Entrepreneur Julie Rice has been dubbed a “brand genius” by AdWeek magazine, and with good reason. Best known as the co-founder of cult stationary-cycling phenomenon SoulCycle, Rice is now a co-founder of LifeShop, a new umbrella company focused on investing in, advising and incubating new ideas rooted in community and emotional intelligence. Alongside Oprah Winfrey, she’s also on the board of Weight Watchers.
Last November, Rice joined billion-dollar co-working company WeWork and is now a partner. The global office-sharing startup is one of the most highly valued privately held companies (valued at US$20-billion) and operates in 22 countries. Influenced by the kibbutz and commune childhoods of co-founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey, it’s a mission more than a business model. “We are here in order to change the world. Nothing less than that interests me,” Neumann has said.
In September, for example, WeWork launched WeGrow, a new open-concept alternative school designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels in Chelsea. And WeMrkt – its new on-site premium retail concept stocking office basics and fresh snacks – is rolling out at locations in the United States, Britain and Canada. While she was in Toronto for Elevate TechFest, I spoke with Rice spoke about social experience, product and what’s at the heart of creating a community today.
What interested you about joining WeWork?
Adam approached me to figure out what else could make it more vibrant and richer for members than it already is. As I began to think about it, the thing about SoulCycle that really made it special was the connectivity of the community. The group experience of going through these journeys in the dark and the way that they connected people, and that had a lot to do with the hospitality. We ran a real hospitality training school. The way that we took care of our riders, the way we trained our instructors to take care of our riders.
Do you mean writing a specific script?
The real details. That entire experience from the time you cross the threshold at SoulCycle until you walk out the door is really choreographed. There are so many touch points of how you greet a customer – when you greet a customer, knowing their name, knowing their birthday, knowing that they’ve been missing for a month or two. In the room, instructors knowing their favourite songs, which moments to push people and which moments to congratulate people. There’s a whole arc that’s written into the class. I just think that it’s interesting; the more that I study communities, the more you realize that the facilitators of communities – the way that we teach people to hold space for each other is really something that you can do. You can actually foster these kinds of relationships. So, as I began to come out of my SoulCycle mode and think about WeWork, it seemed like another extremely interesting kind of community-driven experience.
It’s been not quite one year since you’ve been with WeWork and WeMrkt is your baby. What makes premium curated retail the right phase in enhancing the member experience? How does retail create that kind of community?
We keep saying WeMrkt is by the members for the members. WeWork: It’s really an articulation of who we are – creating an environment where passionate people can create things that they love, that they think are going to make the world better. WeMrkt is taking it one step further, helping distribute these things into the world, a world where physical retail brick-and-mortar is disappearing.
WeWork recently purchased the department store Lord & Taylor’s New York City flagship building, a Fifth Avenue landmark. Retail is dead, as we often hear.
It’s gone! To think about it, next year we’ll have 500 buildings globally, we could have 500 points of distribution for the products that we’re stocking in WeMrkt. We have buildings that have between 300 and 3,000 members in them, so for us to have the best tech product, the best office product, the best wellness product, the healthiest snack – all these innovative things that make members’ day easier and better.
We’re trying to find products that are really considering the world we live in, in terms of what they’re creating. Like one in our New York market called Misfit Juicery: they’re basically using the fruit that’s too bruised to put on shelves and creating incredible juices out of them.
If SoulCycle was about knowing how people want to spend their leisure time, what have you learned at WeWork so far about what people in the future of work culture?
At SoulCycle, we used to say that our competition was not fitness companies but any way people could spend their time – a movie, a mall, even work! People loved SoulCycle so much that they would find a way to make their work more efficient so they could get out earlier to make their favourite teacher’s class at five o’clock. People really did readjust their work lives for it. We really felt like we were competing against anything that occupied people’s waking hours. I think that’s the same thing with WeWork.
Is WeWork a real estate company, a co-working space, tech company, or a retailer?
I think it’s an operating system for life. Coming here for me has been so interesting because our founders’ vision is really big. I think it’s about work, but also about living, gathering, learning. That is also just who I am as a person. My husband always says that if I were a superhero I’d be The Over-Inviter.
I’m trying to picture the costume for that. Do you think there’s a specific generation or psychographic or demographic that is particularly craving community?
The demographic is human beings. If you’re 68 or 16, people want to feel good. Everybody wants to feel appreciated and when you’re building a community that is the common thread. People just want to matter.