Winner, 2015 Faces of Entrepreneurship award
Toni Ricci grew up in Maine in a small town, in a poor family. Even though they didn’t have a lot of money, she started dancing when she was five years old. She fell in love with it and yes, at the age of five, she knew that she wanted to own a dance studio.
Dancing saved Toni’s life and kept her driven, despite a difficult childhood. She refused to let anything get in her way.
Toni became the student director of her high school’s dance company; the high school, Thornton Academy, was known for its amazing performing arts program. She also took 9-10 classes a week at a local dance studio.
She was the first person in her family to go to college. She put herself through the University of New Hampshire and majored in dance.
While a junior in college, she saw an audition notice for Sesame Street Live and was hired onto the tour as Cassie in Dragon Tales Live. She left college and toured for two years. She made it to every state in the country, including a stop in California. When she visited Los Angeles, she knew that she wanted to go back. She packed up all her belongings into her car and drove to California with $500 in her pocket.
Toni wanted to finish school and re-enrolled in California State Fullerton. She put herself through school working everywhere – Target, Bath and Body Works, birthday parties, babysitting, and teaching at a few dance studios.
Eventually, she landed at a dance studio in Tarzana and within 2 years went from teaching 3 or 4 classes a week to 30 classes a week. She made the schedule and lots of the artistic decisions. In 2012, the owner decided to sell the business. Toni couldn’t purchase it at that time because she was unable to qualify for the lease due to a low credit score and low cash flow. Toni had such deep relationships with her students that she thought “this is the time.” She felt that she needed to open her own studio then because she couldn’t lose ‘her’ kids.
The first thing she did was to use her tax return money to incorporate the business. A few parents of students backed her with a loan, but it wasn’t enough.
She had no money and a terrible credit score, but a lot of faith, hope, and persistence.
After looking for a big enough studio, she found a building on Independence Avenue in Woodland Hills that belonged to an Iranian TV station. She showed up every day for two weeks and convinced them to rent to her. “They believed in me and finally said yes.” She signed a lease, co-signed by her cousin.
One student’s father suggested the Jewish Loan Federation. She did the same thing, returning every day until she convinced them to give her a loan. Because of her bad credit, she had three friends co-sign the loan and three friends co-sign on the financing for the dance floor.
Elite Dance and Performing Arts Center was built on a lot of faith and a lot of people believing in Toni. It finally opened in September 2012 with 60 students, most of them having gone to her classes since they were 2 or 3 years old.
The theme for the studio is ‘living on a prayer’, taking it one day at a time. But she eventually hit a wall; all the money she had went to construction. Her account was overdrawn. She wasn’t getting paid. Her managers worked for free the first year. The business got to a point where it couldn’t do that anymore.
She researched her options. Bank financing was out; she knew that her credit score was not even close to qualifying her for a loan. She found VEDC. “They saved us from going under the past three years.” She’s also taken their business seminars. She says, “It’s a really good service to have. It’s really hard when you’re in business to stay in business.” She also has improved her credit score and is now in good standing.
After a little over two years, during Christmas 2014, word got around and the studio saw an influx of students, bringing it to a new level. It went from juggling bills to breaking even in a month.
By 2015, the school had 270 students. Now, they have over 400. Elite’s secret sauce is that it’s a family environment. “We went through everything together. The kids kept pushing me. I believe in the kids. I love them. My staff loves them. Parents and kids want to be there. They come here after school to be around people who love them. And they work hard.”
Elite offers a wide range of classes for those two-years-old to adults including ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, acrobatics, gymnastics, and contemporary. The students dance from September through June with some taking more than 10 classes a week. Elite has nine award-winning competition teams, with a total of 115 dancers.
In 2015, Elite underwent construction to expand, doubling the size of the smallest of three rooms. But Toni didn’t stop there. With a $100,000 loan from VEDC, she was able to take over the other side of the building and take her studio from 5,000 sq ft to 10,000 sq ft. Now, Elite has a 1,500 sq ft rehearsal hall, a room for the new aerial silks program, an acrobatics room with a tumbling track for the gymnastics program, one more dressing room, and two more bathrooms. She also put hardwood floors in every room.
Toni teaches over 25 classes per week and oversees the operations of the business, which employs 3 full-time and at least 20 part-time staff members and teachers. This winter, they hit another milestone. “We put on our very first Nutcracker,” she announced excitedly.
Now Toni has set her sights on more ambitious goals. She’s in the process of opening the Elite Dance Talent Agency. And that’s not all. “Eventually, I want to start a performing arts school, but that’s probably way down the line,” she said.
“There are people like me who deserve a chance. Making your dreams come true shouldn’t always come down to having money. Sometimes enough faith, hope, and belief can change it all; that’s what I want to teach my students.”