Iron-willed mum who gave up $110,000 career to run ladies-only gym

I By Ram Khatry I 6 July 2020 I

Born Eliza Onta, she is an iron-willed single mum who gave up a $110,000 career to own a ladies-only gym in a busy Sydney suburb and does a marvellous job of it.

She is the former “first girl” of Kanya High School in Kathmandu.

She is a former table tennis champion who represented Nepal in the 1995 World Championship in Beijing as well as participating in many other international competitions, representing her country.

She is a doting mother who has vowed to lead a life which is a total bitterness-free zone despite the many bitter challenges she had to overcome in life before she became a successful entrepreneur.

Eliza Olds, put simply, is a member of Australia’s thriving Nepalese diaspora whose journey as an immigrant inspires men and women alike as she preaches and practices health and wellbeing in Sydney’s inner west.

Long before she became the owner of the female-only gym in Merrylands, a suburb which is a tribute to Australia’s rich multiculturalism, she was an overseas student at the Macquarie University.

When smiles replace bitterness, Eliza’s “Fortitude” is born I Photo:

“I tried computer science initially but soon realised I was not interested in it. Then I joined Bachelor of Commerce,” Ms Olds said as she gave interview inside the children’s playroom at her Fortitude Fitness For Women, previously known as Contours Women’s Gym.

She would not allow anyone, not even a community journalist interviewing herself, inside the gym. The mother of two is very conscious of the cultural expectations of the Fortitude Fitness members and ensures that a high standard of customer service to that effect is maintained, “Over 70 percent of my clients are of the Muslim faith; they don’t like man inside the facility when they have taken off their hijab and are exercising. I respect them as my valued customers and their faith and it is our duty to ensure they feel safe here. It is important that I make my members feel comfortable and that’s making this gym a unisex business never crossed my mind.”

Eliza Olds poses with her sister Anjali Onta Shrestha at the Fortitude Fitness for Women in Merrylands

Ms Olds graduated from Macquarie University in 2002 and soon took up an accounts payable position. Her “fortitude” and perseverance would soon see her make steady career progress eventually rising to a position that would award her a six-figure salary package.

“I started at a very basic level like data-entry and accounts payable role,” she reminisces her early days of struggle. The former Table Tennis champion had the tenacity to overcome whatever challenges came her way as she tried to find her foothold in the corporate world before she became comfortably employed by big businesses including the United Group Ltd (UGL). Years later, as she juggled between her role as a mother of two young children and an accountant, she would face a more serious life situation. But her cultural background, good education, faith in herself and a “professional” attitude towards problem-solving meant she successfully handled the inherent emotional challenges of a marriage-breakdown.

After she had her first child in 2008, she began going to a local gym called Contours Womens Gym and became good friends with the owners. Following her second child in 2012, she began to think of a career change so that she could give more time to her children. Coincidentally, around the same time, the owners of the women’s gym wanted to sell the business and retire when Ms Olds decided to buy. She knew she wanted to buy but had no inkling where the money would come from. All she had was the confidence of a strong-willed mother who had always done things the way she wanted.

She travelled to Nepal with her 10-month-old baby to sell a piece of land she had bought in Kathmandu. “The husband and wife who owned Contours, who had become good friends with me, came to Nepal with me because it was a good opportunity for them to see the country with someone they already knew!” she exclaims.Eliza

Ms Olds raised the required funds, after all sorts of dramas. However, the asking price of $220,000 was brought down without which it would be impossible for her.

In the meantime, as the young mother negotiated challenges of starting a new venture, her marriage of over a decade was going through a rough patch.

In March 2014, a month before she was due to take over the ownership of the gym, her husband moved out of their Merrylands home.

“People around you don’t know what you are going through! And you can’t even walk away because you have already signed the papers and everything. So, you just have to act brave, you know!” Ms Olds said, completely overcome with emotions as wounds partially healed by time become fresh while recounting the early days of her career as a gym owner.

Her challenges did not end after taking ownership of the gym. The manager of the gym was obviously not happy with Ms Olds taking over and “she started to play mind games with her. “Reporting to me was a big ask for her. She started to play mind games with me. I was not going to take anyone’s job but then after six months I realised that she was not doing things in my favour,” Ms Olds said.

Eventually, she fired the trouble-maker who then went to the court and there began another challenge for the already tired mum, “Within the first year of buying the business, I was in a court battle!”

She said there was no clean win for either party in the legal battle and she was glad it was all over and she could move on acquiring new qualifications to become a gym instructor and yoga teacher, “I had to step in after the manager was gone. I could not risk losing the business. I had no training or experience in the fitness industry. So, I had to acquire fitness qualifications just in case any staff fell sick.”

The separation from her husband who had been her companion in life for 14-15 years, the court battle following the purchase of the gym, the fresh challenges of learning and running a new business and the burden of shouldering responsibilities of raising two kids –  the challenges were stupefying for Ms Olds in 2014/15.

But she was not the one to kneel down and sob.

One thing the former Kanya High School student had that enabled her face them was her organised approach to solving problems, thanks to her education and years of professional work-life.

However, she required help and she was not shy to seek it. She began to see a counsellor on a weekly basis. It was an investment she had to make for herself and her kids, she reckons now.

Ms Olds still sees her counsellor and has become good friends with her, seeing her every five to six weeks even in 2020.

“Thanks to her I managed to save house,” she says.

Today, Ms Olds has a healthy business and employs over a dozen of casual staff. The name “Contours” had to be changed as the American brand became defunct due to a legal battle in the US in 2015. That’s when she organised a competition within her gym members to find a new name for the gym.

Over 50 members participated in the competition and one particular name was chosen, “Fortitude”, for what the word represented for Ms Olds.

Reflecting back on her decision to change career, she does not repent giving up on her six-figure salary that she would have been earning now if she was still working in the corporate world. Business-wise, it is not that bad either, plus the time she has for her beautiful daughters is a winner. She has some 750 members who pay $26.25 a week via direct debit but each month tens of thousands go into staff salary and management of the facility.

It is a career of fulfilment that keeps Ms Olds content. It is a business that thrives in positivity and wellness. It is a business that allows the Nepalese-Australian to give back to the community by way of contributing to women’s health.

The whole COVID-19 situation appeared to present serious challenge to her business model as the government put restrictions in place to check the spread of the epidemic. Initially, she reeled under pressure thinking how she would now pay her staff. “But thank God that the government introduced the job-keeper payments!” she exclaims in gratitude adding that apart from her sister and herself, the gym needs some 150 hours of “women hours”.

The young mother is not someone who would have stayed idle at home during the COVID-19 lockdown. She invested the time honing her skills as a trainer and fitness guru, developing an app for her gym as well as updating the website of the Fortitude Fitness For Women.

So what makes this young mother tick and exude such confidence and vivacity? What has enabled her live a life that could be the envy of tens of thousands other fellow-immigrants who are still struggling to find a foothold in Australia?

“The most important thing in life is having a good relationship with your own self,” the yoga teacher reminds, “Women often tend to serve, serve, serve – all their life. Don’t do that! Learn to look after yourself first. If you do not look after yourself how would you look after your children and others?”

It is very important that you love yourself and listen to your inner voice and seek professional help if you need, Eliza Olds urges when asked if she has any message for people who are going through similar life challenges.

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