Technology for Health & Wellness: Celebrating the successful launch of the Koru Mindfulness Mobile Companion App v2.0, The Center for Koru Mindfulness® team shares their journey to first-time tech entrepreneurship.
About The Center for Koru Mindfulness®: Founded in Durham, NC in 2013, The Center for Koru Mindfulness® offers a unique, evidence-based curriculum and teacher certification program specifically developed for teaching mindfulness, meditation, and stress-management to college students and other young adults.
The app--developed in partnership with Smashing Boxes--provides support, guidance, and encouragement for the student’s journey towards mindfulness. Every screen and every interaction is intentionally designed to enrich the practice of mindfulness and lower the barriers to adoption.
New and Improved v2.0 Features:
- Simple Breathing exercises
- Updated flow to Daily Practice
- Improved presentation of logbook
- Stay motivated with features like the Gratitude River, inspirational messages, and collective goals.
- Class Progress featuring the “community garden” (an animation that slowly unveils throughout the course)
- Key Concepts
- Updated guided meditations
Entrepreneurial Spotlight featuring Holly Rogers, M.D., Libby Webb, and Gigi Burkhalter of The Center for Koru Mindfulness®
1. What was the inspiration behind for The Center for Koru Mindfulness®?
Holly: I was in New Zealand and just committed to returning to the U.S. for a fellowship training program in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. Feeling stressed about this transition, I found a book called Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. I’d never heard of mindfulness, yet I was immediately captivated by the essence of this book. The premise: It is a normal part of human life to struggle and suffer. To find joy and contentment depends on how we relate to our suffering. The practice of mindfulness is mastering the skill of awareness. It’s about learning to pay attention—without judgment—to your present-moment experience. It’s a pathway to well-being and contentment.
This book inspired me to start my own journey towards mindfulness. Like any beginner, as I started to meditate, I couldn’t sit still. My mind was always busy and distracted. It wasn’t easy, but what helped me the most was my teacher and mentor Dr. Jeff Brantley.
Around the same time, I started working with students at the counseling center at Duke University. The life stage of early adulthood, along with the academic pressures of college, comes with its own challenges and stressors. Among college students, there are alarming levels of anxiety and depression, which can sometimes lead to serious problems including suicidal behavior.
What an opportunity to help these students reduce their stress and anxiety by introducing them to the practice of mindfulness. Teaching mindfulness meditation would be easy, so I thought at the time, but I was wrong. It wasn’t easy. After several attempts, I found that students just weren’t interested; they’d signup, then poof! Disappear.
How weird, I thought. So a colleague of mine, Margaret Mayan and I put our minds together to explore what would make the training more meaningful, accessible, and sticky.
The way I’d been teaching was really geared to older adults struggling with aging, chronic pain, and loss. This didn’t resonate with college students worried about classes, careers, and dating. They have short attention spans and want immediate results. On the flip side, they’re also curious and open-minded. With this in mind, we created a program based on the ‘lowest effective dose of teaching and practice.’ Students attended class, practiced for 10 minutes-a-day, and by practicing, they soon experienced the impact.
The program went from almost zero signups to a waiting list of more than 80 students. The feedback was incredible. Several students told us it changed their lives. As a result, we decided to write a book, Mindfulness for the Next Generation: Helping Emerging Adults Manage Stress and Lead Healthier Lives
“I am worrying less and enjoying myself more since starting Koru. I’ve gotten better at staying focused in the present and I don’t feel so stressed all the time.”
The Center for Koru Mindfulness® opened in 2013 and the first teacher-training course took place in 2014.
2. At what point did you decide to incorporate technology into the program?
Holly: We didn’t set out to be technology entrepreneurs. But the young adults we’re trying to help tend to use technology and mobile devices to organize their world. We wanted to meet them where they’re at.
The first Koru app evolved from a paper-and-pen-based daily log that students submitted as part of the course. We kept hearing the same request over and over: Isn’t there an app for this? We thought, how hard could it be to develop an app?
Libby: We don’t have a background in tech, but we came up with an idea unique to the Koru program vs other meditation apps. It’s almost universal for any beginner to experience frustration and setbacks when it comes to mediation. What makes the Koru Mindfulness companion app different is that it serves as an extension of this community. Through the mobile app, students share daily journal entries, receive teacher feedback, counsel, and encouragement.
The app also serves as a practice tool for practice during the week, outside of the classroom, while also providing as-needed support, motivation, and encouragement from the teacher and fellow classmates.
Gigi: We created v1.0 on a shoestring budget. It was pretty “buggy” and it couldn’t handle the demand. But it served as a proof of concept for how a true companion app could enrich, expand, and support the experience of students during the Koru program and beyond.
The next step was to find a partner with deep digital product expertise to help us develop Koru Mindfulness v2.0 with the end-user in mind; a mobile app where every screen, every interaction, supports the principles of mindfulness and lowers the barriers to adoption.
3. What insights can you share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Koru was self-funded and started out of our home(s). The business grew on its own through word-of-mouth. What I’d tell an aspiring entrepreneur: Try to find a way to grow the business on your own. Do what you can, at least until you feel like your feet are on the ground, before seeking investment from others. Even now, we’re a small but powerful team. We support and respect each other, and we have a willingness to do what needs to be done because we all want our customers to be successful.
That being said, we understand we have to build the business. And we’ve now reached a tipping point where we have more work than we can manage on our own.
4. What’s in the future for The Center for Koru Mindfulness®?
Our teachers are the ones driving our growth. Today there are more than 600 Koru teachers from 12 different countries representing 200 colleges, universities, secondary schools, and treatment centers. It’s even included in some military training programs.
We see tremendous possibility for scaling Koru as it applies to corporate America and start-up businesses where stress levels run high. If we find an investor who shares our values, we would most likely be open to accepting partners.
5. How do you personally integrate mindfulness into your daily lives?
We are committed to meditating. We find the time to almost every day with different practice times. Holly is the morning, Libby at night, and Gigi during her kids’ naptimes.
We are committed to our values. Our work is mission-driven, but it’s not driven by a life-or-death-sense of urgency. It’s not an emergency room. This keeps things in perspective. The business will either succeed, or fail. Either way, life is good but short. Our teachers, their students, and our customers, they are all kind to support us.
6. What are your favorite inspirational, motivational quotes, or mantras?
Holly: Buddha said it well. “The purpose of our practice is to abandon ill will and hatred, and abide with a mind compassionate for the welfare of all beings.”
Libby: “Good or bad… Who knows? We shall see.”
Gigi: “Breathe In. Breathe Out. Smile.”
7. What books are on your nightstands?
Holly: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Libby: The Overstory by Richard Powers
Gigi: Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzburg
About the Founders
Holly Rogers, M.D. co-founder of The Center for Koru Mindfulness® and developer of Koru, an evidence-based program for teaching mindfulness and meditation to college-age adults. Holly works as a psychiatrist at the student counseling center at Duke University where she helps students integrate the practice of mindfulness into their lives in a meaningful way. She is a clinical associate in the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. She is the co-author with Margaret Mayan of Mindfulness for the Next Generation: Helping Emerging Adults Manage Stress and Lead Healthier Lives. Her latest book, The Mindful Twenty-Something: Life skills to handle stress… & everything else, is a guide for young adults who wish to learn about using mindfulness and meditation to enhance their journey through emerging adulthood.
Amazon Review of The Mindful Twenty-Something: “This is a good little book with lots of good ideas, lessons, and thoughts. Use it with the app to get the best out of it.”
Libby Webb co-founder of The Center for Koru Mindfulness® & Koru Trainer, MSW. Before retiring in 2016, Libby was a licensed clinical social worker at Duke University’s Counseling and Psychological Service, and a Clinical Associate on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. She has been working with emerging adults for the past 28 years and finds great significance in helping them explore the question of meaning at a time of life filled with such ambiguity. Libby came to the practice of mindfulness through her early participation in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program. Her interest in mindfulness expanded to include the integration of present moment awareness skills taught in the practice of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. In addition to her interest in mindfulness, she also has a strong belief in the restorative benefits of small group work to illuminate the humanness of struggle. Libby lives with her family in Durham, NC and loves her adopted hometown.
Gigi Burkhalter Director of Brand & Digital Technology. Gigi is a queer, white, Latinx, first-generation child of an immigrant. She enjoys wearing many hats at the Center for Koru Mindfulness® including designing and building the brand as well as developing and managing the technology that makes the program so special. If you end up needing technology support with Koru, you’ll most likely be talking directly with Gigi. Outside of work, Gigi is learning how to be a mindful parent with guidance from baby Santi.
This is your life. Don’t miss it.
Four ways to start your mindfulness practice today:
- Find a certified teacher near you
- Get a copy of these books
- Sign up for a Teacher Training Workshop
- Download the Koru Mindfulness Companion App v2.0
This entrepreneurial spotlight was authored by Nick Jordan, founder of Smashing Boxes, and Shannon Rentner, senior director of marketing.
Smashing Boxes is a creative technology lab that partners with clients, taking an integrated approach to solving complex business problems. We fuse strategy, design, and engineering with a steady dose of entrepreneurial acumen and just the right amount of disruptive zeal. Simply put, no matter what we do, we strive to do it boldly. Let's talk today!