SoulCycle’s CEO Melanie Whelan Shares How She Embraces Ambition

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Melanie Whelan, CEO of SoulCycle stands for a portrait at the Greenwich SoulCycle in Manhattan, NY on September 19, 2016. CREDIT: Caitlin Ochs for the Wall Street Journal.

Ambition is not a trajectory, it’s not about being promotion-obsessed or title-hungry. It’s about hustle. It means making every day, every hour, and every minute count. It means putting your head down, working really hard, and powering through. Then asking yourself, What’s next? What else can I do? What can I learn? Today’s achievements have to inspire you to push further and accomplish even more tomorrow.

I grew up in Baltimore. My father was an entrepreneur whose strong work ethic left an indelible mark on me and where my mother, who didn’t work outside the home, was constantly on the move and over-scheduled with commitments to our family, our community, and our church. She nourished my sense of hustle from the time I was young, carting me to endless activities and always finding a solution, like when she agreed to start and co-lead a brownie troop for me and my friends when we couldn’t find one close enough to home. My first job was running a summer camp that I hosted in my backyard. My mom still jokes today that between the supplies and the snacks, the camp idea was neither profitable nor scalable but that it set the stage for future (and more profitable!) entrepreneurial endeavors. At the end of tough days, she would repeat her mantra – do your best and leave the rest, angels do no more. I heard this so many times growing up; I remember many times in high school rolling my eyes thinking surely angels never took finals.

The mantra may be cliché, but it’s a deceptively powerful one. To me, it meant that you own your success and you make your own luck. The only real failure you can have is not measuring up to your own potential. Hustle opens the doors of opportunity. And then you get to decide which ones you want to walk through.

The only real failure you can have is not measuring up to your own potential. Hustle opens the doors of opportunity.

That all sounds so simple. Work really hard, opportunities arise; rinse, and repeat. And it should be that simple. Whatever your gender, if you’re the person who’s best qualified to do the job, you should get the job—full stop. And yet, there are so many things standing in our way. Catalyst.org estimates the share of women CEO’s in the S&P 500 at 4 percent. For every dollar a man makes, women in the equivalent position earn 79 cents. And while we were this close to electing a woman president, only 21 of our senators are female.

Those are real challenges. And they don’t exist because women aren’t hustling. There are deep-rooted problems in our culture, and none of us are immune to them. Lucky as I was to grow up in a family with two hardworking parents who ingrained curiosity and possibility in me, to attend a girls’ school where my talents were cultivated, to pursue my passions in college, and to find success in my career, at times I’ve experienced my own doubts.

Not so long ago, I was in a unique position. Happy in my then current role, there was another opportunity within the company that arose, something that I knew I would love. I wanted the job. I wrote a detailed memo explaining my qualifications and how I would approach the role. I was young and inexperienced for the position, but I had a ton of passion for it and I wanted to make it known.

I remember sitting in my kitchen one evening, looking at that memo, with my finger hovering over the send button. I explained my uncertainty to my husband. “Are you kidding me?” he asked. “Just tell them you want it and you’re the best person for the job. That’s all they need to know!”

In that moment of hesitation, I didn’t question my ability to do the job and do it well. The question was deeper and considerably less rational. Do I deserve this? All things equal, I believe many men in the same situation would never have asked that question. As women in business, we need to be mindful of the questions we ask ourselves, and the limits they might set. (I hit send and eventually landed the role.)

I don’t have all of the answers, but I am addressing these problems in the ways I can control: with my children, and with our team and the culture of our company.

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. This must happen globally, across cultures, and it is a long process. I’m making my best effort to raise my kids—a boy and a girl—that way.

Balancing motherhood and a career is complicated, and every woman has to find the path that works best for her. For me, that means having a partner who unfailingly supports me and my career. It is so important for my children to see how our relationship lifts both of us up personally as well as professionally. And it means involving my children in my work as much as possible. I bring them to SoulCycle studios and our headquarters whenever I can, and they join me on work trips as much as their school schedules allow. I do this not only because I love spending time with them, but also to show them what hard work and hustle look like.

I’ve had good bosses who were men, and not-so-good bosses who were women, and vice versa. I believe in promoting from within and helping each individual unlock his or her highest potential, just as SoulCycle does on the bike. I believe in giving our team members—women and men—responsibilities beyond what they think they’re ready for. I believe in helping them find their own doors of opportunity and then empowering them to walk through them.

I don’t view these as male values or female values. To me, they’re just human values. It’s a very complicated world we live in today, and there is much, much work to be done. We can’t stop hustling.

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