…I did the bootstrap method for my start-ups, and I would highly suggest it. Start small and use your voice. I know we all do or should want our voice heard, and the way to do that is through your ownership, your voice, and ultimately, it becomes your brand. Starting up a company might even help you understand yourself more because each time you hone your brand, you are touching into a component of yourself.
As a part of our series called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Upuia Ahkiong.
Upuia is a first generation Samoan-Chinese American born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Owner and Founder of Kua Body, massage studio; WELA, a women’s entrepreneur group; and VAAI, digital design company. She earned her M.S. in counseling psychology at Chaminade University of Hawaii and spent over 7 years in Education as a school counselor and teacher. Upuia became one of the first massage therapists at Google, Inc. and spent over 10 years helping to build a massage program that’s well-established and indispensable.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am a first-generation Samoan-Chinese American born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. Owner and Founder of Kua Body, massage studio; WELA, a grassroots women’s entrepreneur group; and VAAI, digital design company. I earned my M.S. in counseling psychology at the Chaminade University of Hawaii and spent over seven years in Education as a school counselor and teacher. I became one of the first massage therapists at Google, Inc. and spent more than ten years helping to build a massage program that’s well-established to this day.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I knew I wanted to help people, but I will be honest, my career change came as a complete surprise to me and to others who knew me. I had my head down on graduate studies and my sights on becoming a principal. But it is as if suddenly I had a natural heritage pull to dive deeper into my Samoan roots. My grandmother was from the islands of Samoa and was considered a Taulasea and Fofō, a traditional village healer of her time. Just like that, I went from teacher to massage therapist. When you follow your heart and soul, good things can happen. I ended up becoming a highly sought-after massage therapist at Google, Inc. and stayed for over ten years before the entrepreneurial bug got a hold of me.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The word that stands out to me is STEADFAST. I grew up in a strong community and family where heritage, tradition, faith, and integrity are highly valued. It was well known that the family would be told very quickly if you step out of line and assumed you would make it right. At Kua Body, I chose to build from a place of genuine compassion and service for my fellow practitioners and clients. I lead my life from a place of honesty, integrity, and service with the hope that anyone who experiences Kua Body will feel fully supported, respected, cared for, and valued. I will never compromise my values and always do my best to offer the highest quality of service.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Kua Body success has allowed me to create and be the founder of WELA. Women Entrepreneurs Launch is a community of women opening their arms in Education and support to ensure the highest potential of success achieved for women entrepreneurs. WELA is a grassroots not-for-profit women’s business organization. WELA is a group of entrepreneurial women who know how to support each other in business, but all women in WELA make a vow to elevate each other.
“When women elevate and support women, you elevate the potential for success,” said Upuia Ahkiong, founder of WELA.
WELA is offering a virtual workshop series with Google to help move women-owned businesses forward. The next session is Monday, June 21. Attendees will have a chance to learn how to use Google tools for marketing and walk away thinking like a marketer and knowing how to leverage the online space for their business. You’ll learn to reach more customers online through Google tools, content marketing methods, and enhanced digital marketing strategy. And there are just a few of the topics covered in the 90-minute online workshop. Hear from special guest Amy Konary, VP of Zuora Customer Business Innovation, on the subscription economy. “We’ve identified all the tools needed, and we support the women out of COVID-19 into the community of WELA,” Upuia explained. “These topics are from how to manage and deal with a landlord, franchising to even scaling your business. We have a group of women that have handled all of these aspects and more.” And these business nuggets you can try to find out by yourself, but that task can be overwhelming. Now there is a community where you can say, hey, I need help with this; these are the skills available within WELA.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Being grounded: In your vision, goals, and mind. Lead with Purpose
Tenacity with a mix of resiliency
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Many people will give their input and advice for many reasons, including their selfish gain, and that has been the hardest lesson for me. But it also put me back on track to listen to my inner wisdom.
During the selection process of determining a board of women to support me in my endeavors, I remember being told not to invite a particular person to participate. I would get this information in small bits here and there and thought there must be something to it.
I was learning to listen to my intuition, my inner voice. I believe that comes with time and attention to this detail. When I opened up my second studio, it gave me over an hour of driving time. At first, I became frustrated because it felt like such downtime, but then I made it my time of reflection and meditation. It was my quiet time, so I could genuinely listen to my inner voice and dig into my confidence. It became too clear to me that their advice came out of their selfish gain. They didn’t want me to listen to anyone else but them and take hold of my decision-making.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
COVID created entrepreneurs to keep thinking out of the box, and I feel I do so quite well. And definitely for a massage therapist, the pandemic began a complete shutdown of the business. I am proud to say a few of us got together and started VAAI, a digital design company. I knew we had to offer work that we could do from our homes, and as a team, we provided skills that new entrepreneurs would be needing.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
I am a focused athlete at heart. I was active in volleyball and track and field in school. And nothing requires commitment and focus like athletics early on in your lifetime. I can say it also influenced my firm commitment and team spirit.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
I did the bootstrap method for my start-ups, and I would highly suggest it. Start small and use your voice. I know we all do or should want our voice heard, and the way to do that is through your ownership, your voice, and ultimately, it becomes your brand. Starting up a company might even help you understand yourself more because each time you hone your brand, you are touching into a component of yourself.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The biggest mistake I see entrepreneurs make is underestimating what it’s going to take to manage their business. You become the only contact for clients calling and texting you. You are the scheduler, the purchaser, the CEO, CFO, marketing manager, and other titles. Be open to asking for help and hire skillful and loyal people to support your vision. It can be daunting, but if you can find a way to have your dreams met, it will all be worth it.
Start-up founders often work incredibly long hours, and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I want to share what has helped me through the last seven years of my entrepreneur journey. Give yourself a break. I have become aware that becoming burned out even in a short amount of time, especially as you are starting your business and wearing many hats, is possible. A relaxed mind, a creative mind can solve problems better and leave you with a clearer sense of calm and excitement for your new venture. I know this has helped me.
Get out your calendar and schedule a personal retreat. Every year during the first few weeks in January, I block out at least two weeks of downtime and schedule at least a 24-hour personal retreat. And this is what I follow.
1. look at your calendar and block out an entire day in advance. Let people know that you are doing a Personal Retreat for 24 hours (of course, you will contact them if an emergency and them to you).
2. Determine a few pain points or unknown points to you: struggling with social media? Want to meet other entrepreneurs? Then that leads you to number 3. A few suggestions (Google, WELA)
3. Find 1–2 online classes that address your above pain points to attend once you return
4. Post on social media: you are on a personal retreat and when you will return. Everyone loves a leader who knows how to take care of themselves.
6. Wake up with no alarm and, if possible, wake up to the morning sun (blinds or curtains kept open). It creates a soft and soothing wakeup
7. Smoothie time. Find a great recipe that makes you feel happy.
8. Meditate or relax and listen to your calming music list.
9. Stretch and move all of your joints from your wrists, hips, and knees.
10. Do a minimum of 30 minutes with nature. A walk outside. Sit outside: find an area that creates your ability to enjoy looking at nature. Notice the color of the leaves, flowers, an animal that hops past you. What unique color did you see today?
11. Pamper yourself that night. No phone. No T.V. Take a long hot shower. Just you, an essential oil, decaf tea, soothing music. If you find your mind flooding with inspiration or ideas, jot them down in your notebook/journal.
You may just have created a new evening habit.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, V.C. funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
That is an easy question. Simon Sinek — On my long commute between my studios, I usually sit in silence, but one day, I started, and I listened to Simon’s Ted Talk “Start with Why.” I was hooked immediately by his message, storytelling, and authenticity. I always felt such a strong positive attitude from him.
I was also fascinated with his study of “cultural anthropology”- studying cultural variation among humans.
He communicates in a way that shows respect for humanity and is very uplifting. It puts you on track to keep positive or be positive. He has a real grasp of authentic and effective Leadership, and I connect very deeply with this style I incorporate into my business Kua Body and VAAI and non-profit WELA.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!