TROTFITNESS, a boutique fitness studio in rural Pennsylvania, has made it against all odds.
In a pandemic expected to permanently shutter hundreds of thousands of small businesses across the United States, TROTFITNESS remains open. In an industry that crushes 80 percent of fitness studios in their first year, TROTFITNESS counts nearly a decade of successful boot camps. And, in a country where just 17% of businesses are based in rural communities and only 8.4 percent of business owners are Black, TROTFITNESS has made it as a Black-owned fitness company in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (population: 5,730).
The success of TROTFITNESS is due in no small part to the grit, sweat and faith of Nisan Trotter, 37, who co-founded the fitness company with his wife, Yorelis, in 2011. Known as the “Fitness Preacher,” Trotter is also an author, motivational speaker and former NCAA Division 1 student athlete.
“I feel like I’m a rose that comes through the concrete. Not the rule. I’m the exception. Truthfully, I am. And I say that in all humility,” Trotter told Ben Rowley in an interview for The Rural Business Show.
Like any good preacher, Trotter “cut his teeth on the pews of the church,” in Silverhill, Ala., where he grew up. Silverhill (population: 997) is based in Baldwin County, the state’s largest county by area. Trotter fondly remembers Silverhill as a place with a lot of green space, where family, faith and football reigned supreme.
While Trotter loves his hometown, he acknowledges that Alabama is “probably one of the toughest areas, all time, in our nation to grow up in as a minority.” It’s a place where Confederate flags still “fly big and high in the sky.” Growing up, he heard racial slurs, watched his classmates dress as KKK members for Halloween and experienced “story after story of racism and injustice.”
Silverhill was the backdrop for Trotter’s early lessons in the value of hard work and the power of business ownership. Trotter credits his family for his grit and entrepreneurial spirit. His grandparents were farmers, raising cattle and pigs and doing a lot of physically taxing work. Young Nisan helped his grandfather with odd jobs to prove he knew how to work hard. “I wanted him to know that I had what it took, even at an early age,” Trotter said.
Early on, he also watched his mother work two or three jobs with the dream of having her own home. Her dreams would more than once be stalled as she lost employment due to circumstances beyond her control.
“That was one of my first encounters, outside of my mother and father getting a divorce, where I felt that life was unfair, because she got fired from her position and then we were just scrambling trying to make it,” Trotter said. Despite her hard work, she was denied from renting simple living quarters as she tried to transition her family out of her parent’s home. The challenges she faced planted the seeds of entrepreneurship in Trotter.
“In Silverhill, Ala., I realized that in order for me to rise above this, I’m going to have to take control of my destiny,” he said.
During school, Trotter established himself as an outstanding student-athlete, pulling down good grades while capturing attention from college recruiters for his abilities on the football field. Football taught him how to pay his dues, put in the work and move toward a common goal.
“There’s so many people that are on the team that come from different backgrounds, that have different personalities, and [you learn] the art of being able to get together to get along and move forward. We had one common goal,” Trotter said.
After high school, Trotter accepted a full-ride scholarship to play football and study at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn. As a first-generation college student, Trotter said he was humbled to represent his family at Bucknell, one of the top-ranked liberal arts colleges in the U.S.
“Generally we don’t gain access — and when I say we, I’m talking about the Black community — we don’t gain access to this type of education or this type of experience … like our white brothers and sisters do,” Trotter said.
Black Americans often don’t have these opportunities because practices like redlining perpetuate a generational wealth gap that touches every aspect of life, including education. For example, Black households in America earn just 59 cents on the dollar every white household earns, according to a recent report from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. Lower earnings, combined with lower rates of homeownership and access to quality education mean the wealth of the median Black family is less than one-tenth that of the median white family. For Trotter, the opportunity to attend Bucknell on a full-ride scholarship was an “act of God,” he said.
At Bucknell, Trotter became a leader on and off the field. He co-founded a campus ministry, was named Most Inspirational Player of the Year and was the first recipient of the university’s Diversity Award for bringing people together from different backgrounds. He studied business, and went home after college to become a financial advisor. In a year, Trotter was back at Bucknell, working for the university while running an outdoor bootcamp in the park on the side. Soon enough, his side hustle began to overshadow his full-time job.
Trotter took a leap of faith to pursue TROTFITNESS full-time in 2012. “With God’s good grace” it worked out, he said. He quickly made a name for himself in Susquehanna Valley by offering a boot camp program that helped clients torch calories and build strength in just 30-40 minutes.
What helped Trotter and his wife build and sustain TROTFITNESS was the ability to differentiate their workouts from the competition and communicate this value to their target clients. They also had the agility to pivot and adjust when necessary. When COVID-19 hit and upended the fitness industry, TROTFITNESS shifted many classes online, downsized to one location, limited attendance and upped sanitation practices between groups to maintain business.
Trotter knows his company is an anomaly in the fitness industry and especially in Union County, where just 6.9 percent of the population is Black, compared to 13.4 percent nationwide. He believes it is incumbent on him and other entrepreneurs to educate themselves on how to even the playing field in their communities. At TROTFITNESS, Trotter and his wife are working to establish a scholarship so people of all economic backgrounds have access to his fitness programs.
“I’m a minority within a minority,” Trotter said. “I’m thinking to myself how else will people be able to have experiences with their Black brother, sister unless I’m here and I’m holding the victory banner high.”