The Spiritual Entrepreneur: Tami Simon

Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True, brings the spirit of enlightenment not only to her company’s products but to its culture. (Plus, dogs.)

Andrea Miller
16 October 2021
Tami Simon. Photo by Kira Vos.

Tami Simon’s career started when three words popped into her head: “Disseminate spiritual wisdom.”

She was a twenty-two-year-old college dropout who waited tables at a Chinese restaurant and volunteered at a community radio station. On her way to the station, she walked by an office with huge crystals in the window and a sign saying “Transformational Economy,” with a dollar sign through the center of a yin–yang symbol.

She was curious about the man inside and arranged to interview him for her radio show. But then her father died and she discovered she’d inherited $50,000. In addition to doing the interview, she decided she’d go to the man for advice.

“Tami,” he said, “why don’t you put the money into yourself?”

It was a good idea in theory, but she was hoping for a more concrete suggestion.

“You know what you want to do,” he said. “Come back in three days and we’ll talk about it.”

As Simon walked away, she had a strange feeling. That’s when she suddenly thought: “Disseminate spiritual wisdom.”

She had no business experience and only a fuzzy idea of what she wanted her company to be. But she took everything she had—her money, a tape recorder, and an unshakable drive—and founded Sounds True.

Today, Tami Simon is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the spiritual field, and Sounds True is a flourishing multimedia publisher with a team of 150 employees. Their mission is nothing less than waking up the world, and to that end they’ve produced more than six thousand titles, featuring spiritual leaders like Pema Chödrön, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, and a host of other teachers and visionaries. Simon has become an inspiration to anyone who aspires to bring business and wisdom teachings together, and to make the world of work more meaningful and humane.

“Businesses are incredibly powerful crucibles for human development and meaningful relationship,” says Simon. “Most of us spend a heck of a lot of our life working. People say intimate relationship is hard and you can turn it into your spiritual path. I think work is even harder, because at least in an intimate relationship it’s just two people.

At work, you’ve got hundreds, and you’re trying to get to a place together where you’re aligned with something bigger than any one individual.”

As Simon sees it, work can be the fuel for the most important things in life—connecting with other people, bringing forth our creative gifts, leaving something behind for future generations that will matter. As she puts it, “Work can be an enlightenment engine.”

Tami Simon was born in 1962. Her family, of Coral Gables, Florida, was in her words “culturally Jewish.” Once a month, they spent Friday night at temple because her mother liked the songs and ritual.

Simon enrolled at Swarthmore College to study philosophy, yet what she learned in her classes felt disembodied, abstract. Switching to the religious studies department, Simon dove into the lives and teachings of great mystics.

Then she had a realization: “No mystic worth their salt would get a degree in mysticism.” In her sophomore year, when it was time to declare her major, she threw the paperwork in the trash and went off to explore Sri Lanka.

There she attended a ten-day Vipassana retreat taught personally by the famed teacher S. N. Goenka. As Simon puts it, it was like “boot camp.” She had to wake up at five a.m. and meditate until ten p.m., maintaining noble silence. Yet she fell in love with the practice and went on to do additional Vipassana retreats in India and Nepal.
“I felt like I’d finally found home,” says Simon. “It wasn’t in books. It wasn’t in philosophy. It was right here.”

Simon meeting with staff at Sounds True, where she is developing a culture based on contemplative principles. While most bosses focus on how to manage others, she says, “Honestly, if you manage yourself, you will see huge results.”

So when she was first deciding how to go about disseminating spiritual wisdom, books didn’t strike her as the right fit. Instead, she leaned into her experience with audio.

Simon’s interview show on community radio was popular. Three, four, maybe five people phoned in each week asking for copies of the episode, and she sold them for ten bucks each. “I don’t even know if you’d call it a cottage business,” she says. “It was just me and my dubbing deck with my five roommates in a big house in Boulder.”

“I liked dharma talks,” says Simon. “I liked listening to an inspired person teach about spiritual truths. I could feel it when somebody was in an expanded state of being, and they spoke from that place. I learned through the sound of their voice, through the cadence. It was like a mind-to-mind transmission. That’s the kind of audio I wanted to put out in the world.”

In the early days of Sounds True, Simon attended spiritual workshops, such as a weekend with Ram Dass. “I brought these big, heavy, cassette-dubbing machines with me,” she remembers. “It’s a miracle I didn’t get back trouble.”

She’d record the workshop, give the teacher the masters, and sell copies to participants. This was a sweet deal for
Simon—not only did she get to attend the workshops for free, she left with cash in her pocket.

Over time, Simon accumulated an archive of live workshop recordings and started giving out pink photocopied sheets listing them all. She felt, though, that to take her recordings to the next level, she needed to edit them. Though dedicated to maintaining that quality of “living wisdom,” she wanted to take out the bathroom breaks, the questions that couldn’t be answered, and the teachers’ tangents about what they were doing next month. She did it old-school, with a razor blade and splicing tape.

In 1990, Sounds True released Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. It was their first breakout audio title and—contrary to the usual order of things—it later become a bestselling book. This marked Sounds

True’s shift away from workshop recordings. In the studio, Simon realized, speakers could talk directly and intimately to listeners at home. The company’s signature style was born.

Now that Sounds True was on the map, they branched out from catalog sales into retail distribution. Just a couple of years later, they produced Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Present Moment and Thomas Moore’s Soul Life. These were their first audio learning courses, and they were cutting edge.

In both 1995 and 1996, Sounds True was on Inc. magazine’s list of the nation’s five hundred fastest-growing privately held companies. Sounds True released Energy Anatomy by Caroline Myss, their first audio learning course to sell more than one hundred thousand copies, and one of their all-time bestselling titles. They also created their first video, Meditation for Beginners with Jack Kornfield, and their first correspondence course, Insight Meditation with Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein.

“Being true” is Tami Simon’s inner litmus test. When she contemplates what to do next—in the next moment, day, or decade—the question is always: “What will feel authentic to me?”

According to Simon, “People at Sounds True say, ‘With Tami, you always know where she’s at. Her face will tell you, her words will tell you.’ That’s also what I like from other people,” Simon continues. “Even if it’s hard news, I want people to be direct and truthful. When there’s truth in the room, the air feels clear to me, and when there isn’t, I’m spending a lot of energy trying to navigate what’s actually going on.”

Every week, when the Sounds True leadership team meets, Simon asks, “What’s under the table? What are we not talking about that we need to be talking about?” As far as she’s concerned, that part of the meeting is always the most interesting.

Being kind and direct are official core values at Sounds True. “Originally,” says Simon, “I wrote it out as being direct and kind, but the leadership team said, ‘You know, Tami, you emphasize the direct part maybe too much. Why don’t we put kind first?’”

It’s commonly believed that it isn’t possible or desirable to show up authentically in the world of business. Simon, however, isn’t willing to put on a mask at the office. With all the time people spend at work, it’s too exhausting to keep up the charade.

“The idea that we’re one person in our private life and some different person at work is breaking down for a lot of people,” posits Simon. “What makes me happy about that is that when people are themselves at work, we will see businesses have different kinds of priorities.” That is, while traditional businesses prioritize profit, people value not just money but also sustainability and accountability, relationships and kindness. As Simon phrases it, “Humans have human priorities.”

Presenting at a conference in India, Simon had a warm exchange with the Dalai Lama. She’s engaged with some of the most influential spiritual figures of our time, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass, and Pema Chödrön.

About fifteen years ago, The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (CMind) got in touch because they were studying businesses led by people engaged in contemplative practice, and they wanted to study Sounds True.

Simon made it clear that although she herself had a meditation practice, that wasn’t the case for everybody at the company. So CMind interviewed employees from the warehouse to the editorial offices and issued a twenty-page report, the gist of which was that people at Sounds True do not identify as working for a spiritual company. Instead, they identified as working for a company where they get to be themselves.

Simon asked her employees what it was that made them feel they could be authentic at work. Some said it was because they could wear whatever they wanted. Somebody said, “When my kid’s sick, I don’t have to lie about the reason I’m not coming in. I can just say, ‘My kid’s sick. I can’t come.’”

One morning, Simon was leaving for work when her fur baby looked at her with unbearably sad eyes. She decided to take him into the office. Soon other people wanted to bring in their dogs too, and dogs became an integral part of the company culture.

“I brought my dog into work and then other people brought their dogs,” says Simon. “I brought myself into work and then other people brought themselves. That’s what happens.”

Tami Simon sees Sounds True as “an inner transformation company.” Though the catalogue is eclectic—spanning myriad spiritual traditions, psychology, and wellness—it has a unifying aim: the flowering of who we are as human beings, both at the individual and societal levels.

Not everything Sounds True produces personally resonates with Simon, but that isn’t the point.

“It’s been a maturation process for me,” she says. “When I was younger, I had a lot more judgment. As I grew and the company grew, I started practicing opening my mind to ask why does this person I work with find this material so valuable. I’m going to take their perspective and see if I can understand it.”

Simon hosts the weekly Sounds True podcast and has interviewed every Sounds True author. “I learn something every time,” she says. “Every time.”

When Simon was thirty-nine, she recorded a series on Buddhist tantra with scholar and Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray.

They spent about ten days together, and during this time she was introduced to what Ray called “somatic meditation,” a process of taking our body—not the thinking mind—as the foundation of meditation practice.

At the end she told Ray, “I don’t want to follow the traditional path, but I’d love to be able to keep working with these practices and to ask you questions. Would that be okay with you?”

“Tami,” he answered, “I’ll make sure you get the dharma you need.”

After seven or eight years of training, Ray told Simon that the next step was for her to become a teacher herself. So she started teaching courses on meditating with the body. This, she says, was a really important growth period for her. Nonetheless, something gnawed at her.

Simon felt she was trying to occupy two seats at once—the teacher seat and the business leader seat. “There’s something about the Sounds True seat that fully comes from me,” she muses. “There’s nothing in it where I have to fit into something else. As a meditation teacher within a tradition, there were times when I didn’t feel I could wholly be myself, and that didn’t work for me. It’s hard to have more than one seat.”

About eight years ago, Simon stopped being a meditation teacher. She says, “I needed to find a way to bring that teaching function into a way of being in the world that wasn’t being a traditional dharma teacher, but instead a business leader operating according to dharmic principles.”

With Sounds True thriving, the question arose, “What do we really want this business to be about?” For Simon, the answer was clear: “Providing unlimited access to transformative materials, and not just for people who have the money to buy them.”

So in 2018 the Sounds True Foundation was launched. At first, it wasn’t 100 percent clear what projects they were going to take on beyond donating Sounds True products to prisoners and others who couldn’t afford to buy them. “But soon,” says Simon, “I got a call from one of our authors, Justin Michael Williams, who wrote Stay Woke: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us. Justin is a Black man who’s a musician as well as an inspiring speaker and teacher. He said, ‘Tami, I didn’t write this book for people who are shopping in bookstores. I wrote this book for kids like me who aren’t going to be drawn to the traditional white wellness world. I want to go on tour and bring freedom meditation to high school and college students. Can Sounds True help me?’ I was like, ‘Hell yeah.’”

Since then, other opportunities have arisen for the Sounds True Foundation. As Simon explains it, they just keep asking themselves how to get spiritual wisdom into the hands of people who otherwise aren’t going to have access to it, and then they see what manifests to meet that goal.

These days, many companies offer mindfulness training to employees. Simon recognizes this as a great first step. “But the real thing is how we engage with other people,” she says. “Quite honestly, I’ve seen a lot of dysfunction within Buddhist organizations. Mindfulness alone does not teach you how to run a healthy organization.”

Partnering with Soren Gordhamer, founder and host of Wisdom 2.0, and Scott Shute, who leads mindfulness and compassion programs at Linkedin, Simon created Inner MBA, an immersive program to train leaders, entrepreneurs, managers, and employees on growing their companies and themselves.

“We took all the best wisdom training at Sounds True for the last thirty-five years and packed it into nine months, illustrating how those lessons translate into the workflow,” says Simon.

There are three modules in the program, moving from the personal to the interpersonal and to the organizational.

“We start with you,” Simon explains. “How do you work with yourself? People need to dis-identify from the thinking mind. If you’re fully identified with your thoughts, there’s no space in which you can be aware of everything that’s happening. So that’s the first step—a whole mindfulness module.”

The second module is on practicing presence and self-management. Most people are preoccupied with mastering the art of managing others. “Honestly, if you manage yourself, you will see huge results,” says Simon.

Finally, the Inner MBA program focuses on teamwork. “People think differently than us,” says Simon. “That’s a good thing.” How do we recognize all of the different invisible diversities on our team? How do we create psychological safety on our teams? How do we listen? How do we speak up for what our real needs are in respectful ways?

Ultimately, the Inner MBA program is about baking our values into every part of what we do at work. “The torch I’m carrying is for businesses to recognize the role they have in helping the human species not enter the sixth extinction,” says Simon.

There are already businesspeople engaged in this meaningful work. The guest speakers—the “CEO storytellers”—of the Inner MBA program include Rose Macario, formerly of Patagonia; Joey Bergstein formerly of Seventh Generation; and Eileen Fisher of her namesake company. These and other successful CEOs, including Simon herself, are showing that a company can have multiple bottom lines—social, environmental, and financial. Profit doesn’t have to suffer for it.

Meanwhile, for those of us who don’t work at enlightened companies, there’s still a lot we can do. “You have an opportunity to work on yourself. That’s really powerful,” says Simon. “Are you watching your mind, your reactivity?

Are you contributing in some way to uplift the lives of the people you work with, even if it’s with a kind signature line or holding the door open? Or are you just being grumpy? To me, that’s not being a practitioner, and what I mean by being a practitioner is saying, ‘This is what I care about, and I’m going to do it every day.’ I believe all of us have that capacity.”

Simon takes a breath. “The human species is on the line,” she says. “We each have to give everything we’ve got.”

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.