This Twentysomething Wants to Help At-Risk Teens. So She Opened a Boxing Gym.

E-Lisa Moreno knows she’s the unlikeliest of small business owners in the Kansas City suburbs. That’s what keeps her going, despite some setbacks.

E-Lisa Moreno coaches a young boxer at RNE Boxing Club, which she opened in 2011 in the Kansas City area.
National Journal
Alexia Campbell
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Alexia Campbell
Aug. 7, 2014, 10:06 a.m.

This pro­file is part of a Next Amer­ica series on the ex­per­i­ences of minor­ity small-busi­ness own­ers in the United States.

When E-Lisa Moreno tells people she runs her own busi­ness, they don’t al­ways be­lieve her. After all, she’s only 24. And wo­men don’t nor­mally open box­ing gyms. But these re­ac­tions don’t both­er her. “It’s amus­ing,” says Moreno, a 5-foot-3-inch former pro­fes­sion­al box­er. “If any­thing, it pushes me to do more.”

Moreno trains about 60 people at RNE Box­ing Club, which she opened with her fath­er nearly three years ago in a Kan­sas City sub­urb. Most of her mem­bers are kids, and about a dozen are troubled teens in a po­lice pro­gram for at-risk youth. Coach­ing kids and watch­ing them build con­fid­ence has be­come Moreno’s life pas­sion.

“I love see­ing a kid who people saw as ‘bad’ be­come someone who has ac­com­plished something,” Moreno says.

Open­ing a box­ing club dur­ing the eco­nom­ic re­ces­sion was an ex­hil­ar­at­ing and nerve-rack­ing ex­per­i­ence — and it con­tin­ues to be a source of stress. Rare for a fledgling small busi­ness, RNE Box­ing Club began turn­ing a profit early on. But now it barely makes enough to cov­er ex­penses. Moreno waits tables at a loc­al Mex­ic­an res­taur­ant to pay her own bills. This is just a tem­por­ary set­back in her eyes, a “bump in the road” to ful­filling a dream she had since high school.

As a teen­ager, Moreno was more in­ter­ested in bas­ket­ball than box­ing. She put on her first pair of box­ing gloves when she was 17, while wait­ing for her two young­er broth­ers to fin­ish one of their even­ing box­ing classes. A coach said she could punch bags while she waited. With­in a few months, Moreno had lost nearly 50 pounds.

“I was in awe,” says Moreno, who weighed 200 pounds when she star­ted. “I was fi­nally proud of how I looked.”

She soon for­got about bas­ket­ball and was spend­ing her even­ings at the box­ing gym. Then came her first box­ing match and the mo­ment that hooked her. Moreno threw a cross punch that hit her op­pon­ent in the chin and dropped her to the floor. “The ad­ren­aline was the best feel­ing in the world,” she says. “I’ve nev­er felt any­thing like that.”

Box­ing be­came Moreno’s call­ing — and her fath­er, a car sales­man, be­came her coach and biggest fan. He traveled with her to dozens of matches across Kan­sas and watched her win second place in her weight cat­egory at the 2010 na­tion­al Wo­men’s Golden Gloves tour­na­ment in Flor­ida.

After high school, Moreno began tak­ing classes at a loc­al com­munity col­lege with a schol­ar­ship from the Kan­sas City Golden Gloves. But she stuck with box­ing, turn­ing pro and coach­ing kids on the side.

Moreno saw prom­ise in one 13-year-old girl at the gym and coached her to win three na­tion­al cham­pi­on­ship titles. When the girl died in a tra­gic traffic ac­ci­dent in 2011, Moreno says it was too pain­ful to re­turn to the same gym. In­stead, she de­cided to open her own.

Her dad hes­it­ated when she first pitched him the idea, she says. They didn’t have much money and they didn’t want to take out a loan. But they de­cided to make it work. Moreno quit school and her fath­er quit his job at the car deal­er­ship. Loc­al busi­nesses sponsored the club and they raised more than $10,000 — enough to buy equip­ment and rent space in a strip mall. The loc­al Golden Gloves donated the box­ing ring.

Moreno named the club in hon­or of the girl who had died. Her ini­tials were RNE. With­in six months, the club was already mak­ing money. The gym had about 500 mem­bers and the park­ing lot was packed. 

The club’s suc­cess seemed too good to be true — and it was. A year after Moreno opened the gym, the loc­al fire de­part­ment said she would need to in­stall an in­door sprink­ler sys­tem in case a fire broke out. The own­ing of the build­ing wouldn’t pay for it. “The cheapest es­tim­ate we got was $20,000,” Moreno says. “So we star­ted look­ing for an­oth­er place.”

In Decem­ber, Moreno and her fath­er moved the gym in­to a smal­ler space that could only fit about 60 people, so they lost most of their cus­tom­ers. Both fath­er and daugh­ter had to take day jobs. “It was very dis­ap­point­ing,” says Moreno, “but I don’t want to give up.”

Moreno does won­der some­times if she should have fin­ished col­lege and be­come a po­lice of­ficer or ac­count­ant. But then she re­mem­bers the pride she felt earli­er this year when one of her kids won a na­tion­al Sil­ver Gloves tour­na­ment. “It’s all about the kids. It’s al­ways been about them,” she says.

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