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SoulCycle CEO on her college wake-up call and the No. 1 thing women can do to get ahead

May 21, 2018

In the first installment of CNBC Make It’s new interview series with female leaders, “Two Questions with Adam Bryant,” I sat down with SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan.

Whelan’s career has long been on a sharp trajectory, with stops at Starwood Hotels, Virgin USA and Equinox before becoming SoulCycle’s chief operating officer in 2012. She took on the CEO role in 2015 and is now driving the fitness chain’s global expansion into new markets and lines of business beyond the bike, including SoulAnnex, a new exercise studio.

At SoulCycle’s headquarters in New York’s West Village, we talked about how she navigated some of the challenges that women in business invariably face, and her best advice for other women.

A key early influence in Whelan’s life was going to an all-girls school. “We were raised to see ourselves as anything that we wanted to be,” she said. “I was used to raising my hand and always having a voice at the table and feeling confident in myself because I was surrounded with a group of women for 12 years.”

That all came crashing down in college, where she studied engineering. She suddenly found she was one of only 10 women in a class of 150 men, who spoke faster and seemed more on the edge of their seat to jump into the conversation.

“The first headwind I faced was in my own head,” she said. “I learned pretty quickly in college that women needed to have a really clear voice and to know their material and to speak strongly. It can be loud out there in terms of voices that are trying to either make you not have a seat at the table or devalue your perspective.”

That experience, and a lesson from one of her instructors, set her up well for her career. “One of my professors taught me to always have my answers,” she said. Being prepared and having a point of view made conversations easier and more straightforward.

And as CEO, it’s not just about having the answers — she’s learned to hold her own by being more intentional in terms of what she wants to get out of every meeting.

“Be really clear about what you want to get out of the conversation that you’re having, and make sure that you own that narrative,” she said.

“Have your information, have your facts, have your numbers, have your point of view, so that if you get derailed in the conversation — if there’s a dynamic that maybe isn’t working to your advantage — you come back to, ‘What is my intention and what do I need out of this group?'”

She added: “No matter whether it’s a gender bias or some other unconscious bias in the room, it’s your responsibility as a leader to try to guide that conversation as much as possible.”

I also asked Whelan for the best career advice that she often finds herself repeating to the women she has mentored. Her message: Put yourself in a position in your company where you are responsible for driving a P&L.

“Having the accountability of driving profitability for a business really enabled me to think critically, to build a team,” she said. “My experience of getting closer to the P&L really pivoted my career, and I try to give women that counsel.”

“I’m a big believer,” Whelan added, “in impact.”

Adam Bryant is a CNBC contributor and managing director of The ExCo Group., senior leadership development and executive mentoring firm. A veteran journalist, Bryant interviewed more than 500 leaders for the “Corner Office” feature he created at the New York Times. Be on the lookout for new “Two Questions” videos each month, and check out CNBC’s ongoing coverage of women in business, “Closing The Gap.”