s up and goes about his day. In the evenings, he does 10 minutes when he gets home from work to shut off his work brain and transition into the night.
“Those 10 minutes are crucial,” Zreik says. “Or else what ends up happening is I might not be at work but work is on my mind 24/7.”
On Monday nights, he heads to a meditation group in Greenpoint called Dharmapunx NYC, held at yoga studio on Greene Street. The small, Buddhist practice is led by Josh Korda, a former punk who has nearly every part of his body save for his face covered in tattoos.
Zreik supplements with weekend and vacation-long trips to sivananda-style ashrams. He’s gone to ashrams all over the world, from the Bahamas to where he was last weekend, upstate New York. These retreats all share a pretty strict schedule: wakeup at 5:30 a.m., 30 minutes of group yoga at 6 a.m. followed by 30 minutes of chanting. After the chanting there’s an hourlong talk and discussion about one’s spiritual path. Following that, the group goes into two hours of yoga from 8–10 a.m. Then it’s time for breakfast (vegetarian). Retreat-goers have from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to do whatever they like, and then the cycle starts again from 4–6 p.m. with two hours of yoga followed by a vegetarian dinner.
If it sounds like fun, Zreik says…it…is.
“Look, it’s not normal for me to live that disciplined a lifestyle and part of me rebels against it and I’m like ‘Fuck that, I want to wake up whenever.’ But what’s interesting about it is you’re forced into it through social structure. You don’t want to be the guy sleeping in. And by the time you leave you realize that’s actually a more fun, more real way of being. The pleasure you get from the small things in everyday life,” he said. “I usually think of discipline as opposed to fun. I’m either having fun or disciplined. But what those times at the ashram shows me is that I’m actually able to have more fun and be freer with that discipline.”
This meditating, Buddhist yogi grew up Catholic. From childhood through high school and up until the age of about 27, Zreik said he was a “pretty hardcore” Catholic. But at some point before he really moved away from the church, prayer had stopped making sense to him. Meditation became his main spiritual practice.
“That’s when I really started paying attention to meditation,” he said. “It seemed like the more appropriate or more real form of connecting with that part of me that comes from the divine being.”
In the tech world, meditation has become very trendy: “In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career” WIRED proclaimed in 2013, in 2016 Salesforce added a meditation room to its new office. Apps for meditation have also become popular in recent years. Perhaps the best of them, Headspace, raised $37 million last year, and several other meditation apps have popped up, such as: Simple Habit, Calm and Shine.
As meditation has come more into the mainstream, Zreik’s coworkers think he’s less weird than they used to.
“I would come back from the ashram and told them how I chose to use my vacation and they would be like, ‘What? You chose to go somewhere and sleep in a tent and wake up at 5:30 — no caffeine, no alcohol?'” he said. “I feel like the last two years, though, there’s like this awakening consciousness around meditation.”-30-
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