Behind the splashy headlines of founders and unicorn companies is a segment of the population that is swimming upstream with no excuses or designated path to equally successful results. One of the fastest growing demographics for entrepreneurs is businesses led by black women, which account for nearly 2.7 million new businesses in the United States, according to recent statistics from JP Morgan. Many black women are taking matters into their own hands, choosing to connect their businesses more directly to the communities they serve.
With the state’s Small Business Credit Initiative, the federal government is stepping up its efforts to expand low-cost loans and investments for underserved small business owners. Yet many new companies still rely on self-funded mechanisms to get their projects off the ground.
Ife Obi, the “Grace Jones” of Fitness, started The Fit In, a pilates and functional training center in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY, using her own hard-earned money from marketing work to throw. With a motto of “people before profits”, she raises awareness and educates on the importance of movement and well-being for a marginalized community in need of direct opportunity.
His approach to business is to meet a need, without knowing at the outset if the concept would catch on when it opened. However, from day one, the community enthusiastically showed up at the hometown studio, leading to subsequent new locations.
Her story is not just about female entrepreneurship, but about the upbringing of a young woman who faced the challenges of growing up in a less-than-healthy Brooklyn neighborhood and decided to provide health-conscious opportunities that she never had.
East Brooklyn Beginnings
Rod Berger: As a youngster growing up in Brooklyn, what was the daily environment you faced that shaped your actions and vision?
Ife Obi: Growing up, I didn’t have much access to safe places to move or examples of other people involved in movement and fitness. Eating healthy was generally not a priority in my East Brooklyn community.
In the 80s and 90s, where I lived was the most dangerous neighborhood in New York. You couldn’t just go to the parks because that’s where the drug deals were happening. You couldn’t ride the bike because shooting was happening around the corners.
Many people like me never grew up with a wellness or fitness culture. Stores for fresh vegetables and other offers also did not easily exist.
Failure brings change
Shepherd: What was your family dynamic like the one that shaped where you are today?
Obi: My father was Nigerian and I grew up in an immigrant family. Considerable importance was attached to education. Nigerians are very proud, and it is as if it takes three masters in a Nigerian house.
When I was kicked out of a prestigious high school, my family didn’t mind and disowned me, kicking me out of the house. That’s when I had to figure things out on my own.
I had no idea what the outside world offered until I started working in other environments outside of my neighborhood. It happened to be a sporting goods store in Union Square that exposed me to the training and active choices of a clientele, often from more affluent backgrounds.
With my problems, I wanted to be another person. So I started training twice a day for two hours, but it wasn’t for any specific purpose. I lost nearly 60 pounds and felt rejuvenated. This is what interested me in the movement at the beginning.
It wasn’t until I suffered a serious back injury during a workout that I understood what it’s like to teach people movement. Of course, people are inclined to move to move, but if not done correctly, significant injuries can occur, as I have experienced.
My negative experiences pushed me forward. Nigerians are not afraid to tell you that you are a failure. So being a failure in the eyes of my family pushed me to change my life. It forced me to say, “I’m going to change who I am, but I’m also going to have a lasting impact on the community.
Shepherd: Do you talk about that motivation you mentioned to have a lasting impact that led to the creation of your community-focused business?
Obi: Years later, when I finally started the company, it started with trial and error. I was traveling away from my neighborhood just to exercise. It was expensive, but I could afford it at the time because I had a good job in corporate marketing.
But I knew the cost would be a huge barrier for others. With fitness options not available in our community, price and availability to go elsewhere is a huge barrier. I wanted to bring quality movement and quality wellness to the neighborhood because our community needs it more than other financially affluent areas.
Our community has the highest rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Yet there is a barrier to accessing healthy movement, healthy food, and doctors.
I wondered, “Why did it take me so long to really learn and understand the importance of health and healthy movement? That shouldn’t be the case. I shouldn’t have to travel to more affluent neighborhoods to access quality movement and community interest.
I decided to ditch a barebones studio and keep my corporate lane in marketing. At the time, becoming Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) was my goal. But I would make sure that my other efforts would positively benefit the community.
Shepherd: Your business has grown significantly in a relatively short time. Please explain what keeps your night light inside to drive growth, engagement and your purpose?
Obi: Failure drove me to a full 180 in life. I decided to change who I am while having an impact on the community. I want to leave my mark on life. I believe that this period of failure in my life led me to never be happy. I dropped a studio, and it worked well, but soon it wasn’t enough because there weren’t enough people who could sign up for classes. Then it leads to a second and third studio with other options, like a franchise model and even add-on products to consider. It’s a blessing and a curse, but I guess it’s never really enough.
For me, it’s about the people in that community and making sure they’re well taken care of because that’s my family. When I look at the people in class with me, they are my brothers and sisters, and I want to see us collectively continue to do better. I enjoy being part of the growth of our community and the development of “us”.
People have always prevailed over profit. Being an entrepreneur does not necessarily define me. This is to ensure that the community is healthy. I don’t even like to describe myself as a fitness expert. Recently I looked at history and early 1900’s pioneers like Joseph Pilates. At the time, they were considered “bodybuilders” acting as ambassadors of the movement. I started leaning into the wellness culture, focusing primarily on underserved communities and black women.
Shepherd: Let’s talk about education. How have your educational experiences influenced your approach to health and wellness practice models?
Obi: I entered a school for gifted and talented students in middle school, where I did dance, but overall my education experience lacked health learning outside of the gym and recess . It was not part of the program as a whole.
Today, I see a lack of importance in schools on health education. Everyone is focused on STEM, but not so much on physical health. Although rare in my world growing up, there might be even less right now.
It’s essential to start at an early age and teach children the basics of eating through healthy food options instead of quick snacks so they can generate a palette of fresh fruits and vegetables. In communities with less access to fresh options, the same commitment can occur with frozen fruits and vegetables. Not everything has to be organic, but it’s important to just introduce healthy choices early on.
Adding a level of education for parents and children is essential. After all, the parents will be buying the food.
Most of our clients at The Fit In are 35 and older. They are older and usually have families and children. If they understand why health and wellness are vital, they can pass this knowledge on to their children and spouse.
Ife Obi had the opportunity to settle into her community as an immigrant and accept the status quo as a given. Instead, Obi chose to strike first. As a result, she has not only broken through cultural assumptions, but also charted a new and dynamic path for community members of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and interests into an ecosystem of healthy living.
The “American Dream” seems alive and well. The lesson is about to start and Obi is waiting for your participation.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.