From Pandemic Furlough to Entrepreneur, Social Media Influencer, and Athleta Partner

Talya Sanders, SMU News

Leada Malek, DPT '16, still remembers her Management of Physical Therapy Services class from five years ago. Assistant Professor Heidi Garske asked students, “Do you have the entrepreneurial spirit?”

“I literally said, ‘No,’ thinking it was too much work and just wasn’t my thing,” says Leada.

She never predicted what her career would look like eight years and multiple phases of a pandemic later. 

When the pandemic hit, Leada was practicing sports-related physical therapy at Active Care Physical Therapy in San Francisco, a clinic that was forced to shut down. She was furloughed, and not long after frustration started to creep in.

“As a healthcare worker pretty much on the sidelines of the pandemic, I felt like I needed to do my part. I started with pro bono services for healthcare workers,” says Leada, who had friends who were nurses working on the frontlines. She started offering free virtual physical therapy to essential workers from her apartment in Oakland. “Then, when I realized so many traditional PT jobs were at a standstill, I decided to pull the trigger and charge for my own services.”

50,000 followers can’t be wrong

To help build her brand awareness, she started posting to social media, focusing on Instagram. “I was seeing so many questions about ergonomic setups, neck pain, and back pain from people who were suddenly working from home with a lot of stress. That was a recipe for disaster in my PT mind,” she remembers.

She posted short videos with exercises and wrote a free ebook about creating a healthy workday environment at home. A year later, she expanded it and now sells it on her website.

“The point of my Instagram presence isn’t to help people self-diagnose or offer the perfect solution to their problems. It’s to show them what physical therapy can be, how simple and helpful it can be, and how it’s not scary,” Leada says. “Many people don’t know what physical therapy is or can do to help them, and I want to educate them about the profession.”

Leada now has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram, and that’s opened up a world of professional opportunities. She has helped athletes prepare for the NFL scouting combine and MLB spring training. She has worked at Stanford Children’s Hospital and consulted with a virtual wellness physical therapy platform startup. This past summer, Athleta started a community wellness platform and hired Leada as its physical therapy guide, providing health and wellness advice to the platform’s 30,000 members.

She’s been quoted in Oxygen Magazine, Women’s Health, Shape Magazine, and others.

“I used to dream about being in Oxygen Magazine when I’d read it as a student,” says Leada. “I loved looking up the women who were consulted in the articles, and I thought it was empowering that women were the focus of the knowledge base. It was really cool to finally be on the other side.”

Student becomes the teacher

This year, Leada became an adjunct professor for SMU’s Doctor of Physical Therapy department. Whether she’s sharing her expertise on social media, teaching in the classroom, or working with patients one-on-one, Leada says what she enjoys most is helping elevate the profession of physical therapy.

“I’m proud to reach so many people,” she says. “Physical therapy is growing quickly, we’re so much more than ice and manual therapy. When people learn about the possibilities, they’ll be able to move their bodies more and feel better.”

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