Working out just got much more exhilarating thanks to Chicago entrepreneur and AIR founder, Shama Patel.  It’s hard to come up with excuses to stay on the couch when your workout is as effective as it is fun.  We recently caught up with Shama to discuss everything from leaving her big corporate law job for a career change, to her love of painting, and upcoming wedding…

Tell us about your background. We understand there’s a law degree involved?

Yes, I have a law degree from The University of Iowa and I worked as a corporate litigator for a large Chicago law firm before quitting to open my first studio.

Have you always had a passion for fitness, or did you learn to love it?

No, actually. I have not always had a passion for fitness and that’s mainly because I was bored by all of my workouts. Before opening my first studio, the only fitness I had incorporated into my life was playing tennis regularly and occasionally, practicing hot yoga.

What hurdles did you face getting your business off the ground and how did you overcome them?

I had done all of my research, had my business plan in place but it was 2010 by now and securing a loan during our country’s financial crisis was nearly impossible. Fortunately, I secured a lease with Wells Fargo for the largest retail space in their corporate tower, the Duke Energy Center in Uptown Charlotte, NC. Now, I had a signed lease but still no loan so I leveraged the lease and took it to my local bank and secured an SBA loan–this was probably one of the riskiest things I have done relating to my business to date.

Talk to us about AIR, what makes it such a great workout?

AIR is both efficient and creative. What makes it so great is that it has the benefits of suspension training mixed with our AIR Trainers’ varying strengths and abilities (our trainers are the best in class ranging from Joffrey Ballet dancers to 500 hr yoga-certified personal and NIKE trainers). There is a surprise element to every class: you never know how the instructor will use his or her background to change up the class but you know one thing and that is, you’re going to sweat!

What do you normally hear from people after their first workout? Is it harder than it looks?

So many people are hooked after their first workout–wanting to learn more advanced poses, wanting to be stronger and developing a desire to master the exercise. AIR is a lot harder than it looks because there are some poses you need to get a good handle on before you become a pro–getting used to the way the fabric feels on your hands, wrists, lower back and body takes a bit of practice.

Where do you see AIR fitting in with the landscape of health club chains, boutique gyms, yoga studios, “cult workouts”, etc?

AIR resonates with the phrase “boutique gym” the best. It is a killer workout, a strong community, and so much more than a piece of fabric. Our clients are strong, confident, focused and they push themselves in every class. Whether you’re a regular AIR-goer or not, once you’ve taken a class, you know exactly what we’re about and that is, a challenging workout that will change your body.

What are your interests outside of fitness? Any hobbies that keep you sane?

Art. I paint large scale, abstract art work and all of the art work at my AIR studios is painted by me. I created a website almost a decade ago (it seems) so you can view some pieces there:

We hear your planning a wedding, how’s that going? Any surprises along the way?

Yes, I have my #bigfatindianwedding on May 15-17 in North Carolina. You can only expect a three-day affair from an Indian wedding, right? I’m not as involved in wedding planning as my parents are–they are handling most of the planning so that I can continue focusing on building my business.

How did you transition from a law career to being a fitness entrepreneur?

The hardest part was making the decision to quit in the first place. While at my law firm, I realized that I wanted to start something of my own and the natural progression was a fitness business–I wanted to start a company that would revolutionize fitness. After that, I had to be disciplined and focused enough to actually make my business a reality.

Any advice for those contemplating a law degree?

Best degree ever. No matter what career path you are contemplating, a J.D. is a great foundation. I still keep my law license active and actually joke that I practice more law now than I ever did at my firm. I prepare my own contracts, negotiate leases, draft liability forms, and handle all of my intellectual property work. I trademarked AIR.

What about advice for women looking to start their own business?

Have some experience in the industry that you are looking to start a business in. If you don’t have any experience in that new industry, do your research, talk to other business owners, pick up a part-time job, anything–just make sure you’re well-versed in the area you’re planning to start your own business. Don’t just quit your job cold turkey and expect to figure it out afterwards–that can be very scary and you may be setting yourself up for failure. Also, learn a thing or two about branding your business–start with Donald Trump’s “Branding 101” book.

Where do you see your life/careers in 5 years? 10?

In 5 years, I would like to see my company grow into markets all around the country. I take pride in my staff and growing it to as large as I have. Even with close to 75 staff members, I still run a pretty small/tight startup organization considering a majority of my staff is comprised of fitness instructors and independent contractors–in order to keep up the momentum that I’ve built, my motto is to “start before you’re ready.”

SIGN: Libra | GUILTY PLEASURE: Justin Bieber music | CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT: my dog | BIGGEST LAUGH: “I’m entering a national ass-kicking competition with no legs and a massive ass.” -VEEP (HBO series) | RESTAURANT: Sienna Tavern | BEST COMPLIMENT: that I’m an inspiration | STARBUCKS ORDER: Chai tea latte with soy milk | DREAM JOB: I have it | BAG: Prada | SHOE: Bucketfeet | DRESS: Michael Kors | WATCH: Rolex | PERFUME: Impulse Tease | SIGNATURE ACCESSORY: Sunglasses | MOISTURIZER: I use body lotion on my face! | LIPSTICK: Clinique (color: pink chocolate) | NAIL POLISH: SpaRitual (color: love is in the air) | HAIR STYLIST: I *seriously* cut my own hair. I taught myself to do this almost six years ago and have been doing it since! | FAVORITE DESIGNER: My new favorite is Chicago local, Azeeza Khan. She’s making my wedding reception dress too. BEST DEAL: GILT City | NEWS SOURCE: CNN | SNACK: Chicago local, Mark Bar | BEST VACATION: Negril, Jamaica with my family | BEST FRIEND: my dog (although, I’m not sure I’m hers) | MOVIE: Don’t watch movies but my favorite TV show right now is VEEP. If you’re a fan
of Arrested Development, VEEP will have you in (laughing) tears. | HOTEL: anything Marriott | CURRENTLY READING: my book club is reading The Goldfinch. | DREAM DINNER PARTY: Entertaining my entire staff for dinner/drinks at my condo. I plan to do as soon as I finish unpacking–no excuses, I moved in a year ago but just got busy!

[Photos By Hallie Duesenberg]



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2 Responses to Flying High with AIR’s Shama Patel

  1. Sonya says:

    I do aerial silks as a hobby/workout and it is nice to see a workout like this, with a similar foundation getting some exposure and gaining popularity.

  2. J says:

    I have become a regular at her Chicago Air studios.

    In just a few months Air has peeled me off the sofa, whipped me into shape, and the amazing instructors have inspired me to chase after a career in fitness myself.

    Air is exciting, fresh, friendly, and fun…I look forward to my class every day.

    Thanks Shama!


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