Margaret Kilibwa: From Big Pharma to a Clinic in the Tropics

MKprofileRare is the medical research professional who would give up an established 23-year career to start a healthcare clinic in Africa. Fewer still are those who would fund it out of their own pocket, eating through their savings and foregoing retirement benefits. Meet Margaret Kilibwa, clinical nutritionist and social entrepreneur.

“I wasn’t prepared when I made the leap, but I suppose if I knew then exactly what it would take, I might not have jumped into it. Then again, when I’m at the clinic, many women come to tell me ‘you saved my life’ but even if it was one woman it would be enough for the amount of investment I’ve made.”

Kilibwa was born in Sabatia not far from Kisumu, on the banks of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. Influenced by her American classmates at boarding school, the young graduate crossed the Atlantic to study chemistry at the University of Cincinnati, where she had won a scholarship. From Ohio, she was accepted to the prestigious Cornell University where she did a Masters, followed by a PhD in clinical nutrition. Although she was interested in going to medical school, Kilibwa decided to gain work experience instead, “not in the diet area but rather to understand in more practical terms how nutrition can be used to prevent disease,” she recalls. (more…)

Tiina Zilliacus: From the Security of Tech Giants to the Competitive World of Gaming

Tiina ZilliacusTiina Zilliacus’ last name brings to mind the long-gone days of gladiators and Greek warriors. And in many ways, the Finnish tech entrepreneur has launched herself into a battle of sorts. Leaving the security of the corporate world, with three years of hard work and preparation behind her, Zilliacus has suited up to enter the male-dominated fray of gaming. “What I have initiated is not currently in the scope of most game developers. Within the next five years, instead of Coke and pizza, I hope more of them will become genuinely interested in health. When this happens, we’ll be there with cool employee opportunities,” she adds with a smile.

Following the career path her parents valued, Zilliacus knew she would go work for the big brands. After receiving a business degree from the Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, the dutiful and driven daughter did just that and spent 11 years at the Finnish tech giants, Nokia and Sonera, focusing purely on business-to-consumer (B2C) services such as management of online shops. A consistent thread of supporting consumers in mobile, online and digital environments has run through all her positions.

And yet, despite a clear future of fulfilling and secure corporate opportunities, Zilliacus knew her personality type was meant more for the smaller start-up environment. “I’ve always had something of a fearless adventurer attitude and love a certain amount of risk, so by my early-to-mid 30s I started seeking out CEO roles in the start-up world.”

For the next five years, she moved seamlessly among three start-ups, one mobile phone photo and video service (Futurice) and two gaming firms (Apaja Online Entertainment and Ironstar Helsinki), where she was Managing Director and CEO, respectively.

During her corporate life and especially the stressful years of start-up management, Zilliacus turned to yoga as a form of release. “First it was just a hobby, but quickly became a way of life. I’ve always made time for yoga and been on a lot of retreats. I’m even certified as an instructor.”

The gaming sector in Finland, as in most places around the globe, is male-developer driven. While this bothered Zilliacus, who herself is not a developer, she saw a clear opportunity: “They make games that they would like to play although 55% of casual and mobile game customers are female. I realized that I actually could use my professional competence and understanding of what women like in terms of entertainment to fulfill the needs of a major target audience that the market was not addressing.”

Zilliacus decided to start a business driven by her own values and her devotion to yoga provided the spark of inspiration. “Not many people have the digital and management experience that I have and understand yoga and the well-being world as much as I do. I decide to merge my professional knowledge with my passion to create a gaming business targeting women 25 years and older.”

And so as the next iterative step in her career, she set out once again but this time to found her own gaming studio focusedTiina Zillacius on fun mobile “free2play” games aimed at women with the unique underlying theme of wellness.

The last three years have not been easy. They were spent building a strategy, laying the groundwork, seeking angel and seed investment, and recruiting former colleagues to the team. As the 40-year old Zilliacus explains: “I’ve been married to this company. It wakes up with me on Saturday morning, my weekends, my nights…when you are so invested in bringing something like this to life, you give up not only your time but your mind space. As a yogini and wellbeing enthusiast, it took me two years to accept that there is a time that I just need to let all of this happen to me even though it’s work. But because it relates so much to my personal experiences, I can never describe it as work. It will simply take as long as it takes as long as I am where I want to be. That’s the attitude and mental model I needed to adopt and once I did that, everything fell into place.”

But the hard work has paid off. Gajatri Studios’s first simulation or management game, Yoga Retreat, is just recently available from the Apple App Store. Along the lines of Animal Farm, the mechanics of the game are familiar. Zilliacus has intentionally aimed to keep it accessible and not so difficult that it becomes hostile for the user. Players can access yoga poses, unlock small daily meditations, and challenge friends as they manage, expand, and customize their very own yoga retreat on a paradise island.

Zilliacus’ company has attracted the support of two Finnish female angel investors and a family-owned investment office that are drawn in by the health features within games. Her two co-founders are from Rovio, the makers of Angry Birds: “Games guys are open minded. They like to do stuff that reaches out to people so the first motivation is that they like the plan that there is a different type of business strategy and therefore also leadership style in what you do”.

Gajatri Studios’ business model is sustainable and incorporates a wide theme of health and wellness that can molded into different content. Future games will look at food for instance and there is an opportunity for synergies with the forthcoming IOS8 platform and its Health Kit. “As the Apple platform evolves, we plan to utilize different opportunities in our games. For example, we could offer yoga challenges that we can verify have been completed because the user is wearing an iWatch or something like that. Essentially integrating some real life activity into a game, that’s the wider idea,” Zilliacus explains.

The female gaming entrepreneur, one of few in Finland, is optimistic of what lies ahead but acknowledges with these types of companies, funding must be sought out all the time. “It’s a continuous process and depending on which stage you are in, you know the sums are dependent on that. That’s part of the entrepreneurial life, until you are successful, you are every once in a while almost out of funding and when you are successful, you don’t need it any longer. You just need to go on until you reach that certain critical point.”

Zilliacus will know in a few weeks if she has hit that critical point as sales stats from Apple App Store are reported. But regardless the journey is what counts and of that she can surely be proud.

Tips from the Finnish gladiator of gaming:

  • Really be clear that the core of what you interested in is what you strive towards. It’s so much hard work to launch a business, make sure you like what you do and that you are good at it. Understand your strengths and weakness. If those elements are present, then it will be easier. Be grateful of what you get to do, not many people have the same opportunity.
  • Be persistent. Don’t get easily discouraged. There are so many people who are not going to help you, you need “sisu” (uniquely Finnish expression for grit) to get past the non-believers and be able to do things on your own. You won’t always get approval, but you must sustain.
  • Surround yourself with people with integrity.
  • Find a way to relax every day, clear your head in an efficient way. This enables you to focus on what is essential the next day.

Lisa Allen and Trish Drennan: Friends, Partners, and Sweat Gurus

BBF co-ownersFor Lisa and Allen and Trish Drennan, it took a dramatic life event to make them recognize it was time for a change in their personal and professional lives. For both, the death of a mutual friend was a wake-up call that brought them together to support each other in becoming healthy and strong and to make it their lives’ work to help others to do the same.

A graduate of the University of Delaware, Lisa Allen had had a long-term career in communications, representing various trade associations in D.C. The work was interesting – everything from issues management to crisis communications – but when she had her first child at age 31, she decided it was time to work for herself and “own” her time a bit more. For years after she hung her own PR shingle, she found herself being able to devote more time to working out, something that had played an important role in her life since graduating from college.

Allen remembers herself as a chubby kid, who put on even more weight in college. “I had an “a-ha” moment soon after I graduated and realized I needed to do something different. I started running a lot and lost the college weight and was actually pretty proud of the fact that I got and stayed fit. Ever since then, exercise has become a real passion of mine.”

But Allen never really intended to make a career out of her love of health and fitness until she met Trish Drennan.

Drennan also worked in the field of communications after an unexpected detour as an engineer. After graduating from Wittenberg University with a degree in international relations, she thought she would pursue a career on Capitol Hill.  But when she found herself jobless between election cycles, a temporary job launched her into a new career as a wireless technology expert.

“I got placed at this technical engineering company, and it was at the time when wireless was really booming. It was a brand new trade so the company invested in training us. Within a year, I went from being a liberal arts girl to a wireless engineer trainee at George Washington University.”

Soon, Drennan was shipped off to Germany and found herself designing wireless networks for LCC International. She stayed there for almost five years but when the company decided to go public, they looked internally for people who understood good communications in addition to the technical side of the business. Drennan found herself tapping into those liberal arts skills in the sales and marketing department and later in investor relations.

In all, she spent nearly 22 years at LCC, eventually managing a team of 300 communications professionals around the world.

But with each promotion, the former college athlete found her commitment to fitness woefully waning.

“Once I started working, I went hard and heavy into my career. Unlike Lisa, I never had a weight problem until I had kids. By the time my third child was a year old, I was 45–50 pounds overweight. I was travelling internationally, juggling the needs of three kids and had a husband who also had a big job. It was a crazy time in my life and I was really soul-searching.’”

Although she was coaxed into contracting with the company to help them through another transition, Drennan, like Allen, decided to go out on her own. Now that she too owned her time, she started working out on a regular basis with her new friend.

In the Fall of 2009, for Drennan’s 40th birthday, the two decided to train for a marathon.  With loads of time to chat during long training runs, the “what if” conversations intensified as the pair discussed how they might make a go of it in the fitness industry.

During that time, a friend who ran a local boot camp in Ashburn invited Allen and Drennan to help her run the boot camp a couple mornings a week.  This was the opportunity they had been looking for – running an already established fitness class and seeing how it went.  At this point, the two friends had become such health and fitness junkies that they not only ran marathons but also competed in triathalons and spent the rest of their spare time reading up on the latest health, nutrition, and fitness trends. Drennan had lost forty pounds and was feeling fabulous, and Allen was determined to continue to help other people meet their fitness goals.

So donning their marketing hats again, the pair branded their own boot camp, Motiv8Me, and launched a new program.

“My husband joked that I went from an expensive clothing habit to an expensive equipment habit,” said Drennan.

In March of 2010, they launched the business with eight clients, each of whom had to commit to an eight-week session. It was important to them that their customers follow through with their commitment to the program and their own personal goals. The closer they worked with their clients and researched what was out there, they more realized they had hit on an idea that added value in the fitness world. “As students in lots of fitness classes ourselves, we were really frustrated with the fact that you could be doing moves wrong to the point of hurting yourself, but no one would tell you because the group fitness instructor was incentivized to come in and teach, not to take care of the people.”

Allen and Drennan took their plan a step further and became certified fitness instructors, quickly realizing what they really wanted was not just a boot camp, but a full-service gym that was different from any of the other fitness offerings available. Something that would offer everything they had learned and believed was critical to a lifetime of fitness – high intensity interval training, core work, strength training, and yoga. On top of that, they wanted a gym that didn’t sell shakes or powders or any hint that weight could fall off easily with short cuts. “Although we are not certified nutritionists, we wanted a gym where we could talk with clients about the importance of long-term good nutrition habits, and where we would commit to them if they would commit to the program,” explains Drennan.

With those goals, the pair came up with a tagline that would be the centerpiece of their gym:  Sweat. Nourish. Commit.

Again, the fitness junkies found themselves leaning on the skills they honed in their former lives to ensure their new venture was a success. “We really come into this industry from a very different perspective. Most people who want to open gyms are former trainers, but we take a business perspective. We wrote a business plan, we did a competitive analysis, we knew how much money we had to raise to make it work.”

They opted to turn to their own families to borrow the money rather than taking out a small business loan.  Each side put in equal amounts, and Allen and Drennan have opted not to take a salary until the loans are mostly paid back. They also decided to rebrand the company to something stronger and came up with BlackBench Fit, in reference to the eight black workout benches they purchased during their earlier outdoor bootcamp days.

Three years later, and BlackBench Fit is humming along and the two are ahead of schedule based on the original projections in their business plan.  “We were able to make a small dent into loan repayment this year, AND put a little bit of money each into our 401ks.”

But more than feeling satisfied at their business savvy, Allen and Drennan count it a blessing that they’ve been able to launch careers in a field that is so meaningful to them.

“One of the most rewarding parts of our job is also the most surprising,” shares Trish. “I had no idea I had a teacher or a therapist in me, but I love that part of the job.”

“I feel like what we’re doing now is a real calling for me,” adds Lisa. “It’s so gratifying to help people reclaim their bodies because I’ve been there and know what it’s like.”

Have questions for the owners of BlackBench Fit on their success to date? Write a comment and we’ll be sure they see it.

Dr Kelly McNelis: From Coal Miners to Crockpots, Finding Your Passion Early On

Kelly McNelisMany of us can remember the doubts we had early on in our careers – the feeling we might be pursuing the path of stability at the expense of following our passion. Dr Kelly McNelis was lucky. She decided to forgo the safe and well-worn path while she was still young enough to enjoy the rewards that come with doing something you love. After just a little more than a decade in her first career, the 32-year-old chose to ignore her inner fears and follow her gut — giving up a lucrative government research position to go out on her own as a wellness coach… and, to her own great surprise, also, something of an internet star.

The Pittsburgh native’s determination is a key asset in her road to success. “I was one of those kids who always knew what they wanted to do. I’ve wanted to be a psychologist for such a long time, at least from middle school when I really understood what a career was. I still have a paper about my career plans I wrote in 9th grade honors English,” McNelis recalls.

With a degree in Psychology from Penn State University, McNelis went to grad school at the University of Rochester, where she studied for free by committing to the PhD program up front. She graduated early with a PhD in social-personality psychology which studies the average functioning person and tries to understand why people do the things they do. “It fascinated me because I was learning about everyone I knew. I combined my studies with my passion for exercise and healthy living. I tried to understand what motivates people to exercise, why they make New Years’ resolutions about getting fit and what keeps them going past the end of January!”

Looking to return to Pittsburgh, she found a research job at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) working on a team with other social scientists. Much of the worked centered around the study of underground coal miners and how to keep them safe and healthy. McNelis did a lot of lab work and conducted on-site research.

McNelis worked at NIOSH for three years, but frankly it was a slog. “It was not my thing, despite loving psychology, I wasn’t doing work that I was passionate about. Basically, it was a trade-off. I stayed there because it was a really flexible job: I could work from home, it was stable, and paid well. But I kept asking myself, ‘Why did I devote nine years to studying in order to end up working in a career that I didn’t love?’ I realized I was too young to give up. I felt like a ‘sell out’.”

Having her second daughter cemented the decision to leave. “I was trading all these hours away from my children, spending them on something I didn’t like. I wanted to continue working but I needed to feel the passion.”

And so McNelis decided not to return to NIOSH after maternity leave. When she called to inform her manager about her decision, he shared one last bit of info that tempted her to stay. “I was originally hired as a Fellow. When I broke the news he offered me a long-term position and a promotion to permanent staff with a salary increase. My head said yes but my heart said no.”

Very nervous as she hung up the phone, McNelis thought she was making a huge mistake. But her family and friends stood by her decision. “My husband was McNelis Familygreat. He knew something would turn up, and we honestly believed it was a good time for a transition.”

While contemplating if teaching would be an option, McNelis found herself fascinated by an article her mother-in-law had sent with a note “thought of you”. It featured a woman who had started a business as a wellness coach. “I always I thought I would start my own business, but that it would be later in life when I had more experience and was older and wiser. But at that moment, I really felt ‘now is the time.’”

McNelis enrolled in 12-week certification with WellCoaches®, with the goal of opening her own coaching business for the average person desiring better habits. “Maybe they want to just eat better, exercise or lose weight, or even get the confidence to start a business like me. It would be an opportunity to combine my psych background with my passion for health and I immediately decided to target new moms who could use the advice of someone at the same stage in life but with a PhD in psychology!”

She started building New Leaf Wellness gradually. “My husband made a fabulous site for the business,” said McNelis (yes, she really appreciates her beau). She hired someone else to create a logo, and her uncle, a lawyer, helped her file as an LLC within a matter of months. She leaned heavily on social media to drive interest in her business and wrote a blog for new moms to drive traffic to her site. “The blog, advice and all the easy recipes I was offering were really a free way to support the women I wanted to coach.”

McNelis admits she was a bit naïve about the number of clients she expected to see coming through the door. But while the coaching side was slow to shift, other parts of the business started taking off in unexpected ways. “My blog gained traction and I started writing e-cookbooks. One article I wrote to promote my cookbook, 15-Minute Freezer Recipes went viral…it just blew up!” With 150K page views in one day and thousands of cookbook sales, this was all the reassurance McNelis needed to know she was headed in the right direction. “All my hard work was paying off. I had spent a year-and-a-half writing my blog and months paying my babysitter more than what I was making,” she laughs.

Where did the recipes come from? “I made them up! When I was pregnant, I would have loved some recipes to stock my freezer before the baby came. There’s a couple of breakfasts, lunches, cookies…I made them over and over again until I thought they were perfect.”

It’s been six months and another baby since McNelis’ post went viral. She has since published her third cookbook on crockpot recipes and continues to make a steady income blogging about recipes and wellness. And she couldn’t be happier, “I share my passions for food and healthy living with other moms.  I’m able to be home with my daughters and devote my time working to a career that I love. I am living my best life now. This is it. My best day is today.”

Tips from Dr Kelly McNelis

  • You cannot create demand. I might think every mom needs to work with a wellness coach, but it doesn’t matter what I think.  You can only try to identify the demand and then try to figure out how to fill it.
  • Don’t let your fears hold you back.  Think of fear as a signal that something is important to you. Embrace the fear that you feel about making a career change or building your business and know that your passion for it will help you to be successful in the long run.
  • Stop living your life for tomorrow.  Don’t spend all of your time thinking about the future or what you’re doing to do with it.  Start living for today.  Enjoy the here and now.  Celebrate how far you’ve come and finish each day happy and grateful for where you are.

Questions for Kelly? Write in the Comments section and we’ll be sure you get a reply.