This post was originally published on NOEW.org. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is an annual festival celebrating entrepreneurship and innovation in New Orleans.
One early Saturday morning this past October, Robin Barnes sang the national anthem to several thousand runners at the starting line of the Jazz Half Marathon and 5K. She held her last note, then jumped off the stage and joined the throngs to run her first-ever half marathon.
Eight weeks earlier, as she started training for the race, she felt that she needed some support. So, she posted on Instagram and Facebook that she was looking for like-minded folks to meet her at City Park to start a running club. She didn’t expect that group would grow to about fifty people. But such is the charisma of jazz vocalist turned entrepreneur Robin Barnes, or as she’s known, The Songbird of New Orleans.
Though running is a new hobby for Barnes, she’s been on a health journey since 2012. When she and her band were on a two-week tour in Greece, the European food and beverage lifestyle caught up with her. When she returned to New Orleans, she got sick, but she just thought it was jet-lag. When she couldn’t get out of bed a week later, her mother insisted on taking her to the emergency room. She discovered that she had a rare strain of kidney infection, and the doctor who treated her made an impression on her.
“The ER doctor was so positive and upbeat–she kept saying, “You’re young, you’re going to beat this!’” It wasn’t until she visited her regular doctor a week later that Robin learned her health had been in real danger. She was told that she would have to live like she was a “borderline diabetic” and make major changes to her diet. That meant no sugar, caffeine, or alcohol. Eliminating alcohol was the easy part for her. But the bread and sugar? That was a lot harder, she said. A lot of it would be guesswork and sorting through conflicting information. And after a recent scare, she’s started seeing a dietitian.
“I realized I was going to have to start living a more positive, healthy life,” Barnes said. So, she began educating herself on making healthy choices.
As she learned more and began integrating healthy steps into here every day life, she found inspiration in mantras and quotes.She began thinking of her own mantra. Infusing inspiration from her New Orleans culture of parades and jazz, and her new found appreciation for health, Robin and her mother came up with her own mantra, ‘Move Ya Brass.’
“It kept me going. So I put it on a shirt that I wore everywhere, and people kept asking me, ‘Where can I buy this shirt?” she said.
That was the beginning.
Building the Brand
In 2013, Robin started documenting her health journey on social media, posting about her healthy food choices and activities, and about the process of figuring it out as she went along. She created her first product, the ‘Move Ya Brass’ black tank with gold foil artwork, launched a website, and the “Fit By You” motivational-wear brand was born.
Robin’s definition of ‘motivational-wear’ is ‘What you want to wear when you get moving.’
“In New Orleans, activity and exercise don’t just mean going for a run or going to a class, a lot of us here think of it as going to a second-line on Super Sunday. I believe motivational-wear is for anyone during the day – when you are out there moving,” Barnes said.”
Sales picked up and she expanded her product line to include leggings and booty shorts, in sizes up to 3x.
The line is carried on her e-commerce site, and through about a dozen local shops. The shirts and tennis skirts are made in New Orleans, but she had difficulty sourcing when she expanded her line to include leggings, which are currently produced in Texas. By 2017, she plans for the entire line to be produced in New Orleans.
“We’re bringing it all home, which has always been my goal,” Barnes said.
Success for Barnes right now is breaking even, since she started her company as a bootstrapped entrepreneur. She’s poured her earned income as a musician into the entire launch and production costs. She and her mother fill all the orders. Her day job is working on her new album, and she spends weekends performing her regular gigs at Windsor Court and the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. Her free-time is spent filling orders and managing production.
In January, Barnes plans to re-launch the brand as ‘Move Ya Brass’, her original mantra. Along with the re-launch, she is on track to hire her first employees, and gradually bring all production to New Orleans.
“In my family, we don’t say ‘difficulties’ we say ‘challenges’. My next challenge/adventure is re-launching my brand with a strong identity,” Barnes said.
She says it hasn’t been easy, but it has been worthwhile.
“I never want to leave this world without leaving a mark. I never worry about my brand, because it’s something I really believe in and it has organically touched people. Move Ya Brass is going to get to that next level and be more about the people of New Orleans, and the movement,” Barnes said.
Her mission to inspire healthy living alongside the rich cultural traditions of New Orleans is greater than just her inventory of motivational-wear. Both Songbird and CEO, Barnes is a true daughter of New Orleans.