Addressing Race in Boutique Fitness

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

.Empowerment Training Expert Leanne Shear sat down with Nt Etuk, Founder of FitGrid and Co-Founder of BFS and Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, Chief Visionary Officer of Bikram Yoga Works to discuss race in the boutique fitness industry.

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Nt Etuk

Founder of FitGrid, Co-Founder of BFS
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Kendra Blackett-Dibinga

Chief Visionary Officer of Bikram Yoga Works

PLEASE TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A BLACK PERSON IN THE BOUTIQUE SPACE

Kendra Blackett-Dibinga
There was always a sense of being a lone soldier: I felt like a lot of eyes were watching me instead of wanting to collaborate with me. It wasn’t until I opened my fifth studio where other owners and people in the industry wanted to collaborate. No one wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt, and in the beginning I felt very much alone, and I didn’t have the support in the industry to grow as I wanted to grow.

Nt Etuk
I’ve always been used to being one of the only ones if not the only one, but I was shocked when I came to fitness that it was also the case there. You see a lot of black trainers and instructors but when you get to the manager and owner level there is still a massive discrepancy. It is such a glaring thing when you have your eyes open to it.

A LOT OF WHITE STUDIO OWNERS ARE CONCERNED WITH DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE?

Kendra Blackett-Dibinga
As I grew, more and more of our students became instructors, some became staff in my organization. I’ve always been intentionally focused on diverse communities–we didn’t want to just open in areas that were predominantly white, instead opening in traditionally underserved communities (not poor communities but communities that didn’t traditionally have that service). I was very thoughtful early on and before opening locations with what services I would provide and where I would go: I look at the demographics of the area before opening and ask, “does it fit the value/goals of our organization and what we want to do?” From the get-go, I made a deliberate effort to diversify the community and our staff grew from that.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR ATTRACTING A MORE DIVERSE CLIENTELE IN AN ALREADY EXISTING BUSINESS/STUDIO?

Kendra Blackett-Dibinga
It’s all about partnership. I am strongly against tokenization, and I think partnership combats that. For example, have white, latino, black facilitators come in and do a workshop in your studio. Find a black-owned juice bar, a black nutritionist. Who you partner with, who you decide to bring into the studio, matters. Once you create those partnerships, it’s easier to be authentic about getting a diverse crowd.

HOW TO HIRE A DIVERSE STAFF AND ELEVATE MINORITIES INTO LEADERSHIP POSITIONS IN YOUR COMPANY

Nt Etuk
Diversity is a business opportunity. There are underserved parts of the country that are really not being invited into boutique fitness, in  part because of where different businesses are located, but also in part because of the imagery we use: it’s always a certain body type, a certain color.

If you can make your magery so it has different shapes and colors, you can start to attract different people in. For a diverse staff, go to places like Talent Hack.  You might not have access to many diverse people, but we’re in a livestream world now, so you can reach out to instructors in major areas and do a deal with them where they bring people in and you can both benefit: expand your business and your footprint and you can get more national and more global

Kendra Blackett-Dibinga
Reach out to your existing network and also to your members: we give two buddy passes a month and we encourage them to keep inviting people into the studio. We’ve been able to get people coming in organically that way, and we rely a lot on our members to do that; use them as a resource. And again, think partnership: if you know of any other minority-owned studios or complementary businesses, reach out to them and see if they’re willing to share their instructors as well. Diversity has to be intentional, and to make it authentic start with your inner circle.

Nt Etuk
The conversations that you have inside your staff and with minority instructors are very important right now. We all practice pattern recognition: what assumptions are we making when we deal with someone and have an interaction? When we see the disparity between minority instructors and trainers and those in leadership and management positions, we need to ask ourselves, “Is this person really seeing they’re not interested in being a manager or are you just not seeing them there?”

I encourage everyone to think about unconscious bias. When you see a discrepancy, ask, “what am I not thinking about and what am I not opening my eyes to in my own decisions?”

Also, as for a  referral: ask existing instructors and trainers if they have friends and put that front and center.

Kendra Blackett-Dibinga
Look at where you’re advertising. There are a lot of online groups (e.g., Black Yoga Teachers Alliance) very specific to black and brown people in the boutique fitness space. Start looking around – who’s active? Some of the leaders in the group would be very willing to share job descriptions or calls for instructors and would welcome the partnerships.

Nt Etuk
This sounds like a lot of extra effort but I want to tie this back to the business case for diversity.Right now, people are operating at very diminished capacity: you need new clients. Getting different instructors can bring in different audiences helps you bring in new clients.Part of doing this can also help make your business stronger and broader.

HOW DO YOU PROTECT AND EMPOWER YOUR DIVERSE STAFF AND COMMUNITY AT LARGE?

Nt Etuk
The first thing you have to do is be very interested in their feedback. If they’re the first or one of the few, you can’t just drop them in there. Ask,

“Please give me the feedback of what you’re seeing, how you’re experiencing this, or ways we can make this more inclusive or a more comfortable environment.” Being open to hearing, learning and growing

Kendra Blackett-Dibinga
I have allowed all of my teachers to come up with things they would like to offer to the community (new class format, etc). I ask them what the business case is and how this is mutually beneficial, and then I let them develop it and also invest in it (e.g., I pay for the video production for a teaser, highlight them in social media and newsletter, etc.). There are many different ways we have been able to elevate our teachers in our community so everyone gets to know them and humanize them.

Also, being a black owner doesn’t mean I don’t have to deal with diversity issues: I have to be intentional about hiring white instructors. I take classes at other studios and if I like the teacher, reach out and ask friends to do the same.

HOW CAN A WHITE INSTRUCTOR IN WHITE COMMUNITY AND AREA ENGAGE WITH AND MAKE A MORE DIVERSE CLIENTELE FEEL WELCOME?

Kendra Blackett-Dibinga
It’s all about partnership and intention. Look at companies around you, they employ black people. Talk to their HR people. I also encourage people to look at their friend circle and tap into who you know.

Partner to do events that are outdoor, nutrition workshops, things that are different than what you do in the studio. Take classes elsewhere and reach out to the businesses around you: Get out of that studio and get into the community.

Nt Etuk
Pay attention to the person the same way you would any other person. Don’t make it about race just make it about them as a new client – act as a human being.

DIVERSITY VERSUS CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Kendra Blackett-Dibinga
Do things like pay attention to the music that is played in your classes and censor it (“I don’t want to go into a studio where I hear the N-word repeatedly in the music”). Also, a diverse staff will help you break through some of the noise-”that makes sense, that doesn’t make sense.” Get the feedback and listen to the people in your community.

Watch what you’re doing in the studio, who’s inputting into your way of doing business. Look across your team and listen to everyone’s voices and that you can amplify everyone’s voices at some point. Is anything you’re doing exclusionary how can you make it so other people can find a place in your space?

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