Seven years ago, Hakika DuBose used her $500 tax return to start a business unlike any other: stretching. Not yoga, not massage, but something in between, where she used her extensive knowledge of the body — acquired through years of experience as a dancer — to create a method of stretching the bodies of other people, to improve flexibility and lessen anxiety.
On March 1, after expanding her business to three studios worth nearly $1 million, she is poised to become the youngest female franchisor in the U.S.
“I’m the only millennial right now franchising their own business,” DuBose, 33, said. “I know why. It takes a long time to understand the franchise process. People develop that over years and decades. I chose to figure it out now early on in life. That’s helped me get to this point faster.”
DuBose is no stranger to blazing her own path. She’d just hit her one-year mark in a successful furniture sales role when her boss at the time jokingly said to his staff, “It’s really important you guys get along, because you spend more time with us than with your family.” Rather than encourage DuBose, this washed over her an overwhelming sense of sadness and dissatisfaction.
“My mother was a serial entrepreneur, and she always said ‘They’re not your boss, call them your employer.’ I started questioning the whole concept of the roles we play in life and challenging myself to play another one,” DuBose said.
Growing up, DuBose had long planned to make a career out of her physicality. She began taking ballet at 12 to break free from crippling shyness, and fell so deeply in love with the art form that she majored in dance in college. A Bachelor of Science and Arts degree in dance from Montclair State University led her to professional dance and then acting, but when she started getting roles and getting deeper into the industry, she felt constricted.
She got sick of “the cattle calls,” where producers “bring 50 people who look just like you and then pick the one they want.” That’s what pushed her into sales, but her passion for the human body and an urge to do something no one else had done pushed her to think outside the box into creating something a bit more … flexible.
After a brief flirtation with the idea of teaching Pilates only to realize she couldn’t afford the high price of training, she came up with the idea to stretch people in the ways her dance experience and college anatomy curriculum deemed beneficial.
For $350, she rented a shared space in a gym to take clients, and for $150, she printed up marketing materials to get the word out. Without the funds to hire help, she stood solo on the main street in Montclair handing out fliers and offering one free stretching session to everyone she spoke with.
“It was a real bootstrap operation,” she said.
But it worked. She started with one client, and as word got out, more came in.
Now, DuBose’s list of regulars boasts 4,000 names.
Of course, she no longer works alone. As her business, called Kika Stretch Studios, grew, she hired and trained 15 people as stretch coaches, created a trademarked series of stretches for all coaches to follow, opened her own permanent space in Montclair, and expanded with two more studios in Westfield and Manhattan.
The stretch series, known as the KIKA Method, is rooted in the routines she would do as a dancer coming up. According to DuBose, the KIKA Method unlocks the muscles of the body by following the client’s breath pattern, with stretch coaches pushing harder on the body as a client exhales and then holding the client’s body in deep stretch positions.
Although few and far between, other stretching businesses do exist. What sets Kika Stretch Studios apart is its proprietary method.
“Other places use fast, jerky movements — the same techniques that physical therapists use. The idea for them is that if you do it fast, your body won’t be as sore the next day because the body’s natural defense mechanisms don’t set off,” DuBose explained. “What we do is based on passive stretching. Our method says that if your defense mechanisms don’t set off, your body won’t get used to them. If your body is used to them setting off, it doesn’t affect the body so much — you’re not as sore, your heart rate doesn’t climb. You know you’re safe.”
According to DuBose, the natural defense mechanisms that go off in a deep stretch telling you to hold back are the same ones that raise your heart rate and anxiety when you get a text message or email that upsets you. By working through the mechanisms during stretching, you can lessen the likelihood they’ll go off when you get that angry email.
“I always feel so relaxed after being completely stretched here,” said Dave Herman, a client on his fifth visit to Kika Stretch Studios. “And from the beginning to the end of the session, there’s definitely an improvement in my flexibility.”
Herman, who recently bought a package of 10 60-minute stretch sessions (one of two session lengths offered), is the owner and president of Orange-based Banner Chemical. Like many, his job is mostly sedentary, resulting in inflexibility and physical tension.
“It’s good to come here and stretch out. You’re never going to stretch that far on your own,” said Herman. “The way the coach pushes you, and you go all the way down in a stretch … it hurts! But it hurts so good.”
Laura Giunta, his stretch coach, said nearly every client reaction is like that.
“They’re all positive. I haven’t had one negative reaction,” she said. “I have a client who is in tears almost every time because she just can’t get over how much this is changing her life. Before, she was in pain every day and trying everything she can think of — chiropractic, massage therapy, acupuncture, acupressure, physical therapy. Nothing worked for her. But this is really starting to bring her relief where she can actually go out and enjoy her life again.”
With a varied background in dance, yoga, and massage therapy, Giunta became a stretch coach in July. She spoke highly of the training process DuBose created, the stretching series itself, and the community within Kika Stretch Studios.
“The coaches all help each other out,” she said. “We all try to get stretched at least one a month ourselves, too.”
As she builds Kika Stretch Studios into a franchise, DuBose said she intends to keep that sense of community.
“It’s not a numbers game for me. We’re a brand that operates as a family,” she said. “As it is now, I’m constantly talking to the coaches and clients to create that family environment. I want to make sure each new owner gets the support that they need.”
Before she started taking clients in the spare room in that gym seven years ago, DuBose had never known someone who started a wellness business before. She’s never taken a loan or grant, and has grown her business from the ground up, though not without issue.
She suffered a major setback last year when an electrical fire tore through her Montclair location, requiring her to transition many of her clients to a space rented out in the basement of a nearby church.
Nevertheless, she’s persevered, and now plans to help others do the same.
“I’m going to give each franchisee the support I never had. Now, I know what they need, and there’s a lot that I have to teach them,” she said.