Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.
It’s hard to imagine Emily Newton feeling self-conscious.
The Charlotte-based fitness guru is outspoken, taking to her Instagram account, @slemfit, to debunk misconceptions about nutrition and to provide her nearly 2,000 followers with tips for building muscle. As the owner of SlemFit, an online coaching business founded last June during the pandemic, Newton challenges America’s $96 billion fitness industry — an industry that “promotes ideas that aren’t necessarily true.” But there was a time when Newton lacked confidence.
“I used to not be comfortable in my skin,” she says. “I was always known as the shy child, so I had to overcome a lot of things when it came to my self-image. I know there are thousands of other women like me, and I know not being confident can stop you from reaching your potential.”
Newton now dedicates herself to empowering women through exercise and healthy eating. We spoke with her to learn more about how a quiet girl from Columbia, South Carolina, grew up to make waves in the Queen City.
Have you always been interested in fitness?
Initially, I wanted to become a physical therapist because they make a lot of money and I was taught that, going to college, you’re supposed to get a high-paying job. Jobs in clinical settings are also glorified in our industry. That was where my mindset was at. But after getting my degree in exercise science at the University of South Carolina and getting some experience, I realized I didn’t like physical therapy.
Life kept leading me back to this path as a personal fitness coach and I just had to accept that. I love what I do, but for some reason in the past, I was in denial. Though I’ve been in the fitness industry for about six years, it was just part-time on the side while I worked a 9-to-5. But then, almost a year ago, I decided to leave corporate America and pursue coaching full time.
For young people who want to start their own business, college can seem like a barrier to entry. Do you think a four-year degree is necessary?
I don’t think so. Looking back, I only needed two years of my college education. The first two years were just general education — revisiting the subjects we learned in high school but at a higher level. What I needed from my education was technical know-how like anatomy and physiology. I wish I had taken those courses at a community college, to be honest.
So no, I don’t think you have to go to college but I do think it’s important to have the right support system. For me, it was important to be around people who already had some type of success that I wanted, whether that be spiritual success, financial success, or even the way they treated people or the way they expressed themselves. You need people who will believe in you but also people who will keep you in check. Brutal honesty is the highest form of kindness.
The fitness industry is huge. How do you stand out in a fairly saturated market?
What has been helpful for me is to have a niche — to know who my target audience is. I have an ideal client and I’m at the point now where I don’t have to necessarily take on every client that comes to me unless I feel like I can provide the support they need. I had to get very clear about the type of person I wanted to help.
My niche is women, ages 25 to 45. Many of these women are working 9-to-5 jobs but they are also pursuing entrepreneurship outside of work. They don’t come in very committed, motivated, and always confident but they do have a strong desire to change. The women who need my help the most have a hard time being consistent and creating lasting change by themselves. I help the unmotivated create beautiful transformations.
I think a lot of my desire to work with women comes from my mom. Growing up, she was an artist and musician and always looking to empower women in whatever way she could. Being around that for years and years, it just rubbed off.
Starting a small business is hard — that is no secret. But starting a small business during a global pandemic seems nearly impossible. What was the secret to getting your business off the ground?
When I quit my job, I only had one to two clients. I had to be really consistent, get out of my comfort zone, talk to people, and put myself out there because a lot of people didn’t know what I was doing. I also had to honor the gifts that I have. I’m good at connecting with people and providing inspiration and motivation through movement. Many of my clients and I are also really good friends.
I’m also good at bringing people together. Eventually, I want to bring other trainers on who have the same values that I have. I can’t do this alone. I am going to need help impacting the number of people I want to reach. I think I offer a different perspective than what you may find on another trainer’s page, but there’s just not enough of us out there right now holding that united front.
Do you face any unique challenges that your male counterparts do not?
Yes, subtle sexism is a big one. When I used to work in a corporate gym, there would be men who wouldn’t want to work with me or have me run their fitness assessments. People just automatically assume the male trainer is more knowledgeable or better.
Your time in corporate America seems to have a strong influence on how you operate SlemFit. Do you think smaller businesses like your own are better able to serve consumers?
I think it’s a choice, to be completely honest. If you run a big gym and you want to know what people actually need, you just need to do more community outreach. There is a way to figure it out, there just needs to be a desire to know. That desire comes from actually caring about people.
You have to value people over profits — that’s one of my favorite sayings. If it’s the other way around, it’s just going to be like a regular, stereotypical gym where people go in and don’t see results. I was at a corporate gym long enough to see people come in five or six days a week and look the same a year later.
But I’m not interested in starting a brick-and-mortar gym. I am currently in the process of learning how to build an online business. That will give me more free time but also help me reach more people.
Many of your posts on social media focus on debunking claims marketed by the fitness industry at large. What is something you wish you could tell everyone who is interested in fitness?
It’s important for people to know that all people have challenges with their confidence and self-image. I weigh 160 pounds and experience the same confidence issues someone who weighs 300 pounds might. I have been around overweight people who just assume that smaller people are born with certain amounts of confidence. But that wasn’t true for me. It’s kind of like the assumptions we make about celebrities. Just because they are famous doesn’t mean they don’t have personal issues they have to tackle.
Also, being fit isn’t as easy as the fitness industry makes it out to be. It took a lot of hard work to get to where I’m at. Eating healthfully isn’t easy for me. I love pizza, ice cream, and processed foods. So we, as nutrition coaches and trainers, have a lot more in common with our clients than people might automatically assume.
That’s why I always encourage my clients to incorporate foods they love into their nutrition, no matter what. It’s a big issue when people are too restrictive. You have to eat ice cream every now and then. Even I eat ice cream at least once a week.
What motivated you to take the jump and start your own business?
I worked for a corporate gym here in Charlotte for two years and I got tired of having to listen to people who I didn’t have a connection with. People above me never asked their employees what people in the gym actually needed. There was a big disconnect. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I was extremely unhappy and it was beginning to affect me mentally and emotionally, which was affecting the important relationships in my life.