You wake up to a clear blue sky and a fresh layer of snow covering the ground. For the skiers it’s a perfect day to push their limits, and their friends and family couldn’t ask for a more beautiful day to enjoy the serenity of nature. It’s what the locals call a “bluebird sky day.”
Travel 1,600 miles east to Washington, DC and you’ll find another bluebird sky; this time at Bluebird Sky Yoga, where owner Jennie Light finds inspiration in the meaning behind the phrase. “One of my goals with Bluebird Sky Yoga was to create a space where everyone feels welcome. Whether you want to push your physical limits like the skiers or find inner peace, this is a place for everyone.”
Jennie’s story is one of defying the odds. It’s the story of a young woman who dared to follow her dreams, and who refused to accept failure regardless of the challenges she faced along the way. It all started in 2015, when – at the ripe age of 27 – Jennie got the idea to leave her steady office job and open a yoga studio.
Did she have experience running a business? Nope.
Had she ever applied for a loan, written a business plan, renovated a commercial space, or hired employees? Definitely not.
Did any of that hold her back? Not a chance.
And so the story begins…
Born in Oak Park, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), Jennie was an adventurer from a young age. She loved the diversity and eccentricity of the big city, but she also enjoyed escaping into the wilderness during the summertime. When high school graduation arrived, she was determined to find a new home where the outdoors could play a leading role. She applied to only one college – Colorado College – and before she knew it her bags were packed and she was heading to Colorado Springs.
As an Economic Development major, Jennie’s dream was to work in micro-finance, impact investing, or economic development abroad. When the time came to get a job after college, though, reality struck. Because she lacked foreign language skills, employers wouldn’t even consider her.
Always quick on her feet, Jennie soon found a job in a different field where she could still make a difference: healthcare. Once again, she found herself packing up the car and preparing for a long drive. This time her destination was Washington, DC, but it was just a temporary solution. In the back of her mind, she knew that within a year she would move back west to pursue her real dreams.
The Turning Point
Six years later…she was still there. She had a great job and was on a path to even greater success. And yet, something was missing.
“Eventually I was promoted to a management position, which was something I never expected. Suddenly I found myself in meetings with colleagues who had been at the company for 10, 15, even 20 years. I had become too comfortable to make a change, and I realized that my current path was leading me in that same direction.”
It was time to act.
“I decided that if I was going to stick around DC for even a few more years, I needed to figure out what I really wanted to do and make a change.” It was time to start living for today.
“I started doing yoga in college, and I always thought I might enjoy running my own studio. I decided to do a yoga teacher training program during my free time while I was still working.”
As soon as the program ended, Jennie started teaching at local yoga studios and festivals. “I loved the immediate impact I was able to have on people’s lives.”
Jennie’s first entrepreneurial pursuit was the creation of Artful Saturdays, a pop-up shop in DC selling paintings and hats and everything in between, all made by Jennie’s friends and local artisans. Jennie hosted yoga classes throughout the day to cover the cost of rent.
At the same time she started researching areas in DC where a yoga studio could flourish (not an easy task in a city overflowing with competition). Before long, Brookland – an artsy neighborhood with tree-lined streets and retro storefronts – jumped to the top of her list. There wasn’t a yoga studio within a 2-mile radius, and the neighborhood had the friendly, quirky feeling she was looking for. Was her dream about to become a reality?
“I still had my full-time job, but in my spare time I put together a 75-page business plan and pro-forma model, hired a real estate agent and lawyer, and started meeting with banks to see if they would give me a loan. Then I started scouring real estate listings.
“After finding several spaces that were too sterile, too corporate, too dilapidated, or too inconvenient, we found the one. It was previously a craft store, and it still had murals on the walls and glitter and feathers in the floorboards. It felt serendipitous.” It was November of 2015.
Paint, Sweat, and Perseverance
By March Jennie had a lease, a loan, a contractor, and architect, and a very long to-do list. In July, she took the big leap and left her corporate job to focus exclusively on opening her business.
Not surprisingly, starting a new business and renovating an old building came with their fair share of challenges, and there seemed to be far more problems than solutions. “At one point my architect recommended that I give up and cut my losses. I had quit my job and put my entire life savings into this, so giving up wasn’t an option. I’ve learned that as a business owner, you’ll never be in a situation where you have all the money and all the experience you need, so you have to get scrappy and make it work.”
If anyone knows how to get creative, it’s Jennie. Soon she had friends and neighbors stopping by for painting and pizza parties, and almost all of the furniture and accessories in the studio were made by friends and local artisans (sometimes in exchange for free yoga classes).
“At one point our general contractor said to me, ‘You must have been really nice to people, because they just keep helping you.’ I leaned on friends and neighbors who were eager to support a new business that could benefit the neighborhood. Brookland hadn’t had a yoga studio until this point, so people were excited to help get it started.”
In November of 2016 – exactly one year after Jennie found the space – Bluebird Sky Yoga opened its doors to the public.
Reflecting upon the wild journey of the last three years, what lessons has she taken away from it all?
“I’ve learned a lot, and I still have moments where I think, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t understand this when I did it the first time.’ I’ve also learned that as a business owner, my job is not just running the business. It’s also finance, managing the space, people management, sales, marketing, scheduling…I’ve literally had to figure out how toilets work, and why my floors smelled like sewage.
She’s also learning the importance of balance. “I saw a sign recently that said, ‘Be free in your free time.’ When you own a business it’s easy to constantly be ‘at work’, checking in and doing things that aren’t necessarily moving you forward. You need to hire people you trust so you can walk out the door and know everything is going to be okay.”
Looking to the Future
So what’s next for Jennie and Bluebird Sky Yoga?
“We have a strong community and people really care about the studio. I want to continue growing our yoga program, supporting our neighborhood, and partnering with local businesses and artists. I also want to lead more outdoor yoga retreats to give people exposure to places they may never see otherwise.” (In 2017, Jennie hosted a yoga and rock climbing retreat in Moab, and she has big plans for the coming years.)
After taking a leap of faith to pursue her passion, has Jennie (who was named one of Yoga Journal’s “15 Millennial Yoga Teachers to Watch” in 2017) become her “best self”?
“I think so. A lot of times we live in the future, thinking, ‘Once I do this thing or go to this place I’ll be happy.’ I’m trying to focus on now. Even though I still want to grow and evolve, I’m finally living in the present.”
Jennie’s favorite Sanskrit mantra sums it up beautifully: “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.” Translated, it means, “May all beings be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.” It’s the perfect headline for Jennie’s approach to life and the philosophy behind Bluebird Sky Yoga.