Advancing Health

Marketing internship aids equity-minded fitness startup.

by Sofia Tokar

Bryan Adams and Tanner Crisafulli in front of a screen showing Merica Whitehall

Bryan Adams ’04, ’09G, Merica Whitehall (onscreen), and Tanner Crisafulli ’22 gather before a weekly Zoom meeting for the student intern and the Seattle startup leader.

Merica Whitehall, a seasoned nonprofit professional, is not easily daunted. Yet launching a startup committed to social impact has occasionally felt “just short of paralyzing,” she admits.

Whitehall is on the board of directors of the Xena Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Xena Fitness & Training. Founded in 2019 by her partner and daughter, Allanah Whitehall, and based in Seattle, XFT offers individualized personal training services virtually. XFT’s business model earmarks 40 percent of its profits to reinvest in the foundation, which provides fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness services to economically disenfranchised people of color who are at risk for or experiencing chronic disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the need for such services, especially as gyms and fitness centers limited capacity or closed entirely. “People with pre-existing or underlying health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are disproportionately experiencing the risks and brunt of COVID-19,” Whitehall says. “Many of them are also economically disenfranchised people or BIPOC.”

The company’s commitment to public health and equity led Whitehall to the 2021 Naz ROCs Public Health Week conference. From Seattle, she virtually attended a session about using marketing to advance racial equity. One of the presenters was Bryan Adams ’04, ’09G, clinical faculty member and director of the MS in marketing communications program in Nazareth College’s School of Business and Leadership.

The two connected offline, and since then a coast-to-coast partnership has flourished. 

In summer 2021, Adams’ graduate marketing students consulted with Whitehall to create a brand strategy for XFT and the foundation. Then, undergraduate students in Adams’ fall content marketing course provided client consultation for the startup and devised ways to enact the brand strategy.

Among those students was Tanner Crisafulli ’22. “I knew the next step for them was SEO,” says the business leadership major. SEO, or search engine optimization, is a must for digital or app-based services like the one Xena provides. If search engines like Google can’t find the website online—because it’s either too new or not built correctly — then potential customers or clients can’t find it either.

The cost of hiring a professional to help with SEO can be prohibitive. But Crisafulli asked Whitehall whether he could complete an internship for Xena. As part of the arrangement, he’s optimizing the website, using Google Analytics to map and improve the online experience for site visitors, and teaching Whitehall about data-informed marketing.

“We can look at traffic to the website to see if we’re reaching the right audiences or at session times to figure out if people are engaging with the content,” says Crisafulli. “Then, depending on the data, we may have to shift tactics.”

Interning at a smaller organization lets Crisafulli apply his skills in a meaningful way and build his resume. Meanwhile, Whitehall estimates that the nearly yearlong collaboration with Nazareth has not only saved Xena several thousands of dollars, but also leveled up the startup’s mission-driven marketing efforts.

“It’s really been an invaluable educational experience,” she says, “one that will help us make the benefits of physical activity accessible to the community, including those with the greatest need.”

Sofia Tokar is a writer in Rochester, New York.