A decade ago, a New Hampshire-based dancer pivoted to kick-boxing – and built a fitness empire.
By Juliet Pennington
When she was a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Eliza Shirazi tried out for the school’s dance team. Twice. Each time, she failed to make the cut.
The Leominster native had grown up dancing and studied various techniques, including jazz, hip-hop, tap, and ballet. She danced competitively in high school and was certain that her passion would continue when she went to college.
“I remember calling my mom, being shocked that I didn’t make it for the second time. I was sad and kind of confused, and I didn’t know how I was going to fill that void,” Shirazi says. “I knew it would be something, though. I just knew I needed to figure out what my creative outlet would be, given that I had been dancing for so long.”
That “creative outlet” turned out to be group fitness classes.” I took a step aerobics class around that time, and I remember going up to the instructor after class and asking her for advice on how to get started as a fitness instructor,” Shirazi recalls.
The instructor, a fellow UMass student, gave her suggestions, which included reaching out to the group fitness director, with whom she thought she was just going to meet, but instead, she was asked to audition on the spot.
“This is where my dancing and performance practice came in. I had taken a group fitness kickboxing class, so I just tried to remember what we did. I know I threw in a couple of punching combos,” she says. “The director asked what I would call the class I taught and, not having an answer prepared, I just said, ‘Kick It.’”
The fitness director clearly liked what she saw. By the second semester of her freshman year, Shirazi was teaching three hour-long classes a week on campus. And the name? Kick It With Eliza.
Fast forward more than a decade, and today, the 31-year-old is practically a household name in the fitness world. Shirazi’s kickboxing- and fitness-inspired brand—now called Kick It By Eliza—has a worldwide reach, with roughly 100 certified Kick It By Eliza instructors as far away as London, England.
She has trademarked the term “Fempire,” which she says is a nod to “all of the amazing, strong women who take classes, who teach the classes, who support each other and hold each other accountable, and who have honest love and compassion for each other.”
Shirazi says that empowerment, inclusivity, and community are some of the most significant foundations of her business model, as well as being her personal mantra . And while there are in-person pop-ups and special events (including frequent charity fundraisers), most classes are offered virtually. Her website (kickitbyeliza.com) describes them as “high-intensity interval training with kickboxing, boxing, rhythmic components, and a meditative cool down.”
A recent virtual class had Shirazi stretching, jumping, dancing, and kickboxing to songs by Rihanna (on account of her recent Super Bowl half-time performance). Even though she was in her studio at her home in Southern New Hampshire, where she lives with her partner, Ryan Price, who works in technology sales, Shirazi interacted with the dozens of participants on her computer screen.
“Good Christy, now let’s lunge,” she instructs before shouting out an encouraging “You got it, Becca,” as the class shifted from squats to reverse lunges during Rihanna’s upbeat song “Don’t Stop the Music.”
That personal touch and feeling of an impactful workout keeps Amanda Lankarge, 30, coming back for more “Kick It By Eliza” classes. “She offers different themes, and she makes you feel seen—even if there are 15 other women in the class. I just always feel like she’s smiling at me, giving me feedback, and making it interactive,” says the Portsmouth, Rhode Island, resident and elementary school assistant principal.
Lankarge began taking classes with Shirazi when both were students at UMass Amherst, and the educator even became a certified Kick It By Eliza instructor for a while. “What I really enjoyed then [in college] and still enjoy now is her high-energy, music-driven classes,” she says. “And I think the key is that my body feels a lot of joy from the style of movement she offers. She is also always switching things up to keep it fresh and interesting and evolving her platform to really cater to what everyone needs.”
Evolving—while staying true to the core principles of her mission—helps keep Shirazi motivated and constantly moving forward. It has not, however, been a smooth and seamless path to success.
When she went to college, the fitness guru, who studied for a semester (and taught fitness classes) her junior year at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, double majored in public health/health sciences and communications.
After college, she worked for more than three years in the cardiovascular wellness department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, all while teaching her unique version of kickboxing, which includes a dose of meditation at the end of each workout. “It’s about mental and emotional health, too.” These on-the-side kickboxing workshops allowed her to build a reputation in the fitness field.
During this time, she partnered with a fellow fitness enthusiast to open a Shirazi-brand studio in Boston. As the process evolved, the logistics became challenging, “and the plan completely fizzled and dissolved.”
“I was very young and impressionable. We [she and her business partner] had misaligned values, and I think it was my first dose of someone wanting something for my career that I really didn’t want, and I had to stick up for myself. So much of me wanted to please her and to please everyone else,” she says.
“But it was actually a blessing in disguise,” Shirazi reflects because soon after, she landed a sponsorship deal with New Balance, which, she says, “gave me the motivation to go full-time with Kick It.
“My job was to wear NB [apparel and accessories] exclusively, and it was amazing exposure. It really put me on the map,” she says.
In 2016, Shirazi held her first “Kick It By Eliza” certification program and trained 12 students to be certified instructors. Since then, she has trained from 500 to 600 instructors. They are required to be re-certified annually to keep their licenses active, and there are currently about 100 Kick It By Eliza instructors around the world.
“We have a very loyal following, with instructors who build their own communities. We’re all very much connected,” she says.
While running her business takes up most of her time, Shirazi says she loves curly-hair products, cooking—especially Middle Eastern food (her dad is Iranian)—and reading autobiographies and memoirs. She also loves playing pickleball.
“It’s total escapism for me, and it’s not related to work,” she says of the fast-growing sport. “A lot of my social life has to do with Kick It … it’s wrapped up in so many facets of my life, so I think I enjoy pickleball because it is completely separate from work.”
When asked about her success, Shirazi says, “I have a hard time seeing it, to be honest, because I’m so on the ground running my business.
“Entrepreneurship comes off as this sexy, awesome thing—which it is in some ways—but mine is an incredibly challenging career that constantly humbles me. I appreciate everything I’ve done, but I don’t see it as I’ve made it,” she says.
“I don’t know what’s next, and I’ve become very okay with that. I think with entrepreneurship; there’s this ‘what’s next’ mentality about reaching the end goal.
“But I’m in the season of enjoying what I’ve built,” she adds. “I’m interested in growing deep roots in everything I’ve planted so far.”