Fitness Entrepreneur Betty Francisco has a new project – Reimagine Play
A Fitness program for kids with the motto 'Play Strong, Play Hard, Play More!'
Betty Francisco, standing on the scuffed floor of a Dorchester gym, bends her knees, swings back her arms and urges the 6-year-old mimicking her form to leap as far ahead as possible.
The eager tyke takes off, his sneakered feet landing beyond the third rung of a rope ladder lying on the floor — a new record for the boy.
Francisco, an ex-corporate lawyer turned fitness entrepreneur, smiles in approval. The lad’s standing broad jump is part of her own leap forward — the launch of Reimagine Play, a fledgling business aimed at getting kids to exercise with joy and purpose.
Growing up in Puerto Rico and New York City as Betty Lo Cualio, “I was not a fitness person,” says Francisco, tall and trim with long black hair and striking looks reflecting her mixed Chinese and Latin heritage. “I grew up in a family where fitness was not part of the repertoire.” That changed in college, when her brother gave her a Reebok step for Christmas.
“I dropped all this extra weight, cut out the sugar,” she says. “It was incredible to see how exercise transformed my life.”
Reimagine Play currently runs two programs consisting of five-week sessions with about 10 kids each and four licensed instructors. Both operate out of converted churches — the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in the South End and the Little House in Dorchester. Once better weather rolls around, the programs will move outdoors.
Using low hurdles, rope ladders, hula hoops, tires with ropes, exercise balls and other equipment as fitness aids and obstacles, the sessions build agility, conditioning and stamina and spark a passion for play, too often lost in an era of video distractions and childhood obesity. More than 30 percent of Bay State children are overweight, and many schools, obsessed with keeping up with testing regimes, have severely slashed recess and play time.
Francisco, the parent of two young girls attending Boston Public Schools, is married to Paul Francisco, a native of Honduras and an ex-New England Patriots player now helping to guide State Street Corporation’s diversity, inclusion and workforce development efforts. Both were concerned about their own children’s access to fitness.
“Once our girls reached school age,” she says, “they weren’t learning the basics — catching, skipping rope, running — and the skills and activities once taken for granted.”
Having gone from practicing corporate law at Palmer & Dodge in Boston to general counsel of the national Sports Club/LA franchise, she recognized a need — and an opportunity — to spread the fitness bug beyond an elite clientele. She launched Reimagine Play out of her South End home after the sale of Sports Club/LA left her free to pursue her own business. The business has had a modest start, beginning with free pilot programs in Blackstone Park last summer and expanding to fee-based weekly sessions this year at a cost of $75 per student. Instructors wear black Reimagine Play shirts emblazoned with the motto “Play strong. Play hard. Play more.” They quickly move kids through stretching and warm-up exercises, perform periodic assessment tests, and find a thousand ways to make them leap and laugh and romp. It’s like boot camp with giggles.
Francisco’s vision is to grow Reimagine Play as a franchise over multiple cities and to secure dedicated spaces with climbing equipment and obstacle courses. The facilities would allow kids and adults to pursue her “On the MOVE” framework of movement, obstacles, velocity and endurance to achieve better health and love of play.
Building out fitness facilities at a cost of $750,000 to $1 million each requires access to capital, a daunting prospect for women entrepreneurs. While women-owned firms in the U.S. have increased at a rate of 150 percent of the national average for all firms since 1997, female-owned enterprises employ only 6 percent of the national workforce and contribute less than 4 percent of business revenues, according to a 2015 study commissioned by American Express. Women of color owned 17 percent of those firms. The appetite for women to launch businesses is proven — it’s the revenue growth, hampered in part by access to finance, that lags behind.
Francisco is not your average bootstrap entrepreneur. Raised by a single mother in rural Puerto Rico and in a Manhattan housing project, she studied art and design at the High School of Music and Arts – the “Fame” school, where Jennifer Aniston was one of her classmates. She earned an undergraduate degree at Bard College and a combined J.D. and M.B.A. at Northeastern and worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. She has taken courses in entrepreneurship and is active in programs aimed at growing the ranks of successful businesswomen.
“After I went to law school, I knew I wanted to go into business. It’s taken a while, but I really have the itch of wanting to build something on my own. I want to leave a legacy — I want to create jobs and I want to see other women succeed,” she says.
“Part of that,” she adds, “is thinking big, not getting consumed by the fears that prevent you from seeing the bigger vision. And that includes raising money. I know I have to raise money. I don’t fool myself into thinking it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be hard.”
Turning Reimagine Play into the next women-owned franchise sensation, like SoulCycle, is based on a business model, but has a social component. “This is about health and fitness and a better society,” says Francisco. “Funding is not likely to come from angel investors or venture capitalists, because they’re looking for huge returns. This is a vehicle for socially responsible investors — a family fund, a successful private equity fund or personal investor. In urban areas, there’s nothing like this. The challenge is finding the space where we can build our first facility and expand.”
Back in the gym, the footfalls of happy children echo off the gym walls pierced by gothic-arched windows. It’s a place of both fitness and faith. With financing and expansion falling into place, Reimagine Play could re-shape the way America embraces exercise.