I Want Your Job: Melanie Whelan, CEO Of SoulCycle
Melanie Whelan, CEO of SoulCycle, is on a mission to create a better world.
“Don't think about what you want, think about what you can give,” she says, explaining what motivates her to invest in others every day. “It translates into partnerships, negotiations and your personal life.”
This sentiment would seem cliche from anyone else. But, when a phenom like Whelan shares her goal to “bring soul to the people” with one of the fastest-growing boutique fitness companies in the US, believe she'll work hard to get it done.
SoulCycle, a thrilling 45-minute indoor cycling workout, has taken over the fitness world in recent years. The class combines a dimly-lit room with top-of-the-line stationary bikes and a playlist designed to evoke emotion.
The cardio exercise serves as an inspirational aid, pushing the rider to his or her limit. All the while, an enthusiastic instructor keeps the room focused and on-beat. Fans who eagerly drop upwards of $30 per class walk away feeling euphoric.
“The energy is really special in that room,” Whelan says.
Whelan, 38, learned her work ethic from a childhood spent in Baltimore, Maryland. There, she watched her father wake up early every morning to work out and run multiple companies.
“Regardless of age and gender, there's no replacement for hard work,” Whelan says of the message she learned early on.
Academic diligence led her to Brown University, where she studied engineering and economics before shifting to business. After graduation, Whelan held a position on the corporate development team of Starwood Hotels before joining Richard Branson in founding Virgin America. While there, she purchased aircraft engines and designed uniforms.
Whelan left Virgin for Equinox, where she was given the opportunity to find new markets for the company. As fate would have it, Equinox majority-owned SoulCycle. She eventually met its founders, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice.
In 2012, Whelan joined the then-six-year-old fitness company as its chief operating officer, dedicated to building and leading the company.
“When I started, we had six locations, no budget, no business plan,” she says.
In the three years since, the ambitious leader has gone from COO to CEO, an accelerated trajectory that landed her the number 26 spot on Fortune's 40 Under 40 list. Whelan credits her professional success to not overthinking her next move.
“Think longterm, but try not to get too focused on what's next. Be present in your present and make the most of your opportunity,” she says.
Though Whelan has taken the corporate route to success, she believes there are merits to entrepreneurship as well, especially if you start early.
“When you're young, take a risk,” she advises. “If you find something you're passionate about and [it] has a path to profitability, you should go after it.”
Nowadays, the avid cycler has her eye on SoulCycle's first initial public offering (IPO). The private company is set to make its first stock sale soon.
Over the phone, Whelan stays understandably hush-hush about the inner workings of the company's financial power move. However, she shares a bit about her plan to take the cycling brand global, starting stateside. This year alone, SoulCycle is on track to open locations in cities it already calls home, like LA and NYC, as well as in new markets, including Philadelphia, Houston and Dallas.
“We've scaled SoulCycle to 56 locations across the country,” Whelan says proudly. “It's for people new to fitness and people changing from life-long fitness routines.”
You have to wonder how this fitness junkie keeps up her professional pace on a daily basis. She credits her kids for her constant motivation.
“My six-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter have completely shifted how I think about my priorities in life,” she says. “With the backdrop of this election cycle, what kind of world we want to create and what kind of world I want to create for my kids.”
Already, Whelan is making big changes within SoulCycle. Through in-house training about building communities, SoulCycle creates not only great class instructors (dubbed “operators”) but also employees who want to give back to society as a whole.
“I make time every day to spend with our operators,” Whelan explains. “They're the front lines of the business, creating the experience every day, so I help them understand trends, strategize growth plans. I'm truly an operator at heart.”
What's more, 86 percent of SoulCycle's leadership team consists of women, a staggering astonishment when the number of women becoming business leaders is limited.
In addition to keeping her team on point, Whelan says the 45-minute workout at SoulCycle is a gateway to a healthy lifestyle for riders. Regular workouts make for happier customers. And, in turn, those SoulCycle fans make for a more content, successful CEO.
“You come for a workout, but you stay for the changes,” Whelan says.
In a stressful, overworked world, we can't ask for more than that.
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