May 15, 2020
Ashleigh Stewart is founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based self-care brand The Wellness Refinery. The business recently opened in a space in Old City where it offers infrared sauna sessions, a tonic bar and wellness market for city dwellers looking to refine and recharge.
However, Stewart had to put a hold on booking sauna sessions and inviting clients to stop by the store. Following COVID-19 mandates, The Wellness Refinery closed its brick-and-mortar store, pivoting to remote and tech initiatives. Now, if you're looking for a wellness fix, you can browse products and more online.
Stewart's path to starting the business didn't start how one would imagine, and with COVID-19 pandemic, she finds herself continuing to adapt and change to fit client needs.
"In high school, I had my heart set on going into architecture, so I took engineering electives and even did a summer intensive at Temple University in their architecture program," Stewart said.
However, after her first semester studying architecture she realized her heart wasn't in it, so she explored other interests before switching her major to recreation therapy.
"It was a small major and most people had never heard of it, but I felt called to it," said Stewart, who graduated in 2014 with a degree in therapeutic recreation.
"Once I got to graduation, I thought to myself, ‘Well now what?'," she said.
While figuring out her next step, she worked part time, after passing on job opportunity that would've moved her far from family and friends.
"Throughout college, I knew I wanted to go on for something more in the health field, so I pushed myself to take extra credits in the major sciences like chemistry, biology and anatomy," Stewart said. "I even toyed with the idea of going to Physician's Assistant school, but again, I just couldn't commit."
Stewart decided to take more classes at community college with the intent of eventually applying to nursing and midwifery school.
"During this time, I was struggling with severe health issues," she said. "I was 21 years old and was prescribed six different life-long medications. I was so unhappy with the way I was treated at my doctors office, and I was not making any progress health-wise, so I sought out a functional medicine doctor."
Stewart met a clinical nutritionist who inspired her to enroll in graduate school to study clinical nutrition at New York Chiropractic College, and in the summer of 2018, she earned her masters degree in applied clinical nutrition from.
In the the following interview, Stewart shares more about path she took from graduation to starting The Wellness Refinery.
LEXI HILL: What was the biggest learning curve following graduation?
ASHLEIGH STEWART: This question is tough. I would say that after graduation, I was so caught up in the fact that all of my friends were getting jobs in their fields and they were truly happy to be working.
They really felt like they had found their calling. And then there was me, unable to find the perfect job and struggling to identify my next move. A few years down the line, I eventually realized that my own happiness and the happiness of everyone around me was truly situational.
It didn't make me less of a person that I didn't have a job in my field. It didn't make me less of a person that I didn't know what my next move was. It was just that period of time in my life. And funny enough, a few years later those exact friends have come to me and asked me, "How did you figure out your passion? I'm not happy in my job. I'm thinking about making a career change."
LH: How did you get to where you are now, as the owner of The Wellness Refinery?
AN: Woah! How did I get here? I honestly don't even know. It was such a whirlwind! After a couple of years of part-time work and continuing education classes, I found myself at a functional medicine practice to help heal my stubborn health issues. I became so interested in the workings of functional medicine and nutrition that I eventually began to intern at the practice, and on my second day as an intern, I was offered a job!
While working at the practice, I enrolled in graduate school and began to understand the ins and outs of a small business. Two years later, I eventually left the practice to move back to Philadelphia, continued my education and began working as a virtual nutrition coach.
In the first few months, it was great to be back in Philly, the place I called home for almost five years. But, I was different. I had done so much growing and changing in the years post undergrad, to when I moved back to Philly four years later, that I no longer felt the same about the city. Simultaneously, I felt out of place with my newfound devotion for health and wellness. And, working virtually didn't really help expose me to new people in the city. So, I struggled for a bit. I kept thinking about how much I missed having healthy go-to places at home, like I did when I lived in New Jersey, and there was just something missing from the wellness scene in Philly.
"Sure, it can sound enticing to take your first job offer out of college. But, sometimes, although it's perfect on paper, it doesn't feel right in your heart. If that's the case don't do it." – Ashleigh Stewart
Then, one day, I decided to open my own business. I contacted my dad, a fellow business owner, and told him I wanted to open my own business. He told me to go for it.
Now, one year later, the doors to The Wellness Refinery have opened.
LH: What's the worst piece of advice you've ever gotten? The best?
AN: Ha! The worst piece of advice ... I couldn't even tell you, because I probably laughed at it and forgot it as soon as I heard it. But, if I had to pick something, I would say it was, "Just take the job."
Sure, it can sound enticing to take your first job offer out of college. But, sometimes, although it's perfect on paper, it doesn't feel right in your heart. If that's the case don't do it.
The best piece of advice would have to be that everything takes time, and you might not be exactly where you want to be right now, but you just have to start somewhere.
LH: Starting your own business is hard. What does the behind-the-scenes feel like?
Starting your own business is very hard. It is also very lonely when you're just 26 years old and most of your friends are talking about the boys they're dating or what they're going to be wearing out at night over the weekend, while you're trying to figure out how to add an extra day to your week to make sure every task gets done.
All final decisions fall on your shoulders and if you don't have a managing team – I don't yet, because The Wellness Refinery is still small – it makes it difficult to bounce ideas off of another trusted decision maker. Thankfully, I've been so fortunate to befriend some other badass small business owners, join an entrepreneurs group and work one-on-one with an incredible business coach. These things have truly been a lifesaver!
LH: What does your day-to-day look like?
AN: It changes so drastically from day-to-day. Mondays and Tuesdays are my days off, which simply means the business is closed. However, although I'm not in-store, I use those days to catch up on administrative work. I pay bills, catch up on wholesale client emails, strategize about new business ideas and problem solve any issues that may have popped up the week before.
But, I also try to take at least half of one of those days to do something for me. On a typical day at The Wellness Refinery, I arrive early in the morning, prep the tonic bar and infrared saunas for the whole day, review our schedule, check inventory, try to squeeze in a few minutes to answer emails and plan our upcoming events. Most importantly, I tend to customers by making drinks, or setting them up in the sauna.
LH: In today's busy world, it can be hard to put your phone down, mute emails and focus on yourself. What are three self-care tips?
AN: I'm terrible at slowing down and putting my phone away, because I oversee a lot of business practices from my phone. It's ironic, because my business is based on self-care and slowing down.
One practice I try to implement daily is putting my phone away on my 35-minute walk to and from The Wellness Refinery. I don't even pull it out to listen to music. I use that time to prep my mind for the day ahead, or debrief the day that just passed.
I also like to incorporate a warm drink per day. Sometimes it's hot water with lemon, tea or one of our lattes. My favorite is our Cacao Calm. There is something so calming to me about a warm drink, I instantly feel cozy and relaxed!
Lastly, I am such a big fan of sleep! Nothing is better than waking up feeling refreshed after a great night's sleep. I'm so lucky that I have access to the infrared saunas too, which have helped my sleeping habits drastically.