We spoke to Bonnie Lister Parsons, dancer and CEO-founder of the School of SOS
RD: Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Bonnie Lister Parsons, the founder and CEO of School of SOS—a new movement in dance with empowerment and self-confidence at its very core. SOS makes the pop-inspired dance tuition that A-list stars such as Beyoncé, Lizzo and J-Lo receive accessible to the mass market, putting mental health, inclusion & confidence first.
Our classes are available both in-real-life and online for all levels, so no previous dance experience is needed.
RD: What career trajectory led you to opening your own business? Have you undergone any formal training/ previous roles that have helped you to achieve what you do now?
I started my career as a professional backing dancer, having trained at Tring Park, The Broadway Dance Centre in New York and the Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles.
When I moved back to London, I danced for Kelly Rowland, Florence & The Machine, Alexandra Burke, the Sugababes and on big TV shows such as The X Factor, plus working for brands such as Sony PlayStation (where you play me as an avatar on Dancestar Party!).
This was invaluable as I learned how to gamify dance. It was the beginning of my journey, learning how to create choreography for a mass market audience.
I got the idea for my first business in between rehearsals on the set of The X Factor live shows. I wondered if any of the 20 million+ people watching at home wanted to dance like the artists and dancers they saw ‘on screen’, just like I did when I was going up.
I did my research and couldn’t believe nothing like it existed, so I decided to found my first company Seen on Screen, which initially began as a side-hustle alongside my pro dance career.
Bonnie (second from left) with Kelly Rowland on the set of The X Factor
I never studied business formally, but I think because I had grown up with an entrepreneurial father who ran his own business, it felt like a pretty natural thing to do.
Equally, dance is a brilliant training ground for entrepreneurship because it gives you an acute instinct for how to stand out; imagine auditioning against 200 ambitious, talented dancers for a job…it's a ruthless lesson in branding!
The dance industry teaches you how to tune out the noise of regular failure and rejection so you can stay laser-focused on what you want despite setbacks, it teaches you the enormous value of your network, and how to work so hard that you put your career before anything else in your life.
To become successful as a dancer, your drive has to be unstoppable. In my experience at least, it’s exactly the same in business.
So, after founding Seen on Screen when I was 23, I experienced 18 months of hard graft, failure and rejection while I got our product/market fit right.
Then in the new year of 2013, we landed major press and Seen on Screen took off. We doubled, then tripled in size year on year. During this time, I would receive requests every time we landed a big feature from people around the world asking for SOS in their city.
In this time, I realised that Seen on Screen wasn’t a niche concept for the boutique London fitness market—the Seen on Screen experience was in demand on a global scale. It was this global demand that set me on the trajectory which led me to founding my second business School of SOS 7 years later, when I was 30.
RD: Tell us more about School of SOS; how would you best summarise what you offer?
BLP: SOS is a global dance school on a mission to empower a generation of women to believe in themselves, using dance as a source of strength, power, and confidence which they can carry through to every aspect of their lives.
Our super empowering, pop-inspired classes are available in-real-life (taught by our certified instructors who are trained in our teaching method which I developed over ten years’ worth of teaching), and online, taught directly by the A-list SOS dancers themselves who created the routine.
Students can practice at home directly with the dancers they see on screen dancing for their favourite artists.
The same routine is then taught across all locations, so you learn the same routine whether you’re dancing at an SOS class in Bolton, Edinburgh or London.
Our certified instructors, who we call bosses, build their own local communities of women who lift each other up, creating incredibly empowering, inclusive, judgement-free zones where you can be accepted and celebrated unconditionally for who you are. We need more of that in the world!
RD: School of SOS focuses on female empowerment and body positivity as well as the actual dance steps—why and how is this core to your ethos?
Over my time teaching at Seen on Screen, women would write to me to tell me how SOS had changed their lives for the better.
Alongside teaching, I would also be invited to mentor at events like the Women of The World Festival, and the one thing that connected these women was that in at least one area of their lives (be it relationships, their work etc), they did not believe they were enough. I could relate, and I’ll never forget the moment I realised this and realised that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.
A lot of shame and pain can come with this sense of worthlessness, which as women, we try very hard to hide. So I’m honoured that these women felt comfortable enough to reach out to me to tell me their stories.
While I had started out in business wanting to provide pop-inspired dance classes to the masses, I had actually managed to find a formula through our dance experience that healed this lack of self belief which had held back so many of our students.
Around this time, I had begun raising equity investment to scale the SOS concept globally to fulfil demand.
I was incredibly shocked by the overt, enormous discrimination and sexism within the investment community. But it wasn’t just in the VC/investment world—I began asking, why are there so few women in positions of power, not just in politics or business, but across all industries.
"I was incredibly shocked by the overt, enormous discrimination and sexism within the investment community"
I put the pieces together; if we can teach women how to love themselves, relieving women of this nonsense pressure to be perfect, we can teach them how to stand up for themselves.
We can teach them how to speak up for themselves. We can teach them that they deserve the best life has to offer them, and to never apologise for going after exactly what they want.
Dance is not about being humble; it’s about seizing opportunities, putting yourself out there and demanding success because you have earned it and you deserve it. All women deserve to know how this feels.
RD: Can anybody really become a dancer? What are the mental and physical health benefits of learning to dance?
Often people tell me nervously that they can't dance, and they've got ‘two left feet’, but really there’s nothing to be worried about. At SOS, we know exactly how to break routines down into bite size sections of ‘8 counts’ so our students can take everything in at their own pace.
Plus our method guarantees you’ll get the moves—I promise! So yes, anybody really can become a dancer. Just put your favourite track, and move!
When you’re not worrying about the moves anymore, dance is a space where you can reconnect to yourself, no matter what’s going on in your life and the outside world. When you’re at an SOS class, you can express all those pent up emotions we hold back on a day-to-day basis, judgement free.
Dance will exercise muscles you never knew you had while giving you an exceptional aerobic workout, but the beauty is, you’re so busy having a great time, you’re not focused on burning calories or losing weight. As an exercise option, it’s one that is much easier to stick to.
RD: How does your work compliment your personality?
In my day-to-day life, I’m quite introverted so I'm very happy in front of a computer with a financial model in front of me. I think I’ve turned into a numbers girl at heart! But there’s also a part of me that still has all that fire of being a performer; just put me in front of a room full of Queens (what we call SOS students) and I become a dance empowerment machine!
RD: What has your funding journey been like? How have you gone about securing investment in the business?
I set up Seen on Screen with savings I had built up while working for Sony Playstation, and a £6K bank loan, which I used to pay for my first publicist. It was one of the best investments I have ever made.
After all the press and success we had achieved as a brand, I wanted to raise equity investment to scale. I met with high-profile investors, but I kept getting feedback that we were ‘too early’.
I didn’t mind (you take it on the chin and improve) but after two years addressing the investors’ feedback, I was seeing male founders without any of the traction we had built up, raising millions of pounds. I started to ask; why am I ‘too early’, but they’re not?
I started doing the research and could not believe that of the billions of dollars which get invested into startups every year, only around 2% of this went to female founders. This number increased to 20% when you added a male co-founder, with the remaining 80% of investment capital going to all male teams. This is largely down to the fact that male investors invest in male founders. So what if female investors invested in female founders?
After being told that ‘women don’t invest’ and that raising money from female investors would ‘hold my business back’, I launched the world’s first all-female investment round making every investor in School of SOS female.
Rather than raising through traditional channels, I posted about our round on Instagram, with the hashtag #InvestLikeAWoman. We hit our investment target in two weeks, then doubled it. This capital funded my second company School of SOS which launched in September 2019.
A School of SOS dance class in action
RD: What does a typical workday look like for you?
I’ve recently got a puppy, so my morning starts by walking her, then I get straight on a stand-up call. We go through the agenda for the day, discuss any blocks that we might have to ensure everyone is supported and we’re all on the same page.
Then my day can be very varied. I could be working on the new tech platform our incredible Chief Technology Officer Leah Cohen is building, pitching to investors, creating marketing strategies, supporting our Bosses, or bringing the team together to create dance content that has the power to change our customers' lives for the better!
RD: How has the pandemic impacted on your business?
By the time the pandemic hit, School of SOS had been active for about 6 months, and we knew behind the scenes the model we wanted for our online classes, so the pandemic gave us the opportunity to fast-track the digital launch and we responded very quickly.
Most importantly, we wanted to make sure we really showed up for our community during what was a tough time for everyone’s mental health.
We made the first month of our digital classes free and available on Instagram Live Live, where we were running daily classes streaming in our A-list dance team across London, New York and LA.
Our Instagram just blew up, and we were getting thousands of people joining our classes. So much so, Instagram themselves heard about SOS and DM’d me asking to feature us in their timetable of the best Instagram lives in the world!
This created the perfect environment to launch our digital subscription. Around the same time, we also took our instructor training courses online, allowing us to train our students from all over the world to become qualified SOS bosses (certified SOS dance instructors) so they could set up SOS classes for their local communities.
RD: What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the job?
My favourite part is being able to make a real difference. I often get students coming up to me or emailing to tell me their stories and how SOS has changed their lives. I can’t see how anything could be better than that—it’s why I do it.
My least favourite part… running a company comes with a lot of pressure and responsibility. As a CEO, I wouldn’t want anyone else to have that responsibility, so I think you have to learn how to deal with it.
RD: What do you like to do to switch off?
I love listening to great podcasts and going for a walk. Just taking some personal time to get clarity and space is so important. Playing with my puppy, laughing with friends, hanging out with my amazing husband, all great ways to switch off. I also love to be a dance student myself!
RD: What has been the most valuable business lesson you’ve learnt so far? And what has been your most tangible achievement?
There's no set formula for how to live your life, there’s no set formula for how to build a business. I have learned that the most exciting businesses are the ones that innovate and create something that hasn't existed before.
If it’s never existed before, maybe a founder like you has never existed before. And sometimes that can be really intimidating and scary because you can look right and left and think “there’s no one like me so I must be in the wrong place”, but you are right where you’re meant to be.
Never be intimidated by being different. Don’t fit in. Stand out. And if people don’t ‘get it’, I’ve learned it doesn’t mean you’re any less than them. It just means they’re not ready for you!
"Never be intimidated by being different. Don’t fit in. Stand out."
RD: You’ve worked with a lot of talented dancers and artists—who has been your biggest inspiration/given you the best advice?
I worked with Brian Friedman three years in a row on The X Factor, who choreographed all of Britney Spears' biggest music videos. He demanded such excellence from his dancers and he really taught me the value of attention to detail.
Excellence is the sum of the small details, and ultimately incredibly hard work. I always want to aspire to this level of excellence in my business, and never settle for anything less than the best I can make it.
RD: In five year’s time, where would you like to see the business?
In five year’s time I want to see School of SOS on every street corner and on every device, worldwide.
I want to be able to get on a plane and travel to any major city in the world and see women coming out of their local community centres and gyms with SOS crown t-shirts on and that post-dance glow on their face, smiling and laughing with their friends who they’ve been doing SOS classes with.
I want to be able to see women achieve what’s most important to them, supported by everything we’re working so hard to build through the School of SOS.
RD: If you weren’t in this line of work, what other career would you love to have?
I don't think there is another career for me, honestly. Perhaps I would have become a choreographer or agent if I hadn’t started a business, but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than School of SOS’s CEO.
RD: Lastly, a very important question – what’s your own go-to song to get you dancing?
Beyoncé—Diva (specifically the Beychella version!).
You can visit and book lessons with the School of SOS here
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