05/25/2012 12:18 pm ET

Kelli Gilzow, SPRQ Studio: From Welfare Recipient To CEO

When Kelli Gilzow needed public assistance to get through college, she never thought she'd have to go back on welfare years later as a single mother. But after separating from her husband, who was diagnosed with AIDS, she was forced to move back to her hometown in Maine, live in a shelter run by nuns and apply for welfare to support her two kids.

The $700 a month she received from the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program helped her pay the bills, and the Section 8 housing she qualified for allowed her to eventually move into a single-family home. While she was glad for the help, Gilzow didn't plan to stay on welfare for long. Instead, she started teaching group fitness classes in addition to working a full-time job as an administrative assistant. When she realized she was making $25 every time she taught a one-hour class, she knew she was on to something. Although she had no business experience, she decided to use her savings of $500 and her tax return of $5,600 to start her own fitness studio, Sabattus, Maine-based SPRQ Studio. The business provided a way for her to get off of welfare and to have the flexibility she needed for her kids. Now Gilzow wants to use SPRQ Studio to give back to the community that gave her a new start.

Why did you leave your hometown in Maine to begin with?

My ex-husband had a history with drugs but was clean for nine months when we met. Though his tests came back negative, we knew there was a chance that the virus was dormant. When he was diagnosed, I was four months pregnant with my daughter, and when he got sick, we moved to Evergreen, N.C., a little town 40 minutes from Raleigh, which is where he was able to receive treatment as a veteran within the VA system. But when we separated, I resorted to what I know, where I know, and that was home here in Maine. I moved back in August 2008.

What was your financial situation? Did you know what you were going to do for work?

I had no idea. I worked up until I delivered, and then didn't return to work for two years. He needed 24-hour care, and there was a lot to do with a new baby. I had been out of the workforce for so long, but I needed to pay the bills that were left with me, because they were all in my name. I had collectors calling and a foreclosure on the home in North Carolina. It was overwhelming.

When I moved home, I normally would have been able to stay with my mom, but her boyfriend had family moving in, so it was really bad timing. The options for me and the kids were to go couch surfing or to stay in a shelter. We stayed at a convent with nuns of all things, and I have to say it was the greatest thing. They were amazing -- they took us in and we stayed for about three and a half months until everything went through with welfare. Part of the requirement of staying in a shelter was they help you through the process of what to do and how to get into a home, so you're not there for an extended amount of time.

When had you been on welfare before?

In 2002, when Caleb was 1. I was on it for four years, and that's how I got my degree. The state of Maine has a program called ASPIRE that helps single-family parents get their college degree so they can better themselves.

But this time, when you had to go on welfare, was it harder because of your situation?

Absolutely, to go back onto the system after being on it before, your pride takes a hit. But the kids come first, and I wasn't able to provide for them. What they needed, I couldn't do that on my own. It was really hard to have no work history for two years, especially in the economy that we're in -- it feels like a whole different country sometimes.

When did you start teaching step classes?

I taught for a brief period of time in Arizona in 2004. When we were in this situation, there was a local gym looking for help, and they said they would fund my training if I filled in for instructors. Then Caleb had some behavioral issues and got expelled -- I had to commute to his new school and be available for him, so I had to resign from my full-time administrative assistant job and ended up picking up more classes because we needed the money.

What made you decide to start your own business?

I came back to Sabattus, the community where I grew up, and said to two friends, "If I taught a class, would you be interested in attending?" And they said yes immediately. I started driving 40 minutes out there and was able to drop the kids off to stay with my mom so there wasn't an extra cost for child care. Even after the costs of traveling and renting a hall, I was making about $200 to teach for an hour. Then we had enough people in that class to turn it into two classes. There was a building available, and I thought, why not take the chance and offer them some ridiculously low price to rent the space? I low-balled them, and the space had been vacant for so many years, they jumped on it. That allowed me to start out for a low price and build a foundation for the business.

Were you still receiving welfare, Section 8 housing assistance and food stamps when you started the business?

Yes, I had to report self-employment income monthly, so benefits fluctuated from month to month. But I took the risk and said, "I can do it." The biggest thing the business allowed me to do is get my kids on and off the bus or bring them to school. If the school calls, I can be there quickly. It gives me that flexibility.

Besides giving you flexibility, the business also helped you to get off of welfare?

I opened in May 2010 and voluntarily got off of Section 8 in July 2010, meaning my income was not above their standards, but it was such a minimal amount I was going to get toward the rent that I thought I could pay it on my own and someone else who really needed it could benefit from that amount. Of course, it was scary, thinking, am I going to fail, am I going to be right back in same position and have to go through the whole waiting process and struggle? But while it was scary, I felt this pride of "Hey, I'm finally making it after I've been through the ringer and the lowest valleys. I'm pulling ahead and I'm coming out strong."

How did you navigate through the process of starting a business without having any business experience?

It's been hard. I still struggle. But I go back to the resources that are available. I was able to get a very low interest small-business loan through a small-business association affiliated with the county. They also have counselors available, and there are the SBA and state workshops on things like budgeting and profit-loss statements. If I need help, I have to find it and reach out -- otherwise, no one is going to reach out to me. If I don't ask questions, they're not going to get answered. Luckily, the state has those programs that have been a huge resource.

You were motivated to get off of welfare, but what do you think of public perception that people who are on welfare tend to stay on it?

I think that perception is very real. There are people who stay on it for years and don't choose to better themselves, to take advantage of the programs out there to get off it. It's very much a personal decision to take the next step. For me, it was the pride that motivated me. I don't like to ask for help. That's hard for me -- I like to give the help to those who don't ask for it. And I wanted to say, no, I don't need that extra $150 a month, I'm going to make it and work a little harder, pick up an extra class, but someone else out there needs it a little more than I do. I want my kids to see that, no matter what your situation, you deal with it the best you can. I used welfare as a stepping stone, not a lifestyle. You use it if you need it and then you get off of it.

A lot of entrepreneurs get satisfaction from running their own business, but did you feel even more gratification for your business knowing it helped you get off of welfare?

To be able to come back and say, "Look, if I can get off of state assistance and grow this, let me part of the community and give back" was huge for me. Our community needs the small-business growth, as well as the fitness and wellness. We also hold drives for the local food pantry, because for me, living in the shelter and having to go to the food pantry, was the point where I thought, "Holy cow, what's going on, why can't I do this? I'm supposed to be able to provide for my family but I can't." We go to schools, hold fundraisers, silent auctions, anything to help people with their needs. Since we started, we've been able to give back about $10,000 to the community.

At these events, do you meet single moms who are in the situation you used to be in?

Yes, and my personal goal is to at least express to them that I started with nothing, and I still have struggles, but look at how far I've come. You can give someone advice, help them and guide them, but transitioning off of welfare can be rough. Whatever they do with the information and knowledge is up to them, but I hope sharing what I've been through can help people.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Kelli Gilzow
Company: SPRQ Studio
Age: 29
Location: Sabattus, Maine
Founded: 2010
Employees: 9 contractors
2012 Projected Revenue: $35,000



Kelli Gilzow, Founder of SPRQ Studio