For SoulCycle CEO Evelyn Webster, the Way Forward is Through Accountability, Inclusivity and Purpose
The CEO of the boutique fitness brand talks about the "magic" of its community and growth plans as she looks ahead.
On a cold winter morning in the midst of a global pandemic, a few dozen New Yorkers bundled up in their warmest athletic gear and puffiest (albeit moveable) winter coats and clipped in to their stationary SoulCycle bikes under a somewhat heated tent next to The Vessel in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards neighborhood.
The bikes, despite frigid temperatures, were still as coveted as ever; the Bee Gees-themed ride with senior master instructor Sue Molnar had a waitlist.
Among those gleefully riding, dancing and singing along in the middle of a city that so many had presumed “dead” was SoulCycle’s new CEO, Evelyn Webster.
“At the end of that ride, not one of us got off the bike and went home. You'd think we'd all want to warm up, certainly not be hanging around in the cold. But no, everybody was staying with Sue. It was like a Bee Gees sing-a-long after the class had finished,” Webster says. “And there I was as the CEO, singing along to the Bee Gees. It really talks to the commitment of this community to both SoulCycle and to each other, and I think that's quite extraordinary, and just the most wonderful thing about SoulCycle.”
For loyal SoulCycle devotees this comes as no surprise. In fact, this is what consumers come to the brand's studios for — the community, which is often dubbed its "super power" and its main advantage over so many of its competitors.
“What’s amazing to me about SoulCycle is that it’s not just a place where you’re robotic and simply check in, do class and leave,” says New York-based SoulCycle enthusiast Samuel Richards, who's completed over 650 classes both in person and at home. “It’s an amazing inclusive community where everyone is open and nice and always willing to chat with a stranger before class. I have met some of my best friends there.”
This notion of no-strings-attached inclusivity is what Webster describes as part of “the magic of Soul,” something that must be felt to be fully understood, experienced to try to attempt to articulate — it’s the secret (and sweaty) sauce that has made the brand succeed where so many have attempted and failed.
“I think it relates to a shared experience. [SoulCycle] is, without any doubt, a really intense workout. But it goes beyond the physical. It really does touch our minds, and I often use this word nourish — we nourish people,” Webster says. “I think when you bring together a community of people who've experienced firsthand the magic, who have experienced the unlocking of the physical and the mental components of a SoulCycle class, I think that's what keeps them coming back.”
In fact, it’s that exact notion that drew Webster to her current position.
"You have to show up for yourself in order to show up for others, and that requires physical but also mental and spiritual well-being. And for me, as a long admirer of the brand, I have been the beneficiary of the magic that is sold in terms of how it was able to provide me that physical, mental and spiritual well being,” Webster admits.
Webster joined SoulCycle in December 2020 after serving as CEO of The Guardian's U.S. and Australia operations.
And though her foray into the fitness world might have seemed unexpected to some (she has also held executive roles at Time Inc. and IPC Media), it’s the notion of working for, and leading, a brand that stands true in its mission to better the people it's serving that appeals to and drives Webster professionally — whether it's avid readers consuming digital news or eager fitness-lovers ready to ride bikes that go nowhere.
The mission at play for Webster and her team at SoulCycle? To move people to move the world.
“It’s the lens through which I think about the team, the organization, our culture, our purpose, our values, our growth strategy,” Webster says of leading the company with that purpose at the core of her decisions. “I use it as a daily anchor in which we touch our riders' lives, and therefore impact the community and the world."
That top-down approach is apparent not only in the company’s financial successes, but also in its loyal customer base, which has stood by the boutique chain amid multiple allegations that could have been considered the nail in the coffin for another company.
In August 2019, social media was up in arms calling to “cancel” SoulCycle and its sister fitness brand, Equinox, after it was revealed that David Ross (the chairman of the brands’ parent company, The Related Companies) was hosting a fundraiser for former president Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
“We are committed to all our members and the communities we live in. We believe in tolerance and equality, and will always stay true to those values,” SoulCycle said in a statement at the time. “Mr. Ross is a passive investor and is not involved in the management of either business.”
Then came the abrupt departure of former SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan, followed by a bombshell Business Insider report that accused the company of fostering a toxic work and workout environment, including allegations of discrimination, sexual harassment and verbal abuse.
The clear and prompt need for a massive overhaul was imminent, from top execs down to instructors in studios.
Webster’s job was not an easy one — the company’s reputation no longer matched what its customers came to SoulCycle studios for; the values and morals that riders worked to embody and live up to weren't being upheld behind the scenes, and in some cases, inside studios.
But Webster’s goal has always been and continues to be clear: Hold people accountable when their actions are misaligned with what the brand stands for, own your mistakes when you make them (individually or as an organization) and learn as much as you can from as many different people as you can.
“What I’ve been focused quite a lot on over the last few months is what I consider to be a really important foundational piece of work, which is to sharpen our values as an organization, to clearly define the company that we strive to be and the behaviors that are required to support that,” Webster says. “We’re now in the process of embedding this throughout the organization to ensure that we can hold ourselves and each other accountable."
Among these values are inclusivity, acceptance and diversity. At its core, SoulCycle and its riders have always represented a diverse group and community. Ask any loyal rider, and they'll tell you that Soul classes and studios have become their safe places; for some, even a way of life. Regardless of where you come from and who you are outside the studio doors, whether it’s your first ride or your 500th, the Soul experience is meant to be one where labels don’t exist and judgments are suspended.
“[SoulCycle] is a company that is founded on principles of diversity, inclusion and acceptance,” Webster explains. “It's part of who we are, it's in our DNA and it's what we strive to be better and stronger at. Of course, there is always room for improvement within any organization, and that is also true at SoulCycle.”
Webster says that the team is working on diversifying its talent pipeline as it continues to hire employees for corporate roles, in-studio staff and instructors.
“We attract employees and teammates from such a vast array of industries and experiences, with different talents and skills,” she explains. “We’re looking for people who will live and operate according to the values that we have set as an organization.”
Among Webster’s new hires has been Adwoa Dadzie, who now serves as VP and head of people at SoulCycle. Dadzie will serve to “drive many of the programs that are already underway” and work with the company’s employee resource groups (ERGs) to continue to make sure all voices within the company are heard, as well as to gather ideas for improvement for leadership and to hold executives accountable for following through on commitments and goals that have been set.
“Diversity and inclusion is not one-and-done work," Webster says. "It requires focus from every single one of us, every single day across all parts of the organization, and I think it starts from the top. I do believe in setting diversity targets for an organization.”
Webster has been true to her word, rolling out two major diversity initiatives in June for Pride month and Juneteenth through social media campaigns and fiscal commitments.
SoulCycle put its money where its mouth is with collaborations and donations to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and Destination Tomorrow, organizations that Webster believes not only will effectively give back to the community but will also provide resources to help better educate and inform SoulCycle employees.
Soul also committed to partnering with HBCUs and Black Greek organizations throughout the rest of the year as well as committing to sourcing 15% or more of co-branded Soul merch from Black-owned businesses; for Pride, SoulCycle featured select LGBTQ community members on its Instagram page to tell their stories of identity and launched a Pride collection clothing capsule, with proceeds directly benefiting Destination Tomorrow.
And although retail merchandise might not seem like an impactful way to make a change, it’s become a big driver of revenue for the company and yet another way to continue to build community.
“Our apparel business is quite a successful part of our business,” Webster says. “You associate yourself, you see other riders wearing their SoulCycle shirt or sweatshirt or whatever it is, and you kind of give them a nod. You feel as if you are part of something bigger, and I think that's the real love and joy that our riders feel. It’s the very thing that keeps them coming back.”
In fact, when SoulCycle filed for its IPO back in 2015, retail was listed as one of the key elements to its growth strategy.
"Our branded retail line of apparel, sourced from a selective assortment of premium brands, strengthens rider engagement and allows us to garner a larger share of riders’ spend," the filing stated. The company formally withdrew its registration in 2018, citing "market conditions."
Another big money maker for SoulCycle has been its at-home riding initiatives, through both the SoulCycle At-Home Bike (which retails for $2,500) and the library of classes offered through the Equinox+ app.
What sets the Soul At-Home bike apart from a sea of competitors, including Peloton, is that the bike is metrics-free, something that loyal SoulCycle riders have loved about Soul classes from the beginning — riders aren’t paying for just a work out when they walk into SoulCycle; they’re paying for an all-enveloping experience.
“One of my favorite parts [of Soul] is that there are no metrics, no devices, that it’s very analog,” rider Samuel Richards says. “Metrics are so restrictive. Our bodies are different every day, and in a metric-based cycling class it tells you there is only one place to be, and if you are not there, you are inferior. At Soul, there are no such discriminations or limits. As our strength grows so does our potential, and Soul allows us to have boundless potential past any artificial metric … the only limits are those that you set for yourself.”
The ability to create community and a sense of belonging amid a global pandemic, when so many felt isolated and out of touch, has been one of the reasons that SoulCycle was able to survive the past year.
“The future will, without any doubt, be a blended fitness experience for some time, if not forever,” Webster says. “And we've positioned ourselves well to expand the SoulCycle experience for those who want to experience SoulCycle in real life or in the comforts of their own home. That's going to be a key focus for us as we move forward.”
SoulCycle was not immune to the devastation that the pandemic had on fitness studios across the world.
The company began closing studios in March 2020, with some shuttering for good. But it only took until July for Soul to open its first outdoor activation (aptly named SoulOutside) before popping up 25 total outdoor locations nationwide, from Miami all the way to New York City.
“To see the pent up demand from our community, to see the emotion when they see each other in real life for the first time in what has been a long time, is the most wonderful thing to see,” Webster gushes of the outdoor classes.
Finding a way to pivot during an international emergency was crucial; doing so in a way that was manageable, maintainable and didn’t compromise the integrity or the essence of the brand was even more so.
As of June 22, 2021, SoulCycle was able to return to 100% capacity in all studios except the Seattle and London markets. More than 50 locations are currently open, 20 for outdoor classes and 34 for indoor classes. Another 30 indoor studios are set to open in July.
But perhaps the best statistic to come from Soul’s June reopenings? The company saw its highest first-time rider count, a testament to the growth and expansion that is still to come.
“We intend fully to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever, with a better and more innovative experience for our riders,” Webster says excitedly. “Will we expand? Yes we will.”
For Webster, this hunger for continued growth and expansion worldwide goes back to being purpose-driven at her core.
“We can have the greatest impact in the world by reaching the most number of consumers and riders of the Soul experience and Soul brands,” she says. “Watch this space, lots of brilliant work to come.”