How to survive a life disaster

Sometimes, life falls apart. Here's a lesson in how to rebuild.

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Key takeaways

  • In 2020, Tammeca Rochester's small local business suffered back-to-back setbacks. A shutdown due to COVID-19, followed by a burglary.
  • While the setbacks were devastating, Rochester was able to rebuild, and today her business is thriving.
  • Community support was vital in helping her business get back on its feet.
  • Rochester says it's important to let those around you know about your struggles, and it's OK to ask for help.

One night in October 2020, Tammeca Rochester's phone rang at 4 a.m.  The burglar alarm was going off at Harlem Cycle, the cycling studio Rochester owned. By the time she got to the studio it was surrounded by police, and the door had been completely smashed. After months of struggling to keep Harlem Cycle open while the COVID-19 pandemic gripped New York City, Rochester couldn't hold back the tears.

It was one of her lowest moments. "We had been pivoting for so many months," she says. "And here we are in October and I was like, 'I've done so much. And now this happens.'"

The robbery was a major setback for Rochester and Harlem Cycle. But the months that followed taught Rochester that she was more resilient than she realized—thanks in part to the support of a generous community, and her own willingness to open up about her struggles.

Help in her darkest hour

In a moment of frustration, Rochester posted a picture of the broken door on Instagram. Within an hour, clients—who hadn't been able to take classes at the studio in months—showed up with brooms and dustpans. One started a GoFundMe campaign, with the goal of raising $2,000 to replace the door. By just 2 hours later, the fundraiser had surpassed that goal and generated enough money to repair the rest of the studio.

Rochester was blown away. "The community just—they showed up for me in our darkest time," she says. That type of camaraderie was exactly what she wanted to create when she founded Harlem Cycle in 2016.

Searching for a "happy place"

The seed for the business was planted when Rochester went for a bike ride through New York City, carting her young son along. She had fond memories of riding the streets of Atlanta growing up, and hoped she might be able to reconnect with that childhood "happy place" as an adult. But riding in New York was not like riding in Atlanta, she found. With cars and trucks everywhere, that ride was the most frightening experience of her life. "It was unbearable," she says.

Then, a coworker suggested she try indoor cycling. She started going to studios downtown, but she never felt entirely at ease. The music didn't speak to her. Rochester was often the only woman of color or person "larger than a size 2" in the room.

"I wasn't seen in those studios—not just physically seen, but who I am as an individual, who I am as a person," she says.

She wanted a cycling studio that was near her Harlem home and that reflected the diversity of the neighborhood she loved. "When you're trying to find a place to belong and a place where you feel comfortable, you need to be surrounded by it," she says.

If you build it

Rochester knew she could create a diverse, inclusive cycling space, so she set to work writing a business plan. Just 5 months later, she opened Harlem Cycle.

Rochester strove to build a sense of community at her business. She made sure that anyone new to spin would feel welcome. She worked to keep her class sizes small, so that people would feel seen and could connect with the instructors. And she crunched the numbers to set her prices as low as they could be while still producing a profit.

The strategy worked: Before long, even locals who hadn't taken a class knew about Harlem Cycle.

A COVID pivot

With the business thriving, Rochester decided to expand. But just after she took out a construction loan to open a second location, COVID started making headlines.

Although it was a painful decision at the time, Rochester felt that she had to do right by her clients. Harlem Cycle voluntarily closed its doors on March 14, 2020 (though only 2 days later the city would order all gyms to shut down). It wouldn't reopen for another 15 months.

Suddenly, Rochester was in survival mode, unwilling to let the pandemic take away the business that she had worked so hard to build, and that her community clearly needed.

Like many other entrepreneurs, she moved her business online, and broadened the range of classes and services she was offering—leading remote cooking classes on immune-boosting recipes, offering mindfulness exercises, and developing home-based workouts. She shipped her 18 spin bikes to her most loyal clients, so that they could keep up with classes, rather than let the bikes gather dust.

Going remote shifted Harlem Cycle's focus from total fitness to total wellness, Rochester says. She continued the mission of making wellness accessible, recording family fitness classes with her son and offering 7-minute workouts because "everyone has 7 minutes."

"Our mission was to take care of the community," she says. And her hard work paid off. Through Harlem Cycle's shift to online-only, just one person asked for a refund of their membership.

Growing with resilience

Thanks to her loyal customers, smart pivot, and community support, Harlem Cycle was able to hang on. And eventually, COVID cases declined, restrictions eased, and Rochester rebuilt after the studio's break-in. Finally, in June 2021, the Harlem studio reopened for live classes.

Rochester is now planning to open additional studios outside New York City. In the meantime, she continues to offer remote classes (in addition to in-studio workouts) as a way to reach more people. "There's a Harlem Cycle needed everywhere, right?" she says. "People always need a place where they feel like they can exist on their own terms."

Still, Rochester is taking note of the lessons learned during the pandemic. One significant takeaway: the importance of preparing for the unexpected. She's now working to pay down debt and build up a year of savings—even during those weeks when she can only put a few dollars away.

Taking off the superhero cape

Ultimately, the biggest lesson Rochester has learned is that it's OK to accept help. "As business owners, or as moms, we're trying to be superheroes," she says.

When she thinks about the ways that her community stepped up to support her—financially and emotionally—she realizes that being vulnerable is worthwhile.

"It's OK to take off the superhero cape and let the world know right now this is happening," she says. "It's OK to do all of that—and your community will show up for you."

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