Founder Dawn Dickson-Akpoghene’s aim is to create a WeWork-style company for movement entrepreneurs, empowering instructors to fully reap the rewards of running their own businesses.
In the business world, co-working spaces—offices and open desks housing multiple employers and self-employed individuals—have grown in popularity during the 2000s. Emerging in 2005 as an alternative to the high rent of private offices, the co-working industry is projected to grow by $13.35 billion in the next five years as companies pursue flexible work environments due to COVID-19.
A similar concept has existed in dance for decades, as choreographers have rented their studios to help cover overhead. In theater, rehearsal-studio spaces—think Pearl Studios NYC or Ripley-Grier Studios—rent to multiple artists and organizations simultaneously. But Nia Studio, located in the historically Black neighborhood of King-Lincoln Bronzeville in Columbus, Ohio, is taking a new approach: a co-working space for movement artists, with an eye toward inclusion.
The membership-based company was founded in 2021 by serial tech entrepreneur Dawn Dickson-Akpoghene, whose previous ventures include Flat Out of Heels—which offers rollable ballet-style flat shoes—and PopCom, a software company for automated retail.
Earlier in the pandemic, Dickson-Akpoghene noticed the growing number of yoga, dance and fitness instructors teaching their classes from home or outdoors, lacking access to a professional studio for in-person or virtual classes. She launched Nia Studio, named after her daughter, as a solution. The company held its grand opening in January 2022. “I want to see Nia Studio grow like WeWork to give movement entrepreneurs a place to practice and teach,” says Dickson-Akpoghene.
Helping the Community Thrive
Nia Studio’s business model is familiar, yet unique. “It’s an anomaly in the health and wellness space, mainly because, traditionally, most studios hire instructors and teachers,” says Nia Studio manager and yoga teacher Richard Sarpong. “They have a set number of classes, a set number of hours, and there isn’t much room for flexibility or creativity”—or growing a business of your own. Nia Studio aims to empower self-employed instructors to create their own schedules and pricing structures, while fully reaping the benefits of their hard work as entrepreneurs.
Serving communities of color is also central to the organization. In addition to the need for a quality teaching space, Dickson-Akpoghene saw an opportunity to offer instructors and students of color a place of their own, as they often felt unwelcome at studios with minimal Black or POC representation. “One of the biggest compliments we get when individuals of color come into the studio is that they feel at home,” says Sarpong. After encountering stereotypes or uncomfortable environments at less diverse studios, members feel at ease at Nia Studio, he says. The studio also offers free movement classes to local residents.
Dickson-Akpoghene funded Nia Studio with approximately $60,000 of startup capital. She put it together from savings plus a working and growth capital loan from ECDI—a Columbus-based small business assistance organization that provides funding and mentorship—and a grant from the Franklin County Business Growth and Equity Alliance Community Equity Fund. Studio merchandise is available in an online store, with all proceeds going toward hosting free classes. The studio is already profitable and cash-flow positive.
Dickson-Akpoghene wants Nia Studio to emphasize safety, comfort and holistic well-being. “It’s a place for spiritual as well as personal development,” says Sarpong. “The different movement arts that we have—like yoga, dance, martial arts, jujitsu—really allow us to get out of our heads and into our hearts and bodies as best we can, to release a lot of the tension and stress that have accumulated either that day or ancestrally.” In turn, the organization aims to help fitness professionals monetize their talents.
How It Works
Similar to WeWork’s six-tiered membership structure, Nia Studio offers three levels of membership, priced according to an instructor’s desired number of classes per month. Members are billed monthly. Tier 1 offers 1–5 hours of studio time for $60 an hour, tier 2 provides 5–10 hours for $50 hourly, and at tier 3, members receive 10–20 hours for $40 an hour. Special-event booking starts at $200.
To manage bookings, Nia Studio uses two custom-built apps: one for instructors and another for clients. Developed by Dickson-Akpoghene’s husband, software engineer and JéGO Technologies founder Frederick Akpoghene, the apps enable the organization to control its own data, display class schedules, accept payment, and listen to students’ and teachers’ needs through community message boards.
New instructors join by downloading the app, creating an account, selecting a membership tier and signing a membership agreement. Teachers must be certified, licensed and insured, and the space is open to members 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Long-term, the company hopes to expand and offer an all-access subscription option, allowing members to use studio space at any location.
Nia Studio currently has seven members across a range of specialties, including Afro-Caribbean dance, yoga for children, hatha yoga, and hip-hop fitness. Members upload all class times to the instructors’ app, and can then claim their slots. Classes are scheduled with a 20-minute gap for cleaning, and to ensure that the energy of the space is well-suited to the next class. Classes cannot be scheduled back-to-back, and members will be notified if a time block has been taken.
Knowledge Is Power
Nia Studio wants to help fitness professionals succeed, within and beyond its walls. “One of the main challenges we’ve noticed from movement artists is really understanding how the business world operates, and how they can integrate it into their own work and create a marketable business from it,” says Sarpong. “There are so many talented Black movement artists in the world, and what stops them oftentimes is just the lack of information. We’re very big on providing not only a space, but [other] resources as well,” he continues. “That way, we can allow individuals to step into this space with more confidence and see that ‘Okay, it’s possible.’ It’s not just an idea.”
Lydia Murray is managing editor of Dance Business Weekly.