There are so many reasons Jenni Peters is an inspiration. She turned a $100,000 investment into a $2 million business. She ran competitively for Nike. She has trained local teams for the Boston Marathon. She has an impressive array of race medals hanging from the bookshelves in her office—and an even more impressive collection at home. She’s 58 years old and still runs 30 miles per week.
She owns Varsity Sports and, locally, made running cool.
But the most significant trait Peters shows is her love of her hometown. It’s an affection rooted in loyalty, tradition and hope. Peters is not blind to Baton Rouge’s flaws—its rising crime rate, crumbling public school system and lagging infrastructure. But like a mother who loves a child through the unruly teenage years, Peters knows Baton Rouge will reach its potential.
When asked why she thinks she was nominated as an influential woman in business, she has this to say: “I hope it’s my passion for the community of Baton Rouge and for all that it could be. In my mind, I imagine a world that’s fun, an all-it-can-be world; and every day I want to take people on my journey.”
Her journey started in 2000 when she asked 20 businessmen, women and athletes to each invest $5,000 to open Varsity Sports. They all did, and in two weeks she raised the $100,000 she needed to start her store.
“I said, Come on, jump on our journey with us,’ and they did,” Peters says. “These are 20 influential people who wanted our business to succeed, and in my mind, I was not going to fail.”
This year she is expected to generate $2 million in revenue at the Baton Rouge store. Her Mandeville and New Orleans stores, which opened in 2007 and 2010, respectively, are slated to generate $1 million each this year, she says.
Peters is a Lee High School graduate and LSU alumna. She taught marketing at LSU for 25 years and was the director of marketing for LSU Athletics for seven years.
“I had three dream jobs in a lifetime,” she says. “Few people can say that.”
She was a competitive runner and named one of the top 20 runners in the world. And she has run a mile in less than five minutes. While she’s proud of her accomplishments, she’s likewise humble and somewhat shy, preferring to ask the questions rather than answer them. She’s single without kids, and has three dogs: Mikey, a 13-year-old golden retriever, and two puppies, Spike, a Biewer terrier, and Huck, another golden retriever. Her favorite place to run is the LSU lakes.
Peters is an optimist. “Probably to a fault, but what the hell,” she says with a smile. She’s a collaborator, philanthropic and a proverbial cheerleader for other running groups, such as Black Girls RUN and Girls on the Run in Baton Rouge, and has helped provide shoes to those in need.
“During a six-week period, we donated a pair of shoes for every pair bought,” Peters says. “We donated 80 pairs. It’s great that I’m able to do it, and I’m always thinking about how I can use my business to leverage opportunities.”
She’s a running and workout aficionado, and wants Baton Rouge residents to be active. She sponsors races like the June’s Bride Run, where runners come dressed as brides, and the HOT 100, where participants have to earn 100 activity points during the summer. She has partnered with Muddy Water Paddle Company to promote paddle boarding. She is the creator of the brightly colored “Run Hard Live Easy” Varsity Sports T-shirts.
“People in Louisiana love a little lagniappe,” she says of giving a free T-shirt with the purchase of a pair of shoes—a practice she began as a marketing tool during her first year of business. People wear her T-shirts all across the city—in the grocery store, in the carpool line at school and at the gym. But now her T-shirts are traveling across the world.
She gets pictures e-mailed from people wearing her shirts at the Great Wall of China, in Antarctica and at the bottom of the sea. It’s clear why. Peters’ city loves her, too.