Meet the Man Behind Zumba: Beto Perez

He built a global empire helping people have fun and burn calories.

It took four trips from his native Colombia to Miami before Beto Perez got his big break. The fitness and dance instructor simply wanted to bring his workout classes to America. But with little money and even less English, he couldn’t get fitness-center managers to watch his Latin-dance-inspired videos.

The Creator of Zumba: Beto Perez Finally, in 1999, one manager said, “Teach me.” Caught off guard, Perez asked, “Only you?” Yes, she said. It was 3 p.m., and the gym was empty. Soon a passerby wandered in to watch, then two, three, four. “After 20 minutes,” says Perez, “I had about 15 people. They thought it was a new class and wanted to sign up.” Recognizing Perez’s sharp choreography, charisma, and energy, the manager invited him to teach a Saturday morning class.

But on the first day of class, Perez got stuck in traffic. “I was ten minutes late,” he says. “I didn’t know how to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I played the music, and they loved it.”

That tends to be the reaction to Perez’s fitness program, called Zumba (pronounced “zoom-ba”). The hour-long classes alternate easy-to-follow fast dance moves with slower ones for an interval-training workout that tones muscles and burns hundreds of calories. When the music starts pumping—salsa, merengue, reggaeton—people forget they’re exercising. And that just may be the secret to Zumba’s success.

Ten years later, five million people take classes every week from 30,000 certified instructors (who pay $250 for training and a license) in 75 countries, from Canada to China. More than four million DVDs have been sold, and Zumbawear has taken off (the $64.95 cargo pants are the top seller).

Perez, 39, is now creative director of the privately held Zumba Fitness. His success is all the more impressive given the obstacles he’s overcome. Raised in Cali, Colombia, by a single mother, Alberto “Beto” Perez was just 14 when his mom was injured by a stray bullet. To help support them, he worked three jobs.

All the while, he dreamed of turning his passion—dance—into something more, but he couldn’t afford lessons. (Perez says he saw the movie Grease when he was seven or eight, “and I knew I wanted to dance.”) What he lacked in formal training, though, he made up for in raw talent. At 19, he won a national lambada contest. One of Cali’s best academies called with an offer to study dance while teaching step aerobics.

One day, Perez forgot the music for his class. He had one cassette with him—Latin music he’d taped from the radio. “I improvised,” he says, “and that was the beginning of Zumba.”

Once the popular instructor got his break in Miami, would-be investors started approaching him about opening a gym. One of Perez’s students asked him to meet her son, Alberto Perlman. At 24, Perlman was doing market analysis on startups for an Internet incubator with his childhood friend Alberto Aghion (an operations guy) and watching his career options disappear with the dot-com crash. Perlman (now CEO of Zumba) hit it off with Perez immediately and recruited Aghion as COO and president.

With no money or experience, the partners needed to showcase Perez’s talents. They spent a night laying down plywood boards on Sunny Isles Beach, then invited Perez’s students to take a $20 class that they would film and show to potential investors. But after September 11, 2001, all leads dried up. Eventually, they made an infomercial, which sold about a million DVDs in six months.

What happened next caught them by surprise: People started saying, “I want to be an instructor, like Beto.” Since the first workshop, in 2003, the partners, based in Hollywood, Florida, have created a global community of instructors. For $30 a month, they can join the Zumba Instructor Network, post their class schedules, and access new music and choreography (zumba.com).

When asked about revenue, Perlman is tight-lipped: “We don’t disclose figures, but it’s in the many millions.” The partners say they’ve barely tapped the possibilities for the business. “We’re releasing a Nintendo Wii game in 2010 and adding to our Zumbawear line,” says Perez. “Expect to see our first sneakers soon!”

Getting Ahead with Beto Perez
Who are your students?
Ninety percent of them hate to exercise. I think people in the fitness business create programs for people in the fitness world. With Zumba, anyone can do it. Sometimes we have three generations in class.

You were rejected a lot when you first started. Did you get discouraged?
No, no, no. We were so poor. If I wanted Nike or Puma shoes, my mom said, “You want them? You have to clean the house for two months.” She taught me that nothing is impossible.

What advice do you have for people with an idea?
Have passion and perseverance. It’s like fishing—you have to throw the bait. You throw it once, and the fish might not bite, so you have to throw it again and again, until it bites. I was also lucky to find my business partners early. If people have ideas, they need to find the right people to help.

What challenges have you faced as the business has grown?
Somebody called wanting to start a Zumba class in Thailand. The students were quiet, respectful, expressionless. I come in and say, “Hey! Are you ready for the party?” I play music, and they’re like robots, not moving. They didn’t know anything about Latin music. But after 20 minutes, they were totally into it. You have to hook them with the music and the energy. It’s been a challenge for me, working with other cultures.

What’s next?
I’m now producing music, something I never studied. And we’ll be adding more international beats to the mix—African, bhangra [Indian folk dance], calypso, quebradita [Mexican cowboy music], and Afro-Brazilian.

You’re teaching less so you can focus on the business. How’s that going?
Four or five years ago, I was teaching 22 classes a week. Then the company grew, and I went from being an instructor to being a business guy. It felt strange. But I need the time to think, to organize, to create. I still teach five classes a week. I can’t stop. I need the contact with people.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest