Striking a balance in life is important to this sharply focused entrepreneur and fun-loving laughter yoga teacher.
Ida Abdalkhani strides down the hall toward a classroom where 30 Ohio State students await her arrival.
Her flat shoes carry her swiftly, almost soundlessly, toward her destination. Topping her black yoga pants are a scarlet and gray T-shirt with the mantra “Believe in yourself” and a long, knit sweater that resembles a cape. Just before entering, she sheds her comfy flats for red stilettos — what she calls her professional shoes — and walks with confidence to the head of this class of Buckeye Leadership Fellows.
The three-time Ohio State alumna and savvy entrepreneur leads a busy, multilayered life. As founder and “chief catalyzer” of Ability to Engage, she runs a small business that advises big companies — Pepsi, McGraw-Hill and Pfizer are a few — on consumer research, brand strategy and marketing. She’s also a college instructor and sought-after inspirational speaker. And on this day, her fitness wear hints at another identity, that of laughter yoga teacher. She is certified in this Eastern form of meditation that helps practitioners laugh away stress.
Her path isn’t one she could have predicted even a decade ago. She was on a corporate fast track then, one that might have led to a Fortune 100 corner office. But en route, she experienced misgivings she couldn’t ignore. How she dealt with those doubts — taking time to reflect on her passions, to listen to her inner voice, to seek advice — speaks to a courageous determination to chart her own course.
“Learning to strike a balance is important to me,” Abdalkhani says.
“It’s how I live my life. I’ve had to learn to bridge big corporate thinking with being an entrepreneur, and how to succeed as a female in often male-dominated fields. And then there’s the duality of being a buttoned-up professional while also understanding the importance of being kind to myself and laughing.”
Mastering the balancing act didn’t come easy, she tells the students. There were difficult steps in her transformation from burned-out corporate manager to happy entrepreneur. She is here to share her journey and to challenge these aspiring leaders to a large-scale project. Since laughter yoga played a critical role in her own evolution, she also schools them on how to laugh. Nonstop. At nothing.
Awkward? Oh, yes. She knows the feeling. Abdalkhani’s first laughter yoga workshop — which she took just after giving up a lucrative position at Procter & Gamble — made her so uncomfortable that she froze. The teacher offered reassurance. “Ida,” she’d said, “fake it ’til you make it!”
Fake it? This was so not Ida. She was 28 years old, and until then, her life had been all about mastery.
Abdalkhani graduated magna cum laude from Ohio State with two bachelor’s degrees, and she followed those with an MBA from the university’s Fisher College of Business. She was such an outstanding student that Jay Barney, then a Fisher professor teaching corporate strategy, still remembers where she sat in his classroom more than a dozen years later. (On his left, four rows from the front.)
“Ida was such a source of positive energy,” Barney recalls. And smart. So smart that her team’s case study was the only student-written one he chose for his textbook on strategic management.
“I held out this opportunity to anyone in class,” he says, “but the case study from Ida’s team was the only one that ever made it.”
By the time she graduated, she’d already landed a great job as an assistant brand manager at P&G. A key player in successful campaigns for the company’s fabric care and beauty lines over the next five years, she got up early, worked late and rarely took vacations. At one point, she dreamed of becoming a vice president.
But by 2010, she knew something was wrong. Really wrong. She found herself dreading work, coming home exhausted and in tears. “I had all these ideas, but I could only fly within a box, within the boundaries given to me,” she says. “I felt like my wings had been clipped.”
At night, Abdalkhani tossed and turned. She wanted to quit her job, but how could she walk away from a position with such promise? What would she do next?
She called on her older brother, then a medical resident. “Ida was always extremely independent. It was rare she would ask for advice,” Arman Abdalkhani says. He listened to her story. He knew how hard she’d worked; they both had. As the children of industrious parents who immigrated from Iran in the 1970s, they were expected to succeed.
“I told her that her skills would stay with her if she left,” he recalls.
“The question was whether she wanted to work for a corporation or see her own ideas come to life as an entrepreneur. I encouraged her to follow what her heart was telling her as opposed to guiding her to stay within the mold.”
That helped, but Abdalkhani was concerned about timing. She took a much-needed vacation to southern Africa with friends. There, she found herself looking out over Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall, prepared to bungee jump from the bridge separating Zimbabwe and Zambia.
“I chickened out,” she says. But that night, she regretted it. She told her friends, “If I can jump off the bridge, I will quit my job.”
The next day, she jumped. She wrote her resignation letter that night.
Abdalkhani had no idea what would follow. But she knew she had to find a way to manage stress. A web search turned up laughter yoga. Intrigued, she found a workshop, and after her first session, she slept better than she had in years. She took classes in order to teach others this practice she could take wherever she went.
Portability was important, she says, because suddenly “travel the world” stood out on a bucket list she’d created years earlier. Although her list suggested she’d go at 65, she scrapped that plan and liquidated her retirement fund for a four-continent backpacking trip.
“I always had the travel bug, and I always thought that understanding people is one of the greatest ways we can learn about ourselves and create stronger communities,” she says. “This would be a soul-searching trip. I needed to find out what inspired me.”
The search took her to 50 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Central and South America. Along the way, she observed a pattern in her behavior, one she might not have noticed without the personal investment she was making in self-awareness.
“I would go to grocery stores and watch people shopping. I’d look at the new products and marketing in the stores. That made me realize I really had a passion for understanding others’ motivations,” she says, “because I was doing it on vacation. It was so intriguing and natural. It didn’t feel like work.”
Maybe she’d been unhappy on the corporate track because she was an entrepreneur at heart, Abdalkhani thought. When she returned from her travels in 2012, she launched her own business, Ability to Engage. Her goal: help companies develop products, strategies and messages that speak to their audiences.
“I wanted to help clients connect on a more human level,” she says. “I wanted to help them understand people as people, what makes them tick, what their emotions and needs are.”
She reached out to her network, including friends from Ohio State and former P&G colleagues, and projects began to roll in. One of her first was for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which wanted to spur consumer interest in its Children’s Advil line. Abdalkhani put together a small team to better understand parents’ concerns and learned that teething typically led to the first pain people witnessed in their children.
The social media campaign that resulted was “wildly successful,” says Derrick Booker, then with Pfizer and now a vice president at L’Oreal. “We grew our business by 5 percent at Walmart, which was a huge accomplishment because we had two competitors that were advertising aggressively against us.”
Booker threw Ability to Engage more challenges, and the results were always remarkable.
“With every piece of research I’ve done with Ida, I’ve been able to demonstrate business results,” he says. “Her methodology is one of the best in the industry.”
Joanna Dutta, senior director of innovation at PepsiCo, has been equally impressed. “Ida brings small business thinking to big businesses, which I think is really critical,” says Dutta, who hired Ability to Engage to rebrand Quaker Oats. “She brings a lot of energy and fun to things. She even got us to do laughter yoga. It was brilliant.”
The lessons Abdalkhani has learned along her way have made it to university classrooms as well, first at Fisher College and more recently at the University of Michigan. Her subjects include design thinking, innovation and creativity.
“Because I feel so fortunate, I need to pay forward,” she says. “I try to show people that listening to their inner voices and passions and taking action is a way to answer a greater calling in this world beyond what initially meets your eye.”
Jen Kaplan ’16 has been on the receiving end of that guidance, and she says it has served her well. An accounting major, Kaplan felt a creative spark while writing a blog on entrepreneurship in Abdalkhani’s class. That inspiration remained with her when she took an accounting job after graduation. Within a few months, Kaplan realized she was unhappy and resigned.
“I was really inspired by her, seeing her courage and bravery,” says Kaplan, who considers Abdalkhani a trusted mentor. “After I left my job, Ida was there with me the whole way. She gave me advice and did everything she could to encourage me.” Kaplan landed an internship with a public relations agency in Israel, where she recently returned to study Hebrew full-time.
Abdalkhani says none of these connections would have been possible had her path not led to Ohio State. But that was never in question for this daughter of two Lima campus professors.
What she couldn’t fathom were the opportunities she’d find in Columbus.
“My parents always taught me to think big, and while I had that mentality, I didn’t have exposure to a lot of those opportunities in a small town,” she says. “Ohio State was really eye-opening for me. I realized you can think big, and if you couple that with all these other people who think big, the exposure and the possibilities are endless.”
One student she teamed up with was Jason Ross ’03, who went on to found the e-commerce clothing company JackThreads. The day they met, he happened upon a crowd outside the Ohio Union and watched Abdalkhani introduce a visiting speaker. “I thought, ‘Man, that girl is polished,’” Ross says. “I couldn’t have done that; there was a ton of people there. But Ida just got up there and killed it.”
Ross hurried to introduce himself, and a friendship evolved. Soon they were recruited to lead a new student group, the Business Builders Club. With Abdalkhani as president and Ross as vice president, the team hosted workshops, career fairs and other events to equip students with skills to become entrepreneurs.
Their work caught the attention of Rich Langdale, who in 2001 was working with the university to create Fisher College’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
“Ida was one of the very early leaders in the student community around building entrepreneurship on campus,” says Langdale, a partner in NCT Ventures, which invests in early-stage tech companies. He invited her to join a group developing the curriculum for a new entrepreneurship major, and soon Abdalkhani found herself on a fact-finding mission to Nevada.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow, I came from Lima, Ohio, and here I am flying to Vegas on a private jet to benchmark ideas around teaching innovation,” Abdalkhani says. “I thought, ‘What is going on with my life? I am only 19.’”
She hopes for that same kind of wonder for students she interacts with today, including the Buckeye Leadership Fellows who gathered in November to hear of her journey and laugh past their initial awkwardness during that unusual yoga demonstration.
And, oh yes, the special project she discussed with them that day? They’re working to set a Guinness world record in February, when they plan to gather more than 1,000 Buckeyes to form the shape of a smile, eclipsing the mark for the globe’s largest “human image.” As you might have guessed, Abdalkhani will be on hand to warm up the crowd with a few minutes of laughter yoga.
Ida’s tips for taking small steps toward a big move
Remove external noise. We need time with our own minds and emotions to hone our gut instincts, and discern between what we think we should do based on societal norms vs. what we want to do based on our own needs and desires.
Do something that scares you. Through our experiences (more responsibility at work, the golden handcuffs, family considerations, etc.), we tend to become more risk averse. Think about it…how many scared kids do you encounter? My nephew jumps off the highest points he can find at the playground with a huge smile on his face. No fear. Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone will help you learn more about yourself than you will ever learn in a classroom, reading books or talking to friends and family.
Follow a dream to build confidence in yourself. Pick one dream you have and go for it! It doesn’t matter how “big” or “small” the endeavor may be. Going after something you personally believe in will help satisfy your heart and help equip you to weather the storms of life. You will fondly remember those heart-felt experiences and smile.
Take small steps.
I didn’t quit my job knowing I would backpack around the world or that I would start my own business. It all came to me in pieces. I put one foot in front of the other, and over time, the small pieces became a mosaic.
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