William & Mary

Flex MBA student is in the swing of things

  • Flying high
    Flying high  Flex MBA student Laura Richter, far right, has a most unusual hobby and fitness regimen: She's an acrobat.  Courtesy Jessica Gordon
  • Flying high
    Flying high  Flex MBA student Laura Richter has a most unusual hobby and fitness regimen: She's an acrobat.  Courtesy Laura Richter
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Aerial acrobatics helps balance work and school

So many business clichés evoke the circus – people juggle tasks, walk tightropes, have too many plates in the air, feed the gorilla, avoid goat rodeos and dog and pony shows, deal (or not) with the long pole in the tent and hope they’re neither a one-man show nor a show pony.

But for one Flex MBA student in the Raymond A. Mason School of Business at William & Mary, life really is a balancing act. Laura Richter M.B.A. ’18 works full-time for Newport News shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries, attends MBA classes at the business school’s Peninsula Center satellite office and then drives to Suffolk for classes in the aerial arts.

“How do I balance it? Kind of like I’m doing now,” she said, as she ate in her car and talked to W&M News over her lunch hour. “I bring my books with me, I bring my dinner with me, I bring my computer with me. I’ve got a week’s worth of gym clothes in the back of the car. As soon as I leave work, I head to Suffolk. If I’ve got another class, I’ll do that, and then I’ll be eating my dinner and studying in the hammock before the aerial arts class starts.”

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Her unusual fitness regimen – sometimes called anti-gravity yoga, sky Pilates or aerial arts, silk, acrobatics or dance – has literally given her better balance, but almost tipped the scale for what she could get done in a day. She considered quitting the aerial art when she began the Flex MBA program, but the instructor and other students told her not to. “We’ll make it work,” they told her.

And so they have. The effort means all the more because, at 47, Richter is the oldest student attending the Sky Pilates studio. She came to it about a year and a half ago with absolutely no gymnastics background. No fitness background, really.

She thought she was signing up for some mild stretching (in a hammock) when she joined two colleagues in a Groupon deal that promised they would “learn to fly.”

“I probably should have read the emails,” Richter deadpanned. Studio owner Jessica Gordon had been trying to warn them to be following a routine of running, crunches and pushups before the first class, which Richter had disregarded entirely. So the first 45 minutes of the first class – a boot-camp style workout – was a rude awakening.

“We were just doing crunches and pushups and planks … I didn’t even know what a plank was, that’s how ill-informed I was, how out of shape,” Richter said. “I never went to a gym. I’m not a naturally athletic person.”

The second 45 minutes the class “got in the silks,” she said. “You’re leaning over the silk in a kind down dog pose – which bruises you – and then you do straddle backs – which bruises you. When I got home, I’m not exaggerating, I just slathered myself in Bengay.”

With the first six weeks bought and paid for, Richter stuck it out. “I struggled so much with trying to do it, I knew I didn’t get out of it what I should have. So I signed up for the next session, and then another six weeks.”

Along the way she set tiny goals for herself, like performing a move twice out of every 10 tries, then five times out of every 10. It’s the same kind of “little goal” tactic that gets her through business school, she said.

It wasn’t until about six months in, when she performed in her first showcase, that she fell for the art and the people involved in it. Other students spotted that she was becoming discouraged as the show neared, she said, and pulled her aside to encourage her.

“I fell in love with them, with the whole process,” she said. “My first performance I dedicated to my daughter. She couldn’t be there, so we FaceTimed. They gave me flowers. They gave me the Most Inspirational Award, which I didn’t expect. I was like, this is just wonderful. This is exactly what I need. I just never experienced anything like that before.”

A year later finds her choreographing an entire multi-participant routine for the most recent showcase. Set to the Lukas Graham song “7 Years,” the routine tracked the people with whom a man shares his life.

“I thought this was going to be a fitness thing, that I was going to get in shape,” Richter said. “Now I see it more like an artistic expression of myself. I was able to tell my daughter a story with my performance this last time.”

Studio owner Jessica Gordon described Richter as “the glue that holds everyone together. When she’s not there, we definitely miss her.”

She said Richter performs small acts of daily kindness, like showing up with seasonal decorations, that make the studio a better place and enhance its comradery. She also provides feedback that helps Gordon refine classes.

Richter said she found a crucial support network in the studio that backs her in going back to school in the Flex MBA program. Gordon has even adjusted class schedules to accommodate her.

“If they see me in the hammock with a book, they know not to bother me,” she said. “Or Jessica will open up her studio. She’ll say, ‘Yeah, class doesn’t start for half an hour but I see you sitting in your car. Come in and study and let’s get dinner. That’s wonderful. Basically, it’s a life-changer.”