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From Homeless Drug Addict to Millionaire: Khalil Rafati on How to Be Successful (Even If You Aren't Smart)

Start by identifying your weaknesses.

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In this series called Member Showcase, we publish interviews with members of The Oracles. This interview is with Khalil Rafati, author of “I Forgot to Die,” founder of SunLife Organics. This article was condensed by The Oracles.

Khalil Rafati

What was a defining moment in your life?

Khalil Rafati: When I was 34 years old and eight months newly sober, my mother called to tell me she had cancer. I was homeless, completely broke, a high-school dropout, and a convicted felon. There was no way I could help her. That was the lowest point of my life.

I went back to my friend’s guest house, which just had a blow-up mattress—no electricity or furniture. I lay there and sobbed. I came to the harsh realization that I was a complete failure. For the first time in my life, I took full responsibility for everything that had happened to me. Right there, I made a pact with God that I would never feel that way again.

Share an interesting fact about yourself that not many people would know.

Khalil Rafati: I don’t have any real skills, and I’m not intelligent. Whenever I say that, the reaction is always, “Oh, come on, give yourself some credit.” But it’s not feigned humility. People struggle to accept that someone who isn’t intelligent can be successful. Well, it’s possible. I can’t type or spell. I have mild dyslexia and ADHD. I stopped going to school regularly in sixth grade and dropped out of high school. Yet, I’m the CEO of a successful company.

What are the core values that guide your business, and why did you pick them?

Khalil Rafati: Authenticity, integrity, and intention. We exist to serve our community and never compromise on the quality of our ingredients. People love SunLife Organics because we’re not trying to sell them anything. The same goes for my book, “I Forgot to Die.” I wrote it to help people—I don’t care if you buy it or don’t. I give away a lot of copies for free to those who need it and can’t afford it. I care about pure, authentic self-expression.

What did you learn from your favorite mentor?

Khalil Rafati: My favorite mentor was Gus Nicolidas, who gave me my first job at 12 years old, washing dishes in his restaurant in Toledo, Ohio. Although he taught me everything, the main lesson I learned was accidental. 

Gus always asked me to read to him, claiming his glasses weren’t working. I soon realized that he stopped going to school early on and couldn’t read. Gus worked tirelessly seven days a week. He was nice to everyone, especially those who had nothing to give him in return. He would anonymously pay for all of the inner-city schools’ sports uniforms. No one ever knew except for his daughter and me. Gus taught me to be kind to everyone.

What was your biggest challenge starting in business? How did you overcome it?

Khalil Rafati: I had zero follow-through when starting in business. I had many great ideas but couldn’t succeed. Then I met Hayley Gorcey, who became my business partner. She helped me start the Riviera Recovery center and run it successfully. We went on to create SunLife Organics, which grew from a mom-and-pop juice bar to a successful chain. Hayley also helped me write my book.

The lesson learned: Figure out your weaknesses and align yourself with someone who possesses the characteristics that you lack. It’s important to know your strengths, but it’s crucial to know your weaknesses and find someone who can help you overcome them.

What’s the biggest common leadership mistake?

Khalil Rafati: Arrogance. Acting like a boss, coming across like you’re in charge and others are your subordinates. That might have worked 30 years ago, but it just doesn’t fly in today’s environment—especially with millennials.

How do you evaluate a good business deal?

Khalil Rafati: A good business deal should always fit on one piece of paper. If someone can’t create a term sheet with a paragraph or two of simple wording, then the deal is not for me. I also avoid bold, sweeping claims like, “This technology will end global warming,” or, “This investment would be like buying Amazon for $10 a share.”

What’s your daily routine for success?

Khalil Rafati: My routine starts around 5:30 a.m. each day. I begin with an hour of meditation, followed by a 25-minute walk on the beach, where I typically make a walking gratitude list. Then I practice yoga and stretch in my sauna.

For evening rituals, I fast intermittently from 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. each night to 11 a.m. the following day. I make sure to eat around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., then don’t eat anything else. No snacking or calories. Beyond that, I’m in bed by 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m. at the latest.

What are you working on right now?

Khalil Rafati: I’m currently working on my second book. It’s going well, but I tend to agonize over the minor details. My first book did so well and got rave reviews, that I feel an intense pressure to perform well again, which can stifle creativity sometimes.

I’m also opening two more SunLife Organics stores: one in Rick Caruso's new center The Palisades Village and one in Palo Alto on California Avenue. I just signed a deal to open 10 more stores in California over the next three years and 12 to 15 stores in Texas.

What are two or three things on your bucket list?

Khalil Rafati: I plan on expanding SunLife Organics to 100 stores across America, as well as some international locations. Ultimately, I will open a restaurant here in Malibu and sell the majority of the shares in my current company, but that won’t be for several years. I also want to do more speaking engagements because I’m comfortable on stage and have a lot to share. I’m very happy with the life that I am blessed to live.

Follow Khalil’s adventures on Instagram and read his story: “I Forgot to Die”; book Khalil to speak here.

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