West Hartford-based CT Hart Cheer provides instructional cheerleading classes, performance team opportunities, and camps and clinics for athletes of all ages, abilities, and levels.
MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Founder and Owner Alexis Safo-Agyeman about launching and scaling her business, even during the current pandemic.
NAN PRICE: When and why did you launch the company?
ALEXIS SAFO-AGYEMAN: I started in 2014 with two partners. By 2016, we realized we all were professionals in education, and I was focused on a career in education, so the business ideas didn’t work for our schedule. I’ve always had a passion to provide these services, so I kept pushing forward and luckily, I was able to relaunch the business in 2016 and get a physical location in West Hartford 2018.
NAN: How did you come up with the business concept?
ALEXIS: When I went to Conard High School, that was my exposure or my first opportunity to play a sport because it didn’t require additional fee, which many youth programs do. I went to college at Eastern Connecticut State University and did cheerleading there, too.
When I came back from college in 2009, I realized there weren’t any West Hartford-area cheerleading programs, except through the high school. I decided to offer camps through West Hartford Leisure Services. I started with nine kids and worked up to 30.
I realized I was providing kids with hope; there weren’t other opportunities for them to home in on their athleticism. It also was apparent that there wasn’t a diverse group that could access these programs. I thought to myself: Start a small cheerleading gym where you can not only offer low prices but provide opportunities for people to do things that may come at no cost. And here I am.
NAN: Did you connect with any local business resources as you were starting out?
ALEXIS: I was involved in HYPE (Hartford Young Professionals & Entrepreneurs), which helped me see what all different types of professionals look like. I thought it was great to be associated with people my age and of my tenure who had taken entrepreneurial approaches.
Another resource I’m grateful for is the University of Hartford Entrepreneurial Center & Women’s Business Center (EC-WBC), where I took my first course. It was free and provided guidance and mentorship. The EC-WBC definitely pushed me and gave me the confidence I needed along with the other people I surrounded myself with.
NAN: How are you marketing and building clientele?
ALEXIS: I’ve been with some of my clientele for about eight years. I started off coaching their kids through West Hartford Leisure Services and they kind of followed my trend. Also, I was Assistant Varsity Cheerleading Coach at Concord High School for 10 years. So, some of the cheerleaders I coached then, I’m now coaching their daughters! I also cheered at Conard and now I’m coaching my friends’ kids!
I honestly don’t have the budget to market. My marketing comes from word of mouth, building from that, and using different networks and groups to expose different clientele to my gym.
NAN: How did you choose West Hartford as your business location?
ALEXIS: I am a native of West Hartford. My family moved to the Westwood apartments in West Hartford on Prospect and Kane when I was in third grade. It wasn’t the typical West Hartford upbringing most people think of. I grew up in a low-income area of town and I didn’t have the same opportunities as everyone around me—so I made things happen for myself.
When I started CT Hart Cheer, I was well aware that many people don’t have the opportunity to do All Star cheerleading, which costs $150 a month at a minimum. I didn’t want these young people—who might look like me or feel like me—to have to wait until high school to do cheerleading. I thought: Why not create an opportunity for them where they can start young and where the prices are low enough that I can offer many programs to give them exposure and confidence. From there, the idea kept going and now I can see everything come to fruition the way I planned.
NAN: In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business? Have you experienced any pivots or silver linings?
ALEXIS: It’s been nothing but pivots. I had a roster of 38 kids for my 2019–2020 season. Now I have maybe 20. That has directly impacted my overhead. That has definitely impacted my business plan and how I set it up. I would also say, it’s taught me to be completely a different person. It’s taught me to restructure my business model, too.
When the quarantine started, I was offering Zoom classes and I realized there was a distance within our social distance. The athletes I was working with were hitting some roadblocks and they weren’t as confident as they are with in-person training.
I started going to houses and I averaged seven private lessons a day. It’s been such a blessing because I’ve been able to get back in the gym and follow through with those same practices and keeping people socially distant. Now I’m up and running, not the same place I was, but to a place where I feel confident that we can still maintain that culture with the work I do.