Ife Obi brings opportunities to her community through health and wellness.
Behind the headlines of unicorn founders and companies, a section of the population is swimming without apologizing or a similar path to successful results. According to recent JPMorgan data, one of the fastest growing demographics for entrepreneurs are black women-led enterprises, representing approximately 2.7 million new businesses in the US. 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 Small Business Credit Initiative, the federal government is stepping up efforts to expand to low-cost loans and investments for small business owners looking to reduce their investment. Nevertheless, many new ventures still rely on self-funded mechanisms to get their projects off the ground.
Fitness’ “Grace Jones” If Obie started The Fit Inn, a pilates and functional training facility in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY, using her hard-earned money from a marketing job to get up and running. With a motto of ‘People over Profit’, she is bringing awareness and education on the importance of movement and health wellness to a marginalized community in need of direct opportunities.
Her approach to the business is meant to satisfy a need it initially never knew the concept would take hold when it first opened. However, from day one, the community showed up enthusiastically embracing their hometown studio, leading to the latter’s new venue.
Her story is not only about female entrepreneurship, but about the education of a young woman who overcame the difficulties of growing up in a less healthy neighborhood of Brooklyn and decided to offer health-conscious opportunities that would help her. Never had.
the beginning of east brooklyn
Rod Berger: As a young man growing up in Brooklyn, what daily environments did you encounter that shaped your actions and attitudes?
IFE OB: Growing up, I didn’t have much access to safe places to walk or examples of other people involved in movement and fitness. Eating healthy was generally not a focus in my community in East Brooklyn.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the place I lived in was the most dangerous area in New York. You couldn’t just go to the parks because those were where drug deals went down. You couldn’t ride your bike because there was shooting at the corners.
A lot of people like me never grew up with a culture of health or fitness. Stores with fresh vegetables and other offerings were also not readily available.
failure brings change
Burger: What was your family dynamic like to shape where you are today?
OB: My father was Nigerian, and I grew up in an immigrant family. Great importance was given to education. Nigerians are very proud, and it seems you need three master’s degrees in a Nigerian home.
When I was kicked out of a prestigious high school, my family would have none of it and kicked me out of the house. This was when I had to figure things out on my own.
It wasn’t until I started working in other environments outside my neighborhood that I knew very little about what the outside world had to offer. It happened as a sporting goods store in Union Square made me aware of the working out and proactive choices of customers, often by more affluent means.
With my troubles, I wanted to be a different person. So I started working out for two hours twice a day, but that was not the purpose. I dropped close to 60 pounds and felt refreshed again. This got me interested in the movement initially.
It wasn’t until I suffered a major back injury during a workout that prompted me to understand what it’s like to teach people movement. Of course, people tend to just move, but if done improperly, can cause significant injury, as I experienced.
Ife Obi finds solace in the community she comes from and is building.
My negative experiences have driven me forward. Nigerians are not afraid to tell you that you are a failure. So being a failure in the eyes of my family inspired me to change my life. It forced me to say, “I’m going to change who I am, but I’m going to make a lasting impact on the community.”
Burger: Talk about the campaign you mentioned to make a lasting impact that built your community-oriented business?
OB: Years later, when I finally came to build the business, it started out as trial and error. I was traveling far away from my neighborhood just to exercise. It was expensive, but I could afford it at the time because I had a decent corporate job in marketing.
But I knew the cost would be a huge deterrent to others. With no fitness options available in our community, the price point, and availability to go elsewhere is a major constraint. I wanted to bring quality movement and quality welfare to the neighborhood as our community needs it more than other economically affluent areas.
Our community has the highest rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Still, there is an obstacle to healthy movement, healthy eating and doctors.
I would ask myself, “Why did it take me so long to really learn and understand the importance of health and healthy movement?” It should not happen. I should not go to affluent neighborhoods to reach quality movement and community interest.
I decided to leave a barebones studio and keep my corporate track in marketing. At that time, it was my goal to become the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). But I will ensure that my other efforts will positively benefit the community.
Burger: Your business has grown tremendously in a relatively short period of time. Please explain what keeps your pilot light going for further growth, commitment and your purpose?
OB: Failure inspired me to do a complete 180 in life. I decided to change who I am while influencing the community. I want to leave my seal on life. I believe that the times of failure in my life have never satisfied me. I left a studio, and it did well, but soon enough it wasn’t because enough people couldn’t sign up for classes. He then moves on to second and third studios that have other options, such as considering the franchise model and even complementary products. It’s a blessing and a curse, but I think it’s never really enough.
For me, it is about the people in this community and making sure they are well taken care of because this is my family. When I see people in classes with me, they are my siblings, and I want us to keep doing better together as a whole. I love to be a part of the growth of our community and the growth of ‘we’.
It has always been people over profit. Being an entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily define me. It’s about focusing on making sure the community is healthy. I don’t even like to describe myself as a fitness expert. More recently, I’ve looked back on history and early 1900s pioneers like Joseph Pilates. At the time, he was considered a “culturalist” who served as the movement’s ambassador. I’ve started leaning toward being a wellness cultist, focusing primarily on underserved communities and black women.
Burger: Let’s talk about education. How have your educational experiences influenced your approach to the health and fitness model of practice?
OB: I entered a school for the gifted and gifted in middle school, where I danced, but overall, my education experience lacked health learning outside the gym and leisure. It was not part of the whole program.
Today, I see a lack of importance on health education in schools. Everyone’s focus is on STEM, but not as much on physical health. While rare is happening in my world, less may still be there.
It’s important to start from an early age and teach kids the basics of food through healthy food choices rather than quick snacks so they build up a palette for fresh fruits and vegetables. In communities with less access to fresh options, there may be a similar commitment with frozen fruits and vegetables. Not everything is necessarily organic, but it’s just important to start making healthy choices early on.
It is necessary to add level of education for parents and children. After all, it is the parents who will buy the food.
Most of our clients at Fit Inn are 35 years of age and older. They are older and have families and children. If they understand why health and well-being are important, they can pass that knowledge on to their children and spouse.
If Obi had the option of staying in his community as an immigrant and accepting the status quo as a forgotten conclusion. Instead, Obi chose to punch first. As a result, it has not only broken cultural beliefs but also forged a new and vibrant path for community members of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and interests in an ecosystem of healthy living.
The ‘American Dream’ appears to be alive and well. Class is about to start and Obie looks forward to your participation.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.