Billie Burgess is ‘Every Woman’
Personal trainer Billie Burgess sets her Amazon Alexa to wake her up every morning to Whitney Houston’s song, “I’m Every Woman.” The lyrics fill her studio apartment—and her soul: “I’m every woman, it’s all in me. Anything you want done, baby. I’ll do it naturally.”
The music inspires Billie. ”It lets me know who I am right now and what I can do,” she says. The daily inspiration is like a hot air balloon hovering over mountains.
She is focused on building her personal training business and life in Hartford, Connecticut. The two compete for her precious time, but she is determined to make it work.
Billie describes herself as a “small girl.” The 5-foot-3-inch personal trainer wants you to look and feel your best. But she’s adamant on one point: “I don’t want to be a celebrity trainer.”
The personal trainer earned her associate degree in New York City at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She wants to complete her education and get a bachelor’s degree one day. She loves learning. “Maybe I’ll be a professor,” she laughs.
Right now, her focus is launching her boot camp in January, which will require a huge effort to break through the better-funded and more established competition, given that she is a one-person business.
The wellness industry is $1.5 trillion worldwide and is expected to grow 5% to 10% annually, according to a McKinsey & Company report.
People are in celebration mode, wolfing down food and drink at breakneck speed. The New Year is approaching, and millions of people will soon regret letting down their guard. This is a familiar cycle that repeats every year, like Groundhog Day.
The wellness industry is $1.5 trillion worldwide and is expected to grow 5% to 10% annually, according to a McKinsey & Company report. McKinsey’s recent “Future of Wellness” survey was given to nearly 7,500 consumers in six countries. The results revealed that people want better health, fitness, nutrition, appearance, sleep and mindfulness.
Consumers see wellness as “overall physical and mental health and appearance,” according to the report. Wellness has become a buzzword.
Billie Talks a Lot
I speak to Billie in the morning by phone during the first week of December 2023. Her voice is light and airy, like a breakfast croissant at a French café in the summer.
She tells me she tends to be “reserved, even though I may not appear that way.” Born and raised in the “mean streets” of Harlem, she has the grittiness to overcome obstacles. I discover she’s friendly with a dose of skepticism, which is in her New York City DNA.
Billie is her real name. “I was supposed to be a boy, “ she says. When her mother was pregnant, the doctor mistakenly told her parents that she was a boy. That was all her father needed to name her Billie.
Her career began on the administrative side of the fitness industry. The former receptionist and facility manager has held many jobs, including stints at boutique fitness studios like Equinox, Studio 360, SwimJim, and Elysium Fitness Club.
She has a hard time keeping track of all the jobs she has had. “Whew!” she says.
Billie moved from behind the scenes to being in front of clients when a former boss told her she would make an excellent personal trainer and provided financial resources for her to go to school, so the story goes, according to the Studio 310 website.
Personal training checked all the boxes for her: work for herself, interact with clients, no corporate politics, and she gets to be active. And perhaps most important, she could be her authentic self.
“I’m a very hyper person,” she says. She explains that she can’t sit still and must bounce around. When discussing her training sessions, “I talk a lot, but they (clients) love it,” she says as laughter escapes. Her loquaciousness is necessary to educate clients.
Billie “comes alive” when educating her clients about exercise science, which showcases her knowledge. She’s an aspiring professor, motivational speaker, and therapist.
A Season for Change
Billie is from a blended family of nine kids; their ages are 29 to 50—she’s somewhere in the middle of the pack. Her family once lived in Harlem but has since relocated to different states, including her sister, now in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Billie moved from Harlem to Harford, Connecticut, in November 2021. “I miss the energy,” she says about New York City. Nothing compares to the constant pace of the city, considering Connecticut suburbs seem to turn out the lights collectively by 10:00 p.m.
The cost of living in the city was high, and it was hard to get “affordable, nice living,” she states. At the time, she had a roommate, and they split the rent. Fate would intervene in her life.
Quiane, Billie’s sister, bought a condominium in Harford. She offered Billie the option to live there. Billie calls it “family helping family.” She adds, “It wasn’t really thought out.” She laughs at her impulsiveness.
Business Chooses Her
When asked why she started a business, Billie responds, “I didn’t decide.” She was working at Equinox when the pandemic struck, shutting everything down.
I work when my clients want me to work.
Billie erupts with laughter again, like a rumbling volcano. She can’t comprehend that she started a business. It was as if by accident. Clients began reaching out to her for online training, and she filled the need.
Her work varies from day to day. “I work when my clients want me to work,” she explains. She doesn't have clients on the day we talk, but she will be busy on Friday.
There are days when she is training all six of her clients. Typically, December is part of her slow season. “You already know my New Year’s resolutions…it’s going to pick up for me,” she says as she lets out more laughter, reflecting on how crazy things will get for her.
All businesses have weaknesses. The challenge for Billie is finding new clients. And she doesn’t like selling. “But I’m good at keeping clients,” she states confidently.
Studio 310 in West Hartford is where Billie works with her clients—and they offer a helping hand on the backend of her business.
“We are a co-working space for fitness professionals,” says Sarah Kennedy, the studio manager, over the telephone in mid-December. Trainers have 24-hour access to the facility to work with their clients. The studio charges a per client, per session fee to the trainers “whenever they host a session,” says Sara via a text message.
The goal is to put the trainer first and provide a clean space, marketing, an app, and other support services to allow personal trainers to build their businesses.
Sara’s a big fan of how Peloton built a community around their bicycles, upbeat trainers, and the internet platform. She sees an opportunity to build a business focused on “customized fitness and health services.”
She looks for trainers with experience, the appropriate certifications, insurance, and a passion for building a business. After an “extensive interview” process, Billie signed up with Studio 310 in late May 2023.
Shadowing: A Personal Workout
On Friday, December 8, I drive to Studio 310. I notice a small sandwich board with the Studio 310 name on it. The studio is between two houses on Newington Road, where a long, sloping driveway leads to a parking lot and the building.
The studio is in a building attached to M & G Landscaping, owned by Parnav Dave , who also owns Studio 310. Landscaping vehicles and equipment are scattered in the lot. Men wearing well-worn clothes and work boots are fixing equipment.
There’s a large mural painted on the building with “Fuel Your Why” in large letters.
I walk up the long handicap-accessible ramp accented in lime green paint. I enter an empty studio. The studio has new-looking equipment, with lime green accent paint throughout.
The words “process,” “purpose,” and “prosper” are in large lime green letters on the wall, along with smaller signs that have definitions of “grit,” “coach,” and “limitless.” It’s a bright and inspiring place.
Rameya Shanmugavelayutham and Billie arrive. Rameya (pronounced Rum-ya) wears a blue headscarf and mustard workout pants. She is a mental health therapist and educator who moved to Connecticut in 2021 with her husband, a college professor.
Rameya quickly removes her socks and running shoes and grabs a blue mat. She and Billie work out twice a week.
Perfect! Look at you!
Billie is dressed in a Studio 310 grey hoodie, black leggings, white socks pulled up over her ankles, and sneakers. Her hair is tied back. We exchange hellos, but there is no time for small talk. The room is dead silent.
Billie begins Rameya’s 60-minute workout. She counts the number of reps and provides plenty of “Good!” and an occasional “You got this, girl!” “Up high, one, two,” she counts the reps.
Rameya’s arms are extended above her head, holding the medicine ball high. She slams the ball into the ground. “Good job!” offers Billie. Watching her form, Billie says, “Perfect! Look at you!”
“There you go” and “Good” are often heard this morning. Billie uses a combination of bands, dumbbells and the medicine ball. They work through several exercises specific to Rameya’s needs—it’s a personal prescription for her body.
Rameya asks questions and describes various issues that affect her body. Billie responds when Rameya finishes. There is a genuine back-and-forth between the instructor and the client.
The workout goes from what sounds like two friends having a conversation over coffee to laughter and counting reps. They work out as one. Both seem to be having a mutually beneficial experience.
Rameya takes a photo of the information on the whiteboard, listing the exercises and the number of sets and reps. The workout ends. She heads out into the fresh morning air.
A Working Body
A few hours later, I call Rameya. I learn that she grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Her parents immigrated from India to the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Rameya arrived in Connecticut with her husband in 2021.
After having reoccurring knee problems and going to physical therapy, she searched Yelp for a personal trainer. Sara received Rameya’s information and forwarded it to Billie.
Rameya and Billie met in late May for a “get-to-know-you session.” Billie demoed a workout for her. “Super good fit for me,” Rameya says about Billie.
“She is phenomenal and a true educator, ” adds Rameya. Her goals are to have a functioning body and maintain good health for as many years as possible. She likes that Billie provides custom education for her body, lifestyle, and goals.
Rameya plans to work out with Billie for as long as she can. She seeks “holistic and lifelong health.” One day in the future, if healthy, she may enter a road race, which would be a first for her.
Beating the Odds
Billie had to start over in Connecticut. Everything seemed against her. She had no car (in a state with a poor public transportation system), no driver’s license and she didn’t know anyone. But she wasn’t deterred.
For her, “It was important that I started over,” she says, admiring how far she has come. There were times she couldn’t give all her attention to the business “because I had to build a life here,” she explains.
Luck was on her side. The bus stopped in front of Studio 310. “That’s what made me want to work there, “ she says. She laughs, a habit she has when thinking about the absurdities of life.
Billie didn’t think she would ever get her driver’s license because she was well past the age of 18, when most people get their licenses. She had fear and anxiety about getting her license.
I was just trying to keep the faith.
But without a vehicle, her social prospects for meeting other people in person were limited. “I was stuck at home, ” says Billie. This led to the emergence of depression. She was staying home all the time and realized she needed friends in Connecticut.
Being in a new state is not easy, especially without friends and family close by. “I was just trying to keep the faith.” She was fixating on things she should not have been. Her clients lifted her spirits with their positive feedback. “I had to keep going,” she says.
Her mood improved when she passed her driver’s examination after a few attempts. Life completely changed when she purchased her first vehicle, which she describes as “her baby.”
She finds herself looking out the window at her vehicle and saying to herself, “If I can do this, what else can I do?”
Billie launched the Connecticut Women’s Dinner Club in March 2023 after posting it on meetup.com. “The first meetup was scary. “I didn’t know if people would show up or like me,” she says.
Two days before Christmas, I call Evelyn Gartrell, the co-host of the Connecticut Women’s Dinner Club. She tells me it will be a busy weekend filled with last-minute shopping and wrapping presents.
Evelyn, a patent paralegal for 18 years, was born in Brooklyn and moved to Hartford when she was three. Today, she lives in Windsor with her three kids: a 22-year-old son, a 16-year-old daughter, and a 10-year-old son.
“Billie has been my good friend since last year,” she says. “I confide in her. She’s done tremendously,” considering she has only been in Hartford a short time. “She doesn’t allow anything to hold her back,” she says of Billie.
Usually, the Dinner Club events center around food. On one occasion, they went to a Dave Chappelle show in Boston, and there have been other get-togethers.
Evelyn and Billie have a vacation planned for Miami in 2024 to celebrate Evelyn’s 40th birthday, which she calls a “milestone.”
Evelyn, an introvert, says, “It takes a lot for me to warm up to people.”
She had been doing other meetups for the last two years but had not formed any close friendships before Billie started this group. The small gatherings make it easy to make new connections. “Her meetup hit home for me,” she says.
“I’m pretty independent,” she says. “I never relied on anyone to help me with anything, and I did everything on my own.” She and Billie share this independent streak.
As for the future, Billie wants more out of life. “I would love to do a TED talk, ” she says. And she wants to write a book someday.
“Connecticut has been good to me. I may end up staying here,” she says. This “Every Woman” has found a home.
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, inspiring stories for people who are curious about the world. Go Anywhere.