DURHAM — Naya Powell knows work burnout firsthand. After years working in the talent acquisition space for companies like Red Hat and IBM, she felt stressed and depleted. Perhaps more importantly, she recognized others were having the same experiences.
That’s when she decided to launch Utopia Spa and Global Wellness (Utopia SGW), formerly Spa Utopia Inc., in 2021. Initially, the company provided on-demand wellness services for businesses and corporations. After a pandemic pivot, it relaunched as a business-to-business digital wellness subscription platform addressing global burnout, and the future of work.
Today, it offers virtual live and on-demand “globally relevant” wellness experiences, including mindfulness, yoga, pilates, cultural movement, wellness and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) coaching/workshops, and retreats, virtual and global in person.
WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam recently had the chance to sit down with Powell to discuss her vision for the future of work and wellness. Here’s what she had to say:
- Talk to us about how Utopia SGW got started.
As a third-generation entrepreneur, I was motivated to start Utopia SGW based on my experiences wearing multiple hats as a founder and corporate leader. My first-hand encounters with intense stress levels, extreme work-life demands, and never-ending deadlines resulted in my own personal burnout. I learned that I was not alone from years of experience in the global talent acquisition and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) leadership space working with worldwide companies such as Red Hat, IBM, Intuit, Microsoft, among others.
Both colleagues and family members were struggling with time poverty and work-related stress, leading to a diagnosis of chronic illness such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke and, at times, even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 90 percent of all illness and disease is related to stress. Stanford researchers found that workplace stress causes nearly 120,000 deaths each year. Worldwide, 615 million suffer from depression and anxiety and, according to a recent WHO study, which costs the global workforce an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity each year.
Additionally, as a Black woman in the corporate space, I experienced feelings of exclusion and disconnection. I learned that other underrepresented communities also struggle with feelings of not belonging, affecting mental and emotional well-being, purpose in one’s work, and attrition. Polarizing headlines and health disparities of COVID-19 are taking a toll on mental health. This led to the evolution of UtopiaSGW, creating 24/7 access to all, regardless of geography and background, with a global and wholistic approach to well-being.
The future of work embodies cultural relevance, compassionate leadership, accessible self-care, and the intersectionality of mindful inclusion, diversity, and belonging. People need to see themselves in workplace wellness solutions to have a sense of connection.
- Where does your inspiration and passion for wellness come from?
My passion for wellness was deeply influenced by my health-conscious, marathon-running father, as well as my mother. She was the first Black national director of Mary Kay, an American privately owned multi-level marketing company. I saw both of my parents working hard to empower their communities with employment opportunities. They shaped me into the wellness pioneer I am today.
I initially called the business Spa Utopia. It was formalized as a C Corporation in September 2018. In the early days, we provided luxury spa and wellness services on-demand for events, corporations, and high-end hotels, delivering convenient and customized self care for The Ritz Carlton, The NFL Super Bowl, WeWork, Martha Stewart, P. Diddy, and others. However, the pandemic shifted how we interact with each other. Every industry was impacted, and we were no exception. As a result, we pivoted to an online digital wellness platform to meet the growing mental health crisis and demands for workplace wellness in this era of global burnout. It was essential to offer various multicultural wellness experiences and group coaching to foster a culture of mindful inclusion and belonging.
- What is Utopia SGW’s mission, and why is it so important for companies to support its employees with wellness solutions?
Utopia SGW’s mission is to revolutionize self-care, so the people can show up as their best selves. Our vision is to be the most trusted partner for corporations and organizations for multicultural wellness and associate well-being. Utopia SGW helps enterprises, small to medium-sized businesses, educational institutions, and organizations achieve their talent retention, recruitment, productivity, DEI, and other social goals. It also allows people to show up as their healthiest and happiest selves daily!
According to a Harvard Research study there is 6-to-1 return on investment on employee wellness programs; on average, for every dollar spent on employee wellness, medical costs fall $3.27 and absenteeism drops $2.73.
- Before you went full-time with Utopia SGW, you were working at Red Hat as part of its global talent acquisition team. What made you take the leap to pursue your startup full time?
While working with Red Hat full time, I formalized Spa Utopia, Inc. D.B.A. Utopia SGW as a corporation. I also participated in the Google for Startups Black Founders Exchange in 2018 . This became a launch pad for me to access resources, advisors and community, and it fueled our growth as a startup. However, it was also exhausting juggling it all. With tension rising, I needed to position myself to be at my best for potential clients. In 2019, The NFL Super Bowl in Atlanta became our client. At that moment, I knew it was time to make the leap and that our success would only increase as I devoted myself full time to Utopia.
After leaving Red Hat, we won a pitch competition at South by Southwest (SXSW) multimedia conference in Austin, Texas. We also curated and sold out our first luxury spa and global wellness retreat in Belize with attendees from all over the world. I became a best-selling, self-care author when I published “30 Days to Utopia Living: Unleash Abundance in Your Mind, Spirit, Body, and Relationships.”
None of these things would’ve happened had I not stepped out on faith. This instrumental time comes for every founder to determine when it is time to bet on you. As a woman of prayer and faith, I had to ask myself, “What I would do if I were not afraid?”
- During the pandemic, you had to pivot to accommodate the changing landscape. Tell us about that, and what you learned.
Yes, as a result of COVID-19, we had to pivot, expand, and rebrand quickly in 2020. Roughly 40% of Black-owned businesses closed one month into lockdown. That wasn’t the story we wanted to write for Utopia. Therefore with much support from my advisors, team and Google for Startups community, we relaunched in 2021. While the pandemic pushed many into social isolation and depression, we decided to answer the call to create a safe, convenient, fun, and global community to elevate our self-care. We decided to leverage technology in new and innovative ways to address global burnout.
- You mentioned that you were a 2021 Google for Startups Black Founder Fund recipient. How has that helped your mission?
It helped us pivot to be able to better cater to the needs of our changing world during a pandemic. As a recipient of this fund, we implemented a major rebrand. It included a new logo, website, apparel and onboarding an intercontinental team – all while resources were very lean. Being that recipient helped us develop our business outreach, attend conferences, and increase our visibility with potential corporate wellness partners and enterprises.
As a result we have been able to provide culturally relevant wellness solutions for my former employer Red Hat-IBM, along with Google, Duke University, United Healthcare, and others.
- Utopia SGW recently launched a crowdfunding round on Wefunder. Tell us about that.
We’re testing the waters to gauge investor interest in an offering under regulation crowdfunding. This means friends, family, customers, and supporters alike can become investors in the company with a minimum investment.
No money or other consideration is being solicited. If sent, it will not be accepted. No offer to buy securities will be accepted. No part of the purchase price will be received until a Form C is filed and only through Wefunder’s platform. Any indication of interest involves no obligation or commitment of any kind.
Potential investors can visit Utopia SGW’s page on Wefunder to review the terms of the offering and reserve a spot to invest.
- Utopia SGW’s platform enables members to access wellness providers from all over the world. Why was this global component so important to you?
We have instructors from five different continents and a global community spanning over 10 countries. We live in a global society, employ a global workforce, and participate in a global economy. Wellness practices are universal. As a woman of color, I know what it feels like to not feel a sense of belonging. We want to be able to include everyone, no matter their background or where they are based. My aim is to deliver safe, fun and convenient multicultural wellness experiences virtually to combat the current global stress and mental health epidemic.
- You’ve partnered with The Woman Boss, a female-focused entrepreneurship accelerator, to host an upcoming retreat in Senegal and The Gambia. How did that come about?
A few years back, Awamary Khan, founder and CEO of The Woman Boss, was working with Black entrepreneurs in Durham. She also founded North Carolina’s Black Entrepreneurship Week (BEW). Her work with Shaw University’s Innovation Center positioned her on the same street as Red Hat, and our paths crossed. Through collaboration, we fostered a true friendship born out of a mutual passion for entrepreneurship. Hosting a retreat together was a natural progression. We secured a lineup of amazing speakers who are also women that share our vision for empowering other women in the entrepreneurial and corporate leadership space. This initiative resulted in a global press CNBC feature highlighting our social impact collaboration.
- You’ve also recently launched a new podcast, “Equity Raise: Leveling the Landscape for Diverse Founders and Their VCs.” How did this come about?
Equity Raise is a new podcast from American Underground, sponsored by The Diversity Movement, and produced by Earfluence Media. I’m beyond honored to serve as host. Black female founders raise less than 1% of VC funding. I want to raise awareness, and facilitate conversations that are enlightening, inspiring and essential for leveling the playing field for Black and indigenous people of color and female founders.
It has been incredibly inspiring to interview trailblazing and innovative founders of color that are defying the odds, alongside their VCs. Among them: Denise Woodard, who has raised almost $10 million in venture capital and scaled her allergen-free food brand, Partake Foods, to 10,000 stores across the US. She was joined by Karen Howland, managing director of CircleUp Equity, who was one of the early investors I’ve also featured Tiffanie Stanard, founder and CEO of Stimulus Inc; Bull City’s finest, Dorian Bolden, founder of Beyu Caffe; and Malik McCray, co-founder of Simpliworks; and Shila Nieves Burney, General Partner of Zane Venture Fund.