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The Mentors Helping ClassPass Founder Payal Kadakia Find the Right Steps

The Mentors Helping ClassPass Founder Payal Kadakia Find the Right Steps

Payal Kadakia, executive chairman and a co-founder of ClassPass, says she is relying on the lessons from her mentors to navigate these turbulent times. GIZELLE HERNANDEZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about the people they turn to for advice, and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous installments from the series are here.

Payal Kadakia, a lifelong dancer, recently needed fancy footwork to assist ClassPass Inc., a company she co-founded in 2011.

The fitness-subscription startup, which helps people book classes at gyms and exercise studios, was operating in 28 countries and worth more than $1 billion in January 2020. Two months later, the coronavirus pandemic eliminated 96% of revenue for ClassPass—where Ms. Kadakia is executive chairman.

Its revenue plunged soon after the 37-year-old entrepreneur delivered her first child. She helped ClassPass Chief Executive Fritz Lanman weather the crisis during her maternity leave. 

Within days of many studio shutdowns globally, ClassPass staffers built technology that currently enables about 5,000 studios to offer live-streamed and on-demand Pilates, yoga, boxing and other classes through the company’s website and app. ClassPass nevertheless laid off or furloughed 53% of its roughly 700 employees this April. The New York-based business has since brought back 50 furloughed staffers.

Now, Ms. Kadakia says, “we are focused on re-strategizing our business.’’ ClassPass is starting to see members resume in-person classes in several markets, though it doesn’t disclose revenue, according to a spokeswoman. 

Ms. Kadakia relies on lessons from mentors to navigate turbulent times. Mostly fellow entrepreneurs, they have influenced the resilient way she responds to setbacks.

“I try to learn as much as I can from the setback to define a new way forward,’’ she explains. “I am willing to break everything.’’ 

Ms. Kadakia was just three years old when she started studying Indian classical and folk dance near her home in suburban New Jersey. Her parents, chemists who immigrated from India before her birth, wanted her to appreciate her cultural identity. Being exposed to Indian culture was important, Ms. Kadakia recalls, because she rarely saw people on TV “who looked like me.’’ 

Her dance training lasted through high school. “It gave me a lot of confidence,’’ she continues. Plus, “I loved performing.”

Ms. Kadakia majored in operations research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology—partly because her parents preferred that she find a more stable career than dance. 

BIOGRAPHICAL BITS

Payal Kadakia, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of ClassPass

Following graduation, she was a Bain & Co. management consultant for nearly three years. She joined Warner Music Group Corp. in 2008 as an associate digital strategy manager in New York.

Ms. Kadakia never lost her passion for dance, however. While at Warner Music, she launched a professional Indian dance troupe. She remains its artistic director. 

Similarly, her unsuccessful three-hour effort to book a dance class online led her to create Classtivity—a search-engine business for classes that evolved into ClassPass. 

Ms. Kadakia and two co-founders changed Classtivity’s focus in 2013 because their initial approach required “too many things happening in the same moment,’’ she recollects. Renamed ClassPass in 2014, the company was valued at more than $200 million by 2015. 

“My personal advisers have been tough on me,’’ the executive notes. “They pushed me to lead better by emphasizing that I should focus on my mission.’’

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Harvey Yan

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