After Stephanie Blozy and her sister, Carrie, had a few drinks on New Year’s Eve more than a decade ago, they talked about their dreams–what they would do for work if they could do anything? With their passion for running instilled from their father at a young age, they settled on a running store, with the ability to be their own bosses and inspire people to improve their lives through exercise.
Co-owners of Fleet Feet - West Hartfordfor more than a decade now, their commitment to their local community has inspired more exercise, and has even allowed some to find jobs and housing. Find out more in the below interview with Stephanie.
Eric:You’re the co-owner of Fleet Feet - Hartford with your sister Carrie. What led you into the sport of running to begin with?
Stephanie: I always go back to when I was about five years old. I’m the middle child of three–older brother, younger sisters. Our dad was big into the running boom in the 1970s. He would bring us to his races. Back then, they had a regular race and then a fun run. We kids would always run the fun run. Once, when I was five [years old], I beat a woman who had a radio show, and the announcer commented to that effect as I was finishing. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I beat a celebrity!’ Everyone was cheering for me. I fell in love with running.
E:That’s an early start. Have you been a runner ever since?
S: Yeah, I continued to run until 1995, two years after college, when I was diagnosed with lupus. At the time, the doctors thought I should stop exercising and stressing my body, focusing on taking it easy. I did that for two years–I stopped running, mountain biking, everything, and I was really miserable. My brother and sister had, at that time, joined my dad to train for marathons. My sister, at some point, told me that for people with auto-immune diseases, exercise is good for those people. I started running again. I went a mile and it was horrible. I told myself, I wouldn’t let running feel so bad again. The more I ran, the better I felt.
E:It’s a powerful recognition when you realize that movement, in this case in the form of running, is a medicine.
S:Yeah, it really changed my trajectory in life. I was a meteorologist at the time. I was really happy with my job and I had been there for almost eleven years. But there was something about the power of running, and how it could change people’s lives for the better. I wanted to have a job where I could use running and teach people that it’s good for them.
E: Right, so at some point you left your meteorology job and started in run specialty. How did that happen?
S: It was New Year’s Eve 2005 going into 2006. My sister and I were at home, we watched the ball drop, and my sister was like, ‘If you could do anything what would you do?’ I said that I wanted to change lives and make the world a better place, and I wanted to see that impact. I said that I wanted to have my own business. And she was all for it.
We made a list of things we both enjoy. We made separate lists and had two matches: Running and making chocolate. We aren’t morning people, so the bakery wasn’t going to work [laughs]. So, we thought, maybe we should open a running store. We went to bed and I thought it was just kind of pie-in-the-sky type of talking, but a week later my sister reached out and said she had been researching running franchises.
E: The plan was in motion.
S:Yeah, I thought maybe somewhere down the road but she wanted to get started right now. She found Fleet Feet as a great franchise helper. Our parents had recently moved from Cincinnati to Connecticut. We wanted to live within two hours of our parents. We didn’t find any good running stores in Nashua, New Hampshire, so we submitted an application to Fleet Feet. They came back and said they would approve it, but they told us there’s a store coming up for sale, and would we be interested in that. I told them it needed to be within two hours of Hartford, Connecticut. The store for sale was in West Hartford, a mile-and-a-half from my parents’ house [laughs].
E: It was meant to be. Is that when you bought Fleet Feet - Hartford?
S: It was serendipity. Well, no, we bowed out. But I quit my job as a meteorologist and started the master’s of exercise science program at George Washington University. I proceeded to get my master’s and worked part-time at the local Fleet Feet. My sister quit her job and went to get her MBA. During those two years at the program, we’d occasionally get a call from the Fleet Feet - Hartford owner saying there was an offer and did we want to counter-bid? Finally, I said, if it’s available at the end of my program, we’ll be interested. Sure enough, two years later, it was still available.
E: You got the store. You’ve had it for over a decade now. I have to ask: When did you first hear about rabbit, and when did you bring rabbit’s apparel into the store?
S:I first saw rabbit at a Fleet Feet conference six or seven years ago. I remember first thinking that it was a cool brand but had a west coast vibe, and trends take longer to adopt on the east coast. In 2018, I was at a conference in Huntington Beach, and rabbit had a set up in the lobby. I remember walking by and feeling the fabrics and thinking, oh, this is amazing.
E: It’s the fabrics that get you hooked. Why else did rabbit interest you as a brand?
S: It’s a female-founded company, Monica and her husband own a run specialty store, so they know what it’s like to be in our position. I wanted to give the brand a try, in part, because I wanted to support fellow females in this industry. Women are still in the minority, and if I can help a fellow female follow her dream, I want to do that. I think that’s one of the coolest things about owning your own business–you get to choose who to support and if enough of us support a brand, like rabbit, it becomes a popular brand. And the apparel is getting better and better, from a performance standpoint or to just lounge around it.
E:Definitely. And in terms of offering support, I understand that you’ve done a lot to engage with, and give back to, the community in Hartford. Tell me about that charitable work.
S: Initially, I’d start by saying that me and my sister, Kara, above the business, really enjoy being in a position to help people. Whether it’s inspiring the mom who has been taking care of kids and letting herself go–teaching her to walk a mile then run a mile and then run a half marathon. Working with people who have auto-immune diseases, or going through chemo, and letting them know that exercise is the best medicine. That to me is a huge piece to it.
E:Sure, I can tell that’s important to you by the way you talk about it. It’s a powerful message. And what about your work with specific organizations?
S:We knew there were organizations out there that needed help. The first one was right after an earthquake in Haiti, maybe 2009 or 2010, when I wanted to collect 50 pairs of shoes for people in Haiti. By the time the donations ended there were 500 shoes. There was no way to pay for the shoes to ship to Haiti–it was so expensive–but a local radio station funded a box truck to drive all the shoes down to Alabama to get them on a boat. It was really incredible.
E: Amazing. How have you been involved locally in Hartford?
S:I’ve found that people want to help, we just need to create vehicles to help them help. How can I make that happen? One day, one of our customers came in and said she was friends with a police officer in the area. That police office had a homeless man who was badly in need of shoes. She wanted to know if I had a pair of shoes for him. Of course, I did. I gave her twenty pairs. She came back not long after and said those twenty pairs are now in use, and the officer has another 100 people who could use shoes. That started it all.
E: That’s fantastic. That’s how it started. How has it developed?
S:That police officer is now in charge of the homeless in the area, and he was given an old bomb squad vehicle that we retrofitted with hangers to put clothes, drawers for snacks and socks, and shelves for shoes. We started writing grants and, in addition to all the shoes I have from my defective bin, we buy boots from Wolverine. Twice a year we do a major boot party, or sneaker party, and the homeless come in and we provide them with socks, these high-quality boots, we have breakfast for them, and they leave with a brown bag lunch. We assist about 600 homeless at these events. We also go to local shelters to find people who couldn’t make it to the boot party. It’s a really great partnership.
E: And have you seen any long-term improvements in the lives of these individuals that you’re providing footwear for?
S: Yes. It’s an amazing gift to give because you don’t realize the impact that a nice pair of boots can have. A guy volunteered at a boot party and he was great and I asked him how he heard about it. He said, ‘Oh, last year I came in and you fitted me for socks and boots and because of that I was able to get a job at a restaurant, and because of that job I can now pay rent and I live in my own apartment.’
People are able to get construction jobs because they have these steel-toed boots. They can get a job at a restaurant–we offer slip-resistant shoes. So, you really don’t realize the power that a pair of footwear can have.