The Psychedelic Industry as a Catalyst for Reimagining Capitalism and the Purpose-Driven Firm

Adelaide Wilcox King

Adelaide Wilcox King

Associate Professor, Business Strategy, McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia

Part of our Year in Review series

Adelaide Wilcox King is an Associate Professor of Commerce at the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia. She specializes in strategic management and decision making, with a particular interest in the influence of executive psychology on how strategic resources and human capital are valued and allocated in organizations. In the wake of her son Ruffin’s death by suicide in February 2021, Adelaide has developed a passion to understand and help responsibly advance our capacities to connect psychedelics to those for whom these medicines may be uniquely suited to alleviate suffering. Her current interests center on the burgeoning psychedelic healing industry, and the systemic and organizational possibilities and constraints associated with efforts to alleviate suffering at scale.

In this short piece, she shares her experience of introducing a new capstone course, Reimagining Capitalism and the Purpose-Driven Firm, which uses the emergent psychedelics industry as a case study.

Last May, I introduced a new capstone course “Reimagining Capitalism and the Purpose-Driven Firm” at the McIntire School of Commerce at The University of Virginia (UVA).  It’s a course I’ve been eager to develop as a strategy faculty member for 25 years, but hadn’t fit with the school needs and my availability.  COVID travel restrictions opened changes that provided an opportunity to teach it to 24 Masters in Commerce’s students who were about to graduate.

Everything had reset for me in 2021, when I lost my son Ruffin to suicide.  In terms of meaningful value—personally and as an organization scholar—I have become energized by the distinctive promise and complexities that psychedelics may bring to offering effective, safe, and accessible support for individual and community suffering.  So it was incredibly motivating (and a bit daunting) to bring organizational issues about the burgeoning psychedelic assisted therapy ecosystem to a course.

From the Course Description:

This course takes an intentional and imaginative values-based approach to rethinking the purpose of business, as we examine the roles that capitalism and firms play in advancing—and damaging—value in our economic, social, and environmental global systems.  In doing so, it aims to help develop a deeper understanding of yourself, and of business realities and possibilities, so that you will engage in your jobs and work life in ways that enable greater alignment with what you value.

Much of the course design drew on my longstanding experience and relationships. For example, I utilized established business frameworks and cases and, through my network, secured a variety of great speakers from traditional firms who were shaping and stretching assumptions about their priorities and capacities to address complex environmental, social, and health problems with creativity and integrity.

I also committed to going relatively “deep” in a context – psychedelics  – that was rich for learning but needed a whole new roadmap. This required me to create an introduction to a burgeoning industry that students had little familiarity with, and to connect this to the business world, jobs, and decisions that they were likely to face ahead. It was important to secure professionals in this area as guest speakers who students could learn from and relate to, and who would be willing to share their time and wisdom even if they weren’t affiliated with UVA.  I accomplished this through some cold calling but primarily through the support of two of the extraordinary guides who led my first personal journey to Jamaica for grieving parents, and McIntire alum John Griffin, whose generosity and passion for UVA (financially, and also as a fellow McIntire teacher and a UVA board member) also extends to MAPS.

These class speakers brought thought-provoking, inspiring, and relatable experiences about what was meaningful, and that opened new perspectives about possibilities and risks that were worth pursuing.  From industry leaders who are shaping the ecosystem  – Rick Doblin (MAPS) and Les Szabo (Dr. Bronner’s) –  the students learned the realities of challenging laws and dominant systems to bring forth new opportunities. Entrepreneurs who left traditionally successful careers and life paths to follow purposes of enabling healing through psychedelics (Amber Capone, VETS; Melissa Lavasani, Psychedelic Medicine Coalition; and Josh White, Fireside Project) and John Griffin’s reflections on his support of MAPS – that connected to his father’s suffering as a World War II fighter pilot—revealed new insights about meaningful work and choices for many students. Natalie Avalos, Professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder explored ethics and responsibilities in ways that fundamentally unsettled assumptions of value in capitalism.

UVA McIntire School of Commerce Psychedelics
UVA's McIntire School of Commerce

In terms of learning deliverables, their final project was to select a purpose-driven outcome that they found meaningful, and to propose an organizational initiative related to the psychedelic healing industry that would advance value creation toward this outcome.  In the end, the projects were all creative and varied in topics and depth; one that identified opportunities associated with intentionally organizing around the value that MAPS’ efforts have in healing the Earth was so thoughtful that I forwarded it to Rick.

One question on the confidential end of class survey is, “What would you like the instructor and university administrators to know about your experience in this course?”  I believe this student’s response says a lot about its potential:

“Continuing this course for the program just seems so important. Psychedelic therapy has so much potential to increase contentment for the world and just the fact that the industry is so young made the course all the more inspiring that we students could really be a part of a great deal of change leaving the university. I could actively see students changing their worldview as they were introduced to science that challenged their previous beliefs on psychedelics and it was a beautiful thing seeing an active breakdown of barriers that students had built up, through science and logic.”

This experience only energized my belief that the study of psychedelics brings great promise in refreshing assumptions of what is possible in educating future and current businesspeople, and more broadly assumptions of how individuals and businesses create meaningful value.  To that end, I’m working with colleagues to create teaching materials for others to use, including a case study of Dr. Bronner’s decision to publicize its support of psychedelic healing through its ‘Heal Soul’ campaign, and a psychedelic assisted therapy industry technical note. Another group of UVA professors and I have submitted a panel proposal to the Academy of Management Annual Meeting to initiate a foundational conversation about the emergence of the psychedelic assisted therapy ecosystem as viewed through an organizational lens. Our aim is to pique the interest of others who seek to look beyond the hype, and see the merit of measured approaches to organizational challenges and opportunities that recognize the complex potential of psychedelics by respectfully engaging the array of varied players who need to be involved to deliver on their promise. We are curious who else may share a passion for engaging with the many important and adventuresome topics that this context offers.

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Part of our Year in Review series

This content is part of our 2022 Year in Review, which looks back at the past year through commentary and analysis, interviews and guest contributions.

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