How Jesse Israel Went from Record Label Maverick to Meditation Club Founder Without Missing a Beat

Jesse Israel signed MGNT to a label out of his dorm room and now runs Medi Club.

ByABC News
August 17, 2016, 1:54 PM

— -- In 2005, Jesse Israel was a sophomore film student at New York University who had signed an up-and-coming college band to a record label he had co-founded out of his dorm room.

The band was MGMT. And Israel went on to run that record label, Cantora Records, for the next nine years, building it into a successful company with business partners and a Manhattan office.

Then he decided to walk away from all of it.

“As the company was growing there was something inside of me … that was saying, ‘This has been an amazing chapter in your life but it’s time to move on and figure out what’s next,’” Israel, 32, told ABC News’ Dan Harris during an interview for his podcast, “10% Happier.”

“All the logic said, ‘Stay at the company, amazing business partners, great SoHo office, company reputation is killer, money is good,’ but my intuition and sort of my heart was saying, ‘You’re meant to do something else right now.’... and I had no idea what I was going to do next. Zero."

The Los Angeles native took some time off to travel to Africa and then scaled back his New York City lifestyle, moving out of a Brooklyn loft into an apartment with roommates, trying to figure out his next project.

“I was jumping into comparison [with my peers] at that stage in my life. It was just like instant torture,” Israel said. “And I had to just drop it or else I would go into these patterns, these holes. I would totally lose sight of how exciting this new phase of my life was, where I was able to give myself to exploring what I was really here to do ... [but] I had to make this choice that my lifestyle was going to change.”

Watch the full interview in the video player and download the "10% Happier" podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music and TuneIn.

Israel said he looked into ways he could “bring people together through shared interest,” which he was already a seasoned pro at doing. About a year after he graduated college, Israel started a “cheeseburger club” called the Burger Boys of NYC (now retired), a sort of "men’s group," Israel said, built around guys in their 20s getting together and eating cheeseburgers all over the city.

Israel went on to start a bike club called the Cyclones that grew to more than 1,000 riders. With funding and networking from the Cyclones, he helped create a bike-share program in Tanzania, an idea born from his travels when he would see children walk for miles to get school.

But by December 2014, a few months after he had left the record label, Israel was looking for his next project -- and he was running out of savings.

“It was too cold to ride bikes, and then I was like, ‘Oh, God, I’m faced with the giant question mark of the unknown once again,’” Israel said. “At that point I was asking people what they thought my greatest gifts were … because I was getting job offers that were in the music and tech world that were so incredible and I felt so lucky to be getting these offers, but I knew it wasn’t what I was here to be doing anymore.”

After toying with a few ideas, Israel came up with a plan to start Medi Club -- a New York City community for young adults to meet, meditate and “share quiet,” he said.

Israel said he started practicing meditation in 2010 as a way to relieve stress. First he tried Shambhala, a form of Buddhist meditation, for several months and then moved to Vedic meditation, a form of mantra meditation, which he practices twice a day, every day.

“Meditation had been this huge piece of my young adult life … and it was one of the only consistent components of my life during this period of intense transition,” he said. “And I was seeing that lots of young people in my communities from the music industry, the tech house, the places I was partying in New York City; these active people that you wouldn’t think would be meditating at the time were starting to learn meditation.”

At the first Medi Club meeting in December 2014, Israel said they had about 23 people show up. Today, Medi Club meets once a month and they cap the admission at 150 people.

Medi Club has grown to host smaller 10-person groups called Circles on a weekly basis, Israel explained, and then a larger event in conjunction with nonprofits called “Big Quiet” roughly every three months, where they invite thousands of people to participate in group meditation and listen to guest speakers and performers.

Israel said they charge a range of prices for their “gatherings,” the lowest being $10 and the highest being $50.

“[Medi Club] is essentially an events business,” Israel said. “But we have all sorts of ideas about how to go beyond that. This thing can scale and reach lots of people if we’re actually making money and putting the team to it.”

Israel acknowledged that there are some who might criticize Medi Club for turning a profit off meditation, but he pointed out that there are other for-profit businesses around meditation starting to crop up. He also said he has income from a web video production company he started in college.

“There are elements of [Medi Club], that people don’t like, that we charge for, and I totally respect it. But it’s probably not for that person,” he said. “We actually started without charging and it didn’t feel right to me. It didn’t feel like we would be able to do it in a way that we feel like we need to do it … so it’s something I’m planning on sticking by.”

He added that Medi Club is still a work in progress, but he hopes to expand it to other cities around the world.

“What I can see is this: People are very appreciative of what we’re creating and very hungry for it,” he said. “My belief is that if we can continue to grow this … there will be ways to support myself, to support a team, to support a global team eventually, and there’s a decent amount of blind faith that’s going into it. But that’s how the whole thing started.”

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