The rise of Zumba nation

The FIU alumnus behind the world’s latest fitness sensation.

Photos by Doug Garland ’10 and courtesy of Zumba Fitness

Ripped up, colorful t-shirts on sweaty bodies of all ages, sizes and walks of life, burning calories as they dance in sync to music so energizing that fitness seekers feel like they’re in a nightclub. That’s what you’ll find in a Zumba class.

Originally created with the goal of selling fitness DVDs – think Billy Blanks and Tae Bo in the 1990s or Richard Simmons and “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” in the 1970s – the Zumba Fitness brand took its “Ditch the workout, join the party” motto to another level when it spawned arms and morphed into an estimated $500 million international empire. Today some 14 million people in more than 150 countries participate weekly in live classes, and the potential for continued DVD sales and other complementary opportunities for growth seem almost limitless.

Florida International University alumnus and Zumba Fitness president Alberto Aghion

College of Business graduate Alberto Aghion ’99 is co-founder and COO of Zumba Fitness, a growing international empire based in Hallandale, Fla.

Not a bad comeback for Colombian-born FIU alumnus Alberto Aghion ’99. The Zumba Fitness president and COO always wanted to be an entrepreneur but in 2001 found himself without a job after his previous venture – supporting online companies – went bust. Today he and his two co-founders have made it big by, essentially, helping others become entrepreneurs.

“Instead of selling our programs to the gyms, we gave the license to the instructors, and told them to run with it. And it’s worked,” Aghion says.

“Every business decision is made with the instructors’ success in mind. The biggest challenges were finding the right opportunities for instructors and building value for them to be successful.”

That approach earned the company Inc. magazine’s coveted “Company of the Year” title in December 2012.

“Zumba doesn’t make money by helping people get fit. It makes money by preparing people for a trade – by licensing and supporting the folks who teach Zumba classes,” writes Leigh Buchanan, an editor at Inc. magazine. “These instructors understand . . . that Zumba is not some organic cultural import like salsa or yoga but rather a U.S. company with a multifaceted business model and an aggressive growth strategy.”

About 65 percent of Zumba-trained instructors work for fitness facilities, and the rest open their own Zumba-based gyms or rent space in which to lead classes. The corporate office supports the startups by providing marketing materials such as logos and images to use in advertising and ready-to-print signage. Zumba’s website offers a directory of classes to help fitness seekers connect with the nearest outlet. To keep motivation high, the company makes available continuing training and, more recently, has started giving instructors the opportunity to earn a percentage of the sales of Zumbawear workout clothes purchased by their students.

FIU student Alicia Jimenez, 23, teaches Zumba classes at the Recreation Center on the Modesto A. Maidique Campus. “The atmosphere in a Zumba class is stress-free and positive, making it easy to socialize and come back for more,” Jimenez saiys. “In class, students are told to let go, have fun, be confident and act like no one’s watching for that one hour where the perks include losing weight.”

And while college students are a likely audience for the fast-paced, let-it-all-hang workout, people from CEOs to homemakers gravitate to it. With eight different types of classes—including “Zumbatomic” for children, “Zumba Gold” for senior citizens, and “Aqua Zumba” for those who prefer the pool, to name three—there is something for everyone. Outside of the traditional spaces, classes are taught in church meeting halls, school gymnasiums and even at the Pentagon.

A zumba fitness class at the Florida International University Recreation Center

FIU student Alicia Jimenez (with headset) leads a Zumba class at the MMC Recreation Center.

The company generates revenue from a variety of sources, foremost among them the licensing and other fees paid by instructors. Fitness DVDs – the original concept around which the company started – have sold to the tune of 12 million and counting. But all that is just the start. Interactive fitness video games and a line of branded workout apparel and accessories have increased the bottom line.

Another complementary income stream comes from the brand’s role in promoting music and creating CD compilations. Music artists are recognizing the scale of Zumba’s audience and approaching the company about giving their music some air time. “We are a marketing vehicle for them,” Aghion says. “We are like a radio station that plays all over the world, and people listening to it cannot change the dial.”

The company also produces and licenses original music – rhythmic, upbeat, and totally danceable – that is finding a life beyond the gym. “We recently released two albums that went platinum in France,” Aghion explains. “That’s a clear indication of our reach.”

Another indicator of that reach: Zumba’s potential to help raise funds for charity. “Zumbathon” charity events have already collected millions for various causes, and this year the company is contributing cash for meals to Feeding America based on the estimated number of calories that participating class-goers burn in a workout session.

With investors last year infusing the company with additional capital, Aghion shows no signs of letting up.

“There are still huge global expansion opportunities to expand in Russia, India, China and Latin America,” he says. “The future is also understanding how to interact with new platforms and content delivery, understanding how consumer behavior is going to change and how we are going to adapt to it.”

An inductee of FIU College of Business Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame, Aghion credits his alma mater with giving him the base from which to lead the burgeoning Zumba nation.

“Being part of a school with such a high diversity in the student body exposed me to many cultures and helped me to better understand how different people think.”