Former SoulCycle Executive Sues for Pregnancy Discrimination

Complaint accuses then-CEO Melanie Whelan of saying "paternity leave is for pussies" to a male svp

SoulCycle faces a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit. Getty Images

SoulCycle, the cult stationary cycling phenomenon that swept the nation in the late-2000s, has always preached a mission of bringing “soul” to all people. When the company faced backlash in August 2019 after consumers discovered that investor Stephen Ross was planning a major fundraiser for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, parent company Equinox Group released a joint statement with SoulCycle reaffirming its adherence to “tolerance and equality.” 

However, according to a recent pregnancy discrimination lawsuit filed by employment litigation firm Wigdor LLP on behalf of former SoulCycle senior director of instructor programming and talent Jordan Kafenbaum, these promises are “in stark contrast” to the brand’s “alleged commitment.”

As stated in the complaint against SoulCycle and its interim CEO Sunder Reddy and chief people officer Adrienne Gemperle (who has since left the company), Kafenbaum was fired from her job overseeing almost 400 SoulCycle instructors just 32 days after giving birth to her first child. The complaint also alleges that three other female employees who had just returned from maternity leave or were expecting—area managers Thea Keeling and Nikki DeMarzo, and senior director of buying and merchandising Julie Lieberman—were also terminated under “suspect conditions.” 

According to a SoulCycle spokesperson, the company offers paid parental leave for all full-time employees, and Kafenbaum was “unfortunately laid off as part of a necessary restructuring due to the impact of Covid-19.” Moreover, the spokesperson said that she was paid for the entirety of her maternity leave and was offered a severance package. 

The complaint, however, blames SoulCycle’s workplace culture, and claims the company seized upon “the horrific Covid-19 crisis as a pretextual opportunity” to dismiss Kafenbaum.

Kafenbaum alleged that in August 2019, former CEO Melanie Whelan—who departed SoulCycle in November 2019, shortly after the Ross controversy led to a massive boycott—told a colleague that “paternity leave is for pussies.” Whelan purportedly made this comment to Gary Gaines, svp of global operations and studio experience, in response to his planned paternity leave. The context of the alleged conversation is not disclosed in the complaint, but it does indicate that the message soon became public knowledge for “all levels of SoulCycle employees.” 

“SoulCycle pitches a brand of ‘tolerance and equality.’ But there is nothing inclusionary about firing a female employee because she became pregnant,” said Jeanne M. Christensen, partner at Wigdor LLP, in a statement. “This suggests allegiance to the bottom line over a ‘safe community.’ Recent allegations about a lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion by several female instructors creates even more questions about SoulCycle’s culture.”

The complaint goes into detail on some of these other recent allegations that, though not brought up expressly by Kafenbaum, may characterize the workplace culture at SoulCycle. The complaint quotes Mary Kate Hurlbutt, a former SoulCycle instructor, who announced her resignation on Instagram on July 22 due in part to the company’s “lack of response to the ongoing oppression, disenfranchisement, and endangerment that Black, Indigenous, and POC, and LGTQIA+ members of our community face daily.” 

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**EDIT: It is vital for me to acknowledge that I inherently benefitted from this problematic system, and that this statement was overdue. That it’s my responsibility as someone who benefits from it to speak up. I’m sorry for the pain my silence to this point has caused. And, again, I hope that sharing this will incite meaningful, lasting change** It is with a heavy and grateful heart that I announce my resignation from SoulCycle. Last week, my talented and courageous friend @rawbabysugar announced her own departure and reading her words felt like the first full breath I’ve taken in months. The brave actions of a Black woman have inspired me to finally answer the call of my own soul and follow her lead. I can no longer lend my voice and energy to an organization that I feel is operating in misalignment with my own values. I’ve been disheartened by our lack of response to the ongoing oppression, disenfranchisement, and endangerment that Black, Indigenous, and POC, and LGTQIA+ members of our community face daily. I’ve watched as we pour time, energy, and resources into creating thoughtful operational strategies to prioritize reopening our facilities in order to generate revenue; only to also witness the historical lack of time, energy, and resources that go toward creating a safe and inclusive environment for staff and riders alike. For transparency, I’ve included a copy of my resignation letter on the following slides. I’ll forever be grateful to the amazing leaders, mentors, & colleagues I’ve worked with during my tenure. Though leaving is a devastating choice, it’s a privileged one to make. Some of my favorite people in the world continue to work at Soul & I fully support their decision to do so. I’m excited to see the way they usher in a new era. It’s my sincerest hope to proudly walk through the doors as a client in the future, full of love and respect as I celebrate the way company leadership answered the calls from their colleagues and clients & reimagined what Soul could be. This community drastically changed my life for the better. I love you beyond measure.

A post shared by MK Hurlbutt (@mkhurlbutt) on

“Whether SoulCycle marginalized and subjected female employees to ‘less than’ treatment because of their skin color is directly relevant to whether senior management similarly fostered or allowed bias to exist against female employees that became pregnant,” the complaint notes. “A work culture that intimidates employees from speaking out about one protected class is more likely to silence and bully employees from speaking out about other perceived discrimination.” 

Kafenbaum is seeking damages, plus prejudgement interest, in an amount to be determined at trial to compensate for any professional derailment.

@monicroqueta Mónica is a breaking news reporter at Adweek.