Baltimore native Melanie Whelan, 40, has been the CEO of spin sensation SoulCycle since 2015, when the brand had seven studios in New York City. Since then, it's grown to 81 U.S. and Canadian studios, advertising life-changing workouts with "inspirational instructors, candlelight, epic spaces and rocking music."
Investors are still waiting for an initial public offering (an IPO filing reported the company had $112 million in sales in 2014), but Whelan, an avid cycler, says that for many riders, the studios feel more like a second home than a place of business.
The mother of two — and keynote speaker for The Baltimore Sun's Women to Watch networking event Oct. 4 — shares her journey to SoulCycle, how she integrates work with family, and what makes her company different from the spin competition.
How did a Baltimore girl end up in New York City running a fitness company?
I grew up in Baltimore City and went to school at Bryn Mawr. My father was an entrepreneur who commuted from Baltimore to D.C. every morning, starting and running several companies while I grew up. My entrepreneurial spirit was lit early.
In my last years of college [at Brown University], I realized I didn't want to take a more structured route into investment banking or consulting like many of my classmates. I was lucky enough to meet a Brown alum who needed an analyst on his corporate development team at Starwood Hotels. I loved learning about the hotel business, corporate finance, strategy, branding and more.
After three years, I joined the team that launched domestic air carrier Virgin America. From Virgin, I went on to work at Equinox, which was a dream come true for me because I'd been a member for years and was incredibly passionate about the brand as well as the transformative power of fitness. As [vice president] of business development, [I focused] on new growth opportunities outside of Equinox's core business.
I'd heard about SoulCycle from a few friends, and I have a personal rule that if I hear about something from three people, three different times, I have to try it. So I went to the original SoulCycle studio on NYC's Upper West Side and fell in love. In 2012, our team at Equinox signed a partnership and investment agreement with the [SoulCycle] co-founders. A few months later, I joined the team, and the rest is history.
How often do you take a class? Do you consider it part of your job?
I try to ride at least four to five times a week. For me, riding is an opportunity to disconnect, and it grounds me in our mission, especially amid the craziness of the day-to-day. I love spending time in our studios, working alongside our teams and chatting with our riders.
Making time for family can be tough when you're the boss. Does combining workouts and work give you more time off?
I believe in integrated parenting. I want my kids to know about my work and understand why I may not be home for dinner every night. I bring my son and daughter to the office on Friday evenings and into the studios on the weekends, where they unpack waters and help hand out shoes to our riders. My kids feel included, and I also want the women who work with me to see me with my children. My team hears me say all the time that there is no such thing as work-life balance — you don't go to work and then go to life — instead, you have one life, so you should make it as integrated as possible.
I've heard the company describe workouts as "primal." What does that mean?
SoulCycle is unique in that it offers riders the opportunity to truly disconnect from the outside world for 45 minutes. With every pedal stroke, riders clear their minds and find the space, and strength, to connect with themselves. You harness the energy within the room and from your neighbor to push yourself harder than you thought was possible.
How do you set SoulCycle apart from all the spin competition?
SoulCycle has revolutionized the concept of indoor cycling and created an industry that truly didn't exist 11 years ago. It's so much more than a workout; it's community, therapy, escape and dance-party-meets-moving-meditation. Our riders tell us all the time that they come for the workout, but they stay for the breakthroughs they have on the bike and the relationships they create within our lobbies.
This interview, conducted via email, has been edited and condensed.
If you go
SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan will be the keynote speaker at The Baltimore Sun's Women to Watch networking event on Oct. 4. The event will take place from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Tickets are available at baltimoresun.com/womentowatch2017. For more information, call 410-332-6634.