Stronger teams make more successful companies

man on a hillside with a large chain draped over his shoulders

Founder and CEO of Spartan, an endurance sports brand, Joe De Sena ’90 brings companies to his Vermont farm to work through their weak spots and bond in the forge of extreme physical challenges in his new reality TV show, “No Retreat: Business Bootcamp,” airing on CNBC.

“All companies have problems and most of us become complacent. We just trip over the same garbage in front of us every day,” De Sena said. “Unless you really shake things up and create some pressure, you and your team don't change. And so the show is all about highlighting the issues and then fighting through them on the farm so that hopefully we create some permanent change.”

The obstacles on the farm are tailored to address the specific shortcomings of each company and are often metaphorical. One team, for instance, was struggling with organizational synergy. De Sena tasked them with building an A-frame, representing their “corporate ladder,” which they then had to get each team member up and over, from the CEO to the front-of-the-house staff. At the end of their time on the farm, team members link arm-in-arm and walk into a frigid pond to “cement” the lessons learned and create a mantra for the company moving forward. De Sena said he most likely got the idea for building an individualized approach to learning from his experiences as a student in the College of Human Ecology (CHE).

De Sena studied textiles and apparel management while at CHE, learning about an industry that was going through massive disruption, with textile manufacturing moving overseas. The experience taught him valuable skills in navigating the inevitable transitions and metamorphoses faced by all companies at one point or another.

Any challenge we threw at them on the farm they ate it up. There was no quit in them; they were true Cornellians.

Joe De Sena '90

An entrepreneur from an early age, De Sena started a pool and construction business as a 13-year-old and continued to run the business while at Cornell. When asked how he balanced his studies with the demands of building a business, he said, “Balance? I just worked harder…nearly never went to a party. Nothing social, just work and work. My thought was I could relax later in life.”

“No Retreat” is a televised version of the work De Sena’s been doing for over 20 years, both for the corporate world and for individuals. After working on Wall Street as an equities and derivatives trader, De Sena moved his family to the farm in search of more meaningful work. There he turned his love of racing — he once completed 36 ultramarathons and 14 Ironman competitions in a single year — into a purpose-driven business. The Spartan races he designs feature obstacles like wall-climbing, coal bed-jumping, and running through a gauntlet of punching bags.

“When you have something hard coming up, it forces you to roll up your sleeves and get the job done. You go to bed early, wake up early, eat healthy, etc. Our goal is to change 100 million lives, and if we do that, they’ll change the rest of the world.”

Extraordinary physical feats may be the initial draw to Spartan, which acquired competitor Tough Mudder in January 2020, but De Sena said the races give participants more than just athletic competition.

“We’re a massive community. Getting on a stationary bike in your home alone is not the same as being at an event with so many people and all of that energy. Hearing the stories of the folks next to you — how they stopped drinking or lost 150 pounds or are working through something really difficult in their lives — is very inspiring.”

Fellow CHE alumna Erica Karsch ’94 and employees of her company, Juice Press, tested their mettle at the farm with a “No Retreat” episode that aired March 29. Ariana Korman ’18 (CALS), head of business development for Juice Press, described her time at the farm as a bonding experience that helped the team appreciate each other's strengths and work together in a new way.

“Joe is well-known in the area of helping teams strengthen their connection and culture. He’s experienced in building and scaling businesses, so getting his advice about team-building and taking the company to the next level was extremely beneficial. It broke down barriers to see everyone outside of their usual setting, and we grew as a team — we came out stronger because we were able to go through some really tough challenges together that required teamwork and communication."

De Sena said Karsch and her team impressed him with their tenacity and drive, but that was no surprise coming from fellow alums.

“Any challenge we threw at them on the farm they ate it up. There was no quit in them; they were true Cornellians. And it's probably no coincidence that Erica and I, both from Human Ecology, went into businesses focused on bettering one's health and wellness.”

De Sena’s advice for businesses forced to reinvent themselves in response to the pandemic is to work hard and maintain some perspective.

“The standards don't change. Wake up early, take off your pajamas, roll up your sleeves, get to work and fight through. This is a combat sport. I was sitting pretty before COVID, but it's a battle, and it could always be worse. I mean, I woke up this morning and I said, well, I could be in an actual war zone right now."

Photo at top: In Joe De Sena's "No Retreat," businesses must overcome tailor-made challenges that test their strength and endurance. Photo: Provided