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Trailblazers5 Minutes With… Payal Kadakia of ClassPass

5 Minutes With… Payal Kadakia of ClassPass

5 Minutes With… Payal Kadakia of ClassPass
By Chong Seow Wei
November 21, 2018
The US-based entrepreneur on bringing fitness to the world

Barre, yoga, crossfit, HIIT—these are but some of the terms that have entered into many of our daily lexicons in the last few years. If not, it might have seemed like everyone around you is into fitness lately, attending group workout classes at the many boutique studios around town. It’s true—the fitness industry is on the rise in this part of the world. In 2018, a report published by Deloitte and IHRSA highlighted that the sector in Asia-Pacific is worth US$16.8b, with 25,000 clubs serving 22 million members. Globally, one of the industry’s rising stars is ClassPass.

The New York-based fitness subscription company was established in 2013 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate Payal Kadakia, after she couldn’t find a dance class to take after work in New York City. Prior to this, the self-professed barre addict honed her business sense in roles at Bain & Company and Warner Music Group. 

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Today, Payal sits as the executive chairman of her own successful fitness business, which has presence in more than 50 cities around the world. This August, ClassPass made its first foray into Asia when it launched in Singapore. A month before that, it made headlines for raising US$85m in Series D funding from investment bigwig, Temasek, and the Growth Fund of L Catterton. According to Payal, the funds will be used to further drive ClassPass’ global expansion, which is seeing no signs of slowing down. We sit down with Payal to find out more about how it all started and her vision for the future.

Payal Kadakia; Photo: Payal Kadakia
Payal Kadakia; Photo: Payal Kadakia

Have you always been an active person?
Payal Kadakia (PK) I’ve been dancing since I was three years old. When my parents, who were chemists, moved to the US from India, they were joined by a group of friends. One of their friends was a dance teacher back in India, and she would gather a few of us young girls in the basement of one of our houses and teach us a variety of Indian folk dance. Dance became a big part of my life as I learned to express myself through it. I also love being able to put my mind to something and practise to get better at it. It teaches me what my potential is. But I’ve had to fight to keep dance in my life, as my parents wanted me to take a standard path in life. Nonetheless, I managed to set up my own dance school, the Sa Dance Company, in 2009 in a bid to raise awareness about Indian dance. I continue to run it today as the artistic director, alongside ClassPass.

What’s the story behind ClassPass?
PK The idea for ClassPass came to me about eight years ago, when I was sitting at my desk at Warner Music Group. I’ve had my dance company for three years by this time, and got to a point in my career where I didn’t know which direction to choose—to stay in my current job or to leave and focus on dance. For some reason, both options didn’t feel right to me then and I felt a bit depressed.

One day, I suddenly got thinking about creating my own start-up. 24 hours later, I was looking for a new ballet class to take after work, but couldn’t find one. I was so frustrated and began wondering, “What if I could aggregate all the workout classes in the world onto one platform and have them at people’s fingertips?” It was then that the seed was sown. So ClassPass really came from a personal need and evolved into what it is today.

How did your parents react to your idea?
PK When I told my mum about it, she actually encouraged me to quit my job to start ClassPass. She believed in me and told me that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. She was right.

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What kind of an entrepreneur and leader are you?
PK I like getting my hands dirty, so I’m very hands-on with my business. I got this from my mum. I also prioritise my goals like crazy. I do three-month goals for five specific areas in my life, so I know what I’m not going to focus on. And I don’t feel guilty about it, because I know what I want to achieve. When the three months are up, I’ll reassess the goals I’ve set and see which ones I want to change or keep.

I also take the effort to take care of myself, because I’ve come to realise that if I don’t, I risk burning out. If that happens, I won’t be able to take the company to its fullest potential. So I remind myself that this is a marathon that I’m running, not a sprint, and I have to take a step back once in a while and prioritise my well-being. At the same time, I’ve also been able to juggle everything in my life because I have a very good team.  

The biggest sacrifice you’ve had to make for your career?
PK I believe that when you have a goal in life, you’ll be willing to sacrifice everything else. This goes back to how I set goals and don’t feel guilty about the things I don’t prioritise. When you have a clear purpose in life and an incredible thing to say yes to, you’ll find it easy to say no to everything else. I don’t believe in living in the grey area, where I’m keen on doing something, maybe.

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