Editor’s Note: This entrepreneur is one of seven women helping women named to The Story Exchange’s 2018 Resist List.
Brittany Rose has no time for dismissive stereotypes about cheerleaders as mean girls, unintelligent or objects be ogled by men who watch “real” sports.
In fact, she asserts, cheerleaders are amazing athletes, ace students and graceful leaders who stand up for other people. That’s who the four-time All American and former Baltimore Raven cheerleader has always strived to be. And that’s what she’s grooming hundreds of girls to become through her growing business, More Than Cheer of Ashburn, Va.
More Than Cheer offers classes, summer camps, after-school programs and opportunities to compete on cheerleading teams to about 200 students a week — and soon many more, thanks to a new and bigger gym and plans for regional expansion. But its mission, Rose says, is to develop perseverance, confidence and leadership skills in girls.
“My company is a personal development company disguised as cheerleading,” she says. “I’ve taken an activity used to trivialize women and girls, and turned it into an opportunity to empower the next generation of girls who will lead their communities into a brighter future.”
From Pro-Cheerleader to Businesswoman
Rose, who is 30, started More Than Cheer in 2007 as a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she cheered competitively and for the basketball team. (She was named All American four times in high school and her team’s captain.) After college, she tried out for the Ravens and spent the 2013 season cheering for the National Football League team. The experience was “awesome,” she says, but, ultimately, not as as enticing as the possibility of growing More Than Cheer.
NFL cheerleaders often aren’t paid well or given respect for the hard-working athletes they are, Rose says. Some have reported troubling #MeToo moments. But for Rose, the decision was largely a business calculation. As she weighed her career options, she recalls thinking: “Do I want to sit here and build someone else’s brand, or do I want to build my own?”
[Related: Meet 7 Female Founders Taking #MeToo and #TimesUp to the Next Level]
So she shifted to focus full time on More Than Cheer. Today, the company has between eight and 16 employees, depending on the season (fall is high season, summer is low). Rose declined to disclose annual revenue but says it’s growing. To scale up, last year More Than Cheer moved into a larger space to accommodate more students. And now she’s pursuing a plan to offer franchises, initially to employees already steeped in the business and culture. The first franchise will open next year in a neighboring Virginia town, she says. She intends to open 25 in 5 years.
The business is a “four-legged stool” of classes, after-school programs, summer camps and competitive cheerleading teams, and students are recruited from local school systems. “Our goal was to build a business model that… could withstand recession and provide a suite of services to parents and kids,” she says.
Rose does not consider her operation a cheer gym, which doesn’t generally offer the childcare component that her company provides. Rather, More Than Cheer combines multiple kids-sports business models, she says. Its after-school programs and summer camps draw from martial arts schools. It has recreational classes that feed teams, an approach pulled from gymnastics. Its performance teams, which travel and perform at events, were inspired by the performance opportunities dance schools provide. And from All Star cheerleading, it takes “the rhinestones and lights and competitions.”
Those cheerleading competitions provide a special vehicle for teaching students life lessons, she believes. “Our society is all about me, me, me, me,” she says. But in cheerleading, “it’s not about the individual. It’s about your teammates, and how you can serve them and do your best for them and for yourself.”
[Related: Read about former competitive cheerleader who’s remaking the menswear business]
Busting Bias and Stereotypes
But Rose faces a huge challenge. Cheerleading is often discounted as a real sport by the public, which mainly sees pretty girls cheering men’s sports teams in tight uniforms and assumes they’re vapid or happy sex objects.
“Cheering for other sports is only a small piece of cheerleading,” Rose says. “Outsiders looking in just have a complete lack of respect for the athletes that participate in this sport.”
Cheer practices are as physically hard, if not harder, than many other sports, she argues. The team aspect, with its synchronized dance, gymnastics and complicated lifts, requires intense mental focus. Competitive cheerleading routines are extremely intricate, and participants do tricks at great heights that, if botched, can lead to falls and serious injuries. Cheerleaders display “an amazing level of athletic ability.”
Yet society is obsessed with their uniforms. “Adults look at what cheerleaders wear” — at exposed midriffs and short skirts — and “use that as a reason why our sport is not a legitimate sport,” Rose says. Outfits too often determine “the level of respect you’re given as an athlete and a person…. It’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Cheerleading’s Leadership Opportunities
Rose’s uniform choices tend to be sparkly and fun, rather than sexy. “I love the rhinestones. That’s definitely my favorite part,” she says. One of her biggest challenges is helping young girls navigate body-image pressures and media messages. ”In 2nd grade, we have kids calling themselves fat. Sometimes is very heartbreaking,” she says. “But we’re part of the solution, and that’s what makes it all worth it.”
More Than Cheer works to showcase talent and encourages self-acceptance and self-love. It teaches girls to lead gracefully and stand up for people. In school settings, cheerleaders are often put “front and center” with lots of eyes on them, Rose says. She makes sure her students understand their responsibility and “opportunity to set the tone.”
“One of the reasons I chose this business and to serve girls is because cheerleaders are in a unique position to uplift their school and their community,” she says. Empowered, confident girls grow up to be strong, nurturing women. who influence everyone around them. “What I do is make better people,” Rose says. “It’s really not about who can throw the best tumbling pass…. It’s about being an example and a role model.”
Read about the six other status-quo busting women on The Story Exchange’s 2018 Resist List