While growing up in Merrillville, Brianna “Bri” Hairlson always knew that she wanted to be a dancer. So, when she went off to college to find a way to marry dance and business together, it came as no surprise to anybody. She went to Howard University in Washington D.C. where she majored in marketing and minored in dance.
After graduating she did a sales internship in Virginia for a short while to gain some skills in the business world. She soon moved back home to Merrillville and was a substitute teacher for six months before being hired as a consultant for IBM.
Hairlson happily worked at IBM and volunteered as a dance teacher on the weekends for five years until one day the unexpected happened. She was laid off when she was three months pregnant. Many people might’ve let this misfortune bring them down, but Hairlson took it as an opportunity.
“It was good because it forced me into entrepreneurship. My business started right then and there,” said Hairlson.
Bri’s Dance Place was officially born. Hairlson got her business started by doing pop-up classes for pregnant women and new moms all around the country. As an expecting mom herself, she had begun to notice that many women in her community believed they couldn’t be as active during their pregnancies. She wanted to change this.
“I felt like it was my mission to educate, inspire, and empower women, showing them that you can stay active throughout your pregnancy,” said Hairlson.
After her dance tour and having her baby, Hairlson opened her first physical studio, Bri’s Dance Place in Merrillville in October 2019. She started holding all kinds of different dance classes for kids all the way to age 18 as well as new moms. She also held a dance class for kids with special needs. She loves the way dance allows people to express themselves in ways words can’t.
“My mom passed away in 2019, and sometimes you don't have the words to express how you're feeling. I can go into the studio, turn on some music, and just dance those feelings out. Developing choreography is the exploration process of how I’m feeling,” said Hairlson.
Things were going great at Bri’s Dance Place for five months until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, Hairlson couldn’t hold in-person dance classes anymore and needed to find a different way to reach her customers. She applied for a grant through Comcast’s RISE program.
Comcast RISE stands for “Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment,” and was created in 2020 to strengthen and empower small businesses hard hit by the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic through monetary, technology and marketing grants. Over its two-year term, Comcast RISE awarded over $110 million in cash and in-kind support to 13,000 entrepreneurs nationwide.
In November 2020, Hairlson received a Comcast RISE technology makeover grant that changed everything.
“Almost all the technology was upgraded at our studio. We were able to get a new desktop, two laptops, three tablets, and then a year's worth of service for Comcast Wi-Fi for free. It really elevated us to a new level during the pandemic since we were using Zoom so much. Our teachers could take their tablets with them and do Zoom classes from home--it just made everything so much easier,” said Hairlson.
As if that weren’t enough, in 2021 Hairlson received another Comcast RISE grant for a 90-day commercial spot and was featured in the company's “The Road to RISE” documentary. The commercial and documentary have helped bring in more students to the studio and allowed her business to bounce back from the pandemic. Hairlson still uses the commercial today to help market and promote Bri’s Dance Place.
The grants may have helped Hairlson get through the Pandemic, but the most important thing that they gave her was a renewed confidence in herself and her dream.
“Both of those grants showed me that Comcast does so much for us in our community and it just really helped reassure me. Sometimes as entrepreneurs, you get weary in trying times, but those two opportunities gave us joy and showed us that we're doing the right thing and people are noticing the good we’re doing,” said Hairlson.
Bri’s Dance Place is now doing better than ever before. It’s back to its pre-pandemic numbers and continuing to grow quickly. Hairlson plans on hiring several more people here soon to help with the growing number of customers.
In the future, she’d like to partner with local schools and the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center to offer dance therapy to kids who have experienced trauma in the system. She’s even been holding an internship program to teach young people about entrepreneurship. Hairlson wants to give back to the community that has given so much to her.
“I just want to use dance as a vehicle to connect, empower, and inspire individuals because somebody did the same for me. I have had so many mentors who have given back to me, people I knew when I was in college, and some people who didn't even know me but wanted to give me a chance. It's so important and it's all about legacy,” said Hairlson.
Hairlson encourages everyone who has a dream to just go for it. Don’t overthink it, don’t talk yourself out of it, and, most importantly, don’t be afraid of what other people will think.
“Don't despise small beginnings--don't ever think that your vision or your dream is too small. It starts with the seed and then you'll look up and see all the things that you’ve dreamed about start happening. To anyone who has a business in mind or some feat they want to achieve don't give up. Come up with a plan and do it because you will be happy you did it and somebody else will be positively impacted by your dream,” said Hairlson.
Hairlson is thankful for so many people who have helped her get where she is today. She’s especially grateful to the entire Comcast team for all the love they showed her business.
“Comcast has just been a blessing to our studio. They have worked so hard to really elevate our voice and so I'm so appreciative to them for everything,” said Hairlson.
She’s also grateful to her Bri’s Dance Place family for being so supportive of the work she does. It’s the families and parents like them that make her love what she does even more.
“They’re always cheering us on and parents may not realize it, but when they say things like ‘I'm proud of you’ or ‘you're doing a good job’ it means the world,” said Hairlson.
When she’s not boogying and teaching fun dance classes, you can find Hairlson spending time with her family and desperately squeezing in time to read.
To learn more about Comcast and the wonderful things it does to support local community members, visit chicago.comcast.com/.
To watch "The Road to RISE," please visit www.ComcastRISE.com or simply say “Comcast RISE” into the Xfinity Voice Remote.