The Hippie-Capitalist CEO Who Wants to Win a Nobel Prize With Sober Raves
Radha Agrawal's Daybreaker empire is trying to change the world, one early morning dance party at a time.
Photo illustration by Tara Jacoby
Radha Agrawal is busy, and I can't get hold of her.
She's about 10 meters away from me, in the center of the wellness suite in the swanky New York department store Saks Fifth Avenue. She's wearing a white top, spangly yoga pants, and black and yellow platform heels, topped off with an enormous feathered headdress. Grinning from ear to ear, she's bouncing up and down on stage in front of a 300-strong crowd, waving outstretched arms to a thumping electronic beat.
It's just after seven on a Wednesday morning and I'm still waking up, so I've installed myself in a secluded corner with a complimentary bottle of organic kombucha. There's a lull in the music and an MC begins to speak, leading the crowd in a moment of self-reflection.
"Today, we choose to be happy," he intones, as the music builds up to a drop. And again, with emphasis: "Today, we choose to be happy."
It's common for dance music events to continue through dawn. But this isn't an after-hours party—it's a "sober rave" that began at 6AM, with a silent disco yoga class. All around me swarms a crowd of activewear-clad partygoers, beaming at each other as they bounce to the music, working up a virtuous sweat.
A party called Morning Gloryville, which started in London in 2013, brands itself as "the original morning rave." But the concept quickly made its way across the pond and around the world, with different crews producing events. After an initial phase of expansion, some of these health-conscious gatherings have scaled back their operations or dropped off the map completely, but one has risen to the top of the pile: Daybreaker.
Since throwing her first morning party in New York in 2013, Agrawal, Daybreaker's CEO, has turned the morning rave concept into a neatly branded package that combines the holy trinity of fitness, wellness, and mindfulness with a dash of club-music hedonism, minus the chemical highs that sometimes come alongside it. Miserable lines and mean bouncers are replaced by brass bands and free hugs at the door. Drugs are substituted by what Daybreaker calls the DOSE: a euphoric and naturally occurring cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.
"It's about marrying fitness and sport and dance with festivals and music and nightlife and counterculture and exploding them together," Agrawal tells me during an interview in the company's Brooklyn headquarters, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just over a week after the Daybreaker party I attended at Saks.
When Daybreaker hosts its first-ever party in Tokyo in a few weeks, it will be active in 20 cities worldwide, pulling in 300 to 800 people for the events it holds every few weeks in each location. Instagram and Facebook are full of testimonials from attendees about how the experience has changed their life. It's attracted corporate sponsors such as Nike, American Express and Tropicana, as well as celebrity attendees: actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Teri Hatcher, the TV chef Bobby Flay, and the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall have all turned up at Daybreaker events.
While it attracts a more mainstream crowd than many other electronic music events, performers say they enjoy the energetic dancers they encounter at Daybreaker.
"The fact that they're sober parties is quite refreshing," says Atish, a San Francisco-based DJ who typically plays events like Burning Man, Desert Hearts and Cityfox. "And it's a lot of fun, because people are just so up for dancing. I love playing Daybreaker because I know I'll always get a really great reaction from the crowd."
Through curating these wholesome gatherings, Agrawal has built a multinational party empire. And like many new-age entrepreneurs, her passionate creed of health and inclusivity is matched by a faith in her business as a means to deliver it to society.
In conversation, she says she sees Daybreaker as a "transformational dancefloor"—one that breaks down social barriers, allows people to be their genuine selves, and helps build kind, caring communities.
"By the time [people] get off our dancefloor, they're like, 'holy shit'," she says. "I feel like I'm on molly, I feel like I'm wasted. But I'm just high on life, and I'm high on the music, and I'm high on the joy in this room."
For many attendees, Daybreaker is like group therapy, she says: "I get lines of people after Daybreaker that just want to cry on my shoulder. Because they feel belonging."
This theme of community is the subject of the book Agrawal is currently writing, slated for release in early 2018 (it's called Belong). She's so engrossed in writing it when I arrive at Daybreaker HQ that she has told her staff to cancel all her meetings. Having organized the interview with Agrawal directly, I've been spared.
Daybreaker towers is an airy loft space in Williamsburg, full of natural light and bursting with color from abundant foliage and pastel-colored rugs. Upon entry, I'm hugged by a smiling twentysomething named Eli—who Agrawal later tells me she is dating—and instructed to remove my shoes. Agrawal herself is sitting in front of her Macbook, with a Daybreaker-branded trucker cap pulled low over her long black hair. When I announce that I'm there for the interview, she jumps up and I get another hug.
Born in Montreal to Indian and Japanese parents, the 38-year-old Agrawal began her career at an investment bank in New York. She hated it—"They gave zero fucks about culture, It wasn't soul-filling,"—but she says it did teach her "not to be afraid of money." After a stint in the TV industry, she helped her identical twin sister Miki to open Wild, a string of health-conscious pizza restaurants in New York.
She also helped start THINX, the absorbent period underwear retailer that Miki ran as "she-EO" until stepping down last year amid accusations of sexual harassment and criticisms of her approach to HR. The debacle clearly left its mark on Radha—when I bring it up she refers to the media's coverage of Miki's ousting as "the most clickbaity bullshit fake news that I've seen in my whole life."
Another business Radha was involved in hit the headlines early last year, when the once-great Williamsburg club Verboten filed for bankruptcy after Jen Schiffer and John Perez, its founders and managing partners, were accused of financial mismanagement and non-payment of taxes. Agrawal had invested in the club and lost that money when it went under.
Given this experience, Agrawal is no stranger to the business side of music and partying. But while Daybreaker is known as a party first and foremost, it's designed to be more than that. Agrawal calls herself a "community architect," and says she's building a new social movement based around consciousness and communion with others—values she sees as especially important in an age where digital connections often appear to mean more than personal ones.
"We're here to usher in a new style of connection in light of our technological isolation," she says.
Daybreaker's next project is to take this philosophy to college campuses, through a series of online courses and in-person events. Agrawal says she wants to improve the college experience by coaching students about drinking, drugs, mental health, and relationships, and teaching them the life skills they need to "adult" properly.
It'll be throwing Daybreaker parties, of course—it already has at locations including University of Pennsylvania and University of Southern California—but its main venture will be a subscription service for students called Daybreaker FIT. For $299 a year, subscribers will get access to online classes and 21-day habit-building challenges, including access to exclusive video content from entrepreneurs like John Mackie, the founder of Whole Foods (and also Agrawal's mentor, she tells me); Mark Fisher, founder of one of New York's most exclusive gyms; and Tom Gardner, CEO of investment advice website The Motley Fool. They'll also be invited to an an annual in-person conference.
Daybreaker has been hiring what Agrawal calls an "army" of students to act as "morale officers," spreading good vibes around campuses. She gives examples of writing "you're awesome" in chalk on the sidewalk, or getting sports teams to high-five people on their way out of the cafeteria.
"I joke around about this, but I want to win a Nobel Peace Prize," she says, before explaining how. "We can actually change culture on college campuses. We can actually take the college experience from one that is anxiety-filled, depression-filled, alcohol-binging, to one that is truly connected, and a space where college students can really flourish."
Agrawal talks about this with such enthusiasm that I sometimes struggle to finish my questions. Her energy is infectious—if at times a little corny—and it's clear that this drive is one of the reasons that Daybreaker has been so successful. At times, though, her taste for leadership betrays a whiff of cultishness.
For example, Agrawal says one of the keys to Daybreaker's success is the familial approach she takes to bringing on new promoters and event producers. For the final round of interviews, they have to spend a night at her apartment.
"It's like one giant slumber party," she says during our first phone call, before I meet her in person. "The idea is that when you're growing to new cities, instead of getting to know each other as colleagues, we get together first as a family. Everyone we bring on, we fly them to New York and indoctrinate them."
Her competitive drive has also led to conflict with other players in the space, despite her proclamation in a follow-up phone call that "I always say there is no such thing as competition in the morning dance space—it's all love."
After our in-person interview, I learned from other sources that last year, Daybreaker got wind that a group of performers who regularly played their parties had been offered a gig at another, much smaller morning rave. According to those sources, Agrawal and her team told the musicians that taking the job would spell the end of their relationship with Daybreaker. During our follow-up call, I asked her about the situation with the musicians and suggested it clashed with her philosophy around community. She readily admitted it was not her finest moment and said that was all in the past.
"It was a poor judgement call," she says, claiming that it was an isolated incident. "I realize that was not in the spirit of community and collaboration. I spent days thinking about it and feeling shitty about it. I told [the musicians] to go play with them and sorry for creating unnecessary competition." (In the end, the performers didn't play the gig.)
Daybreaker's purported inclusivity could also be said to clash with the image it has at times sought to present. A set of guidelines distributed to previous Daybreaker photographers—one of whom sent me a copy of the live Google Docs file in question—specifically requested that they "stay away from […] off-brand people (bro-y or out of shape)" when taking pictures. When I asked her about this, Agrawal first said there was a tension between being truly representative of the diverse crowd at Daybreaker and ensuring that people who were "used to seeing people in shape" didn't get scared away by images that are "too inclusive."
The idea is to get those people to come to Daybreaker and experience that diversity first-hand, hopefully leading them to become less judgmental, she said.
"I'm focused on inviting everyone into that space to they can have that experience on their own. If people are judging a book by its cover and saying it is all unattractive people who are out of shape … it sets an immediate barrier to entry for our community."
"We're multi-racial, all shapes and sizes, but we lead with an aspirational theme," she added.
Pushed to comment further on the "off-brand people" photo guidelines, Agrawal said she didn't recognize that wording and that it had been removed. She told me Daybreaker had taken her on a journey and that she had learned to be more accepting, citing one event in particular where she was musing on the relative attractiveness of people in the crowd and suddenly caught herself.
"In that moment, I felt deep shame for my judgement of those around me and their physical appearance," she said. "It was a deep moment of reshaping for me. This community has taught me to not be so judgmental and prejudiced. I've cried at night about this."
True to her word, the wording has since been removed from the photo guidelines. Two days before our conversation about it, I had read it in a copy of the Google docs file that had been downloaded that day; the morning after I asked her about it, my source checked the document again and sent me a screenshot: that specific clause had disappeared from the document. Asked about this over email, Agrawal said the document in question was outdated and had originally been prepared by a volunteer; she also said that the firm was unaware of what was written. "Even if we don't use this document anymore, we quickly corrected it in case other people had it because this goes against the ethos of our company and everything I stand for," she wrote.
It can be difficult to work out exactly what Agrawal stands for, though. She's clearly passionate about connecting with people, being herself, and helping others to do the same. But like many charismatic people, she's the sum of her own contradictions. Perhaps as a result, she's very suspicious of labels, as I find out towards the end of our face-to-face interview after asking how she feels when people compare Daybreaker to a cult.
"Don't label me," she says, thumping a coffee table for effect. "I am Radha Agrawal. I am an entrepreneur, I am a capitalist. I am also a hippie. I love men, I love women. I love to eat vegetables. I also love to occasionally eat a cheeseburger…you know, every six months. You cannot label me, you cannot label Daybreaker, you cannot label each other. To label [thump] is [thump] dangerous [thump]."
Curiosity, Agrawal suggests, can be an antidote for that sort of easy classification. Indeed, it becomes clear that it's one of her biggest philosophical causes, and I get the feeling she'd like it to be seen as her defining characteristic. She offers it as a remedy several times as I relay to her some of the concerns and criticisms I've heard during my research into her business. "Stop judging and get curious, fuckers!" she exclaims.
Agrawal wants to harness this curiosity to change attitudes and make people more conscious—of themselves, of other people, and of the world around them. At the same time, she's also using these spiritual values to market a lifestyle brand and build a profitable business. She seems to inhabit a space between these two worlds, borrowing from the rhetoric of both.
One minute, she's commercial Radha, delivering an earnest pitch about how Daybreaker combines influences from the dance music and health industries to create a unique value proposition. It's like an excerpt from Shark Tank—or maybe Silicon Valley.
"We are creating something new," she says. "We're taking a subculture and wellness, and smashing them together and making a baby with that. We're evolving. We're creating a new language."
The next, she's philosophical Radha, leaning back in her seat and raising her arms skyward.
"We go to nightlife to escape, and we go to Daybreaker to find ourselves," she says. "You come here to stop judging yourself and others. You come here to just let go. Stop saying you're too old, you can't be here, or you're too young, you know? We're all here together, man."
As we zig-zag ever more furiously between these extremes, the conversation becomes intense and at points dizzying. But as we wrap things up, Agrawal collects herself with the look of a yoga teacher finishing a class. Her poise softens and her voice drops as she reiterates her company's vision.
"I just hope that you know how authentic our interests are in the community and that we are not here to sell out," she says, before offering a goodbye hug. "We are here to teach."
Will Caiger-Smith is a writer and reporter based in New York. You can find him on Twitter.