Quick quiz, class. Which one has more power?
- The guy with degrees from Wharton and Kellogg working on Wall Street and playing in the high stakes real estate game
- The guy who’s a master yoga instructor and actor in Los Angeles
Rich Tola is going with option B, hands down.
“Power also comes from clarity,” Tola said in a recent interview.
The man knows of what he speaks, for if you put A and B together, you have his life. The studious high schooler and athlete, who went on to get the crème de la crème business education at Penn and Northwestern, is now living in a Hollywood bungalow from which he can see the iconic “Hollywood” sign and get a daily dose of inspiration.
“Life prepared me 20 years to get here,” said Tola, whose debut feature film as an actor/filmmaker, Boulevard Zen, premieres in Los Angeles next week. “I knew from the very beginning [of working in finance] ... it was like putting on a suit that doesn’t fit properly. But you’re making money. It’s the herd mentality, like this is what you’re supposed to do.”
That conventional path led Tola through years of working on Wall Street, consulting, founding an Internet company, and most recently, becoming an award-winning Historic Landmark real estate developer specializing in low-income neighborhoods in Trenton, N.J. In the mix were the 1987 stock market crash and the Internet crash in 1999-2000. For a kid whose fascination with film began with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this was a whole different path.
“When I graduated from college, I didn’t have the courage to pursue my interest in film,” Tola said.
Yet he did make the move, at least geographically. In fact, his first two moves to Los Angeles didn’t last more than six months. This time it’s different – it’s going to be three years in February and he’s more than ready to make it stick, thanks in great part to yoga.
But first a little back story.
Tola became a developer and finished his main project in Trenton in August of 2005. It had nine luxury condo units and that summer he and his partners had full-price offers on all of them. But by November, only one deal was in the can.
“I felt the tide turning,” Tola said. “I thought, this is going to blow up. About that time, I started practicing yoga.”
As is his studious way, Tola had begun reading about the 5,000-year-old practice when one day he saw a sign (call it a double entendre) that read: Unlimited yoga $20 for one week. He went to his first class, the only guy among 15 women. He didn’t know the language, the clothing, and wasn’t planning to return, but the instructor convinced him to try it one more time. He became hooked.
In the meantime, he dissolved his company by August of 2006. Having sold only the penthouse, the rest of the building went to rentals.
“It took us six months, but we refunded back capital to our partners,” he said. “We got a 30% return on that opportunity. It would have been a home run if we sold the units. Most of my net worth was tied up in it. In hindsight I did the right thing.”
Tola had already been writing stories, wondering who would play that character or this one.
“I thought, what about me?” Tola said. “I have to try the film making business. I wouldn’t say I’m wealthy, but I believed in myself enough to put my entire net worth behind me.”
So in September of 2006, right after dissolving his company, he put himself on the path of a full-time actor. By February of 2007 he had made his West Coast move. He had just earned his 200-hour yoga teacher certification and has to date taught more than12,000 students. Used to a swanky New York existence, he cut his expenses in half and now focuses on a healthy lifestyle.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever done,” Tola said. “I’m a student of the business. I’m training with acting coaches. I’m learning screen writing. I watch a movie, read the script, watch a movie, read the script. I must have done that 50 times.”
He formed a production company, Two-Strike Hitter, named for what his father taught him about baseball: You’ve got to learn to be a two-strike hitter, foul pitches off until you get the pitch you want. And then he wrote, acted in, and directed his first feature film, Boulevard Zen, about a 39-year-old real estate attorney from Atlantic City named Bobby D’Angelo who turns into a yoga master.
“It’s the framework of my life, but the details are not the same,” Tola said. “Bobby is much tougher than me. I wanted it to have an East Coast energy. The film is really about people and their struggles with personal issues like abuse, infertility and anorexia.”
Those themes are meaningful to Tola. His father and grandmother were both abused, he has dated women with some of those issues, and he has seen yoga students come in with bruises that he deemed suspicious. That is why domestic abuse is at the heart of his foundation, The Boulevard Zen Foundation, and 10% of the film’s proceeds will benefit it.
The birth of the foundation, which is on the brink of starting its work, began when Tola went to a local battered women’s shelter to donate clothes.
“It looked like a rectory, like a place for a retreat,” he said. “I said, ‘This would be an amazing place to teach yoga.’ The woman leading me in said, ‘We don’t have money for that.”
That’s all it took to send Tola’s trained business mind into overdrive. He figured if he paid a yoga instructor $60 once a week for 50 weeks a year, all it would take to bring yoga to these women was $3,000 a year. Then, looking at it from the other side, if a student typically pays $20 per class and an average of 30 people would be getting yoga each week, that’s a $30,000 value being delivered.
“That teacher then develops a relationship with the students and educates them into a healthy lifestyle,” he said. “It builds self-esteem, not to mention the money saved. I believe the multiplier effect is a positive for society. I’d like to take it to other shelters around the world.”
It is all part of Tola’s vision for the next 30 years and lends credence to why this line from Maya Angelou is his favorite quote: “I believe the most important single thing, beyond discipline and creativity, is daring to dare.”
Tola is daring to dare. He has developed the courage, perseverance and confidence he believes are essential to success.
“I’ve definitely chosen the right career for me,” Tola said. “Now I have a new suit on that fits perfectly.”
No tie required.