Payal Kadakia photo

Payal Kadakia

CEO and Co-founder, ClassPass

No matter where Payal Kadakia is in life, she brings her dancing shoes. She began dance training in her parents’ basement at three years old and later as a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started a South Asian Fusion dance troupe. When she joined Bain & Company in 2005 in New York City, Kadakia continued to dance in her spare time. “Dance only makes my work stronger and makes me stronger,” she says.

Those who know Kadakia’s drive and passion for movement were hardly surprised when, in 2011, she launched a fitness-focused startup. The company became ClassPass, a subscription-based app that lets users sign up for unlimited fitness classes at dozens of studios across a city for a monthly fee. As CEO of the New York-based company, Kadakia has helped to raise $84 million in venture funding, including a $30 million investment from Google Ventures in November 2015. The company has logged more than 11 million reservations, and has expanded into international markets such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. 

When Kadakia first joined Bain, starting a new company was far from her mind. But from day one she found a group of peers and colleagues in the New York office interested in pushing the boundaries of business. She bonded with her first case team, who called themselves “the family” because they were so close-knit. “There was a real creative, entrepreneurial energy on that team,” Kadakia says. Indeed, other future entrepreneurs worked alongside Kadakia in the New York office, including Harry’s co-founder and co-CEO Jeff Raider and Birchbox co-founder Hayley Barna. Christine Yeh-Calanog, Kadakia’s manager at Bain and now executive director of multichannel & consumer marketing operations at Actavis, remains a mentor. Darshan Somashekar, the co-founder of Drop.io and co-founder of Imagine Easy Solutions, was also in this cohort. He and Kadakia would spend lunches walking through Bryant Park, talking startups.

“The people are everything at Bain,” she explains. “You can’t really top that.”
As her Bain peers applied for business school, Kadakia found herself reaching a creative plateau in dance and weighing her next career move. Coleman Mark, now a Bain partner in Boston, guided her toward a position at Warner Music Group, where she could blend her zeal for strategy and entertainment and gain tech experience.

Within a month of starting at Warner, Kadakia decided to make dance a priority in her time outside of the office. She founded a professional dance company, “which I did using many of the skills I learned at Bain, including attention to detail, marketing and communications, teamwork, and brand-building,” she says. Her fellow dancers were also top-notch professionals, including one Bainie, Parul Deora Somani—women who sought the same balance Kadakia did between creative expression and challenging careers. In less than a year, the group was pictured on the cover of The New York Times’ arts section.

In 2011, Kadakia reached another crossroads. She realized she was living a double life: helping artists by day, creating art by night. Something had to give, but it wasn’t clear what her next move should be.

After a long day at work, Kadakia decided to refresh at a ballet class. In New York City, she thought, it wouldn’t be hard to do a quick search online and hit a studio nearby on the way home from work. Three hours later, with more than a dozen tabs open in her browser, frustrated and still at her desk, Kadakia realized she had the idea for a new product: a search engine for dance, workout, and creative classes. Classtivity, which evolved into ClassPass, was born.

Kadakia’s network, business toolkit and past entrepreneurial experience as a dance company founder gave her the confidence to leave her job and start her own business. Again, a Bainie helped Kadakia map her unique career path The day Kadakia left her job at Warner, former Bainie and then-Warner Music Group Vice Chairman of Strategy and Operations Michael Fleisher called her, a junior employee, into his office. Kadakia pitched her idea, and Fleisher became her first investor. “I don’t think he would have taken that chance on me if it weren’t for Bain,” she says.

Deep relationships forged at Bain have been a common thread throughout Kadakia’s career. Every step of the way, Bainees have lifted her, supported her, and encouraged her—including in her passion for dance. Kadakia invited Bain colleagues to her early dance shows, many of whom still attend years later. She has even taught several colleagues dances to perform at their weddings.

Now, Kadakia pays it forward. At ClassPass, plenty of Bainees fill the halls, including Kadakia’s chief of staff. For entrepreneurs, finding the right people is a chief concern—from hiring to friendships. “Surround yourself only by people who lift you higher,” she advises. “I’ve kept people who really understood me, really pushed me. Many of them are people from Bain.”

Perhaps Kadakia’s most important takeaway from Bain has been the value of making time for passions outside of work. One of her mentors, Aziel Rivers, encouraged her not to give up dancing while at Bain. “When I felt I was at my limit, he reminded me I had a gift and would spend hours helping me come up with a plan to make my career and dance life work,” Kadakia recalls.

“Tell the world what you want,” she says.” “It’s so easy to get swung in different directions. But you have to make time for what you love, just like you make time for work, family, and friends. If you prioritize it, other people in your life will, too.”