How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Asil Toksal created fusions of:
- energy & environment
- technology, art, & business
- acumen, spirituality, & startups
It's one thing to win an Emmy Award — it's quite another to be nominated as a pioneer in an entirely-new Emmy category. Could it have been led by an executive that manufactured diesel fuel?
Asil was born in Vienna to an immigrant family of Turkish entrepreneurs. "I think that has shaped my way of thinking and seeing the world and also what it takes to be an entrepreneur." He grew up trilingual (Turkish, German, and English), an ethnic and religious minority. "The curiosity my parents had when they left Turkey in order to find a more interesting or bigger future for themselves — I feel like I have that, too. And that's probably one of the things that led me to the US. It's probably one of the things that led me to Asia, and is probably leading me to many other places."
It also led him through an unusual education.
"I was really interested in a lot of things but there was no university degree for 'a lot of things.' I had a longing, a thirst. My attitude was, 'Don't give me the boring parts. Give me the best parts that I can really apply to big problems — things I can apply to entrepreneurial quests."
So, Asil has a collection of unfinished degrees, "…things I started, got the value out of, but didn't really see the need to finish," including chemical engineering, journalism, math, and economics. He did finish the Masters of Computer Science.
While he was at university, his father's friend bought a farm with a small lab for biodiesel production. As Asil was studying chemical engineering, his father asked if he'd like to join in at the lab and do some experimenting.
"And to me experimentation is one of the most fun things you can think of doing."
They worked together in the lab (his father part-time) but weren't focused on creating advanced (higher-margin) products for what was grown on the farm. They brought together two disciplines — energy and environmental conservation — and created a process to produce diesel fuel with used vegetable oil (e.g. from restaurants) — a waste product that is toxic to the environment. Asil raised € 3 million to build a plant and became 50% owner and CEO of the company at age 21. "Fundraising was hard, and money came mainly from banks, since there were no angels or venture capitalists in that ecosystem at that time."
Building the company was also hard, especially when suppliers realised they could start charging for the raw material, and competitors in Germany felt the disruption and started fighting back. They made bio-diesel out of government-subsidized fresh vegetable oils and began to lobby.
"I realised that as much as I love the energy industry, it was lots of, you know, grey heads trying to hold their ground rather than being innovative. So I got a little worn out with our partners and our competitions, and ultimately, they came with a new investor and acquired my 50%, so I left the company at age 23. That was my first exit before I'd even finish any university degree.
"At that time, it was the largest bio-diesel plant in Austria. I think if I'd stuck there for a couple of years, I probably would've sold it for 10 or 15 times that, but then again, you never really know. And when you're young, you're a little more impatient, and you just want to get it done. So, I'd created it, but I didn't necessarily want to operate it and own the operation problems. So, I was ready for a new experiment."
Asil's friends from computer science were working on dot-com's, so feeling he should do something more "age appropriate" with a cohort of people who would understand him, he started a digital advertising agency. Big corporations wanted business problems solved both technologically and creatively, with beautiful interfaces and smart, creative ideas. He realised quickly that he needed to "fish in a bigger pond," and a new client came in from New York.
It was TVLand, part of MTV Networks.
It started small and grew to a ground-breaking project in 2005 integrating chat and interactive design with live video streaming on the Internet. It won the first of an entirely newly-created day-time Emmy award.
"When he was taking the Emmy Award, the president of TVLand at that time mentioned the company and my name, as well, as being a contributor to the creation of this. That was amazing! I was 25 at that time. Later, he was talking to me in his Time Square office on the 44th Floor in the MTV/Viacom building. While we were holding the Emmy Award and taking pictures with that, he said, 'You gotta come here! You gotta open up an office here. We're going to give you more work than you can handle.' So, I separated from the agency I co-founded in Vienna and moved here to create my own agency in New York."
He called it Lapis Digital, after the ancient Indian stone of spiritual communication.
"At that time I was already strongly into meditation. When I moved to New York, I started to go to Native-American gatherings and to communities because I was so drawn into their culture by the way they're connected to nature, their traditions, rituals, and so on. So being in New York was an opportunity for me to expand spiritually." His friend Gary Zaremba noted,
"He's very spiritual. As long as I've known him, he's been mixing commerce and consciousness-raising. He goes around bringing spirit into the Boardroom."
Just as before, big corporations wanted business problems solved both technologically and creatively, and more clients came, mainly from Fortune 500 companies, including the Viacoms (MTV, Comedy Central, TV Land, Nickelodeon), the Museum of Natural History, Casio, etc. With empathy, other-centred listening and language, structure-enabled guidance, and a plethora of stories to tell from experience, he is adept at gaining trust and beginning and growing account relationships.
As colleague Thomas Dori observed, "One day we were having a very brief conversation about challenges within an organisation, and he remembered all the vocabulary and all the terms — the exact terms this person was using at the beginning — and then we used them later on in the context of the solutions and our service offerings."
Asil integrates spiritual and practical, structure and flow, and big-picture and detail, at the overlap of business, art, and technology. He also surrounds himself with a broad network of millennials, artists, professionals, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and freethinkers from a wide range of fields and lifestyles — people he can learn from. They are key to growing his mind and alerting him to new possibilities. He describes his friends as, "Conscious — speaking about the things and the problems that matter, not just the mundane. And they're not just talkers — they're also doers." His friends describe him as curious, open, empathetic, deep-thinking, adaptable, a leader, optimistic, with a strong inner voice, always seeking to make things better.
He sold Lapis Digital to Vertic and stayed on for a while to maintain account relationships and ease the transition, but he began to feel restless. "It's the restlessness of the entrepreneur, right? Creating something and then realising that it's been created. It's been achieved, so what's the next mountain I can climb? What's the next big problem I can solve? And what's the legacy I want to leave behind?"
The next step — and perhaps a lasting legacy — is a fusion of incubation/acceleration, especially in the area of "conscious capital" (bigger impact than money only), with expert assistance and spiritual growth, to make change that matters and build the next generation. "As the Natives say, everything is connected. I think level-of-consciousness and spirituality are so important to this new generation of entrepreneurs and founders, and it has become more and more important to me — how we impact everything else with our actions." Indeed, his actions have been to improve the world and heal. In colleague Kosta Stavreas' words,
"In his heart of hearts, he's a healer. Even energy and climate change is about healing."
According to Creative Mornings, "By day a startup founder and advertising executive and by night a shaman and truth seeker in search, Asil has been working with tribal and shamanic elders, leaders and teachers — and their medicines — for the past decade. He travelled for years to China to study with one of the last living Taoist masters, for years across the US and Americas to learn and understand the indigenous healing methods, using plant teachers. Over the past three years he has led many ceremonial circles around the world from NYC to Indonesia and all points in between. He is currently holding healing and transformational retreats integrating the medicines and traditions of indigenous nations around the world to work on the body and spirit, combined with his vast coaching knowledge and eastern philosophy to shift the mind."*
In fact, it may also be healing for Asil to further integrate his passions and remarkable gifts and magnify his impact by becoming an "entrepreneur of entrepreneurs." Kosta continues,
"He has an intuitive sense of the contours of other people's souls. His ability to sense you and understand your faults and how you're made up — he combines this with care and empathy."
Kosta further noted, "I think he sees people as a collective resource for making change happen. He understands that truly bringing people together in a way where they can be the best version of themselves — that is the way he can have his impact. So his role is about facilitating and co-ordinating, harnessing a bunch of smart people together towards an end, right, as opposed to — by contrast, not the style that Steve Jobs had. He had a view and he would make it happen irrespective of barriers. Asil is more of a conductor, less of a general. He shapes and moulds, but he doesn't force them. I think that's one thing that makes him unique."
Forcing others and forcing self can backfire — at best, achieving only a portion of the force applied.
Asil recalls, "I used to believe that everything in life is achieved through hard work. I was young then, and I had a lot of energy — unlimited energy — and at some point when I was close to burning out, I realised this can't be it. Because if hard work equals the outcome, then I should have achieved everything in the world, I worked so hard! No, it only gets you so far. And I realised there's a way that in nature even some of the hardest thing seems so graceful and so in flow, and I try to find what does that look like as a human being. How can I do things more gracefully, more in the way nature does? Less stressed, less looking like very hard work. Can I make it look effortless? How can I be setting something out and get out of the way for it to manifest — to be created.
"So my spiritual practice brought a lot of that in — a lot of meditation. I particularly like Buddhist meditation, mindfulness meditation. I also learn with a Taoist master in China. I started with him on various breathing techniques and increasing the internal energy and learning with the Native Americans about prayers, about the connection to nature, about the respect they have of all living things and the things we don't perceive as living, like stones and mountains and rivers and soil. Everything is alive in that perspective."
"Energy flows through everything. Don't work too hard if it's not flowing. Magical things happen in life when we get out of the way."
Asil's innovation journey has been continually rooted in energy, spirit, and connectedness in one form or another — from energy and our living environment to connectedness via technology/art/business, to enlightened incubation. What might the rest of us build when we tune inward, connect outward, and lead with our personal and collective energies and flows?
What are your connections?
Where is your energy?
How do you flow?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;