The Wellness Startups Run By Black People, For Black People

  • NoireFitFest, the UK’s first Black wellness and fitness festival, launched on Saturday 19th September, following the lead of new startups run by Black people, for Black people
  • Mental wellness platforms designed to support underserved Black communities have surged in popularity in 2020, fuelled by the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests
  • CB Insights data shows mental health-focused startups are driving global wellness investment, generating over $1 billion in funding in the first half of 2020 alone
  • “The physical activity sector wants to learn more, wants to do more. It’s broadly an inclusive sector, however recent events have revealed that we need to do more,” says ukactive’s Head of Inclusion Timothy Mathias 

LONDON, United Kingdom — On Saturday 19th September, NoireFitFest, the UK’s first Black wellness and fitness festival, officially launched, dedicated to creating a platform of visibility for Black fitness experts and the Black community. 

Founded by personal trainers Lorraine Russell and Donna Noble, this year’s inaugural online event was intended to provide a platform for fitness enthusiasts and complete novices to “immerse themselves in fitness activities taught by Black fitness professionals”. 

Globally, similar initiatives run for Black people, by Black people have emerged in 2020, triggered by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests that have forced the wellness industry – and society at large – to acknowledge glaring inequalities in how it serves all communities. 

Fed up of being ignored and tired of waiting for change to come, Black entrepreneurs are now taking it upon themselves to level the playing field and, as a result, they’re spearheading innovation and investment across the wellness spectrum. 

Supporting the emotional wellbeing of Black people
The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) explored this emerging trend in its 2020 Global Wellness Trends Report at the start of the year, under “Mental Wellness and Technology: Rethinking the Relationship”. 

In January the GWI predicted technology would rewrite how mental health and wellness were delivered and accessed, identifying a huge rise in virtual therapy apps and innovative digital mental wellness platforms. 

“The pandemic has kicked this space into overdrive,” the GWI recently reported, highlighting a new report from CB Insights that showed mental health-focused startups are driving global wellness investment, generating over $1 billion in funding in the first half of 2020 alone. 

One of the most crucial trends emerging is a world of digital apps and teletherapy platforms specifically designed to support the emotional wellbeing of Black people. 

Pre-pandemic platforms such as the Shine app, the Therapy for Black Girls site and Parenting for Liberation, each virtual networks designed to support Black people, are taking off. 

And new brands such as AYANA, the first platform to connect people of colour with therapists from their precise background (from sexual orientation to religion), are entering the space, hoping to fill the chasm in mental health and wellness resources available for Black communities. 

The Wellness Startups Run By Black People, For Black People
Image: thy.self

“More inclusivity, more change”
Chloe Pierre, founder of inclusive lifestyle brand thy.self, believes a shared sense of frustration, exposed and exasperated by the pandemic and protests, is behind this developing movement. 

“What do I think is driving this trend? Frustration. The need for clarity. Authenticity. And people wanting more,” she tells Welltodo. “More inclusivity, more change.” 

Pierre set about addressing these issues in 2018 by launching thy.self with the stated mission of challenging norms and diversifying the wellness industry in an inclusive, relatable way. 

“I noticed there were so many pieces of the puzzle missing in terms of inclusivity in all Western wellness spaces,” she explains. 

“There was a lack of clear understanding of what wellness means to every single person who seeks it consciously or unconsciously. I saw a real lack of authenticity.” 

While 2020 has exposed these entrenched inequalities to the wider world, Pierre believes influential wellness brands are still getting it badly wrong. 

“Since the launch of thy.self, diversity in wellness has become a topic of conversation but it’s still not big enough,” she adds. “All the major companies still mistreat and undervalue their diverse workforces – that’s if they even choose to have them. 

“And there is a lack of education around real customer service and the understanding of inclusivity, respect and most importantly appropriation.” 

Inequalities in the physical activity sector
Research suggests this lack of inclusivity and representation across the wellness industry is afflicting the physical activity sector too. 

In January, Sport England released a damning report that revealed stark inequalities in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) activity levels in England. 

The research found that on average 62% of adults in England meet the recommended guidelines of 150 minutes of physical activity per week. 

But when broken down by demographic, just 56% of Asian people and 57% of black people reach this figure, compared with 63% white British, 66% white other and 71% mixed. 

The situation becomes more complex when those figures are contrasted with ukactive’s latest Moving Communities report

The report revealed that people from BAME groups make up more than a quarter (26%) of membership in publicly operated gyms and leisure centres, far higher than the 14% representation of BAME groups in the national population. 

“What’s really eye-opening is that the leisure sector over indexes in terms of BAME participation,” ukactive’s Head of Inclusion Timothy Mathias tells Welltodo. “But we know from Sport England’s data that broadly speaking BAME communities are physically inactive compared with white British.” 

Mathias says that data shone a light on representation at the top level within the sector. “We need to be more inward-looking,” he says. “We need to better understand who’s making decisions within the sector? Is it having an effect on participation? 

“The general assumption is we have a lack of BAME leaders within the sector. We feel if we have a more diverse workforce we’ll make better decisions and that will influence participation rates for the better.”

The Wellness Startups Run By Black People, For Black People
Image: Blaque

“We have a role to play”
While Mathias celebrated the work of initiatives such as the Black Cyclists Network, which aims to address underrepresentation within cycling and connect riders from BAME backgrounds, and Hotpod Yoga, which commissioned research on racism in yoga and expanded its bursary programme for BAME teachers and franchisees, he acknowledged that ukactive needs to do more to lead by example. 

He says ukactive plans to install a BAME steering group to better lead its direction, and highlighted the impact Sporting Equals, which was set up in 1998, has had on representation within football, rugby and cricket in the UK. 

“Gyms and leisure centres are crucial to communities and they are places where individuals and families can come to benefit from improved health and wellbeing,” he says.

“Yet there’s evidence that ethnic minorities, communities who have been most affected by Covid-19 and the health issues associated with low activity levels, don’t do that as much as white Britons.

“There needs to be extra support for these communities and we feel we have a role to play,” he adds.

Having previously worked with Premiership Rugby to support the Rainbow Laces campaign run by Stonewall to promote LGBT inclusion in sport, Mathias hopes to run a similar initiative for Black and Asian communities within the physical activity sector. 

“These issues have been especially highlighted by COVID-19,” he says. “The physical activity sector wants to learn more, wants to do more. It’s broadly an inclusive sector, however recent events have revealed that we need to do more.

“We need more role models. We need more voices from those communities. ukactive is committed to utilising its platform to encourage and celebrate inclusion and diversity so that more people from all backgrounds are more active”.

“Real change cannot be ignored”
Across the wellness sector — from initiatives that run yoga and mindfulness classes for low-income schools to high fashion athleisure brands designing headwear for all hair types — there are inspirational examples of startups run by Black people, for Black people, that are answering this call [see below]. 

Now thy.self’s Pierre hopes other sectors of business and society can learn from the examples set by the wellness industry. “I think people can make the steps needed to drop their guard, take off the rose-coloured glasses and see the world, our society, our economy, everything for what it is,” she says. 

“Everyone needs to be understanding and to want to know what it feels like to be a part of a marginalised community and population in order to make the changes needed. 

“Real change cannot be ignored. The injustices of the past have less and less leverage over our future, so make the difficult changes now, make mistakes, but stay on track if inclusivity is something you want your business to be known for.” 

The Wellness Startups Run By Black People, For Black People
Image: BIND London

LEADING THE WAY 5 game-changing brands run by Black people, for Black people 

YOGA FOSTER: Nicole Cardoza, founder of this year’s wildly popular Anti-Racism Daily newsletter, launched this initiative following her experience as a volunteer yoga instructor in schools. Yoga Foster has now helped deliver yoga and mindfulness classes to over 4,000 classrooms across America. 

BLACK GIRL IN OM: Closing the wellness gap in yoga was also the inspiration behind Black Girl In Om. The online wellness community run by Lauren Ash since 2014, describes its vision as creating “a world where women of colour are liberated, empowered and seen”. 

BLAQUE: At the start of the year, T’Nisha Symone was set to launch the first luxury fitness club specifically designed to cater to the needs of Black communities when New York City went into lockdown. Now Symone is crowdfunding the launch of a digital platform that delivers “an inclusive, enjoyable, culturally resonant and high-quality fitness experience” for the Black community. 

OYA RETREATS: Founded by Stacie CC Graham, this collective delivers holistic movement and mindfulness experiences to Black women and women of colour on exclusive retreats in the UK and abroad. 

BIND LONDON: Set to launch later this month, Kayleigh Benoit’s BIND London promises to design high fashion athleisure and workout headwear for all hair types and textures. 

AYANA: Founded by Eric Coly, Ayana has recently launched an app to connect marginalised and intersectional communities with therapists from their precise background – from sexual orientation to religion. “Finding the ideal therapist is a right, not a privilege,” says Coly.