Winner, 2015 Faces of Entrepreneurship award
Toni Ricci grew up in Maine in a small town, in a poor family. Even though the didn’t have a lot of money, she started dancing when she was five years old. She fell in love with dancing and yes, at the age of five, she knew that she wanted to own her own 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 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, a terrible credit score, but a lot faith, hope, and persistence.
After looking for a big enough studio, she found a building on Independence Avenue in Woodland Hills that was 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 and and now they’re 14.
The theme for the studio is ‘living on a prayer’, taking it one day at 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 qualify her for a loan. She found VEDC. “They’ve saved us from going under over the past three years.” And she’s 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 in good standing.
After a little over two years during this Christmas, word got around and the studio saw an influx of students, bringing it to another level. It went from juggling bills to breaking even in a month.
Today, the school has 270 students. 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 to adults including ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, acrobatics and contemporary. The students dance September through June with some taking more than 10 classes a week. Elite has nine award-winning competition teams.
Elite has three dance rooms and will undergo construction in June 2015 to double the smaller room (thanks to another loan from VEDC). Toni teaches over 25 classes per week and oversees the operations of the business, which employs 3 full-time and 15-part-time staff members.
Elite has more than doubled their staff, tripled their students and are making a positive impact in the community.
“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.”