Adrianne “Ajax” Jackson discovered her true passion while pondering her future during a yoga class.
She’d just turned 30, and her week had been a roller coaster.
The first 30 years of her life had been amazing, she recalls thinking, but now she wanted more. “The next 30, for me, felt like that’s when I was really going to make my mark in the world,” she says.
“I just started having those thoughts that you have in yoga where you’re reflecting, and I thought, ‘Okay, people say do what you love. I love this yoga.'”
For Ajax, yoga had been a refuge. Then just like that, it became her world.
“Right away, I noticed a big impact in my life,” she says. “First, it was just […] I couldn’t walk. I was so sore. Like a zombie, I was barely able to walk back to the studio, but I kept going.”
Eventually, she learned the postures, and after a while, she began to notice that yoga was helping her sleep better. She had more focus and creativity. It helped her quit smoking. It made it easier for her to deal with the chronic pain in her knees. The practice encouraged her to love her body and gain more confidence.
That’s when it hit her — she was going to teach yoga.
She knew she had to share it with everyone. So, for the past decade, she’s been spreading her message of peace and good health all over the world.
Ajax’s ultimate dream was to run the first black-owned yoga studio in New Orleans. But in order to make that dream a reality, she needed to transform herself from an educator into an entrepreneur. She did that with the help of Propeller.
Propeller is a New Orleans-based nonprofit that helps small business owners and nonprofits take their work to the next level. It’s also giving them the opportunity to tackle the city’s social and environmental disparities —including racism and sexism — with training in business and leadership.
“Since it launched its first accelerator program in 2011, Propeller has supported 200 ventures,” says Catherine Gans, the program’s Marketing and Communications Manager. Those ventures have generated over $105 million in revenue and financing and created 460 permanent jobs for New Orleanians.
These businesses are 71 percent owned by women or people of color and have an 89 percent business survival rate — much higher than the nation’s average, which is just over 50 percent.
Ajax applied for the program at the urging of one of her clients, Propeller’s Executive Director, Andrea Chen.
In her short time at Propeller, Ajax created an employee handbook, implemented payroll systems and put financial tracking tools in place to pay off debts and taxes as quickly as possible. She also made some new hires during the program. Ajax brought on a development director to create partnerships with hotels and hospitals and hired five part-time employees.
“In [Ajax’s] final month of the program, MagnoliaYoga’s profit margin increased to over 50 percent,” says Gans.
And Ajax is still eager to keep learning now that she’s a business owner. “There’s still more to learn about being a woman in business and in power in America. And I learned more about that with [Propeller]. I’m very grateful for their support.”
Magnolia, Ajax’s yoga studio, just celebrated its second anniversary. And it’s bringing the benefits of yoga to those who previously may have felt unwelcome in studios offering the practice.
When you think of people who regularly do yoga, you probably imagine a certain type, or maybe you think you need the right yoga pants or an expensive mat to get the most out of the practice. And you’ve likely noticed that many studios charge a hefty price for their classes.
That’s not Ajax’s policy.
“My business model is really unique in the sense that we’re focused on diversity, inclusivity, and affordability,” she says.
That model has created a whole new clientele. Ajax works hard to create a safe place for people who may be interested in getting more in touch with their bodies, no matter their size, shape or background. One of her main goals is to make representation the prevailing theme of her business.
“The average American woman is a size 14. That’s the size I am,” Ajax says. “That’s the size I actually work really hard to maintain. It’s the size I represent in the yoga studio. People love it. White, black, otherwise, ’cause it gives them permission to be different in the yoga studio and see that it’s okay and you can do it.”
Ajax is busting through all the misconceptions of who might be seen in a yoga class.
“It’s about 85% black women who make up my membership and clientele,” Ajax says. Everyone is welcome, though, and you will always find diversity within her studio.
One of Ajax’s proudest accomplishments is bringing yoga to black men in her community. “We’ve been very fortunate to consistently have at least one black male on staff,” she says. A recent 6 a.m. class she taught was comprised mostly of black men. For the studio, this was a reason to celebrate — tangible proof that Ajax is changing the face of yoga.
“We’re demystifying this erroneous conception that yoga’s only for women, that it’s only for thin people, it’s only for white women, it’s only for people with high incomes,” she says. “All of that is untrue.”
“All you need to do yoga is an open mind.”
Propeller is growing and helping businesses like Magnolia thrive. But they couldn’t do that without the support of Capital One.
Capital One is committed to fostering the economic vitality of communities it serves, including greater New Orleans and Louisiana, by supporting entrepreneurs and small business owners. That commitment manifests in the company’s investment in organizations like Propeller that support forward-thinking, socially-minded entrepreneurs who apply their knowledge, skills and energy to address significant challenges affecting people today.
When Propeller was just starting up, Capital One provided the organization with a line of credit when they weren’t sure of cash flow. Since 2012, the company has also given Propeller $350,000 towards its Impact Accelerator Program, which provides executive-level mentorship, access to networks and financing, and a focused curriculum to connect local innovators with the sources they need to impact the city and build sustainable businesses.
What’s more, the Fortune 500 company provided Propeller with a $126,100 grant for a new Makerspace at Mildred Osborne Charter School in New Orleans. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming helps prepare students for the jobs of today and tomorrow — a focus of Capital One’s Future Edge initiative — and the Makerspace at this charter school helps students learn in a more creative, technology-driven way.
But the relationship with Capital One quickly grew into something bigger than just a financial one, explains Executive Director Andrea Chen and Development Manager Kir Selert.
The financial-services company has helped the organization with everything from graphic design for its event flyers to public relations and marketing through associate pro bono and skills-based volunteerism. Capital One has also sent employees to work on projects directly with Propeller’s entrepreneurs.
The partnership has allowed Propeller to help even more entrepreneurs like Ajax, leading to more positive change in the New Orleans community.
“The most rewarding part is seeing our entrepreneurs succeed, that entrepreneurs dream beyond what they think is possible for their own companies and for the impact they could have on their community,” Chen and Selert note.
For Ajax, the support she’s received has been life-changing. She’s growing her business, branching out into yoga retreats, and working to bring her practice to incarcerated adults and youth.
Thanks to her connections at the studio — where she instructs lawyers, judges, city officials and activists, among others — previous work with UpRising Yoga and a potential partnership with the Prison Yoga Project, she’s creating a program that will bring yoga to prisons sometime next year.
When Ajax looks back on her trajectory, she’s overcome by all the positive change she’s been able to bring to her community as a socially-minded business owner.
“It’s helping me understand my gifts,” Ajax says of everything she’s learned since working with Propeller. “I’ve realized I’m a leader, a business leader in particular. And an advocate for people and their health.”
“Teaching yoga’s fantastic, but I knew to really have an impact, I would have to create my own business and create my own community. It’s been a hard-fought battle. We’ve literally done it one student at a time.”