Stories from Women's Empowerment

Maryam Ajayi Wants You to Know That Diversity in Wellness Is More Than a Moment—It’s a Movement

Kara Jillian Brown

Kara Jillian BrownJune 12, 2020

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Photo: Selomé Samuel / W+G Creative

Maryam Ajayi found wellness by accident. Today, Ajayi is a leader in the industry. She’s the founder of Dive in Well, an organization committed to making wellness more equitable and accessible, and she’s a certified practitioner of Reiki and breathwork. She’s also a certified Akashic Records reader.

But before, she was hurting. While carrying the burden of ancestral trauma, the lingering impact of trauma endured by your predecessors, and working in the white-dominated spaces of Republican lobbying and tech, her spirit became brittle. She suffered from chronic pain, crushing anxiety, PTSD, and bouts of depression. She knew she needed healing. And when presented with a Reiki add-on to a massage in 2016, she went for it. She didn’t know at the time that it would turn out to be exactly what she needed.

“I didn’t even know what Reiki was; all I knew was that it did something to me emotionally,” says Ajayi. “And then I ended up accidentally going to see a shaman. I thought I was going to get a body scrub, do some chanting, and [instead I had] a shamanic cleaning as opposed to just getting a massage. And after that I was like, I don’t know what the fuck all of that was, but I felt like I saw blue skies for the first time in a long time.”

Ajayi was born in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and an African American mother. When she moved to the U.S. in 1992 at age 5, she was so excited to claim the destiny that America promised. “When [my family] moved to the States, even in preparation for it, we learned a lot about American democracy and moving to the land of the free and the home of the brave,” she says. “I remember being so excited that I could make all of my dreams come true in America, whatever that looked like from what Schoolhouse Rock! told me.”

Her dad used to belong to a subset of conservative immigrants. “[Many Nigerians subscribe] to the libertarian message of, ‘anyone can pick themselves up from their bootstraps and make something of themselves,'” she says. So Ajayi set her sights high and decided she wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating from Virginia Tech, the next step in her plan was law school, but she decided to first get a better taste of the system. So she started working at Republican lobbying firms. “I got to see everything and I really just became enthralled in the way that lobbying worked,” she says. After six years, she’d seen enough.

Ajayi says she saw how just a handful of people (the lobbyists) both manipulated public opinion and informed the government. “Some of the things I saw really freaked me out,” she says. She left her lobbying job and entered the tech world instead—which she quickly realized wasn’t much better. “I was like, ‘Well, every industry is fucked up. I’m in pain, I’m hurting. What is the answer?'” she says.

Then came that accidental shamanic session, and soon, Ajayi started seeking out alternative healing on purpose.

Maryam Ajayi
Photo: Selomé Samuel

Finding wellness

“I went to my first breathwork circle on a Friday night instead of going out with my friends to get pissed,” Ajayi says. And the meditative practice, which she says “drops you into your body,” was an immediate source of relief. “I just felt like I had a huge emotional clearing, so I started making it a regular practice.”

But as much as she loved it, the practice also made her feel like an outsider. “I remember my first breathwork when I shared about how much pain I was in, how I wanted a release, and how I don’t want to feel like me standing in my power is taking up too much space. A white man that lead the space was like, ‘Wow, that was a lot.’ I felt so much shame in taking up space,” she says. “I remember trying not to cry too loud or share too much.”

Her family, meanwhile, was a bit confused about her new practices. “My dad is Muslim, my mom is Christian, and my grandmother is a preacher,” she says. “Anything like [energy healing] was bad juju that we didn’t talk about. I remember when I started getting into meditation and all this stuff, my family would roll their eyes at me.”

But Ajayi kept going. “One of the first tarot readings I got, [the reader] told me that I was a witch and that I was a healer and I would be doing work like her,” she says. “I was like, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, but sure, I want to be a growth strategist in tech. After a year of every healer telling me I was a healer, I finally had a moment where I was just like, ‘Eff it, I’m just gonna lean into whatever this is—show me the way.'” Her first Reiki master reached out to see if she was interested in training. She got her Reiki 1 certification in 2017 (followed by Reiki 2 and breathwork in 2018), and began seeing clients.

The journey to founding Dive in Well

Ajayi joined a Facebook group led by “manifestation expert” and To Be Magnetic (formerly Free and Native) founder Lacy Phillips. “People [in the Facebook group] started bringing up race and inequity in wellness, and especially language around trauma and ancestral healing,” she says. “And things went all the way left.”

Ajayi details in a 2018 Medium article that Philips began removing people from marginalized communities and any allies that spoke up from the Facebook group. “I was one of those people thrown out of the group and it was devastating and it was violent and it was traumatic,” she says. “I was waiting for one of the popular Black or brown women in wellness to speak on it and saw that no one was. I called upon leaders to change and no one said anything.”

“I called upon leaders to change and no one said anything.”

So Ajayi tapped into what she learned during her Washington, DC, lobbying days, “bringing thought leaders and changemakers together, talking about a specific issue, and people then going back to their little corners of the world and effecting change how they could,” as she puts it.

It was the start of the Diversity in Wellness dinner series, in which Ajayi gathered leaders in the wellness industry for an intimate salon dinner to discuss the changes that needed to be made for wellness spaces to become inclusive. “These people that I looked up to were all of a sudden becoming my peers and then people were like, ‘When’s the next one?'” she says.

The first dinner was on February 24, 2019. She left her job in tech five days later, and soon launched Indagba, a consulting company aimed at helping founders establish mindful business strategies. (She recently decided to end Indagba and perform consulting under her name.) “I realized I could not in good faith advocate for diversity and inclusion and dismantling systems of oppression in one part of my life and then be a victim of it in another,” she says.

In 2019, Diversity in Wellness brought together over 100 thought leaders and influencers during dinners in New York City and Los Angeles. It also partnered with brands like Health-Ade and Imperfect Foods. “At the end of the year, I was like, I can’t deny that there’s something here. I don’t think this is a dinner series—I think this is a movement,” Ajayi says. “If I scale this, I would be able to bring more people together and provide more resources on how you can tangibly build a diverse and inclusive wellness business or brand.”

Diversity in Wellness became Dive in Well, LLC at the start of 2020, and relaunched in February. The COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in Ajayi’s plans for the company (which until that point had focused on IRL connection), but she and her team were able to quickly pivot to meet the new reality. “We had our first [virtual] talk around diversity and digital wellness and then we had another talk focused on decolonizing digital therapy and wellness,” says Ajayi. “And then we released our first e-book,” Decolonizing Digital Therapy and Wellness, which details why BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and/or people of color) communities have a right to access to mental health and wellness while also destigmatizing mental health and wellness in these communities.

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Seeing the movement beyond the moment

In the weeks since the deaths of Breonna TaylorAhmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, Dive in Well has found itself particularly positioned to lead conversations around race in wellness. The Dive in Well Instagram account has grown from 2,000 followers to over 16,000 in the past week. This has been a wake-up call for many in the wellness industry (Well+Good included) that furthering diversity and inclusion in this space must be a priority.

“This is a long-term change for a lot of us, and if you want to be a part of the change and not just be caught up in a moment—if you want to be in the movement—really do the work,” Ajayi says. “That’s reflecting on the inside, doing your internal work, signing up for breathwork classes, signing up for the Dive in Well workshops that are being led by people from diverse backgrounds.” Just this week, Dive in Well announced a new workshop geared specifically towards wellness brand leaders: “Pivot to Equity” is a four-week online course about “building an inclusive wellness brand rooted in anti-racism, decolonization, and racial equity” that will run from July 15 to August 12.

“Doing the work” also means trusting your intuition. “If you see that a brand is being inauthentic, that they’ve stopped highlighting Black people because they’re sick of the Black Lives Matter moment, hold them accountable. Unlike, unfollow, put your dollars somewhere else instead of just being aware and then complicit in the things that you think are wrong,” Ajayi says.

“This is a long-term change for a lot of us, and if you want to be a part of the change and not just be caught up in a moment—if you want to be in the movement—really do the work.”

And to Black folx, even though times are rough, to say the least, Ajayi wants you to remember to celebrate your joy. Join Dive in Well to celebrate Juneteenth through a donation-based weekend of virtual events.

The road to get here hasn’t been easy for Ajayi. According to a report put out by ProjectDiane 2018, there were 6,791 funded startups led by at least one woman founder in 2017. Of these startups, less than 4 percent were led by Black women. And in the past decade, Black women have raised only .06 percent of all tech venture capital funding.

“I was doing this for a year,” says Ajayi. “I wasn’t making any money. I was bootstrapping anything I made to make this happen. There were times where I had to sleep on friends’ couches or on their floors and really gave up everything to build this.” In addition to seeking brand partners and sponsors, Dive in Well has crowdfunded over $50,000 to fund its mission. But it will require much more to sustain its work. To support Dive in Well, you can donate to this crowdfunding campaign, sign up for its newsletter, and share its campaign on social media.

Since the start of her path as an energy healer, Ajayi knew that she would be the only or one of a few Black people in the spaces she entered. “I had resolved that I would be the first person in a room for most of my life, and I had resolved that I needed to go get the medicine, trace its roots, take what works for our bodies—because it’s been whitewashed—and then disperse that information to people that needed it,” she says. “And then I would need to find ways to protect myself energetically and to recover from being in white-led and -centered spaces that ultimately caused harm.”

But through it all, she’s unabashedly been herself.

“I’ve always leaned into being the unhealed healer,” says Ajayi. “I was like, ‘I used to be a party girl and I still like partying, but I’ll come and align your chakras.’ That was me being unapologetically fun and open and raw and a healer. Over the past two years, doing my own internal work to uncover and heal from internal oppression led me to be unapologetically Black. And to center my Blackness, and to talk about the issues that I felt needed to be talked about and not just fit into this brand-y, Zen, wellness, bullshit model.”

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