A new company, and a new baby, drive the passion in one of Chicago’s female startup founders

By Ruiqi Chen
Medill Reports

The day after Borislava Baeva’s new fitness subscription startup went live, she found out she was having a baby girl.

The Chicago-based entrepreneur launched her fitness studio bundling service My Strong Circle last month after nearly two years of planning and preparation. She said she’s always been motivated to succeed as a woman in the startup industry, but she became even more determined to be a strong role model after finding out she was having a daughter.

Chicago has the world’s highest proportion of female startup founders, according to research company Startup Genome’s 2019 global report. Over a quarter of the city’s estimated three thousand startups are founded by women compared to the worldwide average of 14%. Baeva said this level of representation was important for encouraging women to pursue their career ambitions.

“Once you see women (in the industry), you feel like, ‘Oh, I can do that. I belong here,’” she said.

Baeva moved to the United States a decade ago from Bulgaria to study at DePaul University before working in corporate finance for nearly a decade.

After being laid off in early 2017, Baeva began considering entrepreneurship in earnest. For the next two years, she focused on market research and refining her business idea, eventually honing in on Chicago’s need for easier access to many different local fitness studios.

My Strong Circle provides customers with the option of bundling memberships at different boutique fitness clubs in the city, so they have a greater variety of exercise options for a lower price. This business model, Baeva said, would also help smaller fitness studios create alliances with their indirect competition.

“I found this really compelling because it gives the most benefit for both fitness studios and the consumer,” Baeva said.

Like many other women entrepreneurs, Baeva decided to self-fund her startup with her personal savings from years in the finance industry. She said the stress of managing investors’ money, along with her decision to have a baby, influenced her choice.

“I didn’t want to feel responsible for other people’s money,” Baeva said. “If something were to go wrong and I need to dedicate 100% to being a mother, I wanted to have the freedom of saying okay, I have risked my own money and I can say I’m pulling the plug.”

After My Strong Circle went live, Baeva pursued her first round of investor funding. She said additional funding will help with their efforts to continue to develop the software behind My Strong Circle.

At the time of My Strong Circle’s launch, it had around 20 fitness studios partnerships, which Baeva hoped to ultimately expand to 200 studio partners.

“Being a dual-sided marketplace, I have a chicken-and-egg problem,” Baeva said. “Before I can get a lot of paying customers, I need to have a lot of fitness clubs.”

She added that her priority has been to increase My Strong Circle’s partnership network in the city so that consumers have more options.

“Entrepreneurship is just so much more creative and thrilling,” she said, adding that she had often been the only woman and only immigrant in the office when she was working in finance.

As an entrepreneur, Baeva has had the opportunity to meet a diverse group of women business owners and experience an environment very different from her corporate background.

“That gives me a lot of motivation to keep going,” Baeva said.

Now, Baeva said she hoped to become the inspiration for her daughter that her own mother was to her.

“She spent her career in operations in basically a slaughterhouse with rubber boots most of the time,” she said, recalling how her mother was both passionate and firm in her job. Baeva said she admired the way her mother was direct in her instructions to the people she managed but also kind and loving to her family.

“I want to show (my daughter) that you can be both career-driven and you can also be a loving and caring person. You don’t have to choose.”

Photo at top: Borislava Baeva, founder of fitness subscription startup My Strong Circle, at the coworking space in startup incubator 1871. (Ruiqi Chen/MEDILL)