Payal Kadakia considers herself more of a problem solver than an entrepreneur. But it’s the scale of her solution that qualifies her as the latter—and a successful one at that. The 36-year-old trained dancer landed huge success in the form of ClassPass, a digital platform that grants users access to a variety of health and wellness studios through a single membership, which reached a lofty valuation of $610M as of June 2018. And her ambition doesn’t stop there.
What began in 2011 as an answer to her frustration with trying to find a dance class after work while living in New York City has become a platform of limitless possibilities as ClassPass grows its partner base with yoga, martial arts, and dance studios (of course); health clubs; and more, offering one convenient fee and drop-in privileges to any location in the network. “We want to be the destination for all your free time,” she says with equal parts accommodation and ambition.
As is often the case with disruptors who revolutionize an industry by perfecting a fresh approach to an existing dilemma, Kadakia’s rise has been swift (though it took a couple of years to build momentum). ClassPass has raised more than $250M, including an $85M Series D funding in July 2018. The company has established 15,000 partnerships across 2500 cities, and as of March 2019, more than 65 million reservations have been booked on their platform by people around the globe—but that doesn’t mean the journey has been easy.
A compact force of effervescent energy, Kadakia—a first-generation Indian American whose parents emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s—stands just under five feet tall. But on the day of CSQ’s visit, her black Christian Louboutin pumps add another four inches to her height. The art deco–era Hollywood Hills home she purchased in 2017 is sparsely decorated, giving the impression that Kadakia is on the go a lot. The central space where a dining table would normally be is vacant; it serves as her in-home dance studio.
When we meet, Kadakia is looking forward to an upcoming performance with her dance troupe at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts as part of an Innovate Beverly Hills event. In addition to her duties as executive chairman of ClassPass, Kadakia serves as artistic director for Sa Dance Company, a traditional South Asian Indian performance art group that she founded in 2009. The congenial entrepreneur will also be giving a speech and accepting an award at Innovate Beverly Hills. Comfortable in the spotlight, Kadakia is the consummate brand ambassador as she discusses her vision for the future of ClassPass.
To Plié or Not to Plié?
Growing up in Randolph, a small town of 25,000 in upstate New Jersey, Kadakia and her older sister did not encounter many peers of their cultural background. Her parents, who came to America with nothing but the dream of a better life, felt that embracing American culture—without abandoning their own—would ultimately give their daughters a better understanding of the world. Both were chemists by trade and valued the importance of a good education. Kadakia credits their work ethic and dogged determination with shaping her own thirst for knowledge and capacity for resilience.
Whenever I couldn’t do something I wanted to do, I figured out a way to create it. That’s how I started taking on leadership roles.
She began learning traditional Indian dance at age 3. A close friend of her mother had been a dance instructor in India, and Kadakia and a few other young Indian girls created a loose-knit community that would meet to practice in family basements. Dance became a central aspect of her childhood, punctuated by weekend travel to various competitions. As she grew up in Western society, dance and movement allowed her to have a relationship with cultures—her own as well as others’—that was fluid and ultimately empowering.
“Dance became this way to connect back to where I came from, and for me, it also morphed into the performance side, the artistry side. It became this place where I felt like I could become whoever I wanted to be,” she recalls. “To be able to start feeling that at a young age was such a gift for me.”
Education, and the opportunities it opened, soon became the focus in Kadakia’s life. Dance had instilled discipline in her life, and education was giving her the finer tools to succeed. She attended MIT, where she would eventually earn a degree in management science with a focus on operations research and a minor in economics. She took a course on the history of American dance, which included icons such as Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, and Alvin Ailey.
Also figuring into her activities at MIT were the annual culture shows presented every spring. “I would always be choreographing for my shows on my class notes,” she admits. “I just loved the idea of creating these dances.” However, she would only let herself dance if her studies were going well. “I always felt I had to earn the right to be a dancer. I knew I had to be responsible and get an education, or nothing was going to work.”
After graduating, Kadakia took a job at New York consulting firm Bain & Company. After a few years there, she moved on to Warner Music Group, where she worked on digital strategy.
Even with a full-time career, though, Kadakia’s passion for dance found a way to thrive. She danced after work, every night. She always found a way. While a student at MIT, she organized and built an activity group on campus for South Asian dance that still exists today. “Whenever I couldn’t do something I wanted to do, I figured out a way to create it,” she says. “That’s how I started taking on leadership roles.”
While at Warner Music Group, she founded the Sa Dance Company with some girlfriends also interested in Indian dance. They met up to rehearse in the evenings after work. A year later, the troupe participated in the Battery Downtown Dance Festival, the city’s longest-running public dance festival. By chance or by fate, Sa Dance Company wound up being featured on the cover of the arts section of The New York Times.The group didn’t even have a website.
“I was still working [at Warner], and my boss was surprised I came to work the next day,” Kadakia says with a laugh. She was also studying for the GMAT and contemplating a return to business school to pursue her master’s, “but I felt like the world was telling me to keep living my life and pursue my passions.”
If she wanted dance play a larger role in her life, Kadakia needed to find a job where she had more stability and control over her schedule. “I realized I needed to find a way to mesh my two lives.”
Several months later, Kadakia traveled to San Francisco for a friend’s birthday party. There, she had conversations with entrepreneurs who were using technology to disrupt various industries, and the idea appealed to her. At the time, she was training in ballet and researching a class she wanted to try. She searched online, becoming increasingly frustrated when every site she visited was booked. Kadakia eventually did find one open spot, but at that point she was so frustrated with the whole experience, she ended up not going at all.
Her epiphany was that, much like the conversations she was having with entrepreneurs pursuing other ventures, the technology could be an effective vehicle for her idea as well: to help people take the next step toward living a healthier and more purposeful life.
Kadakia started researching every aspect of the fitness and wellness class market to find out the various ways people were finding classes. She started talking about her idea with friends, some of whom offered to invest in her fledgling business idea. Finally, she took the leap. Six months after she got the idea for a fitness class service, and with her parents’ blessing, she quit her job to focus solely on ClassPass. As she reviewed her finances with her dad, Kadakia was determined to solve this logistical pain and bring more efficiency to people’s lives. She founded ClassPass in 2011.
“The first three years were tough,” she admits. “We didn’t have the product right … but I never considered it failure.” The biggest lesson learned? “Changing customer behavior is the hardest thing in the world, and I was up against getting people off their couches,” she explains. All of the focus on branding, messaging, and launching a company, she found, is completely separate from the reality of human interaction with potential customers. “I wanted to develop a platform to help people feel comfortable walking into classes they’d never been to before.”
Thanks to the ClassPass app, which reinforces the idea that “these classes are at your fingertips,” as well as a penetration of social media, technology has been integral to the ClassPass rise. “It’s a lifestyle,” she adds. “Our brand has been shaped by our customers’ stories, responses, and needs.”
ClassPass allows subscribers to take assorted fitness classes that are convenient for them, for one monthly fee rather than multiple fees for multiple types of classes. Its network offers access to a variety of studios, gyms, and meditation classes in the cities in which it operates. Scaling the ClassPass model to include any service or activity that promotes a healthier lifestyle, such as cooking classes or even beauty services, is on the table as Kadakia and her team step boldly toward the future.
Head of the Class
A key part of that team is serial entrepreneur and angel investor Fritz Lanman, who led the seed and Series A funding for ClassPass and played a considerable role in ClassPass finally hitting its stride. He and Kadakia have developed a strong professional partnership; Lanman, who served as executive chairman from 2014 to 2016, took over as CEO when he and Kadakia swapped roles in 2017. An active tech investor, Lanman has been involved in the seed rounds for Square Inc., Pinterest, EasyPost, and inDinero, among others.
ClassPass will continue to focus on global expansion and inclusivity in its outreach as well as its partnerships. While the company is headquartered in New York, Kadakia goes wherever her work takes her, which could be San Francisco, Singapore, or back to Hollywood.
Due to New York’s emergence as a tech and innovation hub in recent years, Kadakia says, a huge influx of new studios are opening all over the Big Apple. And, she points out, studio owners are entrepreneurs, too. The New York market was also vital for gathering feedback during the early days, and L.A., a hub for health and wellness, was ready to embrace ClassPass as a regular part of the culture.
Being able to lead her company to the next level while still honoring her art through Sa Dance Company has been the best of both worlds for Kadakia. With her art, she is honoring her heritage, while her business is shaping the future. “ClassPass has logged 65 million hours in experiences for people,” she notes. “It’s a privilege and honor [to have created that kind of change]; I can’t wait for the number to keep growing!”