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

8 minute read

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.