In 2007, Toni Carey started running. Her mother told her that it was a “white sport” and that her uterus would fall out. It didn’t deter her. She was a woman spurred on by an alarming statistic: over 80% of black women in America are considered overweight or obese.
Nine years later, Toni and her college friend Ashley Hicks-Rocha head a growing movement of women across America aiming to turn the statistics around and change their lives through running. Black Girls RUN! has a membership of over 150,000 and hosts over 70 running groups across the country. The organization has enjoyed a steady stream of press, even catching the attention of Oprah.
Through their online store, they’ve funded their dream of impacting obesity rates in America, selling Black Girls RUN! merch to women proud to represent the community that changed their lives.
Left to Right: Ashley Hicks-Rocha and Toni Carey
Toni and Ashley met in college, where Toni, a self-professed couch potato, watched her friend take up running after graduation. She was incredulous.
“‘What do you mean? Running?,’ I said, ‘Black people don't run.’ But I could tell that she was changing physically – because we both had put on quite a bit of weight after school – but she was also changing mentally. I watched her for about a year while this transformation was happening, then I decided to pick it up as well.”
During their first year of hitting the pavement together, the women realized that not only were they the only black women participating in the local running groups and road races – they were also the only people of color, period.
“I remember going to a running group with Ashley. When we showed up, no one spoke to us. They barely told us the route. I think somebody actually asked us if we were in the right place. It was like this weird Twilight Zone thing. We thought, ‘Is this really happening?’”
The isolation they felt in a sport they loved, along with a history of diabetes and other health problems in both of the women’s families, prompted Toni and Ashley to share their story.
In 2009, under the name Black Girls RUN!, they began to blog about their experiences. Conveniently, the two women both had education in communications and PR. They used their contacts and social media know-how to find audiences and get reach.
"On the blog, we said, ‘Everybody come to Atlanta and run this race with us.’ People showed up from all over the country. We were completely shocked because we thought it was just our moms reading the blog, but everyone walked away from that meeting really wanting a running group in their city.”
People showed up from all over the country. We were completely shocked because we thought it was just our moms reading the blog.
Through their blog, they reached women across the country, employing regional ambassadors and an army of volunteers to help spread the joy of running, and the confidence to get started. They began hosting runs in Atlanta, and connected women to race together in events across America.
This year, Black Girls RUN! will host their 4th Annual Sweat With Your Sole event – a conference and 5K/10K race that will host over 4000 attendees. Activities, classes, and talks from over 20 speakers – including celebrity trainer Jeanette Jenkins – will focus on promoting health and fitness in the community.
“When we decided to launch the running groups, we saw an opportunity to start monetizing the business. It just went viral. That's when we started ramping up production of our merchandise, which has been really how we've sustained the organization for this long.”
In 2011, Toni and Ashley opened an ecommerce store to sell t-shirts emblazoned with “Black Girls RUN!” Unhappy with the samples from a few online print-and-ship companies, and after a disastrous attempt at manufacturing, they chose to work with a local printer and fulfillment house in Atlanta. Supporting their local community was another cause close to their hearts.
"At one point, we decided that we wanted to manufacture in China. One run of shirts were skin tight. Literally, I had to peel it on myself. Then another run of shirts had bat wings. It was thousands of dollars of our product just wrote off. That was our foray into manufacturing.”
They sold their shirts and growing collection of merchandise through a simple ecommerce site, external to the blog, before transitioning to Shopify just over a year ago, merging the blog (imported from Wordpress) and shop into one site.
Because, at its core, Shopify is a commerce platform, Toni and Ashley worked with a developer to ensure that the message and movement still sat at the forefront on the website while being supported in the background by a more robust shopping cart. The switch allowed them to automate a lot more of the marketing through Shopify Apps and integrations like Mailchimp.
Black Girls RUN! is sustained partially through sponsorships and BGR events, but mostly through merch sales – 90% of the revenue comes from the sale of t-shirts, accessories, and digital playlist downloads. The success of the shop has allowed both women to forgo day jobs and dive into the business (and the cause) full-time.
In true entrepreneurial spirit, though, Toni tells me that she’s always chasing other projects and revenue streams.
“BGR is definitely just part of the pie. I think for any entrepreneur, the fun is in the building part. Once you actually have to do the work, you're like ‘womp-womp’. We are trying to get Black Girls Run to a place where it can run on its own and have some sustainability, because we definitely do want it around for a number of years. But we’re also looking at where we can grow it out a little bit more. Just personally, I've become so ingrained in this fitness/outdoor/healthy living community that I'm looking at ways that I can create a personal brand and monetize that as well. I definitely have multiple irons in the fire!”
I think for any entrepreneur, the fun is in the building part. Once you actually have to do the work, you're like ‘womp-womp’.
After she was laid off in 2008, at the beginning of her career, she decided she would never rely on just one source of income. She’s seeing the trend in other people in her circles – a generation of savvy women exploring entrepreneurship as a reaction to a volatile economy.
"There's a little bit more sense of security in terms of controlling your destiny. My mom is an entrepreneur too, so I've seen her build businesses as well, and she's always had something else that she's doing to bring in income.”
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Black Girls Run... Businesses
While the obesity epidemic among black women is disheartening, another statistic paints a much more optimistic picture. Businesses owned by African American women in the US grew by 322% between 1997 and 2015. Compared to women-owned businesses as a whole, which grew by 74% in the same period, black women are the fastest growing entrepreneur group in America.
Springing up everywhere are funding sources, educational programs, and resources dedicated specifically to help black American women get started with small business ownership.
In Atlanta, a city with one of the largest black populations in America, Toni and Ashley are part of a strong community.
“When you become an entrepreneur, you’re instantly part of this secret club – other entrepreneurs just flock to you. Atlanta definitely has a lot of movers and shakers in terms of startups and entrepreneurship, especially in tech. I have a great set of friends who are entrepreneurs."
Black Girls RUN! has owed its growth to grassroots word of mouth – mainly via the network of volunteer ambassadors and city-specific Facebook Groups. Facebook advertising, naturally, has been the primary driver of paid traffic and sales. “I honestly do not know where Black Girls RUN! would be without Facebook,” she says.
A Black Girls RUN! Group in Columbus, Ohio
The women have been amazed by the support they’ve received, and how the idea began to spread through these community-powered networks, taking on a life of its own.
“I think if I had one regret it would be that we actually grew probably too fast. I always tell entrepreneurs to think about scalability and what that looks like for your business and make sure that you're not growing too fast for your infrastructure, which we totally did. Ask yourself: what’s your exit strategy? You might not want to do this for the rest of your life, so what does that look like?”
Ask yourself: what’s your exit strategy? You might not want to do this for the rest of your life, so what does that look like?
At the moment, while growth seems to be taking care of itself, Toni and Ashley are putting focus on stepping back from the business, and finding ways to help it thrive on its own.
“With the merchandise, we're trying to find a way to streamline it even more than it already is. I watch The Profit with Marcus Lemonis, and I’ve learned that the more hands it touches, the more expensive it gets. We're really trying to find someone who can do it all for us so that it really can be residual, like we're not working so hard at this.”
A membership of 150,000 women across America is enough to prove that Black Girls RUN! has made an impact, but measuring success has been a challenge, Toni says. She’d like to claim that she’s made a dent in the obesity numbers in America. Currently, BGR is seeking a partner to help capture data from its membership, likely through wearable tech.
In the meantime, the growing movement and anecdotal feedback has been enough to keep them going. She shares with me some of the many success stories.
“One woman lost about 90 pounds just by coming with us and running. It completely transformed her life and she's doing track runs now. The second one, which to me is a little bit more meaningful was I woman who recognized me in a restaurant once. She said she moved up to Atlanta from Florida because her daughter had cancer. She said, ‘Black Girls RUN! was the only thing that got me through my daughter's cancer treatments,’ and ultimately, her daughter passed. This is probably is going to be the worst thing that ever happened to this woman in her life, and for her to attribute her being able to get through that to Black Girls RUN! was very powerful.”
Though the founders have focused solely on black women in America, they've seen a trickle-down effect on other groups. They've discovered, through talking to their members, that women have changed the habits of their entire families, affecting the health of their children through their own examples. The women have partnered with other organizations like Girls on the Run to bring their message to young girls, and match their members as role models.
Toni has also noticed a huge shift, since her own inauguration into running. The diversity in the run groups and at the races has expanded to include people of all shades and shapes and sizes. Most notably, she is seeing more and more women participating in the sport.
“We've also seen the rise of these really dope running crews. There’s this running crew called Black Roses in New York, and it's like a running gang. They're so cool. I always say we didn't invent the running group – we just put our own very unique twist on it. That's my advice to people who want to become entrepreneurs: you don't have to have an original concept. Just put your own unique spin on it and that's your product.”
You don't have to have an original concept. Just put your own unique spin on it and that's your product.
Ashley and Toni founded Black Girls RUN! as a means to share their own running journey, and with the hopes of providing healthy inspiration to other women. As an unexpected byproduct of their success, they have also become entrepreneur role models for other black American women.
The women were named among the 30 Black Bloggers You Should Know by The Root, and included in Essence Magazine’s 35 Under 35: Young Black and Amazing Women. In 2014, they received Toyota’s Standing O-Vation Award presented by Oprah.
photo: Atlanta Daily World
The two have learned a lot through seven years of business. Though they’ve been very successful, the journey hasn’t come without a few hard lessons. What advice does she give to would-be entrepreneurs? “It’s amazing and it does offer you certain freedoms,” she tells me, “But I'm very real with people. It's hard. It's really hard.”
The most challenging part, perhaps, has been navigating their relationship as business partners. They've worked around it by defining very specific roles for themselves in the company.
“Ashley always calls this our baby and it's like we're a married couple. It truly is. That's been the hardest thing to navigate in running a business, especially when it started out just as a friendship.”
They’ve also struggled to find the right partners who support and understand their vision.
“I've been in meetings with very large athletic companies and they said, ‘You really need to change your name, because it’s not inclusive. What about just calling it Girls Run?’ I remember sitting in that meeting thinking 'This cannot be happening for real’. We've heard it all.”
But their success has now attracted partnership interest from brands who align with their goals and message. Toni is happy to tell me, as well, that her vision finally has support from the person who matters most, once one of the biggest skeptics of her passion for running: her mom.
“I'm appearing in articles and she's buying all the magazines when they come out but I don't think she really realized the impact until she came to one of our events and saw these women and the excitement. She was like, "Holy crap. You've really done something amazing.’ It reminds me of when Michelle Obama was doing an interview and the reporter asked, ‘How do you feel about Sasha and Malia being influencers?’ Michelle said, ‘They're not influencers. They didn't do anything. They're just here.’ I feel like that's how my mom thinks about me. You know, ‘she's just Toni’.”
Inspired by Toni and Ashley's story? Run after your own dream.