Inside the Carry-On: SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan

by Natasha Wolff | May 9, 2017 5:10 pm

In SoulCycle’s eleven year reign as the leader of the studio cycling pack, the unique experience of clicking-in to a yellow bike has garnered the seal of approval from fitness aficionados and industry mavericks alike. But the movers and shakers (or in this case, riders) that have pedaled this brand to such popularity all have one person in particular to thank: fellow rider and SoulCycle[1] CEO Melanie Whelan. 

Whelan first took helm of the company in 2015 (after three years as its COO in the wake of spearheading Equinox’s acquisition of SoulCycle) and since then has grown the company to now hold 74 locations. One of those new locations—their first international one, mind you—is in Toronto, Canada, a market that Whelan said is, “frankly overwhelming: we’re busier than we thought we’d be in the fourth year of operation there in the first two-and-a-half months.” 

Below, we speak with Whelan about her career, SoulCycle’s next steps and about why you might (possibly never) see her at the head of a studio class. 

Do you remember the first SoulCycle class you ever took?

I was running Business Development at Equinox at the time, and the CEO of Equinox [Harvey Spevak] had sent me to find unique studios for acquisition during the economic downturn. A couple friends recommended SoulCycle to me, I went to try it at their one studio on the Upper West Side and it was the best thing I ever did. I met Elizabeth [Cutler] and Julie [Rice] at the front desk and I remember it just felt so different than any fitness experience I’d had.

What would be the most surprising thing to readers about your lifestyle as the CEO of SoulCycle?

Today we are in 74 locations and I’m in the studios most days, seven days a week. I spend a lot of time with our instructors and our operators that are running the studios. I think people are always surprised when they tell me what class they take with a certain instructor, and I know them—I see everyone that we hire into the business and I meet all of them when they’re graduating our instructor-training program. And right now I’m wearing a sweatshirt and skin-tights that I haven’t changed out of since this morning when I took class! 

Have you ever taught a class yourself?

I have not—which is probably for the benefit of all humanity. 

I feel like that would be a popular class!

[Laughing] I ride a lot, but I let the professionals do their job!

Why was it important for the brand to feature real SoulCycle instructors in the new marketing campaign, “Find It”?

I think from the beginning we’ve treated this like a live-production experience; every class is a curtains-up, curtains-down run on the hour and our instructors are the talent. Ultimately the instructors are the one who deliver this experience, and they’re the ones who create the magic of the brand.

Looking back on your career and journey to becoming the CEO of SoulCycle, what would you say is your biggest takeaway?

I think I’ve just always focused on surrounding myself with people that share a similar value set around hard work, passion, mission, and being part of a team that’s building something. When I graduated college and most of my friends were going on to become bankers and consultants, I knew I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial. And in every role that I’ve taken I’ve always wanted to work with people that are a) a lot smarter than me, b) hustled at the same pace that I do, and that were building something. 

What would be your advice?

There’s a quote that I love that says, “Careers aren’t like ladders anymore, they’re like jungle gyms; sometimes you take a step backwards or to the side, before you catapult forward.”

Click through to see what Whelan can’t leave home without during her travels! 

Main Image: Courtesy of SoulCycle

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