Ruth Zukerman never imagined starting a company. After failing at a professional dancing career, she picked herself up and reinvented herself as a force in the fitness industry. Zukerman become a co-founder of cycling fitness giants SoulCycle and Flywheel. She recently authored Riding High: How I Kissed SoulCycle Goodbye, Co-Founded Flywheel, and Built the Life I Always Wanted—a refreshingly authentic and spectacular memoir about realizing your own potential and building a fulfilling life.
Below, Zukerman shared the lessons she’s learned personally and professionally about resilience and reinvention, her advice on co-founding relationships, and what she’s up to now.
How did you get into group exercise and spinning classes?
“So I got married, and started working in a small aerobics exercise studio on the Upper West Side. It was literally a hole in the wall on 72nd Street. Very quickly after I started taking classes there, the owner asked me if I’d be interested in teaching because my dance background showed through. I thought sure, I’ll try that. That was my introduction to group fitness which eventually turned into a career. I never would have predicted that at the time. I started teaching different genres of exercise. Little did I know that I was kind of earning my degree in this field.
“Simultaneous to that I had twin girls, and my marriage from very early on wasn’t working. When the girls were six years old, I made the very difficult decision to leave my marriage. When I was going through the divorce and the trauma that goes along with that, I started taking spin classes. That was my second kind of fish-out-of-water moment where I had to reinvent myself because suddenly, I don’t have a husband supporting me. I’m making very little money teaching these part-time classes and I need to figure it out.
“What I learned in retrospect was that showing up for these spin classes was at the time my way of taking care of myself physically and mentally. What I saw very early on was that there was this very strong mental component that kicked in during the 45 minutes in class. I found that despite what a difficult time that was for me, I would finish class and oddly feel empowered. It was almost like a mini reinvention every time I took a class. I became addicted to it. I was taking classes six days a week and eventually the people at the Reebok club on the Upper West Side where I took these classes said to me, “Would you like to audition to be an instructor?” And I thought, oh my god, that would be amazing.”
What led to you start SoulCycle and Flywheel?
“Five years into teaching at Reebok, I built a following. I learned a lot about what people did and didn’t like and I honed my own method within this genre of exercise. I was approached about opening a dedicated boutique spin business by a rider fan of mine who had come to my class and she was willing to put up the money, something I didn’t have. She asked me, and in two minutes I said yes. It was literally my dream to do this. That was the start of SoulCycle in 2006. I was there until 2009.
“When I left, I met my future partners that came up with this idea of adding metrics to the whole experience to make the experience that much more effectual and allow the rider to be more accountable. They approached me and said, “How would you like to do this with us?” And I said, “Done.” I loved it. I knew it would be a way to change the industry. That was the start of Flywheel which opened in 2010. I was at Flywheel through the acquisition in 2014, and I left in 2018. Since then, I’ve been doing speaking engagements around my book, Riding High, and figuring out what’s next for me.”
How do you avoid burnout, whether it be with your personal fitness regime or entrepreneurship?
“For me, there’s really no such thing as burnout when it comes to fitness. We all experience stress at different levels and some days are better than others. As important as it is for our physical health to keep working out, whether it’s cardiovascular health or physical strength, we can’t ignore the incredible importance of our mental health. I discovered at an early age that fitness and exercise is so key to keeping ourselves calm, controlling our moods, and allowing us to approach our stresses in a much healthier way.
“I think for everyone’s sake, in terms of how we interact with others, as well as how we handle our own day-to-day stresses, we can’t burn out. It’s not a choice. That’s what keeps me going, certainly in terms of having a regime and not falling off of the wagon.
“This is how I gear my mind. It’s just always reminding myself of the importance of the mental component as well as the physical. In terms of entrepreneurship, I think it’s something in our blood because we get passionate about ideas and we want to see them through. We want to share them with everybody else. Here I am after creating two businesses, and the truth is I feel like I have to keep creating.”
Can you speak to your experience with resilience, and how you recommend others develop this important ‘muscle’?
“What I discovered through my own path is how important resilience is. And what I’ve learned is that I think of it as a muscle because it fortunately gets built every time we have a setback or every time we feel like we’ve failed at something. I love to share that with people and it’s a big theme in my book because it’s so easy to want to throw in the towel when we get to these very low moments when things don’t pan out. A lot of times when things don’t pan out—it’s when we’ve least predicted it and we’re often blindsighted.
“I love to reinforce for people that those are the moments where we get stronger, because failing is part of life. We have no choice. We can’t give up, and we have to move forward and go on. It’s that resilience that allows us to pursue and persevere. Every time you feel like you want to give up, you can’t, and during that process you’re actually building strength that allows you to go to the next step.”
How has reinvention played a role in your life? What would be your advice for folks looking to reinvent themselves personally or professionally?
“I believe resilience and reinvention go hand-in-hand. Very often, reinvention follows the resilience-building phase that we go through. At the end of the day, it sounds very simplistic but when we’re unhappy, feeling unfulfilled, frustrated, we don’t like what we’re doing, we’re not enjoying our job—those are the moments where we really have to do some introspection. We need to think about and ask ourselves, “What do we want to do? How do we see our future?”
“There’s no reason to continue down a career path that isn’t making us happy. It’s an old adage, but it’s so true—when you find what you really want to be doing, you don’t even feel like you’re working. Have the courage to say, “This isn’t working and it’s time to figure out what’s next.” It’s not easy, but that’s where resilience kicks in. That’s only when the reinvention can happen.”
Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs wanting to start families?
“I had my family by the point I started businesses. There’s no question that people are waiting longer these days. I think there’s something to be said for putting off having a family to a certain degree, because it’s so important to go through your own evolution, building self confidence, and achieving some degree of success before you start a family. I think it’s important to have that experience under your belt before you become a mother or a father.
“Obviously for women there is the biological clock and we need to pay attention to that. Despite my career and successes, and how incredibly fulfilling they were, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more fulfilling than raising children and bringing incredible people into this world.
“As far of the whole notion of ‘doing it all’ and how do you find that balance? I think that’s always an ongoing challenge. And I think that, again, as simplistic as it sounds, we do the best we can and that’s it.”
Do you have any tips on navigating cofounder relationships?
“I love hearing stories about female co-founders finding each other and starting businesses together. I get frustrated sometimes because women need to support women always. You can find that, and that’s amazing, or you can find the opposite. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to me with my first partnership.
“I always advise people, you can go into business with someone you just met or you can go into business with someone you’ve known for 25 years, but they are both risks because when money gets involved, sometimes people take on behaviors that you never could have predicted. I think it’s really important to know yourself, your strengths, weaknesses, and what kind of person compliments you.”