For Melanie Whelan, the importance of customer service has carried over from her family living room to SoulCycle’s boardroom where she leads a team dedicated to spreading wellness and good vibes. Lessons came early and often from her parents, who provided her with the foundations of leadership, which she shares here.
Tell us about what you are doing now?
As the CEO of SoulCycle, I’m responsible for setting the brand’s strategic roadmap and making sure we’re staying true to our mission and vision. My team and I are incredibly focused on bringing the magic and the power of Soul to more people across the world. We just held our third ever Sound by SoulCycle concert with Ciara in L.A., a live concert experience where our riders got to experience live music, riding bikes and a social event all at Milk Studios in Downtown LA. On top of that, we have an exciting summer ahead as we open a handful of new studios, including Hudson Yards and our first international studio in London!
How did you get to where you are today? What pivotal moments did you face along the way?
"I believe you create your own luck."
I feel very fortunate to have a great support system, parents who have always believed in me and a family that has always pushed me to be a better version of myself. My parents sent me to an all girl’s school where I was consistently encouraged to raise my hand. I strongly believe that experience created a sense of leadership and independence that I’ve carried with me throughout my career. My plan in college was to study engineering in order to become an architect. Late one night in my dorm room in my junior year, designing a wind turbine, I realized that I wasn’t truly passionate about either and needed to make a change even though I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do. So, I started my career at Starwood Hotels which exposed me to so many elements of business that have informed my role today – hospitality, brand strategy, technology, innovation and team development. I’ve had amazing experiences at Starwood, on the launch team of Virgin America, at Equinox in business development and now running SoulCycle. The short answer is I got to where I am today through hard work, determination, a lot of long hours and leaders who gave me amazing opportunities. I believe you create your own luck.
What do you see as the major opportunities and challenges for women today?
Being the only woman in the room, or one of the few women in the room, continues to be a reality which I choose to identify an opportunity. It’s incredible to see the changes happening right now as more women are coming into leadership positions and the entrepreneurial dynamics in our economy have created vast opportunities for new kinds of leaders. As I look ahead to the environment my children will work in, it’s going to be very different and I’m excited (though sometimes still frustrated) to be a part of creating the change.
What solutions or advice can you share?
Whether you’re the minority or one of many women in the room, it’s crucial to do your homework and come to the table with a strong point of view. However, none of that hard work pays off without believing in yourself and having the confidence to speak up. Early on in my career, I made sure I knew my facts forward and backward so that I had the conviction to make my voice heard.
Who helped you in your journey, and what advice did they give you that really shaped your thinking?
"People ultimately just want to be seen, heard, acknowledged and appreciated – it’s universal."
My parents really showed me how to live and work by example. My dad was an entrepreneur, founding several companies in the service industry while I was growing up, and I remember my mom running his payroll from our living room. One of the biggest lessons I learned was the importance of prioritizing customer service and hospitality above everything else. My dad made it a point to hear out as many customer complaints as he could, no matter where he was and even when he couldn’t fix the problem. Over time, those tough conversations led to meaningful relationships and a loyal customer base. People ultimately just want to be seen, heard, acknowledged and appreciated – it’s universal.
What one thing would you have done differently early in your career if you had the right bit of advice?
The piece of advice I give to women starting out across the board is to get their hands on a P&L as early as possible. Being responsible for driving revenue (and profitability) really transforms your ability to understand the business and think critically about your work. It’s a career game changer.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, money or talent would be no object, what would you be doing?
That’s a tough question! Nothing makes me happier than belting out lyrics in my car, my shower or a SoulCycle class (when no one else can hear), so maybe I’d be a pop star. But for now, I’m perfectly happy with my day job!