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 Soleevent – 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-shirtsemblazoned 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.