Photo: Jennifer Pottheiser

Fitness for All

Heather White '10 is on a mission to diversify the wellness industry. 

Growing up in the Bronx, Heather White ‘10 played soccer, basketball, and volleyball, but “never thought I would be a fitness instructor,” she said, “because I never saw a fitness instructor who looked like me.” And later, as a postgrad living in Boston, she was often the only person of color in the boutique gym classes she took.

In 2015, these experiences spurred White, then working in marketing for the sports apparel company Puma, to launch Trillfit, a fitness company with the goal of diversifying the $4.4 trillion global wellness industry. “I’m doing this to get people of color moving who have not had the opportunity to do so,” she said. “And that’s what’s most important to me.” 

Trillfit began humbly, as a series of fitness pop-ups around Boston. From there, White and her team rented a permanent space, first in a dingy fourth-floor walkup on Massachusetts Avenue, and then in a bigger place in Downtown Crossing. By then, Trillfit was holding several classes a week and White realized that if the company wanted to continue to grow it would need its own studio. In 2018, she settled on a spot in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood. To pay for the required buildout of the space, she said, “I literally liquidated my entire 401K.” White, who studied English and gender studies at Boston College, left her marketing career in 2021 to become Trillfit’s CEO full time. And in early fall 2022, Trillfit opened its second, flagship location in Brooklyn—at 5,500 square feet over two floors, it’s twice as large as the Boston original. 

Now, White and her cofounder, Melisa Valdez, hope to raise $2 million from angel investors and an online investment campaign. They want Trillfit to become a national fitness brand, and their plan calls for opening sixteen more gyms around the country by 2027. “We want to be the next big thing within this industry that we are actively changing,” White said. “If you picture [cycling studio] SoulCycle as being vanilla Breyers ice cream, we’re Ben & Jerry’s. We come from New England. We lead with our values.”

The first thing you might notice at Trillfit’s Boston studio—“trill” is slang for true and real—is the neon sign on the wall proclaiming “You Belong Here.” “It’s a very big photo op moment,” White said with a laugh, noting that the sign will be displayed in every future studio. “It resonates with people. This is your home. This is your space. Make it your own.” The high-energy boxing, sculpt, and signature cardio dance classes are set to hip-hop mixed by a DJ, and the crowd comprises a variety of ethnicities, gender identities, and body types. “You might be next to a woman in a hijab, next to a Black girl, next to someone with their hair in a bonnet,” White said. “It’s very much ‘come as you are.’” As the gym member Mercy Bell put it in the Boston Globe in 2018: “Here, connecting through a passion for dance, to move and sweat free of inhibition,” she said, “and it’s exercise? Hello.”

But it’s not just the participants who are diverse. At Trillfit, 92 percent of the staff are people of color. A company initiative called the Instructor of Color scholarships is creating a pipeline of talent. Each year, a steering committee selects twenty people to participate in a complimentary two-month Trillfit instructor training, and recipients then audition for a spot on the schedule. This is a first step in the makeover of the wellness industry, which, as White points out, exists to make people feel better, live longer, and be happier. But all too often, she said, wellness spaces don’t make marginalized communities feel welcome: “They are exclusive. They are unkind.” 

Trillfit began 2020 with fifty straight days of sold-out classes, and the company was on track to have its most successful year yet. Then came the pandemic. White shut the Boston studio down in March and a few days later, transitioned to online workouts. With COVID-19 disproportionately affecting people of color, Trillfit kept its classes free for more than five months. Suddenly, Trillfit was reaching a wider audience—ten to fifteen thousand clients from around the world logged in each month. Soon, the company was appearing in Women’s Health magazine and the New York Times. Then in January 2021, White and Valdez, Trillfit’s cofounder, appeared on Good Morning America and led a virtual cardio-dance demo for hosts Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan. Two months later, during Women’s History Month, Foot Locker named the women as Icons of Movement.

White is looking at Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Houston, as well as other Boston neighborhoods, for future Trillfit locations. She plans to focus on “fitness deserts,” the areas where White said “people don’t have access to green space to walk or run in a park, or don’t have gyms or a YMCA or another option to be able to work out in the way that Trillfit promotes. We consider ourselves truly part of the fabric of the community.” Her ambitions for the company go beyond opening additional studios, too. Trillfit recently held a pop-up fitness event at the London Marathon, and will also be at this year’s New York Marathon. And this fall, the team is launching its Starlight Sessions, camping trips geared toward getting people of color into nature—recent National Park Service data showed that 77 percent of visitors to America’s national parks are white. “We’ve had enough praise and votes of confidence to know that we’re actually doing it, that we actually have a seat at the table, that people are actually listening,” White said. “The biggest billion-dollar organizations in wellness are taking our calls, and they’re considering investing in Trillfit.” 

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