We had the good fortune of connecting with Leila Centner and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Leila, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
Meet Leila Centner, founder of the first “happiness school” in the United States, which draws on the latest research in the field of mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and the science of happiness. An education visionary and innovative entrepreneur, Leila would be a great leader who can comment on the timely topic of why she founded a school focused on students’ emotional and mental well-being. It’s no secret that education systems around the world are facing challenges in preparing students to deal with the demands of unpredictable environments and as a result, depression and suicide among youth are serious issues. Leila’s background in finance at Arthur Anderson and Deloitte prepared her for the headline sale of her husband’s company Highway Toll Administration, where she served as CFO. “When my husband and I sold our company, we set aside 8 figures for philanthropy focused on education,” explains Leila Centner who has become a force in charitable giving specifically underserved women and children. Her business now is elevating humanity. Serving preschool through 8th grade, with high school launching soon, Centner Academy is a highly innovative, multilingual school that treats students holistically how to be happy, taking into account five aspects of well-being—spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional. Math, reading and Mandarin is taught alongside mindfulness and meditation. “Ask any parent and they will insist all they want is for their children to be happy in life,” explains Leila. “By helping students flourish cognitively, emotionally and interpersonally, we are teaching children how to become emotional ninjas.” She founded Centner Academy with guidance from Tal Ben-Shahar, an expert in the field of positive psychology who co-founded an organization called the Happiness Studies Academy and previously taught a course at Harvard on how to be happy. Centner Academy is focused on a full-circle approach where it’s not just helping the kids, but also coaching and mentoring parents. Next on the agenda – Leila hopes to “serve it forward” by offering their innovative educational template to charter schools and public schools in low-income city neighborhoods nationwide.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Like many people, I was conditioned to believe — by society, my parents, school, the messages we receive from all around us — that once I reached a certain place in life, once I had acquired certain things or reached certain goals, that I would be totally happy, at peace and fulfilled. What I’ve since learned and what many of us experience — is that success and reaching those goals does not lead to lasting happiness. Just as soon as I reached one goal, my mind was racing to the next. The achievement, honor, item or person in my life I had been pursuing did not bring me lasting happiness and fulfillment. What I’ve now learned is that happiness is a choice, it comes from within and instead of success leading to happiness — it’s actually the other way around, happiness leads to success. We had the formula backwards! (As an accountant, formulas are my language!) So now I’ve made it my life’s work to help others experience the same kind of awakening that I’ve experienced and to be able to find happiness now, because happiness and inner peace are always available to us…and success will follow. People could look at me from the outside and think I have it all and that of course I am happy because of my life circumstances. And I do have a truly beautiful life for which I am deeply grateful. However it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, I spent most of my life believing that my happiness was on the other side of the next goal, the next thing. Thankfully, I finally learned how to access my inner peace and joy. Now I move through life now with a deep sense of purpose and inner peace — I think the word for it is equanimity — meaning I am mentally calm even in difficult situations. You can find your own inner peace, equanimity and joy just like I did. My enduring sense of feeling good and well-being has not come from financial success, career, children, or even the love of my husband. Of course I love, appreciate and cherish all of those people and things, however I could have all of them and still be unhappy. I had a tough upbringing. At a young age, I saw my mom’s dependence on a man for financial well-being and how difficult that was for her and our family. We lived in Riverside, California and all my friends were getting pregnant at 13. I got chased home by gangsters. I just knew it wasn’t a place for me. For as long as I can remember I’ve always been a problem-solver, I was always trying to figure things out. And so at 15, I figured out how to move out and I told my mom I wouldn’t move back in with her until she had moved out of there. When I was 18, I realized that in order to not follow my mom’s footsteps and be dependent on a man, I needed to get a degree. I knew that I needed to take care of myself. Even though I hadn’t really applied myself in high school, I knew when I went to college I needed to kick it on. I tutored in college. I did whatever I needed to. I got scholarships and grants. I had a fire inside me. I transferred to USC with scholarships and got straight A’s, I worked for a large accounting firm, ranked #1 in my group and went on to get an MBA. I did whatever I needed to do to climb that ladder. At the age of 27 I was a CFO in Orange County, California. I also knew I needed healing. I took courses, at 18 I was doing hypnotherapy and reading everything I could, from Tony Robbins, Napoleon Hill and more. The tools and strategies I learned are really what got me going. However they also always felt like a band-aid, not really getting at the root cause. Fast forward, in 2018, my husband and I sold our company to large private equity. And even though we had everything we could ask for, I still felt like something was missing. To be honest I felt like many things in my life leading up to that point were really running a race, hitting the ground hard and going through the motions. I felt like a robot. All those successes…and still I felt like something was missing. I never figured out the inner conflict I carried within me until I went to O + O Academy in India. In my day to day life, my inner conflict would come out in the form of anxieties. At O + O Academy, I learned about how we pass our traumas down from one generation to the next. In my family, there was a lot of anger, anxiety and stress passed down. When you resolve your traumas, you save future generations from the trauma. Healing this trauma wasn’t about only me – it’s about my kids and their kids. Before I healed my traumas, I felt like I was driving a car blind. Now I drive with an immense amount of passion and purpose. My eyes are wide open. It’s like I can see, I can see everything now. My heart is wide open. I was able to heal the traumas of the past, so that I can be more connected to God, the universe. Because I’ve experienced such profound healing, I’ve made it my mission to help awaken others. How we react determines our level of happiness. We can reprogram the brain to dissolve the triggers as quick as they come. Once you have that awareness that you are in that triggered state and take responsibility for your own emotions, you can dissolve the emotion and let it go. Right around this time in 2018, I needed to find a school for our first-born daughter. I was very particular when looking for schools. We looked around at many and I just didn’t fully connect to any of them. Of course, they alI had strengths, however they all had parts that were missing. I wanted a school that focused on a complete well-rounded whole child. So, being the problem-solver that I am, I said “Let’s create a school that meets all the needs of our children.” That’s how Centner Academy was born — a school that prepares our children to be mindful, resilient, happy, healthy global citizens who contribute to making the world a better place for all! Now we are the first happiness school in the U.S. dedicated to cultivating emotional intelligence, mindfulness and well-being in children.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Our shotout goes to Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, one of our senior advisors at Centner Academy. Widely known as the “Happiness Professor”, Ben-Shahar is an international best-selling author and a world-renowned expert in the science of happiness. He taught two of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history, Positive Psychology and the Psychology of Leadership. We also want to shoutout clinical psychologist and conscious parenting coach Dr. Shefali Tsabary, who’s also a senior advisor to the school.
Photo Credit: Armando Colls.