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Payal Kadakia’s Flight to Success

Feb/17/2022 / by ABHIJIT MASIH
Payal Kadakia's Flight to Success on Seema Magazine

As a young first generation Indian graduate from MIT, Payal Kadakia was headed for a successful career in management consulting until a jarring meeting with her boss came as a wake-up call.

“I have to question your reliability and commitment,” Payal Kadakia’s manager told her plainly while questioning her competence. This was early in Kadakia’s corporate career, soon after she graduated from MIT in 2005 and secured a coveted management consultancy job in New York.

According to Kadakia, that moment that changed her life. It was an inflection point at which she realized that she did not have to work harder just to prove her worth doing something she didn’t love. Instead, she could do something that she truly loved.

That low point is described in the opening chapter of Payal Kadakia’s book, “LifePass: Drop Your Limits, Rise to Your Potential,” which will be launched February 15. The idea for the book came from two questions Kadakia asked herself: 1) How are you loving your life? 2) How do you want to be living it?

“I opened the book with the story, because it was such an important moment,” Kadakia says. “It forced me to start having a conversation with myself about what my own traits were, and what I could do with my career. It was the first moment where I think I made a bit of a decision in line with what I wanted to do, and which was conflicting with the normal path.”

Leaving the beaten track and ditching the trappings of the traditional measures and pressures of success, she turned her passion into a successful business.

Payal Kadakia and her starup LifePass was valued over $1 billion
Valuation of over $1 billion surely deserves a celebratory jig!

That passion was her fitness start-up. Last fall, Kadakia’s ClassPass, valued at $1 billion, was acquired by Mindbody, the wellness platform. The online platform that she founded in 2013 helped people find online classes and wellness programs for their workouts. She is one of the first women of color to achieve the elusive status of a Unicorn, the first of the decade. Like the name suggests, Unicorn status is rare for a start-up. According to Forbes, only 1% of venture funded start-ups make it to the mythical status of a billion-dollar valuation. Kadakia made the grade in the midst of a pandemic and the huge gender disparity in the tech industry, where there are only one in four founders are women.

Finding funding for a female start-up entrepreneur can be daunting. But Kadakia employed her signature method, which she shares in the book, for reaching her goal. Tenacity that swept away the traditional rules of a career path, so that she could focus on building a business model closer to her heart.

Relying on resilience and creativity – two traditionally feminine traits – Kadakia structured her thoughts, identified her desires, acknowledged both her limitations and talent, to succeed, firmly responding to any notion that questioned her competence. She aimed to create an online platform that provided people access to the best boutique fitness classes, gyms and wellness experiences around the world. The idea came from her own struggle to find a dance class for herself in a small town in New Jersey. 

Kadakia recalls how she didn’t have many people who looked like her in the neighborhood. She however found solace in the fact that there was a beautiful Indian community nearby. She reminisces, “I was able to really be around community celebrations and festivals. That made me feel like I really belonged. I was really blessed because I had a dance teacher, Usha aunty, who taught me these beautiful Indian folk dances when I was really young. That [let me fall] in love with my identity and where I came from. These parts of my childhood, though at times a struggle, were really these beautiful threads of who I would ultimately be and what I wanted to share with the world.”

Kadakia dancing, The Sa Dance Company in a show of layered choreography and intricate formations.
The Sa Dance Company in a show of layered choreography and intricate formations

One of Kadakia’s favorite quote, attributed to Picasso, is, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose is to give it away.” Dance was that gift. She was first drawn to it when she was but 5, when she saw Tiku Bhabhi, the 21-year-old wife of a cousin who had recently moved to the U.S. dance before a mirror with irrepressible energy.

On Kadakia, that left an indelible impression, the result being the passion of a lifetime.. Dance helped her through the turmoil of her teenage years, times that most second-generation South Asian kids struggle with the duality of cultures. It helped her to stay rooted in her Gujarati culture. It was prioritizing dance over a client meeting that drew the harsh criticism from her supervisor. It was also the quest for a dance class that led her to the creation of ClassPass.

Payal Kadakia as a cheerleader in school
Payal Kadakia as a cheerleader in school

But Kadakia did not devote her life to dance alone. In high school, she was captain of the cheerleading squad. She was also good on the football field. She embraced both halves of her identity, exploited it, and reveled in the exercise.

But even those with the thickest skins can sometimes contemplate giving up. Among them, being booed offstage or being discriminated against on  the playground. But none was greater than the weight of expectations. 

“Whether as a woman, as a daughter, as a wife, as a mom, I think carrying the weight of all of that is a lot,” she says. “Knowing that I’m an ambitious woman, and that I’m never going to stop being that person is something that I know I have to constantly reevaluate and set priorities for. That is why doing the LifePass method works for me. I set goals and priorities based on my own intentions. What’s most important is really approaching things with love and care and presence of mind versus constantly feeling guilty for not doing it.”

We veer off a little from the entrepreneur’s journey and get to matters of heart and hearth. Kadakia used her very own LifePass system of setting goals to find her life partner, Nick Pujji, a partner at Dentons’, a law firm. She breaks down the process of achieving her romantic goal.

“When I started doing the LifePass method seven years ago … I was single at the time and I set a goal to find somebody who I would have a long-term relationship with. I was at that same time changing my mindset about what love was, after having so many expectations. I was about to turn 31, so in other people’s minds, I was late to the game. I went to a school party with one of my friends on my birthday, and he walked in during halftime. We just sort of laid eyes on each other, and then the rest was history. We never looked back.”In her book dedication, Pujji finds mention as the one who brings joy to her life and also who brought her the best snacks while she was writing the book.

Kadakia, Adoring parents Payal and Nickwith son Zayn
Adoring parents Payal and Nick with son Zayn

Pujji, a turbaned Sikh, and Kadakia, a garba-loving Gujarati, offer a blend of two rich cultures to their son Zayn. 

“We’re raising our son as a Sikh as well,” Kadakia says. “I think it really comes down to being clear what our culture meant to us, to making sure that we’re giving that to Zayn. I think it’s not about just forcing him to do things, because that’s how we were taught. It’s really about us looking inward to say, what does our culture mean to us, individually, and then celebrating both of those things in our child.”

In the book, Kadakia shares her four-step approach to goal-setting to achieve personal and professional goals. “LifePass,” which comes a day after Valentine’s, is split into three parts. The first is a self-examination of your life, that encourages you to reflect upon your identity, expectations, fears and your true calling. The second part of the book helps you to identify the limitations that may hold you back in pursuing your passion and your true desires. The concluding part lets you in on Kadakia’s signature four-point method, which she advocates from her own experiences.

What made her write the book? 

“The decade of my life since I started this company, everyone always asked me, how I was doing it? What decisions to make in your life? So I wanted to give people a bit more insight into the way I really thought about all the decisions in my life and the methodology I use,” Kadakia says. “To reflect on certain questions in their life, whether it is mental constraints that they might be facing society’s expectations, identity issues, fear of failure and any other real constraints in their life. I faced all of these challenges but I always believed I could work through it. I want people to feel from this book, hearing my stories, and being able to then self reflect through the exercises, to be able to say I can get through that fear as well in my life and get to the other side of this limit.”

Payal Kadakia with her book, LifePass
Payal Kadakia with her book, LifePass

She says her method is based on lessons that she learned from experience, examples, and conversations with entrepreneurs who she met along the way.

“When I really thought about that idea, it was when I was looking for a ballet class to take online, and I couldn’t find it. So that was really when the idea came to me. She discovered that there were no apps to book a dance or fitness class while there were those that would book a table or a dental appointment, or order food. Kadakia wondered why it was not as easy to book a dance class, and then to do something about it.

“When I started ClassPass, which was 10 years ago, it wasn’t something that everyone was talking about. So I actually was inspired because I went out to Silicon Valley, I went up to San Francisco to visit a friend. And all of her friends were building apps and different product ideas. It inspired me to say, hey, what if I could think of an idea? What if I could build an app for the world? And that’s sort of what started me on my journey. I don’t think before that I ever thought about being an entrepreneur.”

As a South Asian woman of color, Kadakia endured conscious and unconscious bias, especially when seeking investors, for her idea.

“Time is free, but it is priceless. You can’t own it but you can use it. You can’t keep it but you can spend it. Once you have lost it, you can never get it back.”

Kadakia’s favorite quote from Harvey Mackay (businessman and bestselling author)

“I never let them doubt me and I think I knew that I was different,” she says. “I felt different since I was really young. You know, I am 4 foot 11. I started dealing with that when I was younger, having some terrible experiences. It helped me learn to find a place where I could say, I am perfect the way I am. I’m here to do something great in the world and putting that mission right above how I felt or how that was going to affect me. I walked into that room with the confidence to go and solve that mission. And no one can take that away from me.”

Despite how it reflects her character, ClassPass was not her first business effort. Kadakia set up a dance company called Sa Dance Company in 2009 to increase awareness of Indian dance in the mainstream.

“I really powered through and I really give the credit to dance for being able to help me shape my entire identity that way,” she says.

An identity that now includes her being listed in Fast Company’s 100 most Creative People and Fortune’s 40 under 40. Real-life inspiration can come in many forms, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. In Payal Kadakia’s case, it just happens to be a four-foot-eleven-inch powerhouse.

  • Important people in Payal’s life and what they mean to her:

Mom and Dad (Geeta and Harshad) – Who gave her life and her Number 1 cheerleaders.

Sister (Avani) – Great role model to look up to her entire life.

Husband (Nick) –Best supporter and who brings love to her life. Also who brought her the best snacks during her writing of the book.

Son (Zayn) – Who helped her create life.

Dance teacher (Usha Patel) – Taught her how to succeed in life.

Payal and Nick getting married!
  • LifePass Four-Step Process:

REFLECT – Where you have been? First Step – To reflect and really know where you have been and where you are.

DREAM – Where do you want to go? Second Step – is to dream so you know where you’re going. Do this, not by having you talk about accomplishments, but talking about how you want to feel.

FOCUS – What are your priorities? Third Step – is all about focusing. Identifying your priorities because you really need to take all the areas of your life and figure out where you’re going to put all that attention.

SET GOALS – What’s the plan? Fourth Step – is actually all about setting good goals. I have a whole section dedicated on how actually set goals. How do you make them measurable? How do you make them really, truly the first step versus the eighth step in the process?

  • In LifePass, you will learn how to:
  1. Focus on what’s meaningful to you
  2. Embrace all parts of your identity
  3. Push past expectations to hear your own voice
  4. Turn failure into learning opportunities
  5. Make money work for you, instead of working for it
  6. Manage your time guilt-free
  7. Build a supportive tribe of people around you
  8. Set actionable goals aligned to your dreams
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