Brenda Nolby, Owner of Jam Hops Gymnastic Factory, Inc. is the 2018 Minnesota Small Business Person of the Year

From handsprings to business owner, Brenda Nolby learned cartwheels and more from her self-taught cheerleading mother and advanced her own skills through gymnastics teams in high school and college.  Her passion for self-growth was matched by her drive to help others succeed.  Giving back to her community by creating a thriving business and using it as a vehicle to improve lives is why she was chosen to be the 2018 Minnesota SBA Small Business Person of the Year.

Jam Hops Gymnastics Factory, Inc., in Ham Lake, Minn., is in the business of transforming children’s lives, strengthening their future and improving their community. Its core business offers many opportunities including youth classes and competitive programs for gymnastics and dance, cheer-leading and ninja classes, an academic preschool and a theater program. These provide families with activities that are beneficial for the over-all development of children.

Jam Hops was formed in 1997 with the merger of two gymnastics programs and from there grew rapidly, adding a second location for the dance program in 2005, and then a third location for gymnastics and cheer-leading teams in 2014. Nolby started working as a competitive gymnastics coach for the company in the early 1990's, bought out one partner in 2000, and then the other, to become the sole owner in 2013. The company has benefited from SBA financing guarantees, which have helped it purchase buildings and equipment to help with its growth. It currently employs 87 people.

The company was nearly bankrupted in 2007-08 when people's discretionary income for things like gymnastics became one of the first things to go as families were struggling to keep their homes and put food on the table. Enrollment dropped by over half. However, under Nolby’s leadership, Jam Hops continued to have strong programming and dedicated staff. 

By 2009 Nolby had to stop paying herself a regular salary. Her business partner at the time, who had been a school teacher prior to being a gym owner, went back to teaching and Nolby began to run the business by herself.

Nolby and her husband tightened their finances at home as they went without her income. They discussed closing Jam Hops so she could find other work; but she couldn't envision telling the hundreds of kids still coming, or telling the 40+ staff members that they no longer had a job. Competitively they were doing very well, and she believed deeply that what they were doing was important. Her husband stayed in a job that was very stressful, and between the two of them they pulled a large sum from their 401(k) plans into the business. They took out a second mortgage on their house and opened an additional line of credit, which is what got them through until 2011 when things finally turned around.

The company was able to pay its bills on time through it all, and the experience taught Nolby how to be very good at watching finances, from payroll, to supplies and equipment. Going through the recession also brought new respect from staff who now knew they can trust her to be there for them no matter what. And the gratitude she felt toward her community, which had supported her in ways big and small, inspired her to start "Jam Hops Gives Back" with donations and services to local organizations. Since starting the campaign in 2013, it has donated almost $64,000 and hundreds of birthday parties to local organizations to help in their fundraising efforts, and thousands of pounds of food and clothing to the local food shelf.

A few other ways they support their community include: helping families in need by providing scholarships for children to take classes; helping keep the community clean by volunteering in the Adopt-a-Highway program; and having their dancers spend time with the elderly in nursing home visits where they do a performance and share cookies and conversation.  Competitive gymnasts and dancers also donate time at Feed My Starving Children each year.  Nolby has been able to participate in a mission trip to Haiti and she and her husband support five children in Haiti and Africa.

Further supporting other small businesses in the area, Nolby is the current President of the Ham Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which nominated her for the award. Additionally, Jam Hops was the host location for its Congressman's 'Young Women in Leadership’ program and Nolby also helps organize the Ham Lake City Snow Bowl, a large winter community event, by heading up the Silent Auction Committee.  Nolby and Jam Hops continue to search for new ways to help out the kids and families in their community.

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