Payal Kadakia is a whole new type of leader.
Her voice is soft, but commanding. Her manner charming, but firm. She tends to finish her sentences with “right?” It serves as both a makeshift period and an invitation for the listener to see the world through her eyes.
She's a far cry from both the suited Don Drapers of the past. But she's also miles from the current frat boy startup CEO stereotype.
Kadakia, 32, is the cofounder and CEO of ClassPass, a monthly membership service that lets you sample fitness classes from dozens of gyms and boutiques in your area.
Lately, she's been getting a lot of well-deserved attention.
Weeks before we speak, she pops up on Fortune's 40 Under 40 Women To Watch list. What's more, her company -- valued at $400 million -- makes its first move toward global expansion by opening up the service to Australians.
Most business executives attribute their success to an Ivy League education or business connections made along the way. Kadakia, however, chalks it up the values she holds dear.
If she's honest with herself, she can hold each one of her employees and customers to the same standard.
To her, ClassPass is a vehicle for getting in touch with what you actually want to do. Exercise is just one of many ways to empower yourself.
Kadakia tells me,
We listen to people. We kind of give them permission to do what they want to do. It's like, they already subscribe to it so they feel like the world is their oyster. And that's such a great feeling.
Sounds like the bold thesis statement of a woman who grew up knowing how to ask for what she wanted. But, the truth is, Kadakia traveled a long road to success.
In 2005, a much more naive Kadakia graduated from MIT with a degree in Operations Research. Without much desire for anything besides stability, she picked up a career in consulting at Bain & Company.
Soon, however, she began pining for the one pastime that kept her inspired: Indian dance. So, she set out to juggle a demanding job with a hobby she loved too much to let go.
When I moved to New York, it was like the first thing I did. I looked for a [dance] company to be a part of. I luckily found something pretty low-key to be a part of, but when I was at Bain I realized very quickly that I wasn't going to be able to do both for very long and have both my careers sort of take off.
Kadakia doesn't like to settle for mediocre. When she decides on a goal, she'll hit it with laser focus -- even if it takes several tries. So, she left her promising job.
In 2008, Kadakia joined Warner Music Group. She scheduled out evenings and weekends, finding the time to being a dance company of her own. It's called Sa Dance.
My dance company was doing phenomenally. We ended up on the cover of the Arts section of the New York Times. I came into work the next day and my boss was like, 'I didn't know if you were going to come back to work.'
Kadakia, restless and still feeling unfulfilled, examined her life and came up dissatisfied. It was time to follow her passion.
In 2011, she left Warner to forge her own course. Struck by the how difficult it had been for her to find a workout class in the city, Kadakia aimed to make the process easier with a fitness search engine called Classtivity.
"The mission for me was always to be able to help people discover things,” Kadakia explains.
The company quickly proved unsustainable, because customers merely used it to research before booking elsewhere.
But, from Classtivity was born ClassPass. The latest iteration of Kadakia's company launched two and a half years ago with the aid of cofounder Mary Biggins. The $125 per month service allows fitness fiends to take almost any boutique class on the market.
The pair founded ClassPass on the idea that everyone should have one thing they love, just like Kadakia can't live without dance.
I don't think everyone in the world is supposed to like every activity nor like every person. That's not the way the world works. Gravitate towards the people who energize you and the things that energize you. That's where your happy, successful place will be.
In the social media era, most of us spend our days trapped behind screens. ClassPass is a unique solution to our loneliness and frustration.
Kadakia likens it to the sports teams in grade school. You didn't have to have anything in common with the other kids, except that you played soccer. And, still, you became best friends.
We have helped foster people to meet each other on a different core value, which is this interest of exercise or activity. It has nothing to do with what college you went to, what your title at work is, what your wealth is -- it's not about that.
That's not only an attitude Kadakia saves for class, but also one she instills in her employees.
The primarily-female ClassPass office welcomes workout tights and mid-day yoga classes. There's even an exercise studio, one Kadakia will dance in during the day if she needs inspiration.
She tells me,
I work out once a day at least, that's sort of my core. That's important to me. Movement inspires me, and so I can't take that out of my life or this company wouldn't be what it is.
When asked about her advice for would-be entrepreneurs, Kadakia jumps to answer with the same enthusiasm she shows for her company and hobbies.
Discipline is essential, she avows, but so is staying true to yourself.
At the end of the day, ClassPass's influence stretches far beyond the reach of fitness studio walls.
We're training [our customers] to be confident and to overcome things. To run into things they're scared of, not away from it. And that happens in our lives, right? With our careers, with our relationships, with our families. It ends up actually helping those things in your life as well.
If there's one takeaway, it's this: find your passion, and don't ever let it go.