FITpreneurs: Women Are Becoming Entrepreneurs Through Fitness

By Kathleen McAuliffe

At 8:30 on a Tuesday morning, Dani Muckley is already teaching her second workout class of the morning at River North’s Studio Three. Though this spin class will last only 45 minutes, she spent two hours choreographing moves and planning the music, logging each workout onto a PDF to ensure she doesn’t repeat a song or sequence.

When she started teaching cycling classes for cash as a law student, Muckley couldn’t have imagined that cycling would become her career.

But dissatisfied as a litigation attorney, she decided to take a chance on a fitness career. She sacrificed her salary and benefits to teach cycling.

“I could have done it for the rest of my life,” said Muckley said of her law career. “You can always just get through. But I didn’t want to just get through. I wanted to have something I look forward to.”

Muckley is an example of how Chicago’s booming boutique fitness industry has become a breeding ground for female fitness professionals.

Some, like Muckley, obtain group fitness certifications and teach classes at one or several studios. Some have established their own studios, or opened new locations of franchises like Pure Barre or Corepower Yoga. Still more women have become personal trainers, launched online run coaching or strength training services or combined several of these “side hustles” into a career.

The opportunities are endless, said Jenny Hadfield, Chicago-based owner of running-centric travel company Marathon Expeditions.

“When I first got into fitness, they didn’t really have personal trainers. Now you can teach classes, do personal training, you can start a boot camp,” said Hadfield, also a running coach and Runner’s World columnist. “There’s so many different ways you can go. Working as much as you want, but the hours that you want.”

That flexibility attracts many working mothers to fitness careers, including Jessica Slusar.

“For me, I think the flexibility is the piece that drew me in,” said Slusar, owner of Pure Barre Deerfield and mother of a toddler. “Obviously I want to be in the studio as much as possible. But life happens, I have a husband and a kid. It is nice to know that I can control when and where I need to be.”

Others, after working in male-dominated industries, crave a more female-focused work environment.

”The reality is that [investment consulting] is white male dominated,” said Natalie Salb, a former investment consultant and owner of Pure Barre Wheaton. “Being a female in that industry, first and foremost, is very challenging because you’re always surrounded by men. Now I work at a fitness boutique.with predominantly women clients.”

But both in the fitness sector and in general, women entrepreneurs are more motivated by their personal passion than by a desire for flexibility or career burnout.

“My hours aren’t necessarily any better because I wake up at 4 AM [to teach],” Muckley said. “But to have the opportunity, every day, to interact with people who are doing something for themselves is a lot more fulfilling for me on not just a personal level, but also on a career level.”

Passion doesn’t pay the bills, though. Compared to men, women have historically struggled to launch businesses. According to a study by the National Women’s Business Council, women still make up only 36 percent of small business owners.

Many are limited by finances. On average, men start their businesses with nearly twice as much capital as women, per the National Women’s Business Council. Women also feel less confident in their abilities as entrepreneurs, according to the Babson University Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.

“The scariest part was the fear of failure,” said Jenny Hankins, owner of Treadfit, a Beverly studio combining treadmill running and strength training. “I remember even the night before saying to my mom, ‘I can’t do this.’ You think you have a good idea, but you don’t know how other people will feel about it.”

But fitness franchising models have helped many women entrepreneurs overcome both obstacles. Franchise owners benefit from the branding and business structure of their parent company, but assume responsibility for staffing, class scheduling and other day-to-day operations of their studios.

Logistics aside, franchises offer first-timers a supportive community of fellow owners. On her studio’s opening, Salb called another owner to ensure “everything went off without a hitch.”

Social media has further lowered the barriers to entry, as women can advertise their classes, share new workouts and build their personal brands with just a Wifi connection.

“It’s so different from 10 years ago when everything was ad based and print based,” Hankins said. “The reach you can get in a day on Facebook is unbelievable. And it’s something you can do from your phone.”

The resulting influx of new fitness studios and concepts has intensified the competition for clients eager to experiment with their new options, Slusar said.

`“People are fitness snackers, not everyone does just one thing,” said Slusar. “People might do Pure Barre and cardio, or run. Or they might go to other concepts like Corepower Yoga. And we’re not the only barre studio here anymore. The market is getting really, really saturated.”

Breaking into a crowded fitness industry requires the same long hours as any other field, Muckley said.

“When you start, you don’t always get prime time classes. Nobody wants to take the new girl’s classes. They’re paying money to come [to class]. So it’s tough to set your footing, especially in a big city.”

In addition to teaching, they need to stay current on every new fad.

“You have to go to classes,” Muckley said. “You have to learn. You have to be teaching to the new trend. Because fitness is evolving, it doesn’t stay the same.”

Through their hard work, these women have created communities that empower other women both physically and emotionally, Slusar said.

“[It’s] a community telling women that ‘You’re strong, you’re beautiful.’ a safe place,” Slusar said. “Like no matter what’s happening in your world, know that walking into these four walls, we’re here for you.”

Dani Muckley strikes a pose before 8:30 AM spin. (Kathleen McAuliffe/MEDILL)