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Soul Camp: Bringing your Personal Passion online – a business of the Heart

By Barbara Quick | Small Business

The happiest entrepreneurs are those selling something whose goodness and worth they believe in with their whole heart and soul. Yahoo caught up recently with the founders of an altruistic sleep-away camp for adults—called, appropriately enough, Soul Camp—who positively glow with happiness about their joint enterprise.

“We didn’t even look at it as a business when we first started out,” says branding strategist Michelle Goldblum, co-founder of Soul Camp with the graphic designer and body confidence coach, Alison Leipzig.

Michelle and Ali first crossed paths as children at Camp Towanda, a venerable and decidedly upscale summer camp in the Poconos. The few years’ difference in their age—Ali is slightly younger—kept them from more than a nodding acquaintance at camp. They didn’t actually get to know each other until 15 years later, in 2013, when Ali spotted Michelle in a Facebook post featuring an IntenSati flash mob in New York’s Union Square. “As soon as we reconnected,” Michelle told Yahoo, “we very quickly became best friends.”

Common goals, Uncommon growth

Recognizing the commonality of their goals and the complementary nature of their skills, Ali and Michelle had the cleverness to create a business that allows them to continue their individual journeys of personal growth.

“Soul Camp,” says Michelle, “was born out of the energy of our joy and excitement at the idea of turning what we’d learned along the path into something we can share with others.”

Michelle was launched on this path very early in life. Her mother ran a spiritual community center on Long Island, called Arbutus House. “We would hold community gatherings, yoga classes, kirtan sing-alongs, drumming nights… I would come home from school to 50 people chanting in my living room.”

Such a childhood might well have taken Michelle in the opposite direction—and did for a while. But she and her mother (known now as the “Mamaste” of Soul Camp) turned out to have a great deal in common as adults. “I grew up with a meditation room in the house, and my mom meditated every single morning. I knew from an early age how important quiet contemplation is—about the importance of ‘going in.’

Like so many newly minted adults, Michelle rebelled against the parental ethos at first, setting out to become a big shot in the world of advertising. “After graduating from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.,” she told us, “I moved to New York City and began my career in the big fancy world of global pharmaceutical branding and marketing. I was making a lot of money, and had a life that looked shiny and exciting. But, from the inside, that life felt empty.”

It wasn’t until she hit her own rock bottom, with the demise of a serious relationship, that Michelle began to reexamine who she was and who she wanted to be. “The weekend that my boyfriend moved out of our apartment, I fled to the Omega Institute”—a center for holistic healing and learning in Rhinebeck, New York, where she spent her summers before she was old enough to go to sleep-away camp.

The long road to growth

The experience felt like going home, with a twist. “I took an intenSati workshop from the incredible Patricia Moreno, who is now one of our headliners at Soul Camp. At that workshop, for the first time, I met other girls my age who wanted to do inner work and live a conscious life, but didn’t necessarily want to do it from a drumming circle on a mountain.”

Michelle’s experiences that weekend turned her life around. “Within a year, I sold my apartment, quit my pharma career and went off to India solo.” On her return, she founded a branding agency, I AM. creative, designed to serve the needs of the mind/body/wellness community. IntenSati’s Patricia Moreno was her very first client.

Ali and Michelle both owned businesses centered around inner healing and spiritual health by the time they reconnected—although they both took very different paths to get to there.

“My upbringing was pretty typical for a tri-state, suburban child,” Ali told us. “I played recreational sports, went to Hebrew School, took art classes and worked hard to do well in school.” The expectations she lived her life trying to meet included “having a fit and skinny body, having perfect health, getting the straight A’s that would get me into the best college.” It was also important to her to feel popular, and run with an A-list crowd. This led to body image struggles, as well as a feeling of “not being good enough in pretty much all areas except for school.”

During college at Washington University in St. Louis, Ali applied her considerable tenacity to figuring out what she really wanted to do with her life. “I started out in the architecture school, and eventually realized my true gifts were in graphic design.” She graduated with a major in visual communications in 2009, when the economy was mired in recession. “This is where the story gets good,” said this enfant sage from Allendale, New Jersey. “I couldn’t find a job! That was the one thing I felt I always had in the bag.”

The unexpected roadblock led Ali “down a path of personal discovery and growth—and ultimately drove me to start my own design and branding business at the age of 23.” Still struggling with body image issues—the motto on her website is “Stop being such a bitch to your body!”—she decided to focus on businesses that resonated with her own journey of healing. During the four years preceding the first session of Soul Camp, she designed brands and websites “for the top thought leaders in the wellness space,” started a blog that focused on body confidence; and coached clients, one-to-one and in groups, on how to stay healthy and develop a positive relationship with their bodies.

Ali and Michelle were at a Family Constellation Retreat together when they ran into their old camp director, who broached the idea of bringing a small yoga group for adults to Camp Towanda. The two best friends brainstormed about all the different personal growth and wellness classes they could group together for a brand-new, grown-up version of summer camp—without the loneliness or insecurity so many campers experience as children. “At Soul Camp,” Michelle told us, “there are no cliques. No one feels left out. We take special care and consideration to ensure that camp remains a safe, loving space for all who enter.”

If only Michelle and Ali had been in charge when we were in high school!

The positive experiences they remembered from those summers in the Poconos also informed their vision of Soul Camp: “the community experience, the play, the fun, the songs, trying new things and going outside of your comfort zone,” said Michelle, ticking off the good stuff on her fingers.

Soul Camp’s founders say that their initial business planning efforts were more akin than anything else to throwing a big party. “All the instructors we originally reached out to said yes, they would come for free.” The first year’s faculty and food sponsors were all operating on faith, riding on the wave of Ali and Michelle’s unbridled enthusiasm. “It felt like everything was a yes. The idea, the vision, the company was created organically. The night before we were supposed to meet for the first time, we found ourselves lying next to each other in a Breathwork workshop.” Like Rick and Louis in Casablanca, they knew their friendship was meant to be.

The collective branding, marketing and graphic design experience Ali and Michelle garnered in the corporate world brought professionalism and vigor to the promotional trajectory they’ve created for Soul Camp.

Ali is in charge of all of the visual details that comprise the Soul Camp brand. Michelle writes copy and marketing materials. “We both believe in conscious marketing,” they told us. “No gimmicks, no over the top promises. Just honesty and transparency about what our campers can expect. We believe more in sharing then selling, more in giving than promoting.”

But what is their business plan, we wanted to know, now that Soul Camp has evolved from a merely beautiful idea to a limited liability company with a registered trademark and the need to file tax returns every year?

Up to this point, they have served as their own angel investors. “We’ve been supporting Soul Camp and ourselves,” Michelle told us, “through our individual branding agencies.” Eventually, they plan to serve all their graphic design, branding and marketing clients jointly through an entity they’re calling Soul Camp Creative.

Past corporate experience DOES help

For all you would-be wellness entrepreneurs out there, it’s important to remember that both these young women were successful players in the cut-throat corporate world before they struck out on a gentler path all their own.

Solid skills—paired with idealism—have lent an enviable momentum to the Soul Camp brand. The camp has two once-a-year locations now, one in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills and the other in the verdant countryside of northeastern Pennsylvania. The camp’s co-founders have a five-year plan for expansion, including numerous Soul Camp spin-offs throughout the country, online and around the world.

Their business model, powered by idealism, seems to be working. Soul Camp has gotten publicity in Travel & Leisure, Fortune, Conde Naste Traveler, Buzzfeed, AOL, Forbes, Time Out NYC, and Good Morning America, “to name just a few,” says Michelle. “When you have a unique product or offering that truly excites people, organic press is completely possible.”

It didn’t hurt that they founded Soul Camp in 2014, when several other adult sleep-away camps were just coming online. “It’s become a bit of a trend,” said Ali, “which the media has picked up on.” And both these marketing mavens knew just how to catch the wave. “Our website is the main way that people learn about Soul Camp. All our marketing materials direct users to our site to learn more. We want people to feel the camp vibe, the camp love, as soon as they land.”

All that love does, of course, come with a price. Tickets to Soul Camp cost just under a thousand dollars for the multi-day, multi-night experience, including accommodations, swag, meals, snacks, workshops and classes. Michelle and Ali have hosted three camps so far, averaging 150 campers per session—which translates, we figure, into over half a million dollars in receipts.

The founders envision a major expansion of the Soul Camp brand beyond the camps themselves, including the development and marketing of online content, virtual courses and coaching programs, in addition to their branding, strategy and design consultancy, Soul Camp Creative. “We’re planning Soul Camp family weekends, Soul Camp for kids, Soul Camp Singles, Soul Camp Seniors—” and on bringing their roster of workshops and classes to rehab facilities and hospitals.

Advice for other entrepreneurs

Their advice to other idealists out there hoping to make a business from an inspiring, empowering and/or transformative concept they want to share with the world?

  • Your passion is the fuel that will keep you running—and it will be felt by your consumers. People will want to be part of that.
  • Get super clear on the unique service or experience you’re offering to provide. This is the place where a lot of business owners in the transformation and wellness space get stuck. What exactly are you going to do to help your customers achieve the goals you’ve expressed in your marketing?
  • Find the right people to support you in your vision. We believe in fully using our own innate talents—and delegating all those things that can be better done by geniuses with skills outside our areas of expertise. This allows for efficiency and happiness—a  win-win.
  • When you’re first starting out, you just gotta get things done. This is where the passion comes into play—because with passion and a good work ethic, you can do anything.
  • Make sure you have a clear understanding of the costs that will be entailed in providing the service or experience you’re offering. Talk to someone who has done something similar. Incorporate what they’ve learned into the earliest stages of your planning.
  • Be prepared to put in a long time building your business from the ground up. After our first event, we saw the incredible impact Soul Camp had on our campers. They were so enthusiastic that we thought we wouldn’t have to work all that hard to get campers the following year. But we were wrong. We understand now what goes into spreading the word, and inspiring people to take off work and pay money for the kind of experience we’re offering.
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