Women in Business Q&A: Anne Mahlum, Founder, [solidcore]

Anne M. Mahlum is an entrepreneur who loves to create and build with purpose. Her first go around at building something from scratch was Back on My Feet, a for-purpose 501(c)3 organization she started in Philadelphia in 2007 that uses the power of running to change the way those experiencing homelessness see themselves so they can make real change in their lives. ​

Anne served as CEO from 2007 to 2013 and in that time grew the organization to Baltimore, Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Indianapolis, Atlanta, New York City, Austin and Los Angeles. BoMF is a $6.5M annual nonprofit with staff of 45, thousands of volunteers and hundreds of members.

​In late 2013, Anne stepped down as CEO to start a new venture in DC called, [solidcore], a boutique fitness company that now has six studios with 2 more planned before March 2015. Her vision for [solidcore] is just as bold as it was for BoMF - to build a national brand and community that helps people become the strongest version of themselves.

Anne regularly speaks at corporate events, academic institutions and conferences. She has spoken to intimate groups of 20 to as many as 35,000. She has presented on inspiration, leadership, the business behind starting a nonprofit, fundraising, social change and of course, the issue of homelessness.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Leadership is definitely something that is strengthened with practice and I strongly believe you need to make a few mistakes as a leader to see how not to do it. I was a CEO at a young age of 26 when I founded Back on My Feet - the nonprofit that I ran for 6.5 years. I tried to compensate for my inexperience and my age by thinking I needed to have all the answers. I came across as a know-it-all that didn't listen or take input or ideas from my staff or Board. Fortunately, I had people around who were honest with me about how I was coming across. The biggest lessons I have had in leadership is to listen more and talk less, and to ask other people their ideas and opinions and truly be open to them.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at [solidcore?]
At my core (pun intended I guess), I love to create and build. My experience in creating and growing Back on My Feet taught me so much about the type of owner and leader I wanted to be in my next adventure. From a business perspective, there isn't a lot of difference in running a for or non-profit organization - you have to invest in the right people, have the right product or experience and put the right structure in place for something to grow. I've learned a lot about my working and communication style and I'm really honest about this with my staff. Additionally - I'm a very active owner - I coach 12-14 classes in the studio every week so I can get to know our clients, as well as contribute on the ground level to our community. My staff needs to feel confident that in the end, I'm the decision maker and it's important they trust my judgment, while knowing that I'm going to seek their opinions when necessary.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at [solidcore?]
The highlights are plentiful and easy to list - it's all about the people I have met and the testimonies we receive from our clients about how happy they are with their bodies and their health. I also have the absolute best team of women working with me who both inspire me to be better each day, and also keep me on my toes. The challenges have been learning the construction and retail side of the business - that was all new for me, so it was really important I found people who I trusted that were going to help me through it and not take advantage of my lack of knowledge. I've had the same broker and construction company for each studio and I feel like they really want to see me succeed. As the company is growing, I'm spending a lot of time talking to folks who have built national brands, raised money and taken on financial partners.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
Ok, I'm going to be real here. We all know those people who constantly talk about wanting to start their own company, but many don't because the thought of failing, dealing with the hard stuff, not having a guaranteed pay check, making less money, sacrificing the hours.....just gets to be too much. If you - man or woman - want to start your own business, you need to make sure the business is a good idea, that you are the right person to run that business, that you are prepared for a lot of work, that you are comfortable calling the shots and that you are comfortable being uncomfortable. There is going to be a lot that you come across that you don't know how to do and you have to figure out it - fast. I also fully believe you need to have skin (aka, money) in the game. If you are operating with a security blanket, you're survivor instincts don't come out. When I started [solidcore] - I invested more than 75 percent of my savings and put my reputation on the line...I had to make it work. When you're not all in, it doesn't work.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I am 100 percent play and 100 percent work all the time...and that works for me. I feel I know myself very well at this point that if I need to go for a run at 2 pm on a Thursday - I do it. If I want to catch up on emails at 8 pm on a Friday, I do that. To be a good entrepreneur, you need to both manage your time wisely and be efficient. I don't spend time on things that I don't bring a lot of value to - I delegate, I delegate, delegate - personally and professionally. I really do believe stress is a choice, just like happiness, and I don't allow myself to be in a stressed environment. I sleep 8 hours a night, sweat 1-2 times a day and walk 12-15 hours a week as well. Again- that works for me, and everyone needs to figure out what works for them.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I still think women don't ask for what they want - we settle because someone makes us feel like we should. I remember negotiating my salary with Back on My Feet and I was very firm not only on what I wanted, but I why I was worth it. It's not somebody's responsibility to give you what you want, it's your responsibility to ask for it.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship in my personal life has been my friends - they are amazing. We all go through different things at different times - relationships, personal issues, career choices, etc and having friends that you can be vulnerable and honest with is crucial to getting through the tough times. For professional mentors, you need someone who is really going to be honest with you and can provide perspective for what you have gone through. For example - I seek out women who have been Founders and CEO's for longer than I have. One of the best pieces advice I received was from my friend Mary Wittenberg, who is the CEO of NYRR - I was talking to her about how sometimes I don't feel valued and loved at work. She told me if you're going to be in a CEO position, that you have to find that type of satisfaction in your personal life and stop expecting it in your professional life. Being a CEO can absolutely be professionally lonely as you don't have true "co-workers." This piece of information was really helpful to me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Michelle Obama has been this woman to me in the past years. She has been frequenting [solidcore] for quite some time and I have the pleasure to get to know her pretty well. She is smart, down to Earth, extremely hardworking and so kind. I feel very fortunate to have gotten to know her.

What do you want [solidcore] to accomplish in the next year?
We are on a serious mission to help people create the strongest version of themselves in an environment that is very supportive and inspiring. After seeing the response from people in the DC area, we are in major planning mode to expand into new markets in late 2015. I have done it all and [solidcore] is truly the safest and most effective workout there is.