Jamia Ramsey’s nearly three-year-old business was sparked by her own experience as a dancer. Now she’s filling a niche for other dancers of color like herself.
In recent years, dancewear makers like Gaynor Minden, Freed of London and Só Dança have made strides to diversify their dance apparel. But this past summer, when a bright light was shone on systemic racism, the dance community took to social media to put other brands, like Capezio and Bloch, on blast for not offering a more inclusive range of shades for dancers of color. The companies pledged to step up and do more.
The good news: Black and brown dancers don’t always need to wait for established dancewear makers to cater to them—small Black-owned businesses already have them covered. Take Blendz Apparel Inc. In 2018, Jamia Ramsey launched the brand to produce jazz and ballet shoes and tights in four flesh tones of Brazen Brown, Confident Cocoa, Maven Mahogany and Tenacious Tan. “I provide a niche product, and I offer more than just one or two colors and shades for dancers [of color],” says Ramsey, 31. She notes that through grassroots and word of mouth, a lot of people enjoy patronizing smaller businesses. “And when they find out that my company was started with a mission to be inclusive for all dancers, a lot of consumers gravitate toward that and want to be a part of it,” she says.
From Dancer to Dance Studio Owner
As is common for start-up entrepreneurs, Ramsey’s inspiration for her business grew out of her own lived experience. She started dancing when she was 2 years old, wearing the same pink tights and pink ballet slippers to class as most tiny dancers do. Then at age 10 or 11, the Atlanta native received a full scholarship for a summer intensive program at Dance Theatre of Harlem. That was the experience that changed the way she looked at dancers of color and dancewear.
“It wasn’t until I went to Dance Theatre of Harlem that I was exposed to flesh-tone tights for each individual dancer,” she says. “That’s where I learned to pancake my ballet shoes and dye tights.”
When Ramsey returned to Atlanta, however, dancers at her home studio mostly wore tan. “To this day, a lot of studios of color still wear tan tights because that’s pretty much the only thing that’s easily accessible, and we’ve become conditioned to that. A lot of times people don’t even know that their tights are supposed to match their skin.”
Ramsey continued to dance through high school and in college at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she majored in dance, with a concentration in jazz. When she returned to her hometown in 2015, she opened DanceMoves, a dance studio inside a recreation center that primarily catered to at-risk youth. Ramsey says her own mother, a single parent, had always bent over backward to “give something better” to her and her older brother and sister, who also took dance classes. “She wanted to make sure we were doing something outside of school to keep us focused and out of trouble,” says Ramsey. “But she struggled to pay [dance studio] tuition. A lot of times we had to raise money from family and friends to participate in some of the activities.”
Ramsey’s goal for her studio was to offer dance classes at a discounted rate to less fortunate kids in her community. “But dance is so expensive that a lot of times, even with the classes being discounted, they weren’t able to afford things like dancewear,” she says.
The financial obstacles faced by some of her students influenced her decision to shutter her studio and start Blendz Apparel. Another motivating factor was the difficulty her students had finding dancewear that matched their skin tones. “At our first holiday performance, I hired a photographer. When I received the photos back I was completely mortified because the tights and shoes didn’t match each other or the individual dancers,” recalls Ramsey. “This is when the idea first popped into my mind that someone needed to create dancewear that matched the shoes seamlessly for dancers of darker hues.”
The Birth of Blendz Apparel
In March 2018, Ramsey used $4,000 in personal savings to launch Blendz. Since then, the company has topped $105,000 in sales, and revenues continue to grow year to year, says Ramsey, although the company has yet to reach break-even. For now, Blendz remains largely a one-woman show (she has occasional administrative and operations support from an intern). All revenues go back into the business; Ramsey says she has not yet drawn a salary.
Before launching Blendz, Ramsey had no previous experience in the dancewear business, although having her own dance studio was a crash course in small business ownership. She acknowledges they are “two totally different businesses,” but the common denominator is offering attentive and personalized customer service and competitive yet affordable pricing (tights, $14; ballet shoes from $24.95; contemporary half-soles, $25.95; and slip-on jazz shoes, $44.95).
“We purposely priced our products close to the major brands like Capezio and Bloch. We are either $1 less or $1 to $2 more. That’s based off their standard colors like pink, tan and black. We don’t want dancers to have to choose between price and having the right dancewear for their skin tone,” she says.
Offering a quality product and maintaining a strong social-media following and network of dance contacts have also contributed to the brand’s growth. “Being in the dance industry for so long, I have a lot of ties here in Atlanta,” she says. “There are so many great people out in the world, and you never know who can help you and in what way. I have friends who are on Broadway, and at some of the top companies, like Dance Theatre of Harlem and Ailey [where Ramsey also attended a summer intensive]. Just keeping all of those connections and having them see my company grow has helped.”
Challenges Faced as a Black Female Entrepreneur
According to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by American Express, the number of businesses owned by Black women increased by 164 percent between 2007 and 2018. Like many Black entrepreneurs, however, Ramsey has faced obstacles obtaining capital to start and run her business. In 2016, the Small Business Credit Survey reported that Black-owned businesses were 10 percent more likely to apply for “new funding” than their white counterparts, yet they were 19 percent less likely to be approved. Blendz is self-funded by Ramsey and her husband, Roderick, who is a marketing executive. She has applied for loans in the past, but was told she was ineligible because the business was under three years old and didn’t meet revenue requirements.
The custom nature of Blendz Apparel also puts demands on capital. A lot of dancewear makers only have to worry about two or three shades, usually the standard black, pink and white, Ramsey explains. “You can get those products at extremely cheap prices. All of Blendz is custom, so a lot of capital goes into getting all of the sizes in four different shades.”
To help her navigate the challenges of small business ownership, Ramsey applied, and was selected, for the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, a 15-month competitive incubator program sponsored by the city of Atlanta, which she began in April. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, instead of sharing a coworking space, she and 14 other women entrepreneurs meet each week virtually and have access to seasoned mentors, legal advice, targeted financial education, business-plan refinement, and marketing and branding development.
Last year, Ramsey was also an NPR How I Built This Fellow and won the fellowship’s pitch competition. (This garnered her a featured spot on the How I Built This with Guy Raz podcast and an upcoming video segment.) As a fellow, she attended the How I Built This Summit in San Francisco, including an in-person workshop for fellows, post-Summit educational resources and access to an expanded professional network of previous HIBT Fellows and Summit attendees. “It was a great opportunity to ask founders questions,” says Ramsey, adding that what Spanx founder and fellow Atlantan Sara Blakely had to say particularly resonated for her. “I like that she’s a self-made billionaire, and our businesses are somewhat similar,” says Ramsey. “She said, ‘I’m not fearless, I’m courageous.’ A lot of times we step into things, and we are fearful, but it’s your courage that gets you through. It’s your perseverance and the persistence.”
Inspired by her fellow women entrepreneurs, Ramsey’s goal is to grow her own company; she plans to expand inventory with more styles of tights, undergarments, and tap and character shoes. Once Blendz turns a profit, she hopes to reach back into the dance studio and school world and offer free classes for underserved youth.
How COVID-19 Has Affected the Business
Blendz is primarily a direct-to-consumer brand, with customers worldwide—including in Canada, the UK, South Africa and Jamaica. Before the pandemic, in addition to selling merchandise through its e-commerce website, Ramsey set up vendor tables at some local Atlanta dance studios and sold dancewear at events like the 32nd International Association of Blacks in Dance conference in January 2020. “Business was going really well pre-COVID, and then in mid-March, sales tanked and it stayed that way until the end of May,” she says.
Blendz tights are manufactured in China and shoes in Pakistan. Since those manufacturers were closed for several months due to the pandemic, the supply chain for some of her products was disrupted. To offset the temporary loss of revenue, Ramsey received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) for small businesses.
Fortunately, production reopened in July, and Ramsey says sales are back to pre-COVID levels, with September 2020 being one of her best months ever. She, like most dance business owners, is looking forward to 2021. “I think more people are adjusting to the new normal of social distancing in dance studios and taking classes via Zoom, but they still need dancewear, so they are still [buying],” she says.
To expand the brand’s retail footprint, Ramsey started rolling out to dance retailers this year. Blendz is currently sold in a few dance retail stores across the country and one in Canada. “A couple are starting with sizing kits and things like that. Due to COVID, a lot of dancers aren’t shopping in stores right now, but they are preparing for when things normalize,” she says.
Beauty in Individuality
The dance community’s focus on uniformity doesn’t always leave room for individuality, especially for dancers of color, Ramsey notes. “That’s what I’m trying to promote with Blendz, to break down those barriers that we all have to fit into or assimilate [to wearing] a certain color. I believe that in order to break into the ballet world, we have to start with the dancewear and making dancers feel included and confident that dance is for them,” explains Ramsey. “Because when you walk into a dancewear store, and they only have options to match people with fair skin tones, it makes you question if this is a career path or something a [dancer of color] can be a part of.”
The community has responded. “I receive so many DMs, emails, phone calls and texts from dancers and their parents and studio owners about how they are so happy that I started Blendz because finally someone has made something especially for them!” says Ramsey. “They [say they] love the brand, feel confident wearing dancewear and shoes that match their skin tone, and will be loyal customers for life,” says Ramsey.
“All of the love really keeps me going. It can definitely get rough as a woman business owner, but I know that there are dancers out there who depend on me. So with that, I muster up the energy and the courage to keep going and do whatever it takes to make it happen.”
One of the earliest supporters of the Blendz brand was Vanessa Gibson, artistic director of Eagles Landing Dance Center in Stockbridge, GA, and Ramsey’s former dance teacher, who describes her former student as “a powerhouse.”
“Blendz is the only brand that comes really close to most of our dancers’ skin tones,” says Gibson. “As a young African-American female entrepreneur, Jamia is doing her thing, and I am very proud of her. I have watched her grow her company from a couple [dancewear items] to now offering a variety of shoes and tights in multiple colors. This business is hard to break into, but with her tenacity, she has continued to push forward. Because of that, her business will keep growing.”
Tracy E. Hopkins is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to Essence, Woman’s Day and Sisters from AARP, among other media. She is also a producer on an award-winning documentary about tap dance legend Maurice Hines.