THIS CEO SPENT HIS STANFORD YEARS TAKING DANCE CLASSES—AND THEY'RE KEY TO HIS SUCCESS
WHEN BEYONDCORE CEO ARIJIT SENGUPTA TOOK AN INTRO DANCE CLASS AT STANFORD IN 1995, HE DIDN’T KNOW IT WOULD TRANSFORM HIS VIEW OF BUSINESS.
BY DAVID ZAX
It was 1995, and Arijit Sengupta was living the Indian Dream. At least, he was living the dream of his Indian parents. Sengupta had grow up in Calcutta, where many families hope their children will go on to success in science or business. Here Sengupta was, a computer science and economics student at Stanford—but all he did, day in and day out, was code. "It got to the point where I was dreaming in code," recalls Sengupta, exhausted at the memory. "It was all left-brain."
So that’s when Sengupta got a crazy idea: to take a dance class. "I had never taken dancing before," he recalls. The notion would embarrass his parents, he knew; the arts were for less successful children. Furthermore, in conservative Calcutta, it was unheard of to hold a woman in your arms publicly, as they had you do in dance class. Sengupta showed up to Social Dance 1 "very, very nervous."
The class changed his life. He went on to take Social Dance 2, Dance for Musical Theater, Modern Dance. He took classes in Afro-Brazilian dance and Peruvian dance. He wound up on the organizing committee for dances on campus, and even got involved with an experimental outfit called "Dance Lab," which attempted to stage dances to supposedly "undanceable" music, like atonal Russian compositions. "They took music that it was obvious you should dance swing to, and they’d question, ‘What else can you do?’"
The coder from Calcutta became one of Stanford’s foremost dancers. He wound up taking every class you needed for a dance minor except one—History of Dance, which didn’t interest him, since it didn’t involve actual dancing.
Meanwhile, Sengupta didn’t give up on his interest in computer science or business—far from it. In fact, today he’s CEO of a data analysis startup called BeyondCore. But what he found was that his immersion in dance helped break up his day, and shake up his thinking. Balancing left-brain with right-brain activity opened up new vistas in his studies (and later, his work). He was able to see the forest from the trees, to not get so bogged down in details so as to lose the big picture. (Still, when his father found out, he wasn’t happy at first. "What do you mean, you’re taking dance?" he asked.)
Years later, as a businessman, dance—and the lessons of dance—continue to inspire Sengupta. He had dance flooring installed in his office, with a layer of padding beneath it that makes it slightly springy. When he takes phone calls, he paces around the room like a boxer. "It’s funny," he says over the phone. "I’m doing this call in a different room, and I can feel the difference. This floor doesn’t give like my normal floor."
Before public speaking, Sengupta will listen to a song backstage—lately, Katy Perry’s "Roar"—and dance around before trotting to the podium. He has carefully chosen ringtones, each of which trigger dance-associated memories, together with the body language he feels will strengthen his business acumen. Before each meeting, for instance, the alarm on his phone plays Wagner’s triumphal "Flight of the Valkyries," to get him pumped up.
But for unscheduled phone calls, Sengupta has chosen to play Ravel’s "Bolero" as his ringtone. The reasons are subtle. "When a phone call comes in," he explains, "you have to be instantly ready." Sengupta has danced to "Bolero" before, successfully he says, but it’s among the most difficult dances he’s performed. "So when that music comes on, I have a pleasant memory—since I have succeeded in that dance before—but my body goes, ‘Oh wow—I’m performing the Bolero.'" The song evokes both the feeling of a challenge, and the feeling of success. "It’s like, ‘Ready, set, go,’" he says.
Sengupta thinks two lessons from dance, in particular, apply to business. The first dates back to that first dance he took, Social Dance 1, in which his professor taught him that a strong dancer never shoves his partner. Rather, he should create a situation such that "where you want your partner to go is the most obvious place they would go naturally," says Sengupta. Don’t push your partner to the left; instead, create conditions such that for her to go right would feel unnatural to her.
Sengupta actually does something analogous with his employees. "I have always found it is difficult and almost counterproductive to try to tell developers precisely what to do," he says. "Instead, I try to create circumstances where what I would like to have happen is also precisely what makes most sense to the developer." For example: rather than bark at his developers, demanding a simple, user-friendly interface, Sengupta will simply tell them he’ll be testing it exclusively on his smartphone—where overly complex interfaces are doomed to fail.
The second lesson derives from his wife, a Russian-born dancer he met at Stanford, and whom he calls "a fantastic dancer, much better than me." He goes on: "One thing that makes her fantastic is that even if she’s following, she’s constantly looking out for what’s happening." If she can see an impending collision that Sengupta can’t, for instance, she deftly does something called "back-leading"—where the "follow" briefly ends up steering the "lead."
And so it is, again, with his employees. "I tell them, ‘If I tell you to paint a room blue, and leave, and you get information that tells you to paint the room red, then paint the darn room red!" Employees need to feel empowered to take the lead when appropriate—and when it would avoid, as it were, a collision. For instance: Sengupta has instituted a rule where any employee can spend up to $500 on anything the office might need without asking, with the proviso that if the privilege is misused, it will be lost. So far, none have misused it.
"When you have that right partnership and you trust your partner," says Sengupta, "you know they see something you can’t."
[Photo & Video: courtesy of Arijit Sengupta]