On a hot August day, I sat down at a shaded picnic table outside of the Innovation Lab (i.Lab) at the Darden School of Business (University of Virginia) with co-founders of The Mind Body Project, Erin Lee Henshaw and Brittany Dunn. Every now and then, people dressed in suits and business attire strolled by, heading to and from the air-conditioned building, but when I met Erin, Brittany, and their team-mate, Sarah Crane, they were in full workout gear: colorful tanks and shirts, yoga pants, and shoes made for running. Curious, I asked them, “do you ever feel compelled to dress up for work here at the i.Lab?” Without missing a beat, Erin replied, “We are dressed for work — this is what we do.” After a pause, she added, “I don’t think I’ve ever worn a suit.”
Five minutes in, I was already a fan of these rebel entrepreneurs.
The Mind Body Project is one of roughly two dozen companies awarded space and support at Darden’s prestigious start-up incubator. Their mission: to deliver stress reduction programs to help companies tackle their biggest challenges. From high-intensity workouts, to yoga and mindfulness, they work with organizations and individuals to infuse a bit of calm, clarity, and happiness into daily life.
The company was founded by Erin Lee Henshaw, Alyssa Farrelly, and Brittany Dunn in Beijing in 2014. As members of the ex-patriate community there, the group saw a lack of options for both mind and body fitness. There were running groups, fitness, and body-oriented opportunities, but in general, there seemed to be a need for more holistic approaches to wellness. The Mind Body Project was born as a series of retreats designed for people to learn more about healthy habits to add to their lives — not to be fitness mavens, but to more fully enjoy their bodies in all the ways that might appeal to them. Exercise, healthy eating, meditation, tea, and other sensual delights are all integral parts of the The Mind Body Project experience.
Entrepreneurship as Ex-pats
As we talked about the group’s experiences as founders, first in Beijing, and then in the United States, I was fascinated to learn about their experiences in each culture. My first assumption was that it would be much harder to start a new company abroad, in a country and environment markedly different from that of your birth. Erin convinced me it was quite the contrary — she explained that being an ex-pat in a foreign country can actually level the playing field. Being away from your home country can prime you to connect and seek common ground more readily. And when the usual social divisions don’t matter as much anymore, people’s first instinct is to help, and to give what they can.
Now that they have brought the company to the United States, co-founder Alyssa Farrelly manages the team in Beijing, while Erin oversees their studio in Charlottesville, VA. Brittany Dunn travels in between the two offices, bringing her insight, and her high-octane workouts to both communities.
Adapting to the United States
When the team set up shop in Virginia and started participating in the incubator at Darden, they realized they needed to pivot from the retreat model that had been so successful in Beijing because the market was already saturated. In doing so, they found real value in focusing on bringing mindfulness to all kinds of institutions: to schools, to workplaces, even to prisons. They also set up a studio in Charlottesville, so that a regular schedule of classes could be taught on a weekly basis for individuals. The space is meant to be a mind body lab, where teachers can get feedback from students about what works and what can be improved, and students can develop a self-practice that can be advocated more outside of the studio, like in offices and schools.
Changing the structure of the business activity, however, didn’t faze Erin or the team. Their emphasis was on staying true to the goals of the project — that is, bring mindfulness and holistic wellness to people and institutions — and if the mode needed to adapt to new methods, then so be it. Indeed, yoga and meditation are excellent tools for finding ways to be comfortable with ambiguity, which is precisely the lesson every start-up must learn.
Effort vs Work
I couldn’t help but ask the team about burnout, which seems endemic to start-up culture. How does a wellness-focused start-up deal with the usual pressures of entrepreneurship? Brittany shared that for her, the goal is to sustain energy, which doesn’t always fit office schedules or corporate timelines. Erin commented that, even though she works long days, she feels as though she has more energy than she did before embarking on this project. “I am invested in practicing mindfulness and yoga and taking care of my body as needed,” she explained. And the great news is that the core of her business — her mindfulness practice — is the very thing that can help boost her focus and concentration.
All of the team members made an important distinction between effort and work. Each of them is passionate about the company, and they all put a lot of effort into the business each day, but it doesn’t feel draining to them. Collaborating as a team allows them to communicate their needs when necessary, and adapt to the strengths of each. Instead of pushing themselves to work hard, they follow the pull of the mission.
Tips on mindful entrepreneurship
As we wrapped up our conversation on that hot summer afternoon, I asked Erin Lee Henshaw to share with me her strategies for getting through stressful times — especially since we can’t all get to a yoga studio every day. She sent me her schedule, and the thoughts below, for all of you out there seeking peace in your hectic schedules.
1. Get up early, between 6–7am.
2. Start with a mug of warm water.
3. Ideally, take a 60–90 minute yoga class. Alternatively, meditating or doing breathwork for 20 minutes.
4. Eat breakfast.
5. Start emails early, when my brain is most sharp and my body most calm.
Throughout the day:
Mindfulness has helped me develop a calm curiosity about life. In the past, I used to think of each challenge as a struggle keeping me from my final goal. But, once I began to accept flowing in the present moment as the goal, I began to look for the lessons in every situation; either externally, what is this challenge teaching me? Or internally, how can I control my reactions and behave in a way that I am most proud in this situation?
For example, two days ago I lost my credit card and locked my keys in my car after a fun but very busy weekend. That immediately said to me, slow down and get back to your priorities (so you don’t have to spend all this time and money making up for rushed mistakes!)
I’m truly a baby yogi and meditator, so I can only imagine the power of a sustained practice.