How 1 Woman Is Revolutionizing the Fitness World

ClassPass CEO & Co-Founder Payal Kadakia is making it easier (and more affordable) for people to find exercise classes. 

Photo by Classpass

Payal Kadakia didn’t give up when the first iteration of her startup stumbled. She retooled and in 2013 launched ClassPass, a service that gives subscribers access to a variety of fitness classes at a range of locations—currently 8,500 studios, in 39 cities, across four countries. Kadakia, 33, spoke with Real Simple about merging passion and profit.

What was your childhood like?

My parents came here from India in the 1970s with nothing. They were both chemists. They raised me and my older sister in Randolph, New Jersey, a town where there were not a lot of Indian people. For my parents, it was really important to get to know the world and American culture.

You’ve been a dancer all your life.

I started doing Indian dance when I was about three years old. Most of my childhood revolved around dance. My teacher was my mom’s best friend. On the weekends, we would travel to perform in competitions.

Tell us about college.

I went to MIT and majored in management science with a focus in operations research and a minor in economics. I was always really into math and science, but I kept dance in my life. After I graduated, I worked in [management] consulting at Bain, in New York. I left after three years and got a job at Warner Music Group, working on digital strategy. I was doing that as my day job, and then at night I would dance—every night.

You started your own troupe, called Sa Dance, which got some attention.

Yes, I didn’t even have a website yet and we landed on the front page of the Arts section of the New York Times. I was bringing my marketing and business side to the dance company and realized I had built a great brand. I came to a point where I said, “Do I pursue my [business] career? Do I pursue dance? Or do I do something else?”

What sparked the notion of ClassPass?

I was looking online for a ballet class and having trouble finding one.I had an idea to create a search engine for classes.

What happened next?

I met with my mentor and told her I planned to work a day job while I did my idea on the side. She said, “I would never invest in you if you had another job, because you’re not focused.” That’s when I realized I had to commit completely.

What were the early days like?

One of my childhood friends was my right hand in setting up the company. We would work out of Starbucks. We hired another good friend as lead engineer. Then my mentor gave us office space. We were there from morning till night.

Still, the business failed twice before you finally figured it out.

The first product was a search engine, but we found that people weren’t actually going to classes because of it. The second was a discovery pass—you could try different classes for a month. Then we realized people needed something they could stick to. Finally we created a monthly subscription.

You manage a team of 170 at ClassPass. What type of leader are you?

I try to lead by passion and conviction. I think it’s important to remind people why they’re doing things.

How does that play into your own life?

The thing I’m trying to solve for everyone else in the world—finding time for the activities you love—is the same thing I have to work on for myself. There are so many times when I think, I don’t have time to dance, but I force it into my life because I know it’s so important.

And you still have your dance company.

Yes, but my job there is to perform and help with the choreography. I have a team that runs the company now. The only way to do everything in your life is to find awesome people to lean on so you can focus your time.

What else helps?

I set goals for myself every three months. I write them down.

Talk about that.

I have five areas—Class-Pass, dance, my relationship, my family, and myself—and I usually jot down one thing in each area. With dance, it might be that within those months, I want to hold auditions to find new dancers for the company. At the end of three months, if we’ve done that, I’ll feel good. The self stuff might be something health-related. I need to go to the dentist. Just writing it out makes me feel better. And it makes me not feel guilty about what I’m not doing.

What about personal time?

My husband [a lawyer] and I both work a lot, but we enjoy that. We try to make sure we get to hang out and have a normal conversation at least once every day.

What’s your best advice for new entrepreneurs?

If there’s somebody you want to meet or get to know, you can. Surround yourself with people who lift you higher.