Melanie Whelan serves as Chief Executive Officer of SoulCycle, having been appointed her role in 2015 after joining the brand in 2012. During her tenure, Melanie has focused on bringing SoulCycle’s unique mind-body-soul experiences to audiences across the globe. Geographically, she has increased the company’s footprint to more than 90 studios in 20 markets across the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. She also oversaw the launch of the media division, which transcends studio walls and brings SoulCycle to life through music, digital programming and experiential events, as well as the brand’s first proprietary retail collection, Soul by SoulCycle and subsequent launch of the brand’s direct-to consumer eCommerce platform.
Before joining SoulCycle, Melanie was Vice President of Business Development at Equinox, where she was responsible for developing and executing brand and business extension initiatives including the 2011 acquisition of SoulCycle. Prior, she also held leadership positions with Virgin Management, where she was on the founding team of Virgin America, and with Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
Melanie has been named Fortune’s 40 Under 40, Crain’s New York 40 Under 40, Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business, and is a Marie Claire New Guard honoree. She was recently appointed to the Board of Directors for Chegg (NYSE: CHGG), the leading student-first connected education platform dedicated to helping millions of students learn more in less time and at a lower cost. Melanie is also on the board of the GO Project, a non-profit that serves academically struggling elementary and middle public school students in New York City. Additionally, she serves on the Steering Committee of Governor Cuomo’s New York State Council on Women and Girls and sits on the Director’s Council at Wharton’s Baker Retail Center. She is a member of the 2018 Henry Crown Fellowship at The Aspen Institute.
Melanie graduated from Brown University with a degree in Engineering and Economics. She lives in downtown New York City and, when not spending time with her husband and two children, can usually be found riding at SoulCycle.
Speaker 1: Welcome to Hidden Human, the podcast where we explore the stories behind the business leader. Get ready to hear insights from business leaders speaking candidly about how they became who they are today, and the lessons they learned along the way.
Speaker 1: And now here’s your host, leadership coach and speaker Kelly Meerbott.
Kelly Meerbott: Welcome to the space where we reveal our personal humanity to reconnect with our shared humanity. It is my pleasure, and this is a dream realized. For three years I’ve been wanting this human, special soul on this podcast, and it’s my pleasure to introduce Melanie Whelan, CEO of SoulCycle.
Melanie Whelan: Oh, thank you for having me, Kelly.
Kelly Meerbott: It was funny, because when you said yes on the phone, I was like, “Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.”
Melanie Whelan: Oh my gosh.
Kelly Meerbott: And then I went running upstairs, and I was like, “She said yes!” My husband was like, “Of course she said yes.”
Melanie Whelan: And you made it so easy coming to New York, so thank you.
Kelly Meerbott: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. So, okay. Tell me in a way if I was a six year old child, in a way I could understand, what it is a CEO of SoulCycle does.
Melanie Whelan: That’s a really great question, and I’m hoping one day that I can understand it myself, because sometimes it feels like every day is completely different. I think, look, a CEO’s role generally is to determine a vision for a company, where are we going, what are we trying to accomplish, and then make sure that you have a team enrolled in where you’re going and the resources to go after it. So, I think theoretically my job is to be thinking, “Two or three years from now, where do we want Soul to be?”
Kelly Meerbott: Right.
Melanie Whelan: The reality of our business is we’re all in it every single day. And so it’s a real mix of planning for the future, but also living in the present to make sure that we’re enrolling everyone in where we’re going, we’ve got the team in place to build for the future, but also that we’re a community business and we are only as wonderful as our riders tell us we are. And so, I spend a lot of my time making sure that the business feels good today so that we can build for the future.
Kelly Meerbott: Sure. So, when you were a little girl growing up and your mom’s doing payroll on the floor as you and your sister are doing your homework and your dad’s taking phone calls, was it your dream to be doing this?
Melanie Whelan: I would say this is a dream come true, having this role in this place, but not something that I ever could have visualized.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay.
Melanie Whelan: I thought I was going to be an architect. That was always my plan. I loved math, and even though I loved growing up in businesses, my father was an entrepreneur and it sort of grew up around us, I went to school for architecture. That said, I wanted my own architecture firm because I saw my dad would build companies, but I realized pretty quickly when I was in college that I really didn’t want to be an architect and I really didn’t want to study engineering, and I wanted to get into business.
Melanie Whelan: I’ve never really set my sights on the next 10 years or 20 years. I’ve always just wanted to be working in great environments with great people, great brands, great communities, and things that are personally resonant for me. I’ve been really fortunate to … I started in hospitality, and then I was in aviation and then fitness, and what’s tied everything together is all the companies that I’ve worked with have really had a sense of people first, customer first, culture first. Whether it be Virgin or Starwood, the vibe was always about the people. So that’s why this has really been a dream come true, but not one that I ever knew that I had.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. It’s interesting, because I mean, looking back there are certain stepping stones that I’ve had along in my life where I’m like, “Oh yeah, that led to that.” No, I wanted to be a large animal vet, ane here I am an executive coach. I mean, it’s weird, but when I heard you say that you wanted to be an architect, this quote from Goethe came in my head and I was like, I wonder if she knew this. Goethe said that architecture is frozen music, and I was like, “Wow, that’s kind of a beautiful sort of marriage of what you’re doing right now.”
Melanie Whelan: Wow.
Kelly Meerbott: I mean, how does that quote land for you?
Melanie Whelan: That’s a gorgeous articulation, right. Especially because what has always moved me so much about the SoulCycle experience is the music, and the beauty of what we create in the room is the words, and the coaching and the community and the energy, all those pieces are a part of it. But at its most simple form, I say this to people all the time that are, “I’m intimidated. I can’t come in there,” is, “When was the last time you sat and listened to music for 45 minutes and didn’t feel better?”
Kelly Meerbott: Right.
Melanie Whelan: Music in inherently emotional, it’s inherently beautiful and connecting, and with lyrics, so impactful. So, I love that quote.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh, sure. I mean, and as soon as I was listening to that interview I was like, “Oh my God, I have to tell her that quote because I really want to hear …” Because for me, the music is really the essence of everything, and one of my favorite things that great instructors do is the finesse between speaking and allowing the music to speak for what they’re trying to communicate. I think there are so many great instructors that do that.
Kelly Meerbott: But let’s go back to your childhood. So, you were growing up in Baltimore and you’re eight years old. Beside your mom and your dad, who had the biggest positive impact on you as a child?
Melanie Whelan: Oh, that’s a great question because I was very fortunate in that my mother, she always said if there was one thing she wanted me to leave home with, it was with a hand print on my back. Because she was always pushing us into more activities, more communities. We were very active in our church, and we were very active in Brownies and piano and all kinds of different sports that we did, and so I feel very, very lucky that whether it was my basketball coach in high school or my youth pastor in my church, there’s something that you take from everyone around you. That’s why having a full life of people around you I think is so important. Hearing different perspectives is so important. You can literally you learn something in any conversation that you have.
Melanie Whelan: So I’m sure I could tell you a story of someone that super impactful in terms of my childhood, but there are so many stories because I just always loved meeting new people and being influenced, I suppose, by their experiences.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons I love this podcast so much, because it’s about the human beyond the title. It’s like, what do you do? Okay, that’s one little facet of your life, it’s not who you are, which is why I hate that question at networking events. It’s like, “Do you have something more you want to know about me, because I can tell you that?”
Kelly Meerbott: The other thing I was thinking as I was driving up here from Philly is, so it’s the UN week, right?
Melanie Whelan: Oh, yes.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, so let’s pretend, let’s imagine you’ve got 20 minutes on that platform. What would be the topic of conversation that you would speak to the world leaders about?
Melanie Whelan: Oh my gosh, there are so many topics I would say, and that is a very loaded, very loaded question.
Kelly Meerbott: I know.
Melanie Whelan: I mean, I would start with the traffic in New York, and can we actually move the UN building to another borough, having sat in this for the last week?
Melanie Whelan: What I would love to say is more opportunities for women leadership. It’s so interesting at Soul, we have focused over the last few years on diversity in different populations of the company, from our marketing to our writers internally, and we’ve been very fortunate. I call it a little bit of utopia here. My leadership team gender mix is great. 86% of our studio managers are female, we’re teaching them entrepreneurial skills, and so this whole dynamic of female leadership is really not a dynamic here, right? We just believe in great leadership from all different backgrounds.
Melanie Whelan: However, being a woman who is a CEO in the face of capital raising and boardrooms and other places, it is very apparent to me how much is changing right now, but how much more work there is to do around ensuring that we do have truly diverse voices as the table not just being spoken, but being listened to and really understood. I think there’s more that we can do there, and speaking as a woman leader, that is where I believe because it is so true to who I am, I could have the most influence in furthering that conversation. We just have, I think, a lot of work to do.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay. So what actual steps can leaders like you and I who happen to interface with these kinds of levels that you’re talking about, what can we do besides speaking out? I mean, is there any other action we can take that you’ve seen from your perspective that would make an impact? Because it’s great that you’re doing it, but you’re not alone. I mean, I want to make sure there’s an impact too, so that when your daughter Charlotte or when my sister finally has nieces and nephews for me that we won’t have to have this conversation anymore and it’s Melanie, CEO, not Melanie, female CEO. Do you know what I mean?
Melanie Whelan: Exactly. Exactly. That’s why I say all the time, the more important of … I have a son and a daughter. It’s actually my son over whom I’ll have a bigger influence, because when he gets into, God willing, into a role of any kind, this whole idea of any sort of gender bias I think will be [inaudible 00:09:33] to him because he’s grown up with a father who does this and mother that does, and that’s just the way that the world works. Versus I know when I was growing up there were very mothers that were working outside of the home and were leaders in business. And so, so much has changed, but I think there still is so much more to change.
Melanie Whelan: Look, there’s this quote we talk about a lot here, which is, “Diversity is making sure you have a diverse group of people around the table. Inclusion is making sure that those voices are heard.” That’s where I think more of the opportunity is, and insuring that we’re really listening to understand what everyone around the table is saying. And sometimes people may have different perspectives than you and it may not align with what you think, but sometimes that is the way that we should go to try something new, or to consider another point of view. I find so often when you have groups of people it’s very easy to sort of get into group think versus really considering alternatives, I suppose.
Melanie Whelan: So, this is just very top of mind for me right now, is I’m working across different companies and seeing how different voices are heard. I just think we have a lot more opportunity to listen to understand, and to really come to a combined outcome versus driving one person’s point of view.
Kelly Meerbott: So, and I completely hear you, and I feel like diversity is really top of mind, however I feel like we have a lot more traction to do on the inclusion piece, because there’s still … So, in terms of inclusion, what kind of actionable steps do you take within the company that helps move that forward?
Melanie Whelan: I think one of the things that we’ve done in the last year, which I have loved, is setting up both our ERG’s, our Employee Resource Groups, as well as we have a new internal advocacy group called Our Soul Matters, of perspectives from around the company. Because it’s really easy when you’re running a business of scale for me to sit in this office and make decisions with my leadership team that we know are best for the future of the company, and then it gets cascaded down. But without galvanizing from the 3,000 people that are out delivering that solution to the customer, we’re actually not considering a lot of perspective. And that’s where I think this idea of diversity, it’s not just gender or ethnicity, but it’s also around point of view throughout the company.
Melanie Whelan: We just had a meeting yesterday, and one of our front desk staff in one of our studios said did we think about it this way? “Did you think about it from the cleaning staff perspective how that would have landed?” We had the best of intentions here, but we really didn’t understand and include those perspectives in how we were making the decision. So we’re just putting checks and balances into the organization where any big initiative that we roll out, we bring it to these advocacy groups to way, “What aren’t we thinking about?”
Melanie Whelan: Sometimes we’ll make changes and sometimes we won’t, but at least we’re enrolling people in how we’re decision making, which hopefully then will enroll them in delivering an outcome.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, and that to me, is a thread of who you are, at least from what I’ve seen from the interviews I’ve watched, that you’re wonderful, and I will tell you I can speak from personal experience, of listening and actively listening and understanding. For me, working in places that may have conflict or you have to have difficult conversations, sometimes people just want to be heard. You know? And that was something you talked about with your dad on vacation, and how he used to take his phone and people would call in and they would say … He said, “I don’t know if I can solve it, but I can listen to them.”
Kelly Meerbott: I mean, and I’d love to hear your opinion on this. I feel like sometimes on our society we’re in outrage overload, and all of the sudden it’s like, excuse the expression, you say something, I get pissed off and I’m not even hearing you anymore.
Melanie Whelan: Yes.
Kelly Meerbott: I think it’s, not that we have to be polite to each other, but there is that kind of paradigm shift when you do connect and stand in somebody else’s shoes who comes from a different psychographic.
Melanie Whelan: Yeah, I think the challenge with all of it is it takes time.
Kelly Meerbott: Right.
Melanie Whelan: And if you zoom way out, I think we are not allocating time in the right way anymore.
Kelly Meerbott: Right.
Melanie Whelan: Everything is 140 characters. Everything is a picture to be posted. Everything is how many emails can I get through. I’m on Slack, I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on DM, you’re texting me, it’s overload because the pace has increased so much, so there actually isn’t time to listen.
Kelly Meerbott: Right.
Melanie Whelan: I see it in my leadership meetings. We have an agenda that’s the length of a page. We have to get through all of the stuff that’s happening, and one of my commitments to our team is to slow us down, do less, and really be able to listen. Because if we do something and we do it fast, we’re going to hit a five out of ten. If we do less things, I’d rather hit 10 out of 10 because we actually listened to each other.
Melanie Whelan: And I see in it all walks of life. I had dinner with girlfriends the other night. Everyone’s got their phone on the table. You’re saying your point and then you kind of look down and someone texted me, and I finally said, “Guys, phones in your purses. We made the time and the energy to get here, let’s actually focus on each other, and not just give each you the space to say what you want to say, but let me play back to you what I heard you say. Let me help you solve that problem with your son, with your job, with your life.” But we’re just moving at such a frenetic pace, it’s really, really hard.
Kelly Meerbott: It is hard. It’s really hard. I took a leadership class out of Leadership Philadelphia. Liz Dow’s the CEO, she’s amazing, and we did a whole class on empathy. She was talking about how when somebody has their phone out on the table, the level of empathy goes way down, and I mean, you just illustrated that with that dinner with your girlfriends. It’s like, am I here? Well, kind of, but when that light flashes on my phone my focus is being pulled so I’m really not here.
Kelly Meerbott: I remember you were saying on one interview that you put your phone down when you come into the house, and yeah, mine is set to go off, shut down at 7, from 7 PM to 7 AM. But I’m also not running a huge global company, so I can do that. But I mean, how do you mitigate those, and be present with your family when you’re being pulled? How do you manage that?
Melanie Whelan: I think it’s really hard. I can give you three or four things I try to do, but if I told you that I did them with real consistency I would be lying. So whether it’s putting the phone down when I get home from work and making that time and space, and don’t pick the phone up again until my kids have gone to bed, as big as the company is and as important as we all think we are, life’s going to move on. There’s nothing that can’t be solved, and it’s remarkable actually if you don’t look at your email for six hours what can get solved without you involved.
Kelly Meerbott: Right, exactly.
Melanie Whelan: But you and I were talking about this, I read a lot, and I read a lot of fiction. Because fiction I find is very engrossing, and so it really enables me to shut my mind off and dive into a book, and then that helps me train myself to become more present.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, favorite book?
Melanie Whelan: Well I just finished The Great Believers, which was on the, I believe, the finalist for the National Book Award last year. A girlfriend recommended it to me, and it’s about the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the ’80s, which I didn’t know a lot about. And it was really hard to read, really sad, but really informative. I love sort of historical fiction, because if I can learn something macro and appreciate a different groups point of view by virtue of things that have happened over the course of history, I love that kind of experience. So, I actually gave it to our head of People Operations, because I loved it so much. He said he has one for me now as well.
Melanie Whelan: One of my favorite books is The Happiness Advantage. I talk about that a lot, because one of the other ways that I disconnect and stay present is, SoulCycle there is nothing better. And it’s not meant to be a PSA, but I will tell you coming into a space for 45 minutes without your phone, disconnecting in the dark, really challenges your mind as you know, to focus on what’s in the back of your mind, to disconnect from reality. And The Happiness Advantage, which is a book that we give to all of our managers, is really about the fact that happiness is a skill. It doesn’t come naturally to people, and you can actually learn to make yourself happy but you have to work at it. And there’s a whole host of tricks and secrets and practices, some of which are relevant for me and some of which aren’t, but people take different things away from the book. But that’s one of my favorites, too.
Kelly Meerbott: Is there a favorite fiction book that you read over and over and over again? Like for me, it’s To Kill A Mockingbird. That was my book. I love that book. Atticus Finch is just to me like the perfect kind of model of a human walking in somebody else’s skin and understanding. So is there a book for you that’s like that?
Melanie Whelan: Not really, but I am reading Beloved right now for the third time. The Toni Morrison book.
Kelly Meerbott: Ah, I love Beloved.
Melanie Whelan: It’s again, a hard read, beautifully told, and incredibly impactful. I picked it up again last year, and I’m ready it very slowly, very consciously, because I want to absorb it.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. I mean, books just take you away don’t they?
Melanie Whelan: You know, I bought a Kindle. I thought that was going to be the best thing, and the truth of it is I just love holding a book. Do you, too?
Kelly Meerbott: Yes, and I love smelling books. And it wasn’t with my husband, but my favorite date in college was we went to a Barnes and Noble and we just read for six hours together.
Melanie Whelan: It’s the best.
Kelly Meerbott: It was the best. But yeah, books are just incredible. Lately I’ve been in romance historical fiction, just to kind of … I don’t know, the last non-fiction book I read was called Never Split the Difference. It’s all about an FBI negotiator, and how he went into Harvard Law School and basically knocked out all of the law students, and the professor’s like, “What are you doing?” And he was like, “Well, I was listening and asking questions.” And to me, that’s a great skill of communication, but again, lots of people don’t do that.
Melanie Whelan: Yes.
Kelly Meerbott: But after that I was like, “Okay, no more FBI stuff.” Yeah, so I’m kind of into that, but I definitely want to read The Happiness … the book you recommended, because I think it’s just happiness to me is a choice. You get up and you can say, “Oh, it’s a shitty day,” or you can say, “Hey, today’s a great day to have a great day,” so why don’t we do that? I got up this morning at 5 AM, drove here. It was like a beautiful sunrise, no traffic from Philly to New York, shock, and I get to see one of the people I admire most and spend time with her.
Melanie Whelan: Oh my gosh.
Kelly Meerbott: And ride with her, which making me more nervous than this interview, but that’s okay. The worse that could happen is we sit down and pedal.
Kelly Meerbott: So, the thought that just floated into my mind is years and years from now with your great, great, great-grandchildren listening to this interview, what kind of wisdom would you want to impart to them?
Melanie Whelan: That nothing is more important than your happiness. And who knows what’s going to be the reality in the next couple hundred years. It is very, very easy to get caught up in your life defining who you are versus you defining your life.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah.
Melanie Whelan: Am I a CEO? Am I a mother? Am I a sister? Am I a daughter? Without taking the time to really say, “Who do I want to be, and what makes me happy?” I think because everything moves so fast now, people don’t give themselves the space to really ask the hard question, which is, “What makes me happy? And am I spending enough of my time doing it?” I always joke with everyone, turning 40 I thought was the best birthday I ever had because I think your 40s are when you finally get it.
Kelly Meerbott: Thank you.
Melanie Whelan: You finally get it.
Kelly Meerbott: Amen, sister. [inaudible 00:21:31]
Melanie Whelan: And what it really showed me is what matters to me, and that as hard as we all want to work and as accomplished as we all want to be and as productive as we all think we are, if you’re not happy underneath all of it, why?
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. So if we were to strip away all the titles, the mother, the CEO, the daughter, who are you at your core?
Melanie Whelan: Oh my gosh. I tell this story a lot. Very, very close family friends of ours, they have kids my kids ages, and they asked the father, “What does an optimist mean?”, three or four years ago. They were probably five or six. And this friend said, “Aunt Melanie. That’s the definition of an optimist.” I’m just a glass half-full, figure it out kind of person. I love people, and I love understanding who they are and helping activate towards what they want. With my friends, with my kids, that’s truly what brings me joy. I think that’s why I love what I do so much, because when I walk into a studio and you can see 60 people really excited about being somewhere for themselves, we’ve activated that in someway, which is really, really cool.
Kelly Meerbott: Right. It’s so cool. It’s so cool. I mean, there’s no secret I love this company. I’m not going anywhere. It’s healed me a lot, and many, many others. Krista and I were talking out in the lobby, and one of the instructors Alexis Rose in Philly said to me, “Only 40% of people get the magic of SoulCycle.” I was like, “That’s such a shame, because the energy exchange in that room is just overwhelming.” I mean, you’re being baptized in sweat and connecting with another person through the instructor, and reconnecting back to yourself, and how often do you get to do that in real life?
Kelly Meerbott: Well, I do all the time, and so do you. But it’s evident how much you love your work. I mean, from the moment we spoke on the phone, the fact that you took the time to speak to all of these people and go and travel and roll up your sleeves and be there with them to me speaks to you as a human, and I admire that because you didn’t have to do that. You could have locked yourself in your office and been like, “Okay, whatever.”
Kelly Meerbott: So, all right, there’s a thought that’s coming into my mind. How do you know when your level of commitment is done? And what do I mean by that? It’s like okay, you’ve put all this energy into this, you’ve done as much as you can do. What’s the tipping point where you’re like, “Okay, now I need to move on.” At least for you?
Melanie Whelan: You know, I can only speak to the moments I’ve made changes in my career, and how I’ve thought about it. It’s never been, “I’m done.” I’ve never been done with anything ever.
Kelly Meerbott: Right. Okay.
Melanie Whelan: It’s always been, “Oh, there’s something else I could do where I could learn more, be with new perspectives, learn from different people.” When I left Virgin, I loved working there. We had launched an airline. I was 28 years old and we had an airline that was flying, and it was amazing. I learned so much about something I never thought I’d learn about, designing uniforms for a domestic air carrier, and the safety things that have to go into that. And I was never looking to leave, but I was introduced to the head of Equinox at the time, and I just thought, “Wow, it’s a new category and it’s a new perspective.” I had been at Virgin for 5 years, and it was just a moment in time where I felt like I could learn something new. So, I’ve never looked for a job before, it’s just always sort of happened organically, and so like I said, I don’t think I’ve ever been done.
Melanie Whelan: I look at SoulCycle and when I look at the chapters, I started when we had seven studios here in New York. Never dreamed that we would have 100. The fact that we’re hitting 100 in January is crazy to me. But as we’ve grown, first it was about building foundation. Then it was about scale. Then it was about diversification. The retail business, the media business. So, even within this home, there’s so much learning and evolution that’s happening, so I just love to learn new things.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, me too. I’m a forever student. Like I was telling you, each job has been kind of a stepping stone to the next. The funny thing when you brought up Virgin, is Virgin actually did its only radio promotion with me because I called them every week to talk about we wanted to fly a pair of listeners to London to see Elton John in concert for the Queen’s Jubilee, and they gave us two round trip tickets. The woman’s name was Carolyn, I can’t remember her last name, but she said to me, “Tell your bosses we don’t do this, and the only reason we’re doing it is because of you.”
Kelly Meerbott: So, when I heard that you launched Virgin, I was like, “Huh, that’s another weird connection,” because I went to Holy Cross right down the street from Brown.
Melanie Whelan: Oh, right. Right.
Kelly Meerbott: So it’s like, wow that’s weird that we have all of those kind of weird kind of connections.
Kelly Meerbott: The other thing I was thinking of, so you’re here in New York and obviously we’ve got studios all over the world, how do you have the instructors or the staff execute on the vision that you have here? How do you communicate that clearly so that it’s seamless and consistent?
Melanie Whelan: Oh, well first of all, we have a great team here. We have a guy Gary that runs our studio operations, and he has a team of regional directors, many of whom have been with us for the past six, seven years, and have built the company, grown up from the front desk or from studio management. And so, there’s I think just the ability to work through people that you have built something with, there’s a natural shorthand with them. So, we’re going to launch SoulBeat in New York, there’s sort of a way that we launch things. People know, we built this together, and so some of it just happens organically by process.
Melanie Whelan: And then other ways of communication we sort of figure out over time, I think. We use a lot of internal emails. We have an internal, I guess it’s called a portal in the real world, we call it the wheel, where we put out a lot of video content, training content. We do a lot of all company calls. I’ve learned that at Zoom can go up to 300 people if you need it to in times of crisis. And then I also use my social handle as a big point of communication. So, I really started on Instagram when I started in this roll. I didn’t really see the purpose of Instagram beyond I love transparency and visibility for the teams, because we were opening so many locations I wanted everyone to know where I was. So I use that a lot to announce, whether it’s a new program or I’m touring around the country or I’m working with the studio team on something.
Melanie Whelan: So it’s really a combination of storytelling, which largely comes from Gary and the team, to tactics like email and training programs and videos, to social amplifications, because that’s so much of where our population is. It’s interesting, Angela Ahrendts, who was the Head of Retail for Apple for I want to say four or five years, and was the CEO of Burberry previously, she said something to me once where you have to meet people where they are. And so you may think sitting in your office and writing an email is going to reach someone, but the truth of it is your part-time front desker in Ardmore is actually more on Snapchat, Instagram and Slack more than she is on email, so you need to make sure that you take your message and tailor it to the channel that’s most relevant for them. So that really inspired me to continue to think about alternative ways to reach our audiences, not just the typical corporate ways.
Kelly Meerbott: Right. Well, and that’s a really good point, because for me I wasn’t really … I mean, I was like okay, I have this Instagram handle, and then I got involved with SoulCycle and everybody’s posting. I’m like, “Okay, I guess this is a thing I need to pay attention to.”
Kelly Meerbott: So let me ask you about David, your husband.
Melanie Whelan: Oh, that guy.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, so how did you guys meet, and was it love at first sight?
Melanie Whelan: So, we worked together at Virgin, and we met first over the phone, and it was not love at first sight at all. David was in the head office of Virgin in the UK, and I was working out of the US. And with big companies, UK was sort of head office and we were the satellite office, and we were working on this airline. The truth of it was, we were very delayed and there were lots of moving pieces, and we were probably understaffed. So he was put on the project and got on the phone and started asking all these questions, and I remember putting it on mute and looking at my team in the US and saying, “Who is this guys asking us all these questions?” And then he ended up moving over to the States and being put on the project full time, so we worked together for a couple of years there.
Melanie Whelan: It turned out he was not so bad as he read over the phone, but as he says, he was a younger version and not the best version of himself then, either, as none of us was.
Kelly Meerbott: I mean, no.
Melanie Whelan: Right. So that’s how we met.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. So talk to me about Lachlan and Charlotte. Was it always in the plan to be a mom?
Melanie Whelan: Always.
Kelly Meerbott: Always.
Melanie Whelan: Always.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, and tell me about the moment you give birth to Lachlan, and they put him in your arms. You look in his face and you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m a mother.” Tell me about that moment.
Melanie Whelan: That was actually very well said. They do sort of put you in their arms, right?
Kelly Meerbott: Right. Oh, yeah.
Melanie Whelan: That’s actually how I felt. I realized that for good and for bad, I would say, that life was changing very, very drastically. There was never going to be a moment that I didn’t have him on my mind. Which there’s beauty in that, but there’s also I think some frustration in that where you realize, oh my gosh, it’s a lot of work and it’s exhausting, and it’s all the things that motherhood is. Of course, it’s rewarding and phenomenal and the best thing that could ever happen to you, but there’s also this reality of this person in relying on me.
Kelly Meerbott: Yes.
Melanie Whelan: I married David. He’s okay out in the world. I don’t need to worry about him. I think women don’t talk enough about the emotion and the process of that fourth trimester and those first 12 weeks.
Kelly Meerbott: So talk to me about that.
Melanie Whelan: I can just speak from my own experience. You are used to control, and you cede all control. I remember thinking, “I have 12 weeks off,” and not even being able to shower some days because it is just the routine and the sleep and the lack of sleep, and your body recovering from this incredibly emotion experience. It was really, really hard for me with Lachlan. Less so with my daughter because I knew what I was getting into and I had lived through it before, but I think I was really … When you live your whole life, “Of course I’m going to be a mother, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m getting married, we’re going to have these children.” You’re so excited, and you also so want this thing out of your body after nine months. I think I was really surprised by how I wasn’t overjoyed. It just felt like a lot of work.
Kelly Meerbott: I love that you said that. I hear this. My husband and I intentionally chose not to be parents. We did, and then it turned out that health wise I couldn’t, so we’re crazy aunt and uncle. But I always hear from my friends that are mothers, these pressures that either come from other mothers, or they’re not informed and they get into this space where they are ceding control. It’s like, “Oh my God, this is what it’s like? Nobody told me this.” Right? She’s laughing and shaking her head because she knows I’m exactly right.
Melanie Whelan: You are exactly right.
Kelly Meerbott: A remember a friend of mine told me about how like … She’s Asian descent, and she couldn’t nurse because she just was not big. Like the milk was not coming in, and how much pressure she was getting from people in her social circle, and then from her family. I was like, “You just had a baby. You don’t need to add that.” That’s almost like dumping, excuse me, shit on top of shit. It’s like, just enough your [inaudible 00:33:21].
Melanie Whelan: Yes. Yes.
Kelly Meerbott: So tell me about the moment you met Charlotte for the first time.
Melanie Whelan: Ah, well that one I knew what was coming. We were more prepared.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay.
Melanie Whelan: First of all, I was overjoyed that we were having a daughter. What I was most excited about was for Charlotte to meet Lachlan because I knew how excited … He was two and a half, but he was so excited, and to have the two of them together, that was probably the most special moment as a parent was having them collide together. It’s wonderful. I mean, they’re great kids. They’re very close friends with each other. They fight like any brother and sister do, but it’s hard.
Melanie Whelan: The other challenging thing I think about being in your 40s is it’s sort of when career’s really … You have usually figured out what it is that you want to do. The opportunity is ahead of you. This decade is really important for us, but my kids are 10 and 7, and so they need me. They didn’t really need me when they were five and three. It was diapers, it was bottles, it was nursery school. People always say, “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.” I now have a son who’s dyslexic and a son who has reading differences, and a daughter who is a girl and has all of her friends and activities. They’re going in two totally different directions, they are two totally different children, and they need me. And that weighs on you as well, as you think I’m loving what I’m doing. There’s a lot of work. I love when I’m with them, and then the hours between 1 AM and 3 AM, I guess is when I’ll read my fiction. Do you know what I mean?
Kelly Meerbott: Oh, my gosh.
Melanie Whelan: But this is what I would say, because I know, by the way, how lucky I am, so I don’t mean in any way to discount that, but your life is as full as you let it be and I have people say to me all the time, “We’re not ready to have kids. We’re too busy. Too much happening with my career. Too much.” And I always say, “I totally disagree, because you will fit into your life-”
Kelly Meerbott: You will figure it out.
Melanie Whelan: Yeah. What needs to be there and what should be there. So don’t ever think that you can’t fit more things in. I always say life’s like a pie, and you have all of these different slices. You need to figure out which one needs your attention the most. You dial certain things down, you dial certain things up, and you get through it. I wouldn’t change any of it, but it’s crazy.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh yeah, yeah. It’s nuts. I look at these friends that are mother’s and career people, and I’m like ah, I can barely take care of myself. I don’t know how you’re doing this, but if we had Lachlan and Charlotte here in the room, what would they say about you as a mom.
Melanie Whelan: Well, after our drop-off this morning, they wouldn’t say such nice things because we forgot homework folders and socks, and all kinds of stuff that happened. I think between me and David, I’m the fun one they always say. Good time mom is what they call me, and then dad’s the disciplinarian. So they would say that I think we have a lot of fun together. I just try to make the time with them fun, because I’m not with them, which isn’t necessarily the best parenting advice that I would give to people.
Melanie Whelan: But we play a lot of games, we read a lot of books. I try to let them, “What do you want to do? It’s Saturday afternoon. We’ve got free time. You choose. Do you want to play tennis? Let’s go play tennis.” And just let them drive, because I think as a kid what I’ve seen is so little is within their control. You go to school, you go to sleep, you brush your teeth, you wear these clothes. My kids wear uniforms. There’s a lot that they can’t control, and when I see them lashing out it’s when I think they’ve had too much and they need something that they can control, so I like to let them choose how we spend our time so we try to do things that are fun.
Melanie Whelan: They definitely couldn’t articulate that, because I don’t tell the psychology behind that. And the other thing is I always say to them, there’s one thing. We’ve added a second, but it was always one thing which is, “Try your hardest.” That’s all I need. And I figured when they were little if I could just leave them with one thing that mom puts in the back of their head, that would be very simple for them. If ask each of them independently on their own, “What does your mom want?” They would say, “To try our hardest.”
Melanie Whelan: So, we’ve added in the last year, “Make good choices.”
Kelly Meerbott: Oh, that’s good.
Melanie Whelan: Because I’m not going to tell them not to do the things that every teenager is going to do, but I can tell them to make good choices. So, try your hardest and make good choices, and I think that’s probably what they’d say.
Kelly Meerbott: You know that’s the employee manual for Nordstrom? They have a three by five index card, and one side it says use your best judgment, and then on the back it’s when in doubt, ask your manager. So you’re pretty much like, not that you intentionally did that, but I’m like huh, that’s kind of interesting.
Melanie Whelan: That is interesting.
Kelly Meerbott: So, what wisdom or what have you learned from your kids that has been reflected back to you from them?
Melanie Whelan: My mom and I just had this conversation two weeks ago. It’s really interesting that you ask. I’m really struggling to get my son to want to do his work. He’ll do it, but we have to ask him and stay on him, and it doesn’t come naturally to him. He won’t pick up a book and go read in a corner the way I would or you would or I did when I was his age. And I said to my mom, “I just don’t know what to do. I’m at my wits end. I’m so tired of telling him. I don’t want to have to tell him. Do you have any advice?” And she said, “What you need to say is I want you to be successful. You’ll be successful if you finish your work. If you read the book. If you proof-read you’ll be more successful. And frame it that way.”
Melanie Whelan: I was listening to her say this to me. It was a Friday night, and I thought, “This is actually what I want to do with my team. Don’t come from a place of like we have to get it done, we have to get it done. I want you to be successful here. It feels like you’re not having success. How can we unlock that for you? You either need more resources, more time, more space, more for me, less for me. I want you to be successful.”
Melanie Whelan: And it’s really shifted the way that I frame … It’s not something I necessarily took from my kids, but it was a parenting moment that I’m now applying to my work. Because I think that whole idea, that’s what everybody wants. Everybody just wants to feel successful in what they’re doing.
Kelly Meerbott: Exactly, and that at the end of the day when you lay your head down for the last time, it’s, “Did I make a difference? Did I make an impact? Am I going to leave a legacy?” So, that actually was a question that as I was kind of doing my research was what does SoulCycle mean to you personally? So let’s strip away the title, strip away the fact that you lead this wonderful place. What does it mean to you personally?
Melanie Whelan: When I first started really riding here, not in 2008 when I was a casual rider, but when I got involved with the business and really rode here, there were breakthroughs I had on that bike about myself as a person, about myself as a partner, about myself as a leader and a colleague. It’s very personal, but for me it boils down to emotional intelligence.
Kelly Meerbott: Yes.
Melanie Whelan: That’s what this place has taught me, and that is such a gift. Most of our riders take a gift out of the room. The ones that get it know that this has nothing to do with the fitness, right? This is about taking out of that space. Once you take, then you want to give, because you want the others who’ve not had a breakthrough moment yet or need your support, you want to give that energy. That’s why this place is so important to me, because as much as we talk about values and who we are, it’s so much about just being people, and that’s why this place is important to me.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. I don’t want to go into what’s going on, but anybody who knows me knows I’ve ridden a lot. I’ve released 100 pounds in the last three years. You guys have given me my life back, and there have been so many people who are like, “Why aren’t you boycotting?” They’re like, “You can get your workout anywhere.” I was like, “Clearly you have not ridden.” And that’s not any judgment, because it’s so much … And I was talking to Krista about this, and I don’t know if this has happened to you. Maybe I’m getting a little too heady, but I’ve had out of body experiences in there. I mean, there’s a point and I don’t know if it’s the mind-body connection, I haven’t been able to figure it out, where you’re pushing yourself so hard that all of this, meaning the physical vehicle that you’re moving through life in, disappears and it’ just I hate to say it, souls vibrating in unison.
Kelly Meerbott: The first turkey burn I did, I remember looking at the instructor and I burst into tears and so did he after the class, and he was like, “I felt it, too.” And that’s what it is.
Melanie Whelan: Wow.
Kelly Meerbott: I felt it, too. Or my friend Marcie Caudill, who I absolutely adore, who was diagnosed with cancer in April and then rode with me at my thousandth ride in August with her head bald and came back, it’s just, I’ll steal it from Tyler Perry, it’s your church. It is. And no offense to any religious organizations, but Soul really is church, and it’s healed so many people for so many things. Like I said to you before, if a friend of mine fell down or made a mistake, I’m not going to kick them while they’re down.
Melanie Whelan: Yeah.
Kelly Meerbott: I’m just going to stay and support just because I am loyal.
Kelly Meerbott: So, let’s take a little detour and dry our tears. Not that I’m afraid of tears, because I absolutely love, and my husband when he listens to this he’s like, “You’re Barbara Walters,” and I’m so not. But it’s just some people cry with me all the time and I’m glad that I’m able to hold that space for you, but I like to end the interviews with three rapid fire questions. I think you’ve already answered one of them, but what books are on your nightstand?
Melanie Whelan: Ooh. Okay, a lot. So, we read every night together. We’re reading Ramona the Brave.
Kelly Meerbott: I love Ramona the Brave.
Melanie Whelan: Spy School, which is an incredible series for the 10 year old set. Beloved, and now Loyalty To Your Soul.
Kelly Meerbott: Good, I think you’re going to really love that.
Melanie Whelan: Thank you for this. It was a wonderful gift.
Kelly Meerbott: Well I mean, I was like, that’s kind of perfect isn’t it?
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, what songs are in your playlist. I mean I have so many, so I know this is going to be a hard question, but just right off the top of your head.
Melanie Whelan: What is really hard about this is because we just launched SiriusXM, I don’t actually even have playlists because I have been listening to these playlists for the past six months because we have been building this channel. And what’s so fun about it is everything from LCD Soundsystem, which remember them?
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah.
Melanie Whelan: Through to Rihanna and Beyonce and all the stuff that you hear in the studios that we go home to. So I listen, my go-to Friday night when I go home and it’s quiet in my apartment, I’m like a Coldplay, Van Morrison, chill, lyrical music from when I was basically growing up is what I listen to. I’m a huge Dave Matthews fan, too. I actually was on … I know this is supposed to be rapid fire, but funny story. On all of these studio visits I’ve been doing, we ended up sitting on a train from Boston with a kid that was coming in to interview for a job from college. So of course we all start talking to him, we’re like psyching him up for his interview, and then someone brought up the Dave Matthews Band for some reason, and he said, “Who?” And we spent 20 minutes basically schooling this 22 year old on the Dave Matthews Band. How does he not know the Dave Matthews Band?
Kelly Meerbott: How does he not know? And they’re so powerful, and I love … they’re such a gorgeous expression of diversity. I mean, you know he’s from South Africa so he went through apartheid, and they haven’t been the perfect band, not everybody loves them, but they’ve given back so much. Yeah, I mean so much musically. That kind of leads me to a different question since you and I can’t nail down playlists. I try to ask questions that I can answer, too. What’s the first song you ever heard that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?
Melanie Whelan: Oh my gosh.
Kelly Meerbott: Right? I can tell you exactly the-
Melanie Whelan: Tell me yours.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, so it was Wish You Were Here. I was 19, I was in college, and we were doing things in a room. It was like a room party that we probably weren’t supposed to be doing, but it came on and that drop with the guitar just went and I felt chills. I was like, “What is this?” And they were like, “It’s Pink Floyd.” And I was like, “Why have I not heard this before?” So that was the moment for me.
Melanie Whelan: Wow.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. And you remember when you were asking me about who I interviewed, Lisa Gable, who was on here. She an ambassador, but she’s the head of the National Food Allergy Association. Hers was like AC/DC, and she’s straight, a white lady. So I as like, “AC/DC, that’s awesome.” She was like, “It’s so embarrassing.” I said, “No it’s not. That’s amazing.”
Melanie Whelan: That’s amazing.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah.
Melanie Whelan: I would really have to think about that one. That’s a great question, but that requires a big answer.
Kelly Meerbott: A big answer, right?
Melanie Whelan: I need to think about that.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, so we’ll plant that seed.
Melanie Whelan: Yeah.
Kelly Meerbott: Favorite comfort food?
Melanie Whelan: Ice cream.
Kelly Meerbott: What flavor?
Melanie Whelan: Well, after eating ice cream my whole life I’ve now discovered that I actually am lactose intolerant, which is the worst. So Halo Top, which is this new brand, they have this Peanut Butter Fudge flavor that I’m obsessed with and they just released six months ago a dairy-free version of it, so that is my go-to.
Kelly Meerbott: That’s awesome.
Melanie Whelan: Yeah.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay. Last question. What are you most grateful for in this moment right now?
Melanie Whelan: My family.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah.
Melanie Whelan: My family.
Kelly Meerbott: Is there anything else you would want to say to the people that are listening to Hidden Human that we haven’t covered? I’m just grateful for you and the fact that you made time for me and this podcast.
Melanie Whelan: Thank you for making time for me, on the phone and email, all of your support of us over the years, especially over the last seven weeks. I’m grateful for you.
Kelly Meerbott: Thank you. I love this company, and like I said, you guys brought me back to life, and I’m not kidding. It was doctor’s orders to come and ride, and I really was on the edge of it, and I would not have come back if it weren’t for everybody. From the staff, to the people that clean the studios, to the instructors, to you, to Mary Fields, I mean just everybody who has their beautiful fingerprints on this company. I mean, I couldn’t be more grateful, so thank you.
Melanie Whelan: Thank you.
Kelly Meerbott: So, for those of you who are listening, Melanie was extremely vulnerable and real, and to our listeners, it’s our intention that this podcast inspires you to go out and have authentic conversations to deepen the connections in your life. Thank you so much, and make it a great day.
Speaker 1: You’ve been listening to Hidden Human, the stories behind the business leader. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Kelly and the services she provides, visit youloudandclear.com. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a new episode.