Element Gym: Creating Community Through Fitness in St. Paul

This is part of our series, “Banking on Change,” which showcases local entrepreneurs who are creating a positive impact in their community. The series spotlights one local business each month. Above illustration: Dalton Outlaw (center) by Justine Lecouffe. 

Starting a business is not for the faint of heart.

Entrepreneurship requires smarts, funding and the ability to turn blueprints into reality. It’s a process that doesn’t only call for a solid business plan, but also a great amount of determination.

One in five businesses won’t make it past their first year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only around 30% of new ventures make it through their tenth year in business.

Dalton Outlaw defied these odds in impressive fashion.

The founder of Element Gym in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood started the business when he was 23 years old in March 2011.  In order to generate funding, the then-recent college graduate sold his car. A decade later, Outlaw is still in business, surviving a global pandemic and incorporating a do-good mentality not found in many organizations.

Element Gym offers numerous programs to kids and adults alike, including yoga, wrestling and boxing. But the gym’s main focus is fitness equity. Outlaw emphasizes the gym’s mission when talking about Element, which is a benefit corporation.

“I didn’t get into building a gym to make the next Lifetime Fitness or make enough profit to start sharing with my public corporation buddies and everybody makes a ton of money,” said Outlaw. “I created this place as an outlet, as a resource, for individuals to better themselves. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

Outlaw grew up in St. Paul and remembers going to the B.T. Bombers Boxing Club in Frogtown, started by retired cop and professional boxer Clem Tucker Sr. Outlaw’s experience at the club was “pivotal,” he said, especially as Tucker made sure everyone could fight even if they couldn’t afford the monthly fees.

Outlaw runs his gym the same way, and started the Element Community Health Fund, Inc., to provide opportunities for local at-risk youth. The foundation offers scholarships, enrichment programs and camps for kids.

“I want to make sure that we can find a way for our community folks that are underprivileged to still be able to participate, and that’s what we do,” he said.

Outlaw was nervous when COVID-19 hit but said the “community stepped up” to ensure Element stayed in business. Customers maintained memberships through the pandemic and the gym started offering online classes, which are still an option for those not yet comfortable with in-person fitness.

Outlaw said more people have been cognizant about making changes since COVID-19, and that often means thinking about fitness and healthy eating. That has allowed Element to connect with new members, he said.

The gym’s work has also taken on greater meaning as the Twin Cities and the country deal with issues of racial inequity. As a business rooted in community organizing and engagement, Outlaw said the importance of Element’s work has come to the forefront after the death of George Floyd.

“Healing has been a part of what we needed to do as a community even when I first started,” said Outlaw.  “It’s just become even more apparent now and become that much more important for us to find healthy alternatives for our kids and our families and our communities such as boxing, exercise, dancing, movement.”

Outlaw said he took a “leap of faith” in 2011 when he opened the gym. Thanks to that leap, thousands of Twin Cities youth can have the same experience Outlaw did as an aspiring boxer.

“I grew up fighting – boxing really helped me a lot in life. It taught me about discipline, dedication,” he said. “For me it’s trying to reciprocate and give back in a way that’s sustainable and purposeful.”