Payal Kadakia launched ClassPass in 2013 as a service to search for fitness options. Today, it’s an international membership booking platform for classes and services, from Pilates to haircuts to, recently, Covid-19 vaccinations–and is valued at $1 billion. Prior to founding her company, Kadakia was a Bain & Company analyst with a passion for Indian folk dance, which she began practicing at age 3. Her parents immigrated in the late 1970s from Gujarat, India, raising her in a rich culture–though she felt ostracized from her broader community at times. The duality she cultivated and later broke away from shaped her entrepreneurial journey. –As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
I grew up in Randolph, New Jersey, where I was one of the only Indian girls. We were one of the only Indian families. People didn’t understand who I was, or where I came from. I definitely got made fun of. People didn’t want to be around the person who was different. When you’re a kid, that makes a very big impression on you.
I had been bullied for so long I tried to hide my cultural heritage. For example, I was a cheerleader. And I would have Friday night football games. There was a huge Indian festival called Navratri, which is my favorite festival of the year. The whole next town nearby would get together. And we would dance until two or three in the morning. I literally rushed from the football game and changed in my car into full-on Indian garb to go to the festival. This was the duality I lived with.
In a town down the road, there was another Indian community. There, I started doing Indian folk dance, and I found a group of people who were like me. I found a place in this community where I could connect with people because they looked like me and understood me. My cultural heritage had been so positive at home. Seeing how my mom and dad lived their life, being in a country where they didn’t always understand everything, had been inspirational. My mom never took the idea that she couldn’t do something just because she didn’t understand it. She worked the night shift, my dad worked during the day, because they couldn’t afford childcare. There was never a dead end.
When I went to college, a beautiful thing happened where I started really feeling OK in both skins. I began seeing other people who were Indian–who kind of fit in. Dance was a huge part of it for me. It allowed me to care about who I was even more. I stopped feeling like I was different and started owning who I was.
I started a dance company called Sa Dance. I was inspired by watching Alvin Ailey, one of the greatest African-American dance companies in the world. I saw that the messages of your people can be represented through dance. Art is such a beautiful way of sharing messages of culture. Let me show you the beauty of it, the richness of it, how ancient it is, who my ancestors are. I started feeling like I was creating and leading and communicating about my culture. Dance became a vehicle for my coping.
When I started working on ClassPass, simply by building a company in fitness, I was in a roomful of men, most of the time. Investors didn’t really know what I was talking about. I was just so unique in so many of the rooms I was in. But I’m also 4-foot-11. I’m a very petite Indian woman. I didn’t look like anyone I was ever in a room with.
It took me three years to get my product right. When it worked, all of these investors and individuals who I had talked to in the previous three years were all of a sudden saying, “Hey, let me give you money!” And I’m thinking, “Why didn’t you bet on me before?” That’s the conversation that I sometimes have with myself about it: Because I didn’t fit their mold.
One of the biggest reasons I became an entrepreneur is I felt like I never fit into those environments–even my job in corporate America. Part of it was my cultural background, part was because of my artistic background. I needed to create an environment where I knew I could be like all colors of who I am. We obviously see this problem in the female-male dynamic that’s happening right now where capital is being deployed. But it’s the same thing when it comes to messages of culture.
I remember needing to hide. I remember needing to hide dance, being scared of sharing that part of myself with people. I realized over time that it has made me only stronger in everything I do. But other people need to have that ability to be their whole selves as well. In the press, people who look like me are not always represented. I didn’t see Indian people on the cover of magazines or on billboards. This is America, you know what I mean? We are a part of the population! And I think we’re really proud of who we are, and we’ve accomplished a lot. I want people to know that.