A pandemic ‘godsend’: Philly fitness studio owner among first to receive Comcast RISE award

Osayi Osunde, co-owner and co-founder of Fit Academy, is among the first recipients of the Comcast RISE award, a much-needed lift as gyms face down a second COVID shutdown.

Osayi Osunde

Osayi Osunde (Instagram / Fit Academy)

When a group of Osayi Osunde’s friends wanted to train “like an athlete,” they started out small: on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

A group of eight turned into a group of 30. Free workout sessions ballooned to more than 100 people.

“It just kind of blew up,” Osunde told WHYY News.

The Villanova University graduate and former Green Bay Packer said the outdoor fitness experiment lasted for about two-and-a-half years.

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“We started off at the Rocky steps with people made off of my network,” Osunde told WHYY News. “It was extremely organic and it was a lot of fun.”

When winter came around, some clients didn’t take kindly to the cold weather, Osunde said. So he put together a business plan, figured out how to negotiate a lease and began property hunting. He ended up in Brewerytown, where he co-founded Fit Academy.

Now 32, Osunde, like other small business owners grappling with the pandemic, needs to do as much as he can to retain as many clients as possible.

“The [fitness and wellness] industry got put into a really bad place,” Osunde said. “I felt like my full-time job at one point … was just applying to grants and applying to any kind of funding help.”

When a friend forwarded Osunde information about Comcast RISE, he thought: Why not?

The multi-year initiative launched in October to assist small businesses hit hard by COVID-19. Comcast is presenting its RISE award to recipients in 285 cities and 29 states, ranging from restaurants and salons, to professional services and retail.

On Wednesday, Osunde was interviewed on the Kelly Clarkson Show, where it was announced he was among the first recipients of the Comcast RISE award.

Over 700 Black-owned businesses across the country, including Fit Academy, will receive consulting, media and creative production services or technology upgrades from the corporation.

“People see the impact that we’re trying to do here from a health and wellness perspective,” Osunde explained. “Especially now with COVID … fitness and wellness and nutrition is critical. It’s critical to keeping people healthy, critical to keeping people mentally sane and physically safe.”

Osunde isn’t a stranger to Philly fitness accolades. He’s been dubbed a “Best of Philly” trainer by multiple publications, on top of being published nationally as a fitness model for Under Armour.

Osunde hopes that, with Comcast’s help, Fit Academy can better deliver its message to the masses.

“We’ve been looking for a lifeline for some time now, especially during this pandemic,” he said.

A few days ago, a friend of Osunde’s closed their fitness studio. About two weeks before that, another friend closed their spinning studio.

“We’re literally just falling off by the week,” Osunde said. “And everyone kind of sees the challenges that are coming along.”

Throughout the pandemic, Black-owned businesses have been disproportionately financially impacted, according to a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nationally, Black businesses have been more likely to be shuttered and less likely to receive the federal aid they requested compared to other groups.

According to data analysis by Keystone Crossroads, the number of active Black business owners in Philadelphia fell by 68% from early March to July, Census Bureau estimates show. The number of active white business owners in the city fell by just 44% during that time.

For Comcast RISE, the company is bringing together two of its brands — Comcast Business and Effectv — to provide business owners with resources to help them while navigating the economic burdens of the pandemic.

“We created Comcast RISE to partner with small businesses and give them access to tools to help them survive the pandemic and thrive,” said Teresa Ward-Maupin, senior vice president for digital and customer experience at Comcast Business. “I could not be more pleased to open this program to the entire BIPOC community and continue this positive momentum.”

Some of the main components of the Comcast RISE program include help with the recipients’ marketing campaigns, as well as the creation of 30-second commercials.

Businesses will also receive advertising and marketing consultations and a TV media campaign that will run for 90 days. Other services provided to the winners include computer equipment, internet and voice and cybersecurity services for one year.

Osunde said he’s excited about the opportunity to amplify Fit Academy’s voice and its mission.

“There’s so much competition because everything is online,” Osunde said. “So we’re all vying for the same space on people’s cell phones.”

Osunde called the Comcast prize “a godsend” as fitness studios like his remain shuttered due to coronavirus restrictions.

Osunde was among representatives from more than 30 gyms who converged on City Hall Tuesday, highlighting the plight of gyms forced to close for a second time due to the pandemic.

Gyms, museums and theaters are closed in Philadelphia through at least Jan. 1, 2021, under the city’s latest coronavirus restrictions.

Dubbed the Philadelphia Fitness Coalition, the group pointed to a lack of financial support that spells trouble for already struggling businesses.

Philadelphia gym owners (from left) Gavin McKay, Osayi Osunde and Stephanie Luongo speak at a press conference
Philadelphia gym owners (from left) Gavin McKay, Osayi Osunde and Stephanie Luongo ask the city to reconsider shutting down gyms, citing their own data which they say shows their precautions against the spread of the COVID-19 are working. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For its next phase, Comcast RISE is opening eligibility for the program specifically to small businesses owned by people of color. Those interested can apply at ComcastRISE.com. 

Besides Comcast RISE, in early 2021, the company will be awarding grants of up to $10,000 each for small, diverse businesses across the country that have been in operation for three to five months.

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