Khalil Rafati was living on Skid Row and addicted to herion. How did he tranform his life and build a multi-million-dollar business in the process? With hunger and intensity, he says
Words: Khalil Rafati
Illustration: Andrew Bastow
Imoved to LA when I was 21 years old to escape a horrific childhood. Both of my parents came to the US as immigrants: my mother was from Poland, my dad from Palestine. My mother was only four or five when the Nazis invaded Poland and ended up in a work camp during the Second World War. My father was 12 years old when he became a refugee in his own country. They both lost everything, and neither of them were equipped to be parents.
Both of my parents came to the US as immigrants: my mother was from Poland, my dad from Palestine. My mother was only four or five when the Nazis invaded Poland and ended up in a work camp during the Second World War. My father was 12 years old when he became a refugee in his own country. They both lost everything, and neither of them were equipped to be parents.
There was violence, sexual abuse and neglect, and I moved from Toledo, Ohio to California out of desperation. I was involved with shady characters and doing shady things: burning down buildings, stealing stuff off trucks, selling drugs — just stupid sh*t that was putting my life in jeopardy. I knew I was headed for real trouble so one day, hung-over, I thought: “I’d better get the f**k out of here.”
I only had about $800 to my name.
I’m industrious and hard working, and at first my life in California looked very promising. I was working; I fell into the right crowd; I was acting; I was in a band. But that seed of self-destruction, which I had watered early on in childhood, began to germinate again.
Most people move to LA with silly fantasies of becoming rich and famous so you’re sort of set up for failure. There’s a lot of pretentiousness and shallowness. You hear stories about the girl who was the hostess at a restaurant; she starts dating a producer and all of a sudden she has her own television show. But let’s be honest — one out of a million people who come here end up living the life of Riley and the other 999,999 end up waiting tables. It can be bleak and depressing, and along with the sex, rock and roll, fame and the money come the drugs, the mistakes and the pain.
There wasn’t a single moment when I realised that my life needed to change. It was many moments pieced together: no longer having a bank account; finding out that I’d been sharing needles with a guy who had AIDS; waking up and realising that I was homeless; being in hospital for the sixth or seventh time; finding myself in county jail going through withdrawal. All of those experiences together resulted in this dread coming over me and I came to the stark realisation that there was nobody left, there was nobody for me to call, there was nobody that would help me. I was penniless, homeless and my teeth were falling out. I thought: “I can’t do this, I can’t live like this any more.” That was when I changed.
My mistake was my greatest asset
What ended up being a massive mistake — the drugs, homelessness, crime, shooting heroin and smoking crack — took me to where I am now. Would I be in the position that I am in today had I not gone through that? The answer is no. I would be managing a restaurant, if I were lucky, earning $15 an hour, but I now own a company with hundreds of employees, which is turning over millions and millions of dollars in sales a year.
When I got clean, I was working about four different odd jobs, seven days a week, 20 hours a day and saving every penny — not out of virtue but fear.
There seems to be a missing link about me in the press. It says: “He was homeless, then he started selling juices and now he’s a millionaire flying around in private jets,” but it’s just not true. It has been 14 years since I got sober and I spent many years doing menial labour. I walked dogs, washed cars and saved money, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I started my first business.
I had got a job at a treatment centre and eventually started my own sober companion business where I was babysitting rich and famous people. I noticed that something was missing from the market of recovery — people were getting stuck in 30-day rehab centres where they take an addict, dry them out for 30 days and then throw them back into life. All these people would relapse, so I opened up my own facility called Riviera Recovery where I would house people for three to nine months, sometimes a year, and give them really healthy food and juices. I had miraculous results and the business was very successful.
In 2011, I started SunLife Organics; it was just a small mom and pop shop, but by the grace of God it was perfect timing. Everybody was going crazy for organic juices and smoothies. They were asking me, “How did you come up with the recipes? Are you a chef?” I was just making smoothies in my kitchen with a bunch of nasty-tasting super foods, but I would put dates, honey and dragon fruit in them to make them palatable.
“Of course, I was a drug addict and I’ll never stop being an addict. I pursue feeling good through superfoods, smoothies and yoga just as intensely as I did with drugs”
Of course, I was a drug addict and I’ll never stop being an addict. I pursue feeling good through superfoods, smoothies and yoga just as intensely as I did with drugs. I always want to feel high and I do. It just so happens that I now feel high from helping my mother, employing a bunch of people, eating really healthy food, doing yoga and paddle boarding. I feel higher than ever, but the repercussions and side effects aren’t negative any more. Ultimately, my dark, horrible mistake was my greatest asset.
A hunger you can’t teach
I am a convicted felon, I don’t have a college degree and I don’t even have a high school diploma. The education I have is from the streets — I have the ability to communicate very quickly because when you’re living on the streets and trying to procure drugs, you could lose your life with one transaction if you don’t know how to look people in the eye. You also need to learn very quickly how to negotiate, size people up, understand what people’s motivations are, and whether they’re going to cause you harm.
Being a convicted felon, a high school drop-out and not really having any vocational skills whatsoever created a hunger which superseded anything and everything: I was going to succeed no matter what. You can go to Harvard, Princeton or Oxford but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a success. Those schools can’t teach hunger; only the depths of my depravity, my sadness and my depression created my hunger. In fact, most likely if you go to one of those schools, you’re going to come and work for some idiot like me someday!
I’m so gullible and very trusting, and I think the biggest mistake I’ve made in business is underestimating people’s ability to bypass friendship and go for the fast buck. I’ve had people grossly take advantage of me in every one of my businesses — even in my yoga studio.
People always ask: “How is this ex-junkie running around with all these movie stars and flying around the world on their private jets?” It’s because I’m honest and transparent. It’s OK to want nice, shiny things — just don’t let that be your endgame. Love, honour, friendship and honesty come first.
The story of Siddhartha
The real joy I get is from making a difference in so many people’s lives. I know that right now my mother is living in the lap of luxury, my business partners are prospering as a result of my ideas, and I’ve got hundreds of kids working for me that are earning a pay cheque.
I’ve made some monumental mistakes and I continue to make mistakes on a daily basis but in that process I also got to strip away everything and meet myself face to face. I spent 33 years on this planet being a taker and it sucked. Now I can be kind to people, I can be generous, I can be loving, I can be caring, and it’s amazing. I now at least have a fighting chance of being the man that God intended me to be.
I have always admired the story of Siddhartha as he wandered through his lifetime and gave up all of his possessions. I was always envious of the enlightenment that he reached, but be careful what you wish for because I woke up and I had nothing, and I’m definitely no Buddha. I’m definitely no saint, but I am Khalil — I know me, I like me and I am proud of me.
Based on an interview with Christina McPherson, Senior Editor at White Light Media
Khalil Rafati is an author, speaker and health-fitness entrepreneur. He is the owner of SunLife Organics, a rapidly growing chain of popular juice and smoothie bars in California, as well as the owner of Malibu Beach Yoga. He also founded Riviera Recovery, a transitional living facility for drug addicts and alcoholics. Khalil’s autobiography I Forgot to Die is available now.