Alia Alston: “You wear a lot of hats as a business owner”

An Interview Phil La Duke At the start of the pandemic, we learned rather quickly that we aren’t taking as good care of ourselves as we should. We all slowed down. Quarantine forced a lot of people to acknowledge their own bodies and to evaluate. The concept of self-help has become more important than ever. There […]

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An Interview Phil La Duke

At the start of the pandemic, we learned rather quickly that we aren’t taking as good care of ourselves as we should. We all slowed down. Quarantine forced a lot of people to acknowledge their own bodies and to evaluate. The concept of self-help has become more important than ever. There are so many ways to take care of yourself beyond just cryotherapy — balanced nutrition, yoga, adequate sleep, finding happiness, new hobbies– we have to continue prioritizing our health and wellness.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alia Alston. Alia Alston has overseen overall strategic, marketing, and operational responsibilities for the Icebox Cryotherapy Studio in Atlanta since its inception in 2012. She provides leadership to employees and management and implements new strategic initiatives, guiding overall branding direction for Icebox. As a 20-year veteran in retail marketing and product management, Alia is highly experienced in building and promoting a company from the ground up.

Alia Alston was in a serious car accident that left her with a debilitating neck injury and chronic pain. Her father, a respected chiropractor in Florida, heard about the first cryotherapy sauna in the U.S. that was being used by Nike and encouraged Alia to undergo the treatment. After a few sessions of cryotherapy, Alia regained sensation in her left arm and leg and felt a significant decrease in her pain levels. At the time, cryotherapy saunas were only available in professional and medical facilities. Alia saw an opportunity to create a retail environment that would provide an upbeat, spa-like health studio, offering cryotherapy, and other complementary services. She was the first brick and mortar retail cryotherapy studio in the U.S. and continues to be a leader and trendsetter in the industry.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Injury brought me to cryotherapy. When I was nineteen, I was hit by a drunk driver. That accident was the beginning of a long road of self-help, as I was trying to alleviate the pain sustained from my injuries. Years later, I reached a point where I needed surgery. I was losing feeling on the left side of my body because of a pinched nerve and some damage to my spinal cord. I tried everything: hyperbaric chambers, acupuncture, hanging upside down… I wanted to avoid surgery because I had an infant at the time. My dad introduced the idea of cryotherapy; it was still very new, but Nike was using cryotherapy with their runners in training and the NBA team Dallas Mavericks were using it for athletic recovery. I was out of options and to my great surprise, it worked immediately. Being that cryotherapy wasn’t mainstream yet, I decided to start a retail business with just cryotherapy. To be honest, I did it for me. I wanted to continue healing myself, but I couldn’t justify putting a cryotherapy machine in my garage. However, there were no brick and mortar cryotherapy centers in the U.S. and I ended up being the first person to provide cryotherapy in a retail environment. I wasn’t looking to start a business. I was just looking for relief, but that’s how Icebox began.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting stories are the ones that come from our Icebox customers. We’re changing lives. People are moving again, discontinuing pain medications, and hitting personal milestones. Those stories fuel us each day. We share and promote these stories among our franchisees to keep everyone focused on “the why” behind our work.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I decided to take Icebox on the road with a mobile cryotherapy unit. There were a lot of laughs, and even some tears as my team and I pulled a 24-foot trailer with a nitrogen gas tank on top. It opened so many doors for us and we had the opportunity to work with the NFL, the NBA, and Iron Man events. I can remember sitting in class to get my truck driver’s license and the guys looking at me saying, “What are you doing here?” The trailer ended up being stolen, which was a blessing in disguise. We learned so much from it, but it was challenging and very expensive. That was definitely the biggest and funniest mistake I’ve made.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

Icebox originally started as one store. It was an entrepreneurial endeavor for myself. Now, I am running a company with a leadership team, a marketing team and over 41 locations under development. It’s really flourished since then. What motivates me is the opportunity to help individuals who are struggling, people like me ten years ago, who are out of options. We are helping people find another way to help themselves.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

You wear a lot of hats as a business owner. I built Icebox from the ground up. For much of the last decade, I’ve been the boss, the sales representative, the payroll coordinator and the list goes on. My role has evolved now to be the motivator, the visionary, and sometimes the therapist. Every day is different. Instead of me doing everything by myself, I’ve now had to recruit and train the talent that keeps the operation moving.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I love watching other people become successful. With Icebox, I created the floor plan, but my franchisees are building the house. It’s so rewarding to see my time and investment come to fruition, and to see those who are a part of the Icebox family take pride in what they have accomplished.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Everything falls on your shoulders. When good things happen the whole team celebrates, but when there’s a bump in the road, that’s on you. There’s the added component of being a woman and a mom in this type of entrepreneurial environment. I like to say, “The juggle is real.” My life has become Icebox. The Icebox team has become my family, but I also have another family that needs me — my own. Juggling all of it is the hardest part.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

There’s a misconception that because I’m at the helm, I have total control. Some people assume because I own my own business, I have a lot of flexibility. Nothing could be further from the truth. My business and the ups and the downs that come each week dictate my schedule.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The question is always, “So what does your husband do?” If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that, I wouldn’t have to work another day. They specifically want to know what he does at Icebox and the answer is nothing. He has his own career that is completely separate from mine. I’m also working in a male-dominated industry. I actually brought cryotherapy to the NFL, which is ironic because I know very little about sports. My expertise is my own pain management, but among so many male counterparts, I have to be on my A-game. Pun not intended.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I never envisioned myself here, with a business of my own and a talented network around me. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. I still pinch myself. I meet people and they say, “Oh, I have heard of Icebox, I love it!” and I’m still in disbelief.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

Find the right talent and be empathetic. If you grow a business with the intention of, “We’re in this together” people will stick around for that. Each member of my leadership team has been with Icebox for five or more years and I think that speaks volumes. I strive to create a fun and supportive workplace for everyone. You need a thick skin to work in this business. My advice is to keep the noise out and focus on the goal.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

For any leader, male or female, you have to lead by example, maintain the passion and let that passion drive you. Remind yourself of “the why.” For those seeking new opportunities, figure out what your passions are. Good things will flow from doing what makes you happiest. A passionate leader breeds an organization of passionate team members.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My day-to-day isn’t possible without the support of my team, and my team starts at home with my husband. People often ask me, “How do you do it all? How do you cook and take care of the kids and run your business?” I don’t do it all. My husband and I divide and conquer everything. I cook as much as he cooks. I clean as much as he cleans. We are partners, and he encourages me to keep giving Icebox and our customers my very best.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

You might say we are making the world a better place each day, one person at a time. But we are committed to going beyond cryotherapy. Through Icebox Cares, we are engaging with the community. We are stocking food banks and filling backpacks. As Icebox continues to gain momentum, as more franchises open, I want to ensure we are always giving back.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. If you’re unhappy with an aspect of your life, have the courage to change it. I’m always encouraging my friends to take the leap and trust that their wings will catch them on the way down.
  2. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. I stand by this.
  3. Don’t do business with family or friends. You should treat your employees like family but be wary of who you bring on to your team and why.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Over the years, I’ve learned that so many people in my life truly want to support me in any way they can. It’s important to know when and how to accept that support.
  5. Don’t poison your own pot. I’ve always been one to keep people on in the name of loyalty, but there’s no quicker way to hurt your business or discourage your other teammates. Keep the ones that create too much noise at arm’s length. We can’t always pick our partners, so learn to manage them and don’t let them manage you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

At the start of the pandemic, we learned rather quickly that we aren’t taking as good care of ourselves as we should. We all slowed down. Quarantine forced a lot of people to acknowledge their own bodies and to evaluate. The concept of self-help has become more important than ever. There are so many ways to take care of yourself beyond just cryotherapy — balanced nutrition, yoga, adequate sleep, finding happiness, new hobbies– we have to continue prioritizing our health and wellness.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have always loved the phrase, “Don’t be the smartest person in the room.” I always try to adhere to that.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US 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

I’d have to say, Sara Blakely. I think she’s amazing. We actually went to the same college and lived in the same neighborhood. I love her story. She’s been a major motivator for me and she’s a mama. She does a great job of mixing it all in and making the “juggle” look good.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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