From Google to Entrepreneur: Meet Upuia Ahkiong, Founder of Kua Body and Women Entrepreneurs of Los Altos
Q: Did you know growing up you wanted to be a Massage Therapist (Entrepreneur)?
UA: Not at all. I knew I wanted to help people and make meaningful impact, as well as find a way to help my family, but becoming a massage therapist came as a complete surprise (to everyone). As a first-generation Samoan-Chinese American growing up in the SF Bay Area and the first in my family to obtain a masters degree, I was determined to live out the American Dream, but I had very limited resources. My family started our humble beginnings in Hunters Point, San Francisco, Ca. in the mid-60s and moved around the Bay Area.
As a 4-year-old, when I visited my grandmother Upuia Tuialuuluu who migrated from American Samoa (Gogo / Tau Manu’a Tele) to San Bruno, Ca., I observed her use of native Samoan plants and massage techniques to help people with ailments including myself. She was considered a Taulasea Samoan village healer and our family’s matriarch. My grandmother will be 102 years old this August, has 14 children and I’m the first grandchild to proudly carry her name. My hope is to make her and my family proud and live out her legacy as the founder, owner and practitioner of Kua Body.
Q: Share with us your 10-year experience while working at Google as Lead Massage Therapist?
UA: Prior to joining Google in 2004, I had never heard of this company nor its’ reputation. (My excuse is I lived in Hawaii in the 90s and wasn’t exposed to the Silicon Valley bubble.) I spent the majority of my massage career at Google and was instrumental in helping to grow and lead the most successful in-house corporate worldwide Massage Program that still exists today. While working at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, I was one of the top and leading therapists with a strong clientele base, influential in obtaining full-time benefits for therapists, and successful in launching the current Thai Massage and Craniosacral Programs. In addition, I coordinated the first-ever educational massage “Tech Talk”, and many other successful events. I’m proud of my Google legacy.
Q: What happened that made you think it’s time to leave Google and become an Entrepreneur?
UA: Google offered amazing opportunities and perks with so many cool memories! It was hard to leave after 10 years but the desire to hone my leadership skills and the need for a creative outlet had a stronger calling. As a visionary, I wanted a place to grow and be challenged, Google helped me refine my leaderships skills and was a springboard to becoming a full-fledged Entrepreneur! If I could make it at Google, I could make it beyond!
Q: How did you choose the name Kua Body?
UA: In 2002, while I was a new massage student, we had an assignment to envision our massage practice and business. I used the initials of my first, middle and last names - KUA. I also learned in Samoan Kua means backbone or vertebrae. It was destiny! And, in 2014 the word BODY came to me while laying on a mat in my yoga class.
Q: How has Kua Body grown since you started in 2014?
UA: I executed my exit plan from Google to Kua Body with very little down time. I opened both the Los Altos and Pleasanton offices in August and September 2014 respectively. In 2016, both studios underwent an expansion, and now in 2018 we’re on track to build again in Los Altos. Our clientele base has grown exponentially. We added more therapists to our team, hosted wellness workshops and developed a Mentor Program for new massage therapists. Nearly 4 years ago when we opened our doors, Kua Body was an unknown in both communities but now we are becoming a household neighborhood name.
In addition, Kua Body is instrumental in leading and inspiring local community engagement, and in 2016 I founded Women Entrepreneurs of Los Altos (WE Los Altos), a grass-roots local business group with nearly 70 members and growing.
Q: Can you explain to our audience, what is a “Massage Studio Incubator” and what it means to your clients?
UA: The Kua Body “incubator” model is that we build-out turnkey high-end massage studios in the most desirable communities. Seasoned massage professionals can build and run their own practice without the needed startup capital or lack of desire to own and run their own facility. Our facilities are not spas but sophisticated and stylish venues. In addition, we provide ongoing professional, business, and financial mentoring for all of our team members. Our clients can expect consistent high-quality service and the opportunity to work with their own personal therapist.
Entering the workforce as a new massage therapist, I was shocked by the lack of industry compensation and business preparation. I quickly realized in order to make a living, I would need multiple jobs to match the School Counselor salary I just left. I designed the Kua Body Incubator to solve this issue and give talented massage therapists an opportunity to succeed financially and professionally.
Q: You’re also the founder of “Women Entrepreneurs of Los Altos” … what happened that took you down this exciting venture?
UA: During the pre-launch of Kua Body, I had hopes of making connections in both communities with other businesses by going door-to-door or emailing but wasn’t very successful.
In December 2015, I had the “Aha!” moment - “I’m going to put on a community-wide event during March Women’s History Month 2016 to celebrate the women business owners of Los Altos”. I pitched the idea to Kathleen Dylan of Dylan Studios (Los Altos) and my boyfriend, and WE Los Altos was born.
After noticing so many female-owned shops in downtown Los Altos, I realized it was time to acknowledge these hard-working small business leaders of our community. Kathleen and I were able to identify over 200 female-owned businesses in Los Altos, we launched WELosAltos.com, created our social media presence and successfully hosted three major events at local venues drawing nearly 300 attendees in the month of March alone. WE Los Altos made history!
Q: How has WE Los Altos made a difference and what’s next?
UA: WE Los Altos exists because there is a need for genuine human connection and support of small-business communities everywhere. As a business owner in the Silicon Valley, there is so much emphasis on investing in technology or creating the next billion-dollar company.
WE Los Altos has grown annually in membership, created an advisory committee, established monthly events, networking receptions, retreats, community block parties and much more. Members have collaborated on business projects, supported each other’s businesses, volunteered on WE Los Altos events and have given back to the community.
We were grateful to have Los Altos resident Anne Wojcicki, CEO/Co-Founder of 23andMe as our keynote at our 2016 kick-off event who is also an active member of the community and proponent of small businesses.
WE Los Altos is meeting a need for many business owners and looking to expand in other Bay Area cities and beyond. We encourage locals, small companies and corporations to support their neighborhoods and business communities by investing dollars, time, or adopting a local business.
Q: Which woman inspires you and why?
UA: There isn’t one specific woman, instead I am inspired by the dozens of mentors (women and men) I have had since I was a child and now as an entrepreneur. I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to consider embracing a mentor. It could be a natural relationship that forms, a professional coach or someone you seek out you respect and admire who can offer you honest and sound insight, wisdom and perspective. I’m grateful to my mentors, these inspirational individuals who took the time to care for me, guide me and help me in my journey of life. I hope this article, and the success of Kua Body and WE Los Altos inspires others.
Q: What is one challenge you feel women face today?
UA: One challenge women (and men) face is letting their “ego” get the best of them. You are not the center of the Universe. When people are self-serving and use others for personal or professional gain, they will not experience true fulfillment, respect and success in life.
Q: Can you tell us how you manage your work life balance?
UA: I never understood “work life balance” so instead where I focus my time and what I value most in life is I love spending quality time with my favorite groups of people. Surrounding myself with genuine and authentic people really matters most to me vs. being around a lot of superficial individuals. I also believe in solitude, having alone time is probably my ultimate favorite past time and allows me the opportunity to bring things into perspective and balance.
Q: What do you like the most about living in the Bay Area?
UA: As a native of the Bay Area, I love the diversity of opportunities, people, culture, and access to the coast, wine country and San Francisco.
Five Things About Upuia Ahkiong
1. If you could talk to one famous person past or present, who would it be and why?
A few months back, a WE Los Altos member encouraged me to listen to a TED Talk by Simon Sinek. I had never heard of Simon. After my first listen I was “hooked” and now a big fan. His essence and messages on leadership and humanity resonate with me on a profound level. He tapped into the core of true leadership which I truly value and is something lacking in society and companies. My favorite Simon quote is “Leadership is a responsibility. It’s not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge.” Humble leaders gain my respect.
2. Who’s been the biggest influence in your life?
My partner Brian has made one of the biggest impacts in my life and helped me “Turn Pro” by giving me the support and encouragement to step into the world of entrepreneurship. Being an entrepreneur can be a very lonely road, but his support is immeasurable and undeniably an influential part of my success. We have a powerful synergy!
Also, Deborah Dooley helped bring me back to “life” - spiritual, emotional and relational. Everyone needs a mentor, and she has made a profound impact in my being.
3. If they made a movie of you … who would play you?
I would be happy with any of these women Charlize Theron, Keira Knightley and Zoe Saldana.
We share similar backgrounds and passions.
4. If you were a superhero, what would your special powers be?
Isis the goddess/super-heroine. She was a science teacher / archaeologist who had superhuman strength, telepathy, magical powers, command of the elements (earth, air, fire and water) and control of the weather. She used her powers to help in crisis situations and to fight against evil.
5. Is there an app you can’t live without?
Waze and Podcasts because I drive A Lot throughout the Bay Area for business and have to make the most of my time while sitting in traffic.