Nine years ago, Cassey Ho quit the corporate job that was making her miserable and started following her passions: Pilates and fashion. Almost a decade later, she now has 4 million YouTube subscribers and is poised to launch the fourth collection in her activewear line, Popflex, this spring.

Creator of Blogilates Cassey Ho and her POPsters

Since 2009, Ho has kept two things at the center of her business—listening to her audience and staying creative. She regularly asks viewers to comment on her workout videos with requests for body areas to target, and then will package it in new and quirky ways, like a Wonder Woman-themed workout. Similarly, when she noticed more and more body-shaming comments appearing on her videos, she channeled the negativity into one of her most personal (and most watched) videos, “The ‘Perfect Body,’” which reached more than 12 million views.

“When I started the YouTube channel, it was because I was moving from California to Boston and wanted my students to be able to keep following me,” Ho says of Blogilates’ early days. Now her unique mix of Pilates moves, pop playlists, and a perky personality can be seen around the globe, and her “POP Pilates” classes are licensed out to nearly 1,000 venues worldwide.

We asked Ho to share more of her creator story, including how she’s funded the company and developed a strong team culture.

How did you find the confidence to stick with your vision when you decided not to go to medical school or to quit your corporate job in order to teach Pilates full-time?

I’ve always been confident in myself because I have been confident in my skills. Even when people didn’t believe in me, I knew I would figure it out and be successful one day. I just kept working on my skills. It’s not about being better than anyone else. Put your head down, work hard, and the facts will speak for themselves.

While you’ve said your parents didn’t initially agree with you leaving the med school path, how do you think being raised by immigrants contributed to your own entrepreneurial spirit?

Everything we go through makes us who we are. My parents came to this country, didn’t know the language, and worked in the face of discrimination. That drive is also in me. They’ve made me very conscious about spending my money smartly and making the most of my education. I put education at the forefront of what I was doing. But at some point, it became too much because it wasn’t the only thing that mattered.

How have you funded your company?

Growing up, I’ve always been entrepreneurial. In middle school, I started a cookie business by melting down Halloween candy and selling it to my friends and even teachers! I made some money that way, and so I’ve always had some money saved up. In college, I had printouts of ebooks that people didn’t want to buy their own copies of. Probably illegal, but it helped me save up some money!

Then, when I made my first purchase of fabrics to make my first yoga bag, I went to the LA fashion district, bought bolts of fab for a discounted price, and found a manufacturer in Oakland by flipping through the physical yellow pages! That’s how we started. I never got an investment from anyone. I started with what I had and built it from there. I grew the way I knew how to.

“I never got an investment from anyone. I started with what I had and built it from there.”

Who was your first employee?

Unofficially, my parents. They let me use their garage, which then expanded to the living room, the family room, and the kitchen before we got our own space.

My business partner—now fiancé—Sam Livits was my first employee. Since we were small, he did everything. He helped me film the very first video. We used a tiny camcorder and the sound is terrible. That was his first duty, but now what he does is negotiate brand deals and manage e-commerce and technical stuff on our site.

After establishing a following for your fitness videos, how did that translate to customers for your activewear brand?

As the YouTube channel started to grow, I got an audience who trusted me. It’s really important that your fans know you and they can trust that you wouldn’t screw them over. It gives you a marketing power that is so unique. When I did launch my first T-shirts, they sold out in a minute. Then they started asking for leggings. I was inspired by what the audience asked for and meshed that with my creativity.

“It’s really important that your fans know you and they can trust that you wouldn’t screw them over. It gives you a marketing power that is so unique.”

It can be difficult for scrappy, ambitious entrepreneurs to give up control after wearing all the hats in their business. How have you dealt with that as your team has grown?

That’s something that I’m learning how to handle better. My best advice for that is to hire people who are better than you at those certain things so you can feel comfortable giving up control. If you don’t hire someone better than you, you’ll always see the faults and it won’t be good for the business because you’ll always be checking their work. They need to impress you.

“If you don’t hire someone better than you, you’ll always see the faults and you’ll always be checking their work.”

How big is your team now?

We have 10 people, including the people in the creative office in LA and shipping in Northern California. We’re hiring all the time because we’re drowning in work.

I found that has been one of the most difficult things—finding people that align with your vision and personalities that can help you build that solid culture.

How would you define the Blogilates culture?

Our culture is happy, positive, very encouraging. Basically, who I would like to hang out with. All of us work really hard and are really creative. During our interview process, we try to do tests to make sure we all can work together. Talent is important, but not as important as being able to let your ego go and try the best you can to get the results.

Who do you turn to for advice on how to create culture?

I talk to fellow CEOs and businesswomen about culture and hiring all the time. I have a core group of YouTube friends I talk to, including Lindsey Stirling, Rosanna Pansino, Lilly Singh, I Justine, and Payal Kadakia of Classpass. The more I talk to people, the more I feel OK with the problems I’m having. When culture isn’t going right, it eats at my heart. It’s really good to know that it may not always be my fault.

“When culture isn’t going right, it eats at my heart.”

What areas are you hoping to expand into in 2018?

We’re trying to grow our wholesale business. We haven’t tapped into this yet because we have an audience already who will buy our product. To be honest, I’m not totally versed in this. It will be fun to learn. And we’ll definitely need to hire for that.

From the beginning, fashion has been part of the business, starting with you designing yoga bags while you taught Pilates full-time. How much of your business is the fashion component now?

It’s the biggest part of our business. Merchandise, in general, is the biggest part. Stationary, water bottles—everyone wants a piece of the brand and the story. That’s something special that we have.

The personal touch is the reason the brand is what it is today. You can see that even with the YouTube videos, where I’m talking about nails and shopping. That may not add to the workout, but it brings you closer. People trust people, not brands. It’s important to consistently be transparent and be honest.

Where do you get inspiration for your fashion and fitness?

I always ask fans what they’re looking for. I do research on colors I think will be hot. We don’t subscribe to trend reports. I just go with, I like stars, so let’s go with it. So far it’s worked. If you have a story behind what you’re sharing, people will respond to it.

What’s a recent example of producing something based on requests from followers?

One of our hottest selling products is our Fit Planner. We just sold out of the 2018 edition. That started five years ago because people kept asking for a way to be organized and fit. Over time, we’ve created [better and better versions] of these journals. This year had best design and most positive response to it.

You’re getting married this year. With these big personal changes, do you imagine your business changing along with you?

I do. In terms of product range, I see it changing. Leading up to the wedding, I’ll do a bridal boot camp. I wouldn’t feel good doing that unless I was actually getting married. Then maybe later I’ll be making fitness clothes for babies! Life is exciting, and we should keep evolving and sharing with people as it changes.

What are the two key traits that have contributed to your success?

My ability to be creative in problem-solving and my attitude of never giving up.

“Ten years ago most people here did not know what this brown paste was,” says Anthony Brahimsha of the chickpea dip that is now nearly ubiquitous on menus in the U.S..

Born to Syrian parents, Brahimsha knew that hummus in the Middle East is much better than that found in American grocery stores. With the help of Mike McCloskey, owner of Select Milk Producers, the sixth largest dairy cooperative in the country, he developed a hummus called Prommus that is higher in protein –– three times that of other dips. It preserves the traditional flavor by using cold pressure, rather than heat, in the kitchen.

“What Halo Top is to ice cream and Chobani is to yogurt, we are to hummus,” Brahimsha says, by way of explaining that Prommus is also changing the industry.

The company name is a combination of the words “protein” and “hummus,” but is also a play on the word “promise.” With 1 percent of sales benefitting the World Food Program to fight global hunger, Brahimsha hopes that the product can have a significant effect on ending hunger and making nutritious foods available wherever they are needed.

Prommus cofounder Anthony Brahimsha, who has spent a lot of time on humanitarian missions, believes his hummus could help feed the world.

While the initial idea was born out of his humanitarian work in refugee camps along the Turkish/Syrian border, Brahimsha has even bigger dreams. The world needs to find more ways to make nutritious foods for people who are going hungry, and he thinks Prommus and its innovative production process are part of the solution. Two patents are currently pending.

The company’s four varieties (original, red pepper, olive, and avocado) are sold in the Midwest, primarily in Illinois and Michigan. These flavors were taste-tested by Brahimsha’s fellow members at Chicago’s WeWork River North, a community that he says has been invaluable to the startup.

“There are a lot of co-working spaces, but not everywhere is a community of social entrepreneurs who are rooting for their peers,” he says.

A winner in the business venture category at the Nashville Creator Awards, he says he’ll be able to start the next stage of expansion for his company, primarily by adding staff.

“As soon as you win this award, all the blood sweat and tears that you put into the company comes together,” he says. “Everything that you have been doing, the people that were with you along the way, finally, it feels like an affirmation that you were doing the right thing.”

 

Melanie Faye grew up in Nashville, but she doesn’t credit Music City with her success. She credits Guitar Hero. Yes, that Guitar Hero, the video game that allows players to mimic the sounds and moves of their favorite stars. For Faye, it was Michael Jackson.

“I don’t think growing up in Nashville introduced me to guitar players,” Faye says. “My parents were chemists. I was not able to go to bars and see local shows. Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to. Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Faye, now 20, has found fame via YouTube. After dropping out of college three semesters in to pursue her music career, Faye posted videos of herself sitting in her bedroom and playing covers of John Mayer and Mariah Carey.

“Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to,” says Melanie Faye. “Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

She also used the platform to debut some of her original work, which she describes as a mixture of R&B, hip hop, and pop. Her voice, serious guitar-playing chops, and friendly demeanor propelled those videos to more than 10 million views. She was so popular that the guitar company Fender tapped her to demo a new line of the instrument.

“I thought, ‘This is it! I’m viral. I made it!’ But it does not work that way,” she says. Faye makes ends meet by working at a local doughnut shop and teaches guitar. She also keeps working on her music the old-fashioned way, having been tapped to be the opening act for musicians like Noname and Mac Demarco. Her most recent gig was at the Nashville Creator Awards.

She is working on her first album, which she hopes will be out by the year’s end. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Faye has been working on Homophone for years.

“If I had known it was going to take this long,” she says, “I wouldn’t have told people it was going to be out soon.”

Faye is also working to relieve the jitters that come with performing live, rather than in front of a camera. A recent show at the Hollywood Palladium was a game changer.

“I typically am really shy and inhibited on stage. But I felt so much support and positive energy, I just let loose,” she remembers. “I think to an extent you just have to have fake confidence at first. I walked up and had a confident demeanor and once I heard crowd cheering, then I was confident.”

“It happens overnight,” Maria Vertkin says. “An immigrant moves to the U.S. and goes from being a surgeon to washing toilets.”

College degrees and professional experience from their home country don’t always mean as much as they should when an immigrant starts a new life abroad, says Vertkin. She knows from experience: She spent her childhood in Russia and Israel before immigrating to the United States. But she realized that they have one thing that will always be of use to them: their language skills.

“It doesn’t make sense if you have something as valuable as a second language to not use it,” says Vertkin, who speaks English, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Vertkin, a Boston-based social worker, wanted to help train women to use their multilingual skills to their advantage. She saw a need that they could fill in the medical field. Hospitals in Massachusetts struggled to find interpreters for their patients who aren’t native English speakers. Without interpreters, expensive and even potentially fatal medical errors are possible.

A Found in Translation graduate shows off her diploma.

“The jobs are plentiful and the demographics are shifting,” says Vertkin. “Not only do they serve the local population, but medical tourists come from other countries and they need interpreters.”

The idea was a hit with the judges of WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards. Found in Translation took home a $72,000 prize in the nonprofit category.

In 2011, Vertkin started Found in Translation to help homeless and low-income women achieve economic security by making their language skills an asset, rather than a liability. Within a few weeks of announcing the first class, she had 200 applications.

The nonprofit offers medical interpreter certificate training as well as other interpreter programs. And the training includes more than the core curriculum — childcare, transportation, job placement, and access to mentors for professional development are also part of the program.

The 186 graduates of Found in Translation classes between 2012 and 2017 earned approximately $1.86 million cumulatively more per year than they did before enrollment. That’s about $10,000 more per person annually. She says that if she wins in the nonprofit category at the Nashville Creator Awards, she can expand the program.

Classes currently take place in Boston, where Vertkin estimates they could easily double in size with the right funding. Every city in the U.S., she says, has the potential for success with Found in Translation.

“There is opportunity and need and we are connecting them,” Vertkin says. “The biggest risk is for employers not hiring multilingual employees.”

If Janett Liriano has her way, you won’t be using your FitBit much longer.

Liriano is CEO of Loomia, a New York-based firm at the intersection of tech and fashion. The company creates “intelligent drapeable circuits” that are soft enough to be embedded into textiles and can be safely washed and dried. Instead of wearing a step tracker on your wrist, it could be embedded into your running shoes.

That’s just the beginning of what these circuits can do. Those shoes might not just track your steps, but can also measure the pressure on your feet, giving you information on how you should adjust your gait. They might heat up and keep your feet warm in winter. And a light might keep you safer on a nighttime jog.

Loomia’s CEO Janett Liriano and founder Maddy Maxey

Liriano has two patents for her product and others in the pipeline for the smart fabric-enabling circuits. Her team is working with more than 80 brands on how they can integrate the smart technology into their designs. The current emphasis is on clothing, but the flexibility of the circuit opens the door to other products in the future.

“We are category agnostic,” Liriano says. “If you can make a washable circuit, you can put it on the floor. You can put it in wallpaper.”

Liriano, who took home third place in the business ventures category at the Nashville Creator Awards, sees potential in fields ranging from medicine to transportation.

Not only can Loomia transform the ways smart devices are used, it can also change what happens to all that data once it is collected. The company is looking at ways that consumers can sell their data to interested parties — or choose not to share it.

Liriano, a “born-and-bred New Yorker,” thinks the city is the right place for the firm. It’s one of the country’s great fashion hubs, but it also has a strong startup scene.

New Yorkers are inherently scrappy and resourceful,” she says. “For a business that is not super capitalized, that’s a good network. We are hard-core hustlers.”