Women in Business Q&A: Melanie Whelan, CEO, SoulCycle

Melanie Whelan is the Chief Executive Officer of SoulCycle, the one-of-a-kind fitness experience sweeping the U.S. Prior to her CEO appointment, Melanie served as the brand's COO since 2012, focusing on managing and scaling the company's operation from seven to over 70 studios.

Prior to SoulCycle, Whelan was the Vice President of Business Development at Equinox, a luxury fitness & lifestyle company based out of New York City. In addition to being integral in the Equinox acquisition of SoulCycle, Melanie led the development of both the Pure Yoga and Blink brands under the Equinox umbrella.

In 2002, Melanie joined Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group as VP of Corporate Development where she worked on the team that launched U.S. based airline Virgin America. Melanie graduated Brown University in 1999 with a degree in Engineering and Economics. She began her career on the Corporate Development team at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, a Fortune 500 company with lifestyle brands including the St. Regis, W, Westin, Sheraton and Le Meridien.

Melanie was recently featured as one of Fortune’s 40 Under 40 in 2015 and Crain's New York 40 Under 40 in 2016. Melanie lives in New York with her husband and two young children and when not with her family, can usually be found riding at SoulCycle.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I’ve been very lucky in my career in that from my first job out of college, I was thrown in way over my head and had to figure it out.  When I was an analyst at Starwood Hotels, our department’s remit was very broad and there wasn’t a formal training program for our junior team. I had tremendous exposure to the company’s leaders, brands, and business operations and I learned a ton by asking a lot of questions, being agile and taking initiative. As a leader today, I fundamentally believe in the power of potential and putting people into roles before they’re ready.  I think that’s where you get the best out of individuals – when they have enough room to push themselves to grow but they also know you believe in their potential.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at SoulCycle?

I’ve always been passionate about consumer businesses. From a young age, I learned from my father the importance of the customer and making sure the customer always felt heard, valued and appreciated. Whether at Starwood, Virgin, Equinox or now SoulCycle, I’ve learned along the way that by prioritizing the customers’ needs and really listening to their feedback, you’re going to develop great relationships, not transactions. Relationships are more meaningful and long-lasting. In our heart, SoulCycle isn’t a fitness company, it’s a hospitality business.  Our goal is to make sure that our riders have the best possible experience every single time – that we not only push them physically but also connect with them emotionally.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SoulCycle?

We have an incredible team at Soul and together, we’ve experienced many highlights and many (many) challenges!  Our co-founder Elizabeth Cutler always said that making mistakes was like paying tuition – and there was no better business school than building SoulCycle.  One of the clearest highlights was when we opened our West Hollywood studio five years ago.  We weren’t sure we could scale the company across the country because it’s such an experiential business.  It was a slow start. But sitting here today, five years later with 19 studios in California, we did it! On the first year anniversary of our WeHo studio when the mayor arrived with a proclamation declaring February 10th as SoulCycle Day, we knew we’d done it.

One of the challenges we’ll never forget was the day the website crashed.  All of our reservations go live Monday at noon and 30% of our weekly reservations are booked within the first five minutes.  Keeping up with our scale has been a constant challenge. That Monday the website crashed, we turned our entire HQ office into a customer service center where everyone was quickly trained on how to book riders.  We all pulled together to support the riders and the studios – it wasn’t pretty, but we got ‘er done.  

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

My advice for anyone who wants to break into an industry is not to set your sights on a title or a role, but on the company and team you want to work with.  At SoulCycle, we’ve been very fortunate in that many people have wanted to join us and have taken steps sideways, backward and diagonally to get their foot in the door.  Those are some of our most successful team members – they’re here for the right reasons – they believe in the mission and the opportunities!  I believe it was Pattie Sellers who said that the most successful people view their careers as a jungle gym, not a ladder – sometimes you have to take a step sideways to catapult two levels ahead. 

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

Listening is not only an undervalued leadership trait but also an under-utilized human behavior.  Really listening isn’t just waiting to speak, or preparing your next reply, but about actively absorbing what someone else is saying and then making sure you heard them right.  Asking good questions to really understand someone’s perspective.  Working with and through people is how you get stuff done – it all starts with listening.  Even a CEO, when setting out a vision of where you’re leading a company, you have to really listen – to your teams and to your customers. 

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I don’t really believe in work/life balance – you don't go to work and then go to life.  Life is like a pie made up of lots of slices – work, family, friends, partnership, self, fitness, and on and on.  Sometimes work takes up more of the pie, sometimes family needs you.  But ultimately there are only 24 hours in a day.  You’re going to have to compromise and make choices about how you allocate your time.  So, I believe in integration. I try to integrate as many pieces of my pie as possible.  I was six months pregnant with my son when I took my first SoulCycle class and then I had my daughter a few years later, right before I joined the SoulCycle team.  By tying my passion of fitness into my career, that’s been a win. I also bring my kids to the studios and the office often – they know how to mop the studio floor and hand out water to our riders – it’s important to me that they understand what I do.  Finding balance of all of the slices isn’t easy on a day-to-day basis but over the long-term, by managing your own expectation of what balance looks like, it’s all possible.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I look at this a little differently – what’s the biggest opportunity for women in the workplace, right now?  I think we have tremendous opportunities right now to create change for the next generation.  We have to dedicate ourselves to raising girls to imagine their unlimited potential, and educate them with the tools to realize it. But just as important, we need to raise boys to be free of gender bias, and to not be threatened by girls’ intelligence, success or power.  It’s a long process but we need to start now!  I’m making my best effort to raise my kids—a boy and a girl—that way.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I’ve been very blessed in my life to have incredible mentors. My very first boss out of college remains one of my closest friends and most trusted advisors. I don’t make a move without connecting with him and he’s been there for every turn in my life – both personal and professional. The key to fostering positive mentor relationships is to cultivate the relationship both ways and when there’s nothing at stake.  Meaning, don’t only connect when you need advice; stay in regular contact and always ask what you can do for your mentor.  As I’ve matured in my experience, I’ve started spending more time with young women whom I believe have great potential. You got to pay it forward in life.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

One of my longest standing role models is Amelia Earhart.  I was obsessed with her as a kid and remain in awe of her courage and accomplishments.  She pushed boundaries before we knew where they really existed.  She achieved more than anyone dreamed possible because she didn’t doubt herself, but challenged herself with every flight to push a little further. Her thinking and leadership was beyond her time.

What do you want SoulCycle to accomplish in the next year?

2017 is going to be a tremendous year for SoulCycle.  We’ve just opened our first international location in Toronto and have a few more Canadian studios that will open this year.  We’ve been opening 10-15 studios each year and we’re laser focused on continuing our expansion into new cities like Denver, Atlanta and San Diego.  We’re also working on a few exciting projects that are under-wraps – but look for more news from Soul later this year!

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