Payal Kadakia: ‘We need more diversity on the other side of the table’

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  • Female tech founder Payal Kadakia is next in our Women Who Win series, giving us some insight into how tough you have to be to hack it at the top…

    You may not have heard of Payal Kadakia just yet, but you’ll certainly know her brainchild, ClassPass, with the fitness membership app giving access to the most on-trend classes across the globe, from boxing to barre.

    In the UK alone, there are classes across London, Bristol, Brighton, Edinburgh and Manchester, and it’s only spreading.

    ‘People always think I’m this huge fitness person,’ the ClassPass founder explained to our Junior News Editor Jenny Proudfoot over avocado toast. ‘But, I started this company because I am scared of fitness. I didn’t even own sneakers until I was in my twenties. I was not an athlete by any means. I hated gym class. No one wanted me on their team.’

    But Payal found a gap in the market due to her own need, quitting her corporate job to set up her own company from scratch in Starbucks.

    ‘My own product has helped me feel so strong,’ she explained. ‘I feel really confident now walking into any class, and through ClassPass, we’ve made it really fun and made everyone feel like they can do that too.’

    But starting a business from scratch doesn’t come without its difficulties, something Payal wouldn’t let stop her on her mission.

    ‘Failure for any company is running out of capital. That’s the only failure that actually happens – when you cannot pay your bills and pay people working for you,’ she explained. ‘That’s when you have a shutdown. But until that moment, everything is fair game. And you need to make as many hard decisions as you can.’

    Our Women Who Win interview series celebrates strong and inspirational female trailblazers, shaping the future for us all, and Payal Kadakia and her refusal to let anyone or anything stand in her way is that in a nutshell.

    Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Payal to find out how tough you have to be to survive as a female founder nowadays and why we shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes…

    What is the boldest thing you’ve ever done?

    Quitting my job. That is one of the scariest things anyone can do because you’re throwing security out of the door. I always remember that day. I don’t think I realised how bold I was being at the time because you almost feel a little defeated – you’re quitting. But I was in a job where my dreams weren’t there and there was no one I aspired to be or for my company to become. The way people reacted to my quitting changed my perception. I earned a tonne of respect from all these people who were like ten years older than me because I made a really bold decision in my life. The tables had flipped and then I realised, that was the way to lead life.

    What is the best advice anyone’s ever given you?

    It was around the time I started building my company, from one of my earliest advisors. I was going to potentially take a job at Spotify because it was scary not having an income, and she told me, ‘If you’re not going to bet on yourself, how is anyone else going to?’. It was an eye-opening moment for me and I didn’t take any other job and focused on ClassPass from that date forward.

    What has been your proudest moment?

    When my parents first saw my office. We moved into our big office in New York in 2016, and while it was five years into the journey, I think my parents were wondering ‘What is my daughter doing? Does she have a real job?’, until then. You have to remember, my parents came to America with nothing, and while they believed in me and were really sweet, when they saw my office, that was a really important moment for them to be like, ‘Wow, this is your office and you employ all these people’. But really, I feel like every single time someone hits ‘book’ it makes me proud – especially after being on this journey for eight years. Obviously now we’re in the millions of reservations, but because I remember fighting for every one, I find it such a privilege.

    Have you ever felt discriminated against as a female founder?

    I can’t think of a particular moment, but I do remember in the early stages one of the hardest things was selling the product. I was pitching to a predominantly female-specific market but most of the people around the table that I was selling to were men. It just made it harder to raise money – that’s the reality of it. We need more diversity on the other side of the table and that’s really what it comes down to. I developed a really strong armour against gender discrimination in my youth and now I won’t let anyone doubt me. Sadly we do have misconceptions in the world – it happens everywhere. I just need to show them that even though I’m different, I can be exceptional at what I do. We need more role models in the world to make people look and change their minds.

    How can we all ask for more?

    Before you walk into any meeting or have that conversation, you need to convince yourself that you deserve it. Whether that comes down to writing out all the reasons why you deserve it or pumping yourself up, you have to believe it – that’s what it comes down to. If you walk into any room being like, ‘I’m going to do this and it’s mine’, it’s not a question and it’s not up to anyone else. Let it be already done.

    What is your mantra?

    There’s a quote by Robert Sherman that I live by which is, ‘Your greatest life is on the other side of your greatest fear’. I live by that all the time.

    What will you never compromise on?

    My time. I think time is the most important thing we have. I try not to feel guilty about how I spend my time because that, to me, is a compromise. If I want to go and do something, whether that be going to class or dance or whatever, I give myself the permission to make sure I do that. I think if you can figure out how you work and how you spend your time efficiently, it’s the best way to move forward in your life.

    How do you achieve the right work-personal life balance?

    You can’t. I mean honestly, in the earliest days, I didn’t. I was very okay with that. I learned to not feel guilty about it. I missed people’s weddings, I missed friends’ things, I was MIA for a while. I think all my friends knew I had this dream of something I wanted to build. I am a really mission-oriented person. Nothing over-rides mission to me. I truly believe people in your life should understand that.

    What has held you back?

    Sadly, the buck stops with you. I don’t mean this in any bad way, but it’s when you get stuck in your own thoughts and when you doubt yourself that stops you progressing. The world doesn’t want to doubt people. The world wants to root for you. I think it’s about being able to root for yourself as well. We all have moments when we get stuck in our heads and think, ‘Oh I don’t think I can do that’, but I’ve learned how to work my way out of that and find the right people in my life to help move forward.

    What is your superpower?

    My superpower is my ability to focus. Even when I was younger, I could be in the middle of a party and read a book.  And now, when I have something to solve or something to do, I just know how to do it really quickly. It’s intense and weaves into everything I do.

    What has been your biggest mistake?

    I really don’t believe in mistakes and I’m saying that truthfully. I believe that all failures are points that take you to the next step in your life. So I don’t really dwell too much on them – I rationalise each moment whether it was a down moment or an up moment, it’s a part of what will happen next.

    What’s your typical day?

    There’s no such thing as ‘typical’ in the life of an entrepreneur. I think it really comes down to knowing what hard decisions you need to make every single day and prioritising your time. In fact, I think that once you get into a typical routine, it’s actually the best way to fail. It means you’re too comfortable. I think as a leader you have to constantly be putting yourself in a new atmosphere and a new challenge which means it’s never going to be typical.

    What has inspired you?

    Growing up in America I sadly got made fun of a lot for being Indian, but it was a defining moment in my life. The hard thing was that I loved my culture – I have always had a love of dance and movement and all of my dancing is from the history of my ancestors. I remember starting to hide my culture from my friends – I felt like I was living two lives. And at some point, that adversity is what inspired my first company – a dance company. I thought, ‘I’m doing something so beautiful – maybe I can use that as a vehicle to show people what my culture is all about’.

    How do you psych yourself up?

    I love going to a class or running. To me, that is like meditation in a way. We’re around our phones and technology all the time, so I need moments when I’m away from that. It doesn’t even mean being silent but movement just helps me think better and helps my creativity. I just feel strong.

    How do you celebrate success?

    Celebrating with the people that made it happen. The best things in the world have never happened because of one person – they happened because of a group of people – so I think it comes down to saying thank you. But success to me isn’t an endpoint, and I say that in the sense that I don’t want to ever be done. To me, success is having another dream. And I never want to be done on that journey.

    What is one change you would like to see for women?

    I think everything I have learned in my journey comes down to being confident in who I am. And so that is what I would like to see for women, for men, for anyone in the world – to have that confidence and remember it’s all your choice – the environment you hang out in, the career you have, the people you work with, the work you do – it’s all your choice. And the more you know that, the more you hold your cards on what you can become. It’s not up to anyone else.

    ClassPass is the leading online fitness membership and is available in five major cities across the UK, including London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol and Brighton. 

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