Tuned In

Lestraundra Alfred ’11 saw that women of color were disenfranchised in the wellness space, so she launched an online platform, including a podcast series, tailored just for them.The result has been an extraordinary point of connection.

Before she begins a new podcast interview, Lestraundra “Les” Alfred ’11 likes to start with the “review of the week.” In the “Kombucha for the Culture” episode, she reads a letter from a junior in college who says the podcast changed her life. “It’s nice to hear about wellness from a black girl, because the space is so white,” the writer says. “It’s nice to know that many black girls also feel like this, and there is a community. Keep up the good work—this podcast is honestly so important.”

This kind of love letter isn’t rare for Les, who founded Balanced Black Girl, a media company that encompasses a blog, podcast, book club, and weekly newsletter, in 2018 to make wellness more accessible and relatable to women of color. Within her first year, she gained more than 2,700 followers on Insta- gram and logged more than 50,000 podcast downloads. All of the podcast guests—an impressive lineup of entrepreneurs, life coaches, powerlifters, activists, therapists, and more—are women of color, and they speak directly to an audience who has been largely disenfranchised in the wellness space. For Les, Balanced Black Girl is an exercise in community-building and advocacy—and it’s also an astute business venture. As a savvy “side hustler” and a self-made media mogul, Les has managed to carve out a niche in wellness aligned with her values.

Lestraundra Alfred ’11
Lestraundra Alfred ’11

She has also managed to connect with like-minded entrepreneurs who share her mission. One of her podcast guests, Cultured Kombucha founder Milan Durham, says she founded her company to make wellness products more accessible to nonwhite audiences, and she named her kombucha flavors after ’90s R&B and hip-hop songs in order to make their health properties more fun and approachable.

“For winter, one we have is ‘Bug A Boo,’ obviously a Destiny’s Child song,” she says during the podcast interview. “It was pomegranate-thyme, and I was looking for two ingredients to couple that were good at getting rid of bugs. Pomegranate’s got a lot of antioxidants, and thyme has a ton of antiparasitic properties. The other one is ‘Golden,’ and that’s ginger-pear-turmeric—Jill Scott song—and turmeric is really good for getting your glow on. Everything anti-inflammatory ... really does help you glow.”

“Well, I love that,” Les says. “I mean, I am just the biggest R&B/pop culture junkie, so anything that can combine wellness [with] that pop culture element is brilliant. It does take us back to a time in our lives where we loved those songs ... and it helps kind of build that accessibility factor.”

In another episode, “Protecting Our Melanin,” Black Girl Sunscreen founder Shontay Lundy discusses the fact that most sunscreens aren’t created for dark skin tones and [have] a “sticky, pasty consistency.” She says that in her house growing up, they didn’t use sunscreen at all. “It was a foreign thing that our lighter-skinned counterparts would use going to camp and running and playing outside, and we just didn’t use it,” she says. “I have a very diverse group of friends, and they would always suggest I should wear sunscreen, and I would be like, ‘Yeah, no. I don’t want that toothpaste on my face.’”

“That’s what it’s like,” Les agrees, laughing.

It wasn’t until Shontay found herself participating in outdoor activities and started getting sunburned that she realized how badly she needed a sunscreen conducive to her skin tone. When she came up short, she was inspired to work with skincare experts and start her business. Her products contain natural ingredients that boost melanin production, protect the skin from UV rays, and can be fully absorbed without leaving a residue.

Beyond products, Les and her guests explore wellness topics such as mental health and self-care. Before she started Balanced Black Girl, Les worked as a personal trainer and found that the most difficult part of helping people get in shape isn’t the workout or diet—it’s negative self-talk. “We beat ourselves up a lot, and it’s really hard to grow and thrive if you’re constantly being hard on yourself,” she says. For that reason, her content is largely focused on cultivating a positive mindset. (In one episode, she playfully refers to herself as “woo-woo adjacent.”)

Consider the episodes “Rethinking Body Image” and “Pretty, For a Black Girl,” in which Les questions narrow definitions of beauty ideals and where they come from. In another episode, Shanna Tyler, host of the Self Soul Sport podcast, explains that she’s come to love strength training for the way it makes her feel, which can be transferred to other areas of her life: “If I can pick up this amount of weight, I can pick up anything,” she says. In another, Maria Rodriguez, founder of Fear Her Fight Athletics, says that powerlifting had a similarly galvanizing effect on her: “All of my confidence I had built, I was so proud of, and I took it everywhere.”

That’s how Balanced Black Girl manages to own the wellness space for women of color and also to transcend it. Les has built a platform that speaks specifically to the needs of her listeners, and as a result, creates an empowered community.

The pros of creating content that felt authentic to me, and of really speaking to those people who felt like they weren’t normally catered to, outweighed the cons. I was willing to lose my audience and rebuild to reach the right people.”

– Lestraundra Alfred ’11

Becoming a media entrepreneur was a natural fit for Les. She majored in business and minored in communication studies at Puget Sound, where she wrote for the student newspaper, The Trail, and even contributed a column to this magazine as a student intern. After graduating in 2011, she went to work at Boeing, but she found herself feeling lethargic and physically uncomfortable in a sedentary 9-to-5 job. “My first year out of college, I was really unhappy with the routine of getting up, going to work, and going home and watching TV every night,” she says. “That, to me, is the recipe for unhappiness.”

In search of a way to feel better and increase her energy, she started working out and learning about wellness, and a year later, her new pastime had blossomed into a full-fledged passion. In 2013, she became a personal trainer and nutrition coach, and started teaching fitness classes in her spare time.

Les says that the more she focused on fitness, the more she noticed herself growing bolder and more outspoken in other areas of her life. “I’m a very introverted person,” she says. “I tend to be pretty quiet and keep to myself. When I started working out more and building physical strength, I noticed I was feeling more comfortable speaking up and being more confident in putting myself out there in ways that I never had before.”

In 2014, Les launched a blog called The Balanced Berry, where she shared recipes, workouts, and fitness tips. Still at Boeing, she was feeling more fulfilled with her side hustle as a personal trainer and fitness blogger, but felt uninspired by the content she was producing. She felt constant pressure to look a certain way and conform to the narrowly defined aesthetic of fitness influencers on Instagram. And she felt frustrated by the homogeneity of the mainstream wellness space.

Her wake-up moment came after she attended GOOD Fest, a daylong wellness conference in Los Angeles, in February 2018. Although she enjoyed the event, Les observed via social media posts that among the hundreds of guests, she could count the women of color in attendance—and in the speaker lineup—on one hand. A Latina fitness enthusiast who had been following the event reached out to Les, saying she’d also noticed the overwhelming whiteness of the event. After that experience, Les felt called to fill a void in the wellness space, which she calls “one-size-fits all.”

“Working in wellness for years, I cannot tell you how many times I walked into a room and was the only woman of color or black person there. Or where I was at wellness events, and the content just didn’t resonate because it was being given by people who did not share my same life experiences, so I could relate to a little bit of it, but not all of it,” she says. “And it occurred to me that a lot of other people felt that way, too.” She realized that her presence alone sent a strong message to other women of color that they too were entitled to feel healthy and powerful.

Propelled by a new sense of urgency, Les set out to rebrand and launch a new platform for women of color who needed self-care and wellness resources tailored for them. She launched Balanced Black Girl in September 2018. “I was very worried about alienating my [Balanced Berry] audience,” she says. “But for me, the pros of creating content that felt authentic to me, and of really speaking to those people who felt like they weren’t normally catered to, outweighed the cons. I was willing to lose my audience and rebuild to reach the right people.”

Les currently works full time as a social media manager and spends about 20 hours a week working on Balanced Black Girl. She hopes it will grow into a sustainable business and plans to organize events where women of color can find community and shared space. In March, she hosted a book club meetup to discuss Becoming by Michelle Obama—and as a magical surprise, Michelle Obama showed up. (Yes, really.)

Someday, Les would like to have Balanced Black Girl ambassadors in different cities around the country to organize meetups in their communities. “People want to connect, and they want those in-person bonds and relationships,” she says. “If Balanced Black Girl can be a way to facilitate that, that would be incredible.”

Meanwhile, her followers continue to express gratitude for the virtual space she’s created for them. In the episode “Making Self-Care Accessible,” Les opened with another review of the week: “When I first heard this podcast, I cried tears of joy. [Women of color] deserve and must fight to be front-and-center. Can’t wait to see how this conversation continues and how women in the wellness space come together. Our time is now. Thank you, Les, for lighting the fire.”

 

By Julianne Bell ’13
Photos by Sy Bean; photo with Michelle Obama by Sunita Martini
Published April 30, 2019