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Judi Sheppard Missett of Jazzercise: “We need to get the 80 percent of adult men and women and adolescent boys and girls who don’t exercise to put down their phones, turn off their TVs, get up off their couches, and move!”

In the 1970s, the American women’s movement had gained widespread traction with the idea that a woman was entitled to take a bit of time off from her regular duties to “do something for yourself.” For many women, 55 minutes of Jazzercise twice a week was that gateway “something.” They came, they had fun, they […]


In the 1970s, the American women’s movement had gained widespread traction with the idea that a woman was entitled to take a bit of time off from her regular duties to “do something for yourself.” For many women, 55 minutes of Jazzercise twice a week was that gateway “something.” They came, they had fun, they looked great, and felt great afterward. They invited their friends and the idea, the movement of fitness for women took off, taking us viral before anyone knew what “going viral” was. If our communal experience could inspire a new movement in the 2020s, it would be to get the 80 percent of adult men and women and adolescent boys and girls who don’t exercise to put down their phones, turn off their TVs, get up off their couches, and move! The benefits from even a minimal amount of effort are undeniable: regular exercise helps you feel better, think better, sleep better, have better sex, skin, bones, joints, muscles, and memory. What’s not to love, and get behind, about that?


As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Judi Sheppard Missett. Judi is a fitness and business icon, having grown Jazzercise, Inc. from a class of 15 women in 1969 to today’s largest dance fitness company in the world, with cumulative gross sales topping $2 billion. Dancing since the age of 3, Judi turned her passion into a successful career as a professional performer and choreographer. At age 25, however, she discovered her purpose — blending the art of dance and the science of exercise to make dance fitness accessible and fun for everyone. Five decades later, Judi and her daughter Shanna Missett Nelson continue to manage and motivate 8,500 Jazzercise franchisees to achieve their dream of independent business ownership, who in turn inspire millions of customers worldwide to live happier, healthier lives through fitness. In addition, Judi created Jazzercise Apparel, a division which generates $5.8 million in sales of branded studio-to-street apparel, and JM DigitalWorks which produces award-winning video content for Jazzercise media. As CEO, Judi’s daily routine still includes choreographing and teaching the program she invented, inspiring both her corporate employees and franchisees, and mentoring other female leaders through her Platinum Membership in the Women Presidents’ Organization. In addition to two previous best-selling books — Jazzercise: A Fun Way to Fitness and The Jazzercise Workout Book — Judi has produced seven gold and platinum workout videos, and three best-selling fitness albums. She and her fellow Jazzercise instructors have also raised over $30M for a wide range of charitable organizations. In June 2019, Judi will celebrate both the 50th anniversary of Jazzercise, Inc. and the release of her third book, BUILDING A BUSINESS WITH A BEAT, Leadership Lessons from Jazzercise — an Empire Built on Passion, Purpose, and Heart. Judi has received numerous national awards and recognitions such as: the Harriet Alger Award for Entrepreneurship presented by Working Woman magazine, a U.S. Presidential Commendation for Top Woman Entrepreneur, four fitness Hall of Fame inductions, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the President’s Council on Fitness and Sports, Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the National Foundation for Women Legislators and Empowered Women, the IDEA Lifetime Achievement Award, the Committee of 200’s Entrepreneurial Champion Luminary Award, and the President’s Award from Women Presidents Organization for the №1 Woman-Owned Business.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Judi! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you, for your interest. As a child, I dreamed of and worked hard to become a professional dancer. As an adult, performing for Gus Giordano’s exclusive Jazz Dance Chicago and teaching at his prestigious studio was my version of “mission accomplished.” Until one day, when I was asked to teach a beginning jazz dance class and, over the next few weeks, experienced a 90% dropout rate! My ah-ha moment (and new career path) emerged when I went to my dropouts to ask, “What happened? Why did you quit?” As it turned out, most were stay-at-home moms with very little dance experience who reported, “I thought it would be fun, and it wasn’t.” “Too hard.” “Too much to remember.” And “I don’t want to be a professional dancer; I just want to look like one!” Their insights led me to create an entirely new class — combining the art of dance with the science of exercise — which eventually became Jazzercise. Specifically, I turned them away from the mirror, told them to follow me the best they could through a series of fun, simplified dance routines, and gave them lots of positive encouragement. When that first class of 15 turned into 30 the next week, and 60 the week after that with a ballooning wait list, I knew I was onto something special. In one way, because I always thought I’d have a life in the theater, Jazzercise was a big surprise. In another important way, however, I’m still on stage with a very active group of participants, instead of a passive audience, and enjoying every minute of it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Wow, it’s difficult to select just one, but one of the most exciting was the day we celebrated MCA Records’ announcement that Jazzercise, the world’s first ever dance fitness album, had been certified gold with over 500,000 copies sold. More than 4,000 Jazzercise instructors and customers took over the parking lot of Universal Studios to attend the presentation of the gold record and the dance party afterward, and a bunch of TV trucks showed up to cover it. That mid-1982 celebration foreshadowed so many other major Jazzercise events which followed, including our participation in: the opening of the ’84 Olympics, the ’87 re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty, the ’91 Great American Workout at the White House, the ’98 Superbowl and many other NFL half-time, NBA pre-game and MLB seventh inning-stretch shows, plus, in 2014, the Guinness World Record-breaking dance class in Hiroshima, Japan.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

By late 1982, we had grown dramatically from ten instructors in 1977 to 1,650 in 46 states and 22 foreign countries. I was in the mood to celebrate. Our first three-day International Instructors’ Convention, held on a local college campus, was designed to both educate and entertain, with expert workshops, food, fun, and on the final day, a grand finale full of surprises. For starters, the original Spinners joined me onstage to sing their greatest hits while the crowd of more than 2,000 instructors and local Jazzercise customers filled the football field and performed our popular routines for “Working My Way Back,” “Cupid,” and “Rubber Band Man.” Next, prior to the monster balloon release and airplane skywriting JAZZERCISE overhead, championship bodybuilder Charles Bradshaw appeared flexing his muscles while I led everyone in our then-hugely popular routine for “Eye of the Tiger.” Meanwhile, a live 200-pound tiger named Asia was set to prowl across the stage behind us. The crowd roared, the tiger freaked, and pooped his way from one side curtain to the other. I had no choice but to keep dancing, while my husband Jack ran out with a broom and dustpan to scoop up as much of the mess as he could. Lesson learned: rethink any plan that involves a wild animal on stage in front of 2,000+ people.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

In an economy where the average life cycle of S&P 500 companies has shrunk from 60 years to 20, in an industry characterized by short-term fads and transitory trends, Jazzercise has continued to grow and thrive for 50 years, doubling in size in our fourth decade. You could say our survival alone is a miracle. But I’d say our success springs from our customer-centric philosophy — that fitness is for everyone, that it should be cooperative instead of competitive, and, most importantly, it should be fun. The proof that it works is in our vibrant customer retention, referral, and conversion rates: 50 percent of our customers have been with us for 10 years or more, compared to only 15 percent in the general health club population (GHCP); 68 percent attend Jazzercise classes more than three times a week, compared to only 44 percent in the GHCP. Further, more than two-thirds of our new customers are referrals from existing ones; and 65 percent of first-time visitors return to become customers. “I’ve stuck with Jazzercise for 27 years,” a woman told me just yesterday, “I came to get fit, but I’ve stayed for the comradery, the mental and emotional support, and the courage it’s given me to try new things. There’s nothing else like it, which is why I will never, ever leave.”

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the biggest secrets to our longevity is that, while our core philosophy and values never change, we are constantly reinventing ourselves to stay current and vital to our customers. One exciting new project is transitioning our instructor training in new music and choreography from five-times-a-year hard-copy DVDs to streaming on our award-winning interactive Learning Management System (LMS.) Of course, this will save shipping time and money but, more importantly, it will enable our instructors to access and master new routines anytime and anywhere they wish. Per existing customer requests, we’re creating access to video on demand to augment their live in-class experience. We also have an unnamed offshoot program in the works to provide younger consumers with a more physically challenging but still fun regimen. We know from long experience that the enemy of exercise is boredom, which is why we are always in the hunt for ways to keep our classes fresh, new, and exciting.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

First, it’s so important to love and to believe in the integrity of what you’re doing. Your passion is a magnet which will attract others to follow you, and to dedicate their energy and passion to moving the mission forward. It helps a lot — it certainly helped me — if your purpose is to make a difference, to help and/or improve the lives of others. Passion plus purpose means business. Passion alone, or purpose without passion does not. Second, always respect, recognize, and reward each team member’s contributions; and don’t forget to celebrate the milestones along the way.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

My best advice is don’t over-manage. I rejected the command-and-control model early on in favor of a management style I call “empower and encourage.” Hire people who clearly support your mission, empower them to work individually and as a team to make things happen, and encourage and trust them to do so. People who aren’t over-managed are much more creative, innovative, and less fearful. Further, embrace change. Whether you like it or not, change happens constantly. See that as a good thing and challenge your people to keep moving forward. As my mother liked to say, “Don’t look back; we’re not going that way.”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I got started with lots of passion but very little business experience. When one student suggested, “We’re jazz dancing, but we’re also exercising; why don’t you call it Jazzercise?” I polled my other classes for their opinion (today we’d call it “crowd sourcing”), and another student named Margaret Stanton offered, “I work in my husband’s law office and will help you trademark that.” A few years later, when I was training other instructors, I asked around for someone to type my choreography notes. Once again, Margaret stepped forward to help. Eventually, she became our first full-time employee, then later CFO and COO, she kept a tight grip on the purse strings and was a strong and steadying force for me and for Jazzercise for 30 years. I will be forever grateful to Margaret for her intelligence, calming personality, and leadership in those formative years. Without her, I doubt all this would have happened the way it did. She is missed.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

At Jazzercise, bringing good health, well-being and improved self-esteem to our customers is at the core of everything we do. Strengthening them strengthens us. Together we’ve created a caring, compassionate community that, over the years, has raised and given back more than $30 million to local charities. As a corporation, we’ve given back as well through global programs like Kids Get Fit — each May, thousands of our instructors volunteer to teach free classes at local schools so kids can learn that exercise and fitness is fun — and GIRLFORCE, our 2017 initiative which provided free Jazzercise classes to young women aged 16 to 21.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Put your customers first in everything you do. Focus on meeting their needs, solving their problems, making their lives easier or better, or serving their greater good. It’s a strategy that’s worked for us for decades and is working for Amazon, Costco, Trader Joe’s, and many others. At Jazzercise, we look at each and every touchpoint of our customers’ experience — from web visit to phone call to counter to class to follow-up — and actively analyze how we can do better, how we can make each customer’s Jazzercise journey the best and most comfortable it can be. And we are rewarded by the highest customer loyalty and retention levels in the fitness industry.
  2. If you believe in what you’re doing, refuse to compromise. Expect resistance, then do it anyway! In my new book, BUILDING A BUSINESS WITH A BEAT, Leadership Lessons from Jazzercise — an Empire Built on Passion, Purpose, and Heart, I detail many of the roadblocks we’ve faced over the years. From the purists at Gus Giordano’s Jazz Dance Chicago (“You’re bastardizing the art form!”) to my early days at the Golden Door Spa (“You’re fired!”) to the IRS (“What you’re doing is illegal. Convert those independent contractors to employees or franchisees, or else!”) to changing market conditions (“Five decades, five recessions”) to the media (“Jazzercise is still around?”) In each case, we’ve kept the faith and found our way around, over, under, or through the obstacles that threatened to capsize us.
  3. An adjunct to the above is: Watch for cues, signs, and signals. Your business is a living, growing thing that constantly provides you with cues about its environment, markets, customers, vendors, employees, or management. As its leader, you are responsible for anticipating and interpreting the signals your business is sending you. Read any entrepreneur’s story and you’ll see that spotting a sign correctly or missing an important signal all together can be the difference between sweet success and painful disaster. I’ve had my share of both. Some signals stop you in your tracks and demand immediate path-altering decision-making (see IRS call, above.) Others are subtler but no less critical. The key, I believe, is to reframe the challenge to be proactive, instead of simply reactive.
  4. Trust your team. Surround yourself with people who believe in and support your passion and purpose. Avoid the naysayers. Choose positive people who are, hopefully, smarter than you are. If you hire them for attitude, train them well, and do a good job of communicating your core values, expectations, and commitment to your customers, there’s no need to micromanage. When everyone is committed to the same thing, when they know you trust them, and they feel encouraged and empowered to do their best, you’ll be amazed by their results.
  5. Make the body-mind-spirit connection. How many studies would it take to convince you that the science on the interconnectedness of your body, mind, and spirit is incontrovertible? The American Journal of Preventative Medicine recently summarized 25 studies that confirm regular exercise causes a molecular chain reaction that improves mental cognition and processing, bolsters self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, and makes us significantly less prone to spirit-draining depression, anxiety, and malcontent. As a leader, you owe it to yourself, your enterprise, your team, and your family to make the connection that will enable you to function at peak performance levels in every aspect of your life and job. If you are a part of the nearly 80 percent of American adults who don’t exercise regularly — two and a half hours per week — it’s time to get a move on! Not sure how? Visit www.jazzercise.com, and find a class near you. Tell the instructor “Judi sent me.” The struggle can be real. We’ll make whatever you’re attempting easier, less stressful, and more fun than you think. Beyond exercising your body, expand your mind by learning, reading, listening to TED talks, and exploring new things; and make an effort to connect to your spirit through meditation, mentoring, and volunteering to help others. Connecting to your inner self — physically, mentally, spiritually — will truly enrich your outer life as a leader, partner, parent, and human.
  6. It’s okay to have fun. And it IS fun to charge ahead, change or adapt things as needed, and see things come to fruition. Adopt a sense of possibility, the attitude of “Let’s try it and see how it works.” Make it fun when you’re doing it and fun when you get there. Along the way, I hope you’ll experience the real joy that comes from helping others (and yourself) accomplish a shared goal. You’ve heard it before — business and life are a journey, not a destination. Embrace the changes and challenges. In fact, revel in them. Enjoy every single step. And always, in all ways, keep moving forward!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In the 1970s, the American women’s movement had gained widespread traction with the idea that a woman was entitled to take a bit of time off from her regular duties to “do something for yourself.” For many women, 55 minutes of Jazzercise twice a week was that gateway “something.” They came, they had fun, they looked great, and felt great afterward. They invited their friends and the idea, the movement of fitness for women took off, taking us viral before anyone knew what “going viral” was. If our communal experience could inspire a new movement in the 2020s, it would be to get the 80 percent of adult men and women and adolescent boys and girls who don’t exercise to put down their phones, turn off their TVs, get up off their couches, and move! The benefits from even a minimal amount of effort are undeniable: regular exercise helps you feel better, think better, sleep better, have better sex, skin, bones, joints, muscles, and memory. What’s not to love, and get behind, about that?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Although I can’t begin to imagine the challenges and dangers Harriet Tubman faced while escorting slaves north to freedom — the distance between her times and life and ours is immeasurable — I can admire her commitment to helping others achieve a happier, healthier, more empowered life for themselves. To me, Harriet’s long-ago message to the “passengers” she was conducting to safety and freedom still resonates: if you’re scared, keep going; if you’re hungry; keep going; if you want to taste freedom, keep going. In today’s world, whatever experiences you’ve had in the past, whatever hopes, intentions, or plans you have for the future, I believe the secret to staying on track between those two points is to keep moving forward. Follow your passion, make helping as many people as possible your purpose, trust your inner voice, and, above all, keep going.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I was privileged to hear First Lady Michelle Obama address the 2016 United State of Women summit in Washington, D.C. The experience inspired me to create Jazzercise, Inc.’s 2017 GIRLFORCE initiative for girls ages 16–21 with one year’s free access to our classes. I so admired her commitment to her Let’s Move! program, the ways she walked the talk, danced with Jimmy Fallon, did pushups with Ellen. And then there were her efforts on behalf of better nutrition, the ways she dug in the dirt, planted seeds, pulled weeds, picked tomatoes, and improved school lunch programs. I believe we both know that making big things happen takes a lot of hard work, and I’d be delighted to brainstorm ideas with her over some of her favorites, scrambled eggs, a fresh tomato sandwich, or a bowl of veggie-packed chili.

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