Melanie Whelan has a knack for joining hot companies at exactly the right moment. In her first job after college, she worked closely under the CEO of Starwood Hotels while the company was in the process of acquiring Westin and Sheraton and launching the W and St. Regis hotels. She went on to similarly recognizable big-name companies including Virgin, where she helped launch the Virgin America airline, and Equinox, where she strategized the company’s massive growth. She worked at SoulCycle for three years before she was named CEO in 2015. She and her husband have two children, both under the age of 10, and live in New York City. Here’s how she gets it all done.
On her morning routine:
I have an 9-year-old son, Lachlan, and a 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte. I travel so much and work very long hours, so when I’m not traveling and I’m home, I try to take my kids to school, I think it’s really important. They are my alarm clock — they’re up at 6 and don’t go to school until 7:30, so it’s a really active time to spend with the family. My husband is usually the first one up and out the door. Before I leave with the kids I spend 10 or 15 minutes on my phone just getting prepared for the day. SoulCycle’s numbers come in at 4 in the morning, so I look at those. I get them to school, talk to a couple of moms and teachers, and see what’s going on.
On working out every morning:
My home [SoulCycle] studio is in Tribeca because that’s where my family lives. There are 20 studios around New York and I try to get into as many of them as I can. Then I head to the office and start the day.
On the best workday surprise:
I am pretty overscheduled. My favorite part of the day is when suddenly a window will break open, where something gets canceled or runs short, and I have 15 or 30 extra minutes to walk around the office and talk to people about what they’re working on or check in on their projects. There’s really no least-favorite part of my day, although I don’t like sitting around in my office and answering emails. I can do that on my phone.
On how to impress her:
Being a CEO is usually all about the challenges of the business, and sometimes you just want to hear nice things your team is doing. I just got an email from a person I met at a conference whose wife is a big SoulCycle rider out on Long Island. They were moving to another town, and the team at our Long Island SoulCycle studio made a sign saying, “Good luck, we’ll miss you!” and put a gift bag together for his wife at the front desk. He emailed me a picture of it and said, “This is really special.” The combination of her having that really great experience with the pride I feel in our team — there’s no manual that says to do something like that. No one told them to make that sign. They did it because that’s the ethos of who we are.
On being the only woman in a room:
From the moment I chose engineering as my college major until now, I’ve often been in the minority in a variety of situations. What I’ve always tried to do is be really clear on my point of view and have a really keen understanding of what the business needs, whether it was a problem set in an engineering classroom or a presentation in a room full of men — to have confidence and conviction underpinned with a lot of hard work to make sure that I know my information better than anybody. I’m raising a son who has a mother who’s a CEO. It’s just going to be very different in 20 to 30 years.
On her first job after college:
I thought I was going to be an architect because I loved math and science, and I studied engineering at Brown. Halfway through college I abandoned that plan and decided to go into business like my dad. I was very, very fortunate to get my first job [at Starwood] while it was going through an incredible wave of growth: the acquisition of Westin and Sheraton, the W brand, all within 18 months. I was on the corporate development team, really working alongside the CEO, and learned the nuts and bolts of everything from modeling in Excel to corporate acquisitions, brand strategy, geographic development. It was fascinating, an amazing training ground. I was working seven days a week in White Plains. And I loved it!
On the reasons for SoulCycle’s success:
If you really look at why this brand has been so successful as a business in the 13 years we’ve been doing this, I fundamentally believe it’s because of the power and the magic and the energy SoulCycle instructors create every day for our riders. It’s a sense of purpose. It’s a sense of belonging. It’s inspiration, joy, and happiness. People come for the workout, the indoor cycling workout, because it’s fun and it’s sexy and it’s going to make you feel better about yourself. But what they stay for are breakthroughs they have on the handlebars in the darkness. They stay for the friends they’re making in the room. I think we are becoming more and more socially isolated, and the role that we have to play with this brand and these studios is to become a real safe sanctuary for people.