A fitness studio that empowers ordinary people
The road to being a successful female entrepreneur – be it a restaurant owner, a designer, a gallery owner or a retailer – can be bumpy. In this series, "She Power," we talk to women from different countries and different backgrounds about their experiences and stories of setting up businesses in Shanghai. One thing these amazing women all have in common – they all yearn to build a brand that does good, that gives purpose and fulfillment, and even a palpable sense of joy.
Jennifer Chang, originally from Calcutta, India, has considered Shanghai home since 2012. Having worked for both start-ups and multinationals, managing and growing businesses in art, retail, and services, she hungered for more and was driven to do something that could create a direct positive impact. A culmination of small and big events led to the creation of RISE Shanghai, a boutique fitness studio, in 2019.
Q: Before discussing your company, could you introduce yourself?
I am from Calcutta, India, where I spent my formative years growing up in a conservative environment where girls are raised to be someone's daughter, wife, and mother. Although I was educated at a local school, I read all the books I could get my hands on, from local libraries to second-hand bookstores.
The frontier and the unknown were what excited me deeply, so I left home for the first time at 17. Although I have traveled and lived in many places since then, Shanghai has been my second home since 2012.
During my professional career, I worked for both start-ups and large multinationals but was driven to do something that could have a direct positive impact. I founded RISE Shanghai in 2019.
Q: Why did you decide to strike out on your own in business?
Unlike a lot of people in fitness, I don't come from a sports background. I discovered fitness in my early days in Shanghai, and it completely changed my life. I switched companies and careers multiple times, but I never stopped training. My desire to learn more about exercise led me to dive deep into physiology, anatomy, and programming. I started coaching, and I never felt more rewarded. I witnessed people's lives transform for the better, and that was the power of fitness.
We are living lives of excess and convenience and are therefore more sedentary than ever. The science and truth behind the exercise are not new, but its delivery and propagation are grossly adulterated. The prevailing narrative in the health and fitness industry was that it no longer prioritized health. In the pursuit of weight loss, sweat, aesthetics, and high intensity, people have lost sight of what exactly fitness is about. And that's health. We exercise first and foremost to be healthier. It was personal to me, and I saw the gap there. Therefore, I set out to build my own institution where I could begin to rewrite the narrative and help people regain control of their health.
Q: What makes Shanghai's business environment so remarkable?
From the moment I decided I was going to open a gym to actually opening the gym, it took less than two months. Sure, it was an MVP, and I had bootstrapped it together, but from a bureaucratic standpoint, this is remarkable. There are few places in the world where someone, let alone a foreigner, can make it happen so fast. There is a saying that when inspiration strikes, action should follow immediately; every minute that you wait, your chances of actually getting started get smaller and smaller.
Shanghai is one of the most vibrant and energizing cities that I have ever had the opportunity to live in. I have witnessed much growth, change, and lessons in the past 12 years. It's an understatement to say that Shanghai has enabled me to build my dreams and continues to keep them alive.
Q: What were you trying to bring to the local community?
There is a large group of ordinary people who shy away from the fitness industry. Gyms have become intimidating environments where people who need fitness the most are far too afraid to even walk near those spaces. And those who do muster up the courage to enter are being told that the secret to a happy life is abs, slim legs, or monstrous strength.
I believe that exercise is something that everyone should be doing, regardless of age. It's at the bottom of the pyramid, right next to food, water, and sleep. I want to build a space that serves ordinary people with actual health through holistic, sustainable exercise programs. I want to serve people who deserve more than running on a treadmill and definitely more than workouts that burn them out. There is a big spectrum that lies between everything and nothing. Most people thrive on that spectrum. And that's exactly where RISE is.
Q: What are the biggest challenges to setting up a business here? How do you stay motivated?
I started RISE in December 2019 and spent the first years in business learning once-in-a-lifetime lessons on crisis management as we witnessed a pandemic. Although those were unforeseen circumstances, generally speaking, I find that doing business in Shanghai comes with a side of unpredictability. What makes Shanghai so vibrant and dynamic is also what makes it harder to keep up with.
Specific to me, I think communicating the values of my business, which are all about slow, sustainable progress and long-term health in a culture that rewards fast results, quick fixes, and instant gratification, is probably one of the most difficult aspects of my work.
I think if you truly believe in the thing you're doing, nothing can stop you on your path. Most problems or challenges become an opportunity to learn and overcome. One of the defining aspects of entrepreneurship is staying inspired and being able to recharge your own batteries again and again.
I also have a very short list of people who care deeply about me and who are there for me whenever I am in need of a nudge. This helps, but the powering up needs to come intrinsically.
Q: What was the moment that made you most proud?
I am proudest when I get to make a real impact on the people who train with us.
Despite how crazy it's been for the business the past four years, the fact that I get to work with real people and make a real impact gives me endless opportunities to find a real sense of achievement in my every day.
Like when someone loses 20 kilograms without any crash dieting or extreme intervention, or when someone is able to do a pull-up for the first time in their life, or when someone who's never been to the gym in their life gets to a point where they see it as an inextricable part of their daily lives.
The people who are clocking in their 200th, 500th, or even 1000th session can't wait to tell me all about it – those are the moments of which I am proudest.
Q: What are you working on now?
I am presently devoted to expanding our digital outreach by creating more educational content to help communicate our values, exercise philosophy, and myth-busting exercise content. I hope to help more people outside of the physical perimeters of our studio find the truth amidst the noise.
Q: Who is a female role model?
Michelle Obama. Her books and talks are like a Bible for me. When I am in doubt, I frequently catch myself wondering what Michelle Obama would have to say about this. That is one woman who's come a long way, who's able to preserve her grace even under attack, and who's not afraid to be unapologetically real. I find her background story to be exceedingly inspiring and relatable. She reminds people like myself to take nothing for granted and that there is going to be a lot of hard work. And if and when it pays off, never forget the people who helped get you there. You have the responsibility to use your power to create more good and to share your light.
Q: Do you have any advice for women entrepreneurs?
Even in the 21st century, being a woman entrepreneur comes with the burden of being an "only," most of the time. You can either let it become a burden or you can use it to your advantage. There is much pride, strength, and energy to be found in paving the way for other women behind you. Staying grounded in your sense of self and what you believe in will help you find the strength to overcome most challenges. Because when you know with 100 percent certainty what you believe in, and what you want to build, you won't ever feel the need to defer to the status quo. If what you are building can rewrite the status quo, then stand up taller, dream bigger, and go after your goals, by any means necessary. And never be shy to ask for help, because there is only so much you can do alone.