In Conversation with Julie Rice: WeWork, SoulCycle and What’s Next in Retail
Everyone has a thing. For Julie Rice, founder of SoulCycle and Chief Brand Officer at WeWork, that thing is creating platforms. Whether it’s a platform for budding WeWork entrepreneurs, or SoulCycle instructors or even Hollywood stars (prior launching SoulCycle in 2002, Rice was a talent manager). Recently, Julie joined us for a breakfast celebrating inspiring women in retail to reflect on where she’s been, and talk about the industry trends that are inspiring her next step. We spoke to Julie about her passion for building communities that create platforms for makers, shakers, and spinners, and encourage them to do their thing.
STORY: SoulCycle reimagined the exercise community so much, what gave you the idea? I’m sure you’ve never been asked that question.
JR: I created SoulCycle for me, actually. It was born out out of the need of something that did not exist at the time in New York City. I had been living in Los Angeles and I was an agent at the time, and I decided to move back to New York. I had been living in a lifestyle city for eight or nine years, and for me exercise was a really big part of my life. I’m not a huge late night person i’m not a huge party person and I had found a lot of my social life in hiking with friends, running with friends, biking. I came back to New York and nothing like that existed at the time…there were only big box gyms. There were no fitness studios at all. What I had experienced in Los Angeles was that people worked out for fun and it was stress release. Here, it was, “How many calories am I burning?” “Who can yell at me the most?” “How can I get it done in between my dry cleaning and getting to the office for my nine o’clock meeting?” And I just found that there was nothing about it that was joyful, and so really it was something I created for myself because I missed my exercise community.
STORY: After 11 years as an entrepreneur, now you’re working at what’s not even a start-up anymore, it’s a big company. What attracted you to WeWork and tell us a little bit about what you’re doing there.
JR: It’s obviously an enormous drop off to go from running a company of 2500 people to sitting in a room and thinking, “What’s my next idea?” I took about six months, off. I knew Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey [co-founders of WeWork], and when those guys first approached me, it was very interesting to me because to me SoulCycle was never really about fitness. It was really always about community. You know that’s why [I say] I’m really not the best athlete. I’m not the best person in SoulCycle. For me it really was never about the exercise, it was always about what I missed in Los Angeles in terms of having a community and you know WeWork is really about that as well. I missed being a part of community, creating community and figuring out what people in that community want. So, it seemed like a really natural transition.
STORY: We heard…you might be selling stuff soon. Can you tell us more?
JR: WeWork is definitely starting to think about retail. What’s interesting for WeWork in a retail space is that—as all of you know—all of the brands in the world are trying figure how to go backward and create community around their products. We have an incredibly vibrant community to take their product out into the world. I think what’s amazing is that customers understand what’s authentic. You can’t put a bunch of stuff up on shelves and expect people to form some sort of a bond around it. For us at WeWork, we are taking the community that we have—which is at this point 300,000 people globally. We also have all these incredible makers and creators within our four walls globally. We’re really thinking about retail in terms of it being sort of a by the people for the people.
We’ve created these little WeMarkets, which are a curation of member products. We’ve curated them in a way around “What are the best things to have in a day at the office?” There’s tech, all member made. There’s healthy food, all member made. There’s office supplies, all member made.” We’re in the middle of prototyping six of them right now. We hope to build to a couple hundred of them this year and begin to understand within our four walls, “What do people want?” “Where are our creators at?” As we do these markets and curate them, we’re looking at what are makers abilities to scale, are they disrupting, are they giving back? We’re trying to not only help them distribute their products but giving them feedback in terms of where they are in the lifecycle of this product creation. [For example] “You know you’re products great that you’re making in your kitchen, I can’t put in into WeMarket because I’m going to have 200 locations in the next six months.” “Your product is great, but can you not package it in plastic?” You know, so that we can scale in a way that’s good for the planet. I think it’s a really interesting ecosystem. We can affect the chain of these products in so many different lifecycles. For us, that’s really the way we’re thinking about it: how we become a distribution channel for our members.
STORY: Any trends or experiences that you found particularly interesting recently?
JR: I visit a lot of retail. Honestly, there’s not that much that I have seen that is very interesting to me at all. There are one off small experiences, where people really understand their communities that wow me. There’s a dental office that I think is completely innovating the way that dentistry should be. it sounds crazy but if i cancel my appointment, what do they do, they charge me $75, but what do they do? It’s donated to a charity of my choice. There are things like that that stick with me. I think, wow that’s sort of disruptive. To me that makes me feel like I feel attached to what he’s doing. The rest of it to me feels like there’s a lot of noise out there. I’m not sure who’s going to cut through it. The only thing that feels good to me is Gucci. You walk into those stores and there is a sense of creativity, there is a sense of joy, there is a sense of authenticity and you can feel happiness. You can feel happiness from everyone who is creating those things. I think people know that and I think that’s why it’s a phenomena. I actually don’t think it’s about excess. I don’t think it’s about luxury and I don’t think it’s about status. I think it’s about authentic creativity and humanity, how you feel through that product.
STORY: Last question, it’s a STORY tradition. What’s a fun fact we can’t find out about you on the internet?
JR: A fun fact that you cannot find out about me on Google, is that I am claustrophobic and I do not take elevators.
JR: Ever. I have now climbed the Rainbow Room, fully black tie in hair and makeup, heels in SoulCycle bag over my shoulder. And here’s the amazing thing about when you walk up to the Rainbow Room, security is so tough in that building that somebody has escort you up stairs. But no security guard can make it 71 flights. You can only make it up 71 flights if you’re the founder of SoulCycle. It takes like 10 different security guards to meet you, seven flights each, they take shifts. I apologized the entire way up, “I’m so sorry you have to do this, I’m so sorry you have to do this. But they won’t let me climb these stairs by myself!” That is your fun fact about me for the day.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.