GETTY IMAGES; CHLOE KRAMMEL/MEN’S HEALTH ILLUSTRATION
THE FITNESS-EQUIPMENT landscape has never been this expansive. Even before the pandemic shut down gyms and sparked a massive increase in home-gym-equipment sales, gear companies were in overdrive, pumping out adjustable dumbbells, pioneering Bluetooth weights, and experimenting with styles of resistance to make home cable machines and whisper-quiet rowers.
But amid all that innovation, something’s missing. Scan the companies driving the next generation of workout equipment and you’ll see little diversity in their ranks. Most major fitness brands are dominated by overwhelmingly white ownership. While equipment offerings have grown increasingly diverse, the faces who bring you that equipment have not.
Statistics about underrepresentation among fitness-gear makers are hard to come by. Here’s what we do know, though: Regardless of industry, Black-owned businesses face immense challenges. Based on a 2020 poll commissioned by Groupon and the National Black Chamber of Commerce, 74 percent of Black small-business owners still struggle with a lack of capital and investment resources, and 59 percent say they experienced some form of racism or bias when they started their business. When it comes to the booming billion-dollar market for exercise gear, this cycle is especially hard to break since you need serious capital to forge new and often heavy or ultra-durable products.
That’s a major problem because not only are Black entrepreneurs being deprived of potential success, wealth, and power in the space but there’s also an obvious imagination gap that happens when any part of a population is shut off from the opportunity for advancement. While no single experience is monolithic, Black innovators have often battled similar obstacles because systemic racism blocked those owners or designers from accessing capital.
“The disparities and inequality that exist for Black people in this country in general exist in so many ways [in the fitness industry],” says Percell Dugger, founder of Fit For Us, an organization that advocates for and empowers Black fitness professionals and underserved communities. In fact, Dugger could name only a handful of Black gear players out there—period. “Being in business, the ability to grow, the scaling and marketing, it is vastly disproportionate. We don’t have the opportunities or network to attract the support needed,” he says.
In the face of these hurdles, there are a handful of Black-owned fitness companies that are literally reshaping the gear frontier. Together they’re refining and improving classic tools such as kettlebells and jump ropes and even reinventing how workouts actually work via advancements such as adjustable-weight and Bluetooth-connected training equipment. Several places also offer more-accessible ways to optimize your training and recovery—or even bounce back faster from certain kinds of injuries.
These innovations have all enriched the fitness landscape in many ways, and that’s the point: “They’re creating a new way of [succeeding],” says John Butler, Ph.D., a professor who specializes in entrepreneurship at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. It’s a way that hinges on a lived experience that allows them to see the world differently—the results of which are allowing everyone to make greater gains. Here, in their own words, is how each entrepreneur forged ahead.
CHAD PRICE, 37, FOUNDER, KETTLEBELL KINGSKETTLEBELL KINGS IS a kettlebell-focused fitness brand that has built a community around using this tool to be a healthier and more capable version of yourself. No matter where you are on your own personal journey—step 1 or 10,000—the kettlebell can be a common symbol for building a better you.
Chad Price, co-founder of Kettlebell Kings.
I was born in Bay City, Texas, and I spent the majority of my childhood there playing sports literally 24/7. Early on, I realized that racism, bigotry, homophobia, religious fanatics, and dealing with many other extreme organizations or people was just a way of life. You learn, as a Black kid especially, really early that you are not welcome or wanted everywhere. I have spent my life trying to keep clear of people who have or share those ideals and those thoughts. But you don’t escape it. It is always there in some form.
My parents had me in their high-school years, and I have a younger brother and sister, so that perspective really pushed me to grow up fast and grow in general. My love of sports led to a football scholarship to Rice University, but when I got there I saw people we deem intelligent are not exempt from ignorance.
Nehemiah “Bubba” Heard and Jay Perkins are the two other founders at Kettlebell Kings. We met when we were 18 and have been friends ever since. Bubba, who like me is Black, played football at Rice as well. Jay, who is white, lived in Austin and went to The University of Texas. After graduation, the three of us went into the corporate world, but it didn’t take long for us to realize that we were all too ambitious for that pace. The eureka moment for me was the actual results from using kettlebells to train. I saw results but more importantly how easily the exercises translate to real-world improvements in your daily life.
From left: Co-founders Jay Perkins, Nehemiah Heard and Price.KETTLEBELL KINGS
We started the company in 2012. To build awareness, we used free content such as videos and weekly workouts to gather email addresses, and we partnered with the top organizations in the kettlebell community to officially support and sponsor their events. But we had the toughest time getting funding. There were times we would go into a bank and we would ask them to give us a road map of the numbers that we needed to hit to establish lines of credit, but no one ever offered that information. We certainly thought about sending Jay into the banks alone. That way the banks would only see a white face. Instead, we initially bootstrapped it with what we had in our savings. We didn’t get any access to capital until after our first five years in business, when we started taking some short-term small-business loans. We’ve been working with pennies and reinvesting everything we can into the equipment for our growing client list every single year, year after year.
We’ve actually thought about dangling Jay out there for a lot of things! We were officially a black owned business, but we had to consider race and its impact on our business. We have to consider how racism affects getting our supply out of China and who represents the brand to a Chinese manufacturer for example. A better example may be how the brand helps or promotes social change. The one #BlackLivesMatter post our company posted resulted in the most and only negative week of followers in company history. It’s sad, but it’s true.
DANYEL SURRENCY JONES, 45, CEO, POWERHANDZAS A DOUBLE MINORITY, a Black person and a woman, who is the CEO of Powerhandz, a global athletic and fitness company that sells products and technology in more than 86 countries.
Danyel Surrency Jones, CEO of Powerhandz.
I’m still astonished by what we’ve created with no blueprint. Powerhandz started with one vision and one mission in July 2014 based on the desire to help youth and professional athletes in basketball improve their overall performance and skill development.
Well, the best ideas come from a personal need or solution. Growing up as kids playing multiple sports, you’re always looking for that competitive edge to help improve your skills. When Jason Williams revealed to Slam magazine that he used gardening gloves to improve his electrifying ball handling, it was game over, especially once my cofounder added weight resistance to gloves to take his training drills to a more complex level.
After using this technique for years with trainers, youth, and professional athletes, Powerhandz developed its first patented product, the Anti-Grip Weighted Basketball Gloves, were born. Our goal was to build a dope e-commerce brand, educate people, and serve the community. However, this one product and one mission gave birth to our global mission in multiple sports.
Being a country Florida girl from Jacksonville becoming an entrepreneur was not included on my vision board. I wanted to be a nurse when I was growing up because my neighbor was a nurse. When you’re not exposed to different careers, you don’t tap into your passion, you do what is normal. That is what you’d see in the history of the Black community—until now, we are finally learning our strength. I had been in the health-care industry for 16 years prior to launching Powerhandz. I was the youngest, the only Black, and typically one of two female managers at the table. I will never forget attending a boardroom meeting as a director at the age of 25 when one of the older executives looked around the room and decided to ask me to get his coffee. Or when my VP informed me that he didn’t know how to manage women because we wear our emotions on our chest. All of these experiences prepared me and led me to this very moment in time.
Powerhandz sells weighted, anti-friction basketball training gloves, resistance bands and other fitness tools.Kauwuane Burton
As I mentioned we had no blueprint. Powerhandz was self-funded in the beginning. We have received loans and a line of credit and closed a few small funding rounds. Understanding how to accomplish generational wealth and obtain funding for a new venture were foreign conversations for first-time African American entrepreneurs. What is needed to check the box as a double-minority-owned company is very different than someone who comes from privilege or pedigree. That is the truth. Our investors, retailors, and strategic partners typically looked at our entrepreneurial road and all they’d see is risk.
Today, I see a shift occurring for Black and women entrepreneurs. We have support from professional athletes like LaMelo Ball and serial entrepreneurs who are investors in our company. It’s funny, at one point I told the team “I wonder if we should let a white male be the CEO of this company?” I wanted to let someone else be in the elite position of a company we worked so hard to create, because that’s what I felt was going to help us gain access and just scale quicker. Wow! In hindsight that discussion was heartbreaking and I’m glad we didn’t do it. I am extremely excited about what’s next for us. We are merging technology with our multi-sport livestream app, and cultivating new distribution partnerships. We are determined to stay the course until we touch every household, in every country.
STEPHEN OWUSU, 44, FOUNDER & CEO, JAXJOX
Stephen Owusu, CEO of JaxJox.
THE WAY THE WORLD approaches health and fitness has been fragmented. Prior to launching JaxJox in 2016, there was a mishmash of fitness equipment available with no continuity. The future for us is where the home becomes a wellness hub. You find this in our InteractiveStudio. It comes with a 43-inch touch display that rotates vertically and horizontally for live and on-demand classes, the KettlebellConnect 2.0, the DumbbellConnect, the Foam RollerConnect, and the Push UpConnect. It’s an all-in-one smart home gym that provides the variety and versatility required to stay motivated throughout your fitness journey. Not to mention, there is nothing like it in the fitness space.
The technology is here today. We are merely refining it. However, there was a point where we had to convince people of a product that they never even imagined could exist.
It took about eight months from concept to prototype for the first JaxJox product, KettlebellConnect. It became very apparent to me that to deliver what I wanted to deliver, the best place to launch from was in the U.S. So I packed my bags, left my family in London behind, booked a hotel for two weeks in New York.
The biggest challenge I faced was convincing people I could create a product with a motorized weight system with digital adjustability and the ability to track real-time data using AI. Not only did people not believe it was possible, but I also struggled to find a factory to make the first prototype. In the end I was able to pull a handful of people together to help. But even after the first prototype was successful, people would say, “It’s easy to produce a prototype. Having it produced en masse is more difficult.” So it wasn’t until we finished the first mass production and showcased it at CES 2019 that people believed in the product. The response has been huge ever since.
InteractiveStudio combines smart adjustable equipment, AI-powered performance tracking, and interactive personal training at home.JAXJOX
Maybe it’s because of my own background and where I come from—my lived experience is not that of a Black American—but if there have been walls I have not seen them. Regardless of what the barrier was, I’ve just had one mindset, which is to go through it. I don’t know if it’s resilience, but whatever it is that I have in my gut allows me to just plow through. I never felt discrimination. I haven’t experienced specific challenges because of the color of my skin or my accent or any of those things.
I always feel that whatever it is you want to do, you’re going to have to be extremely focused and resilient and have a belief in your idea and in yourself. As you are able to prove what you are saying, it makes everything a lot easier. When you push forward you tend to convert a lot of people along the way.
The Covid-19 pandemic created more challenges in production. I have also experienced challenges with raising money for a product and platform that is so unique to the current market. But it’s not about money or challenges; it’s all about what you believe you can accomplish. Our goal is to get InteractiveStudio in 40 to 50 million homes. And no matter where you are working out, you’ll have your data in one place. But I don’t think I will ever feel like we made it—the nature of business is to continue to innovate and evolve.
ANTHONY “BUDDY” LEE, 63, PRESIDENT, BUDDY LEE’S JUMP ROPE TECHNOLOGY, INC.I HAVE BEEN inspiring people for the past 40 years. Unlike conventional jump ropes, we created a rope technology that turns freely in all directions with no friction and no drag. This training tool teaches all level athletes about start speed, vertical acceleration, lateral shifting capabilities, balance, coordination, reflexes—all the attributes that we need for competitive advantages. Jump rope training can impact the mind with more self-confidence and belief in oneself for the winning edge in life.
Anthony “Buddy” Lee, President of Buddy Lee’s Jump Rope Technology.COURTESY SUBJECT
After all, the jump rope has done so much for me. It helped me reach the 1992 Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling, and a few years later I got to share the same stage as the POTUS as part of an Olympic student-role-model program. I was an Olympic torchbearer in 1996 and have been a fitness ambassador and consulted with governments around the world on their youth fitness programs.
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in Richmond, Virginia. My dad was a Vietnam veteran, but he wasn’t the same when he came back. It was up to my mom to take care of six children. Honestly, we struggled. There were many days I went hungry, but those are good lessons because when you’re at the bottom, you grow to understand that the only way out is up.
I was introduced to rope jumping by Mr. Herbert Rainey, my next-door neighbor. He was a fourth-degree black belt in karate. He was jumping rope one hot summer day and put that rope in my hand just before 5:00 P.M.; it was after 9:00 P.M. before I put it down. I took that rope with me everywhere after that day—school, basketball courts, everywhere. I incorporated it into all my wrestling training, too. That’s how I won my state, national and world military titles; I’d jump with the rope to improve my athletic conditioning and get my heart rate up and then I go into a match and finish it off in one or two minutes.
I wanted to make the jump rope even better, so 27 years ago my business partner and I invented the swivel-bearing jump rope that became a patented technology in 1997. We looked at the smaller ball-bearing technology they use for fishing rods and tested it on athletes, and their speed and conditioning started increasing drastically. Every good jump rope that’s out today uses some form of our swivel bearing technology.
Buddy Lee using the Buddy Lee Weighted Jump Rope.RITVARS STANKEVICS
We are the originators and the pioneers of jump rope training and the swivel bearing technology, but there are still issues. Look, I came from very humble beginnings but earned a scholarship to wrestle in college. I graduated as a two-time All-American, joined the Marines and was U.S. Marine Athlete of the Year—twice—and competed in the Olympics. When I got in business, none of it mattered. The only loan I qualified for was a share-pledge loan where I had to have the same amount of money in the bank. So, a bigger business loan to help me expand my company didn’t exist in my mind. There was no way I could ever get the necessary capital, so I accepted this reality.
Other companies with deeper pockets and backing have copied our technology and been able to do a ton of marketing. You really can’t compete with that, but we’ve done everything right in terms of our positioning to become the official rope for the U.S. Olympic teams, which use our training techniques. We were Michelle Obama’s spokespersons for fitness with the Let’s Move campaign. We created the Preferred Course and rope for CrossFit, and we partnered with TRX—but now many companies have created their own branded ropes.
Racism exists. It is not going to go away. Even today, I must work to be three times better than the competition so that when I walk in the door you have to give me a chance. I simply know that I cannot ever give up. My mission in life remains the same, to help the entire planet of people get fit and strong in mind and body. Believe in yourself, practice what you love, never give up and rope to success!
JASON MANLY, 42, FOUNDER, KOREHEALTHI KNOW I COME from a place of opportunity and advantage, but I’m not naive. I’ve seen the surprised looks from people when they find out that a Black person owns KoreHealth, a company that sells fitness tools designed to help you maximize your performance and properly recover. Whether you’re a pro athlete or you’re a weekend warrior, we’ve got everything from fitness bands and foam rollers to smart scales and fitness trackers. But those looks are there whenever we go to conferences or industry events. It’s easy to see that there are not a lot of us around, but I never let that dictate anything. My mindset is different.
Jason Manly, Founder of KoreHealth.
I grew up in Diamond Bar, California, in an upper-middle-class family. My whole family was athletic, and we were always doing something sports-wise while I was growing up. Not everybody whose parents were born and raised in Compton received those types of opportunities, so they did everything to make sure that me, my two older brothers, and my younger sister took advantage of them. My oldest brother would give me finance and business books for Christmas and birthdays. I didn’t understand why when I was young, but I read them every year now: The Millionaire Next Door, Rich Dad Poor Dad and many others.
I got a full track scholarship to UC Berkeley, where I studied marketing and also did martial arts throughout my time there. At one point, I started working for my aunt who was big in the entertainment-finance industry. She did My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Jeepers Creepers—she financed more than 400 films. The conversations we had were always about ownership. Then I read Carol S. Dweck’s book Mindset. The whole premise of it was: It doesn’t matter where you’re from. You have the ability to learn and grow and overcome all of these different obstacles.
A selection of KoreHealth products including the KoreSurge Vibrating Foam Roller, KorePulse Massage Ball and Kore 2.0 Watch.KOREHEALTH
Injury was one of my biggest obstacles and, in hindsight, one of my biggest inspirations. My sprinting career was largely cut short because of my inability to recover the right way. After I graduated, I focused more on the martial arts. I was competing in MMA and worked with and managed fighters. My whole thought process and what I’d preach to them was “Build something that you could hold on to and you can continue to make money from.” That was why I started this brand.
I started with the company in 2012. We were a small e-commerce company, and only had a couple of products. Over time, we’d add more products, usually products that we thought would complement the products that we were already offering. There are other competitors in the space too, but a lot of our products are more affordable. Our fitness tracker is $59. Now, it’s not as fancy as an Apple Watch, but not everybody wants to spend $500 to track calories and their heart rate.
You don’t have to start big. We just did a pretty good job of just identifying some of these opportunities in the market and tried to offer good-quality products at an affordable price. Today, I still train mixed martial artists that compete in the UFC and Bellator. I train with them every day. All of the stuff that we’re selling is this stuff that I actually use. My athletes actually use it. So it’s like I’m not really going outside of myself at all to run this business.
ARNOLD TOBIN, 68, FOUNDER, THENAR PERFORMANCEWHEN YOU FIND something you’re great at doing and you actually like doing it, it can become consuming. I am a fitness consultant and trainer by trade, but invention is my passion. And my curiosity led to a five-year trek for developing the prototype for the Thenar Glove.
Arnold Tobin, Founder of Thenar Performance.
The Thenar Glove is a hand- and wrist-strengthening glove that has compression and resistance and individually strengthens each finger in a multidirectional manner. It can be used by athletes, musicians, therapists, and general population. In fact, it has been used for diabetic neuropathies and by folks with arthritis, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis and in rebuilding movement patterns in people who’ve had strokes. The gloves have helped Olympic gymnasts get back to competition. There are professional athletes using the glove as well.
That’s part of the problem: The glove may work too well. Sure, I invented it, so there is some bias. But the pro athletes and teams I know who are using the gloves look at it as a competitive advantage and want to keep it a secret.
I understand competition. I grew up in Queens as one of eight kids—my parents had four and adopted four more. In high school I set the New York City record in hurdles and earned a scholarship and attended Florida A&M University but left under a scholarship controversy. I went on to become a member of the 1984 and 1992 U.S. bobsled teams.
The idea for this invention came in the late ’90s. Bringing the glove to market was a crazy process but a fun one. I started by looking for something with elastic deformation which can create a change in the shape of a material in reaction to the force applied.
The Thenar Glove works for finger, hand, wrist and forearm strengthening.Thenar Performance
I’d go to toy stores and start squeezing all the toys, but I didn’t find the right material. I tried sealant—the kind that goes on a car’s gasket—on a painter’s glove. It had too little resistance. Next, I tried silicone, and it crumbled. Then I tried Shoe GOO, but it had a rubbery feel and didn’t work either. So I went back to the sealant but put it on a leather glove—that was my eureka moment.
The final glove has 21 different parts, and they must be precise, so actually producing it became another problem. A manufacturer in Canada did R&D, but they couldn’t scale it. Someone in Mexico wanted to start a factory, but forget that, because I was doing everything out of pocket. I went to Pakistan but had to eat almost the entire order because they made mistakes. Finally, I found an American company, the Olympia Gloves company, that has its own factory in China.
This was all funded by my fitness training. I earned my way to two Olympic Team Trials and I’ve invented a device that can help the masses, yet I’ve been told I’m not investable. I think that’s about the efficacy of my inventions more than the color of my skin. I make things. Marketing and record-keeping aren’t my strengths, so I’ve hired people to help with those. The biggest thing we need to do is show people what we have and what it can do.
—As told to Milo F. Bryant
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Milo F. Bryant, C.S.C.S.
Milo Bryant, CSCS, is a California-based trainer who helped author Gray Cook’s Movement: Functional Movement Systems.
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