Since joining WeWork last November, Julie Rice has spent a lot of time behind the front desk. The company’s incoming chief brand officer knows the value of facetime with members, having done many such shifts in the early years of SoulCycle, the brand that she and co-founder Elizabeth Cutler built into the global standard for boutique fitness.
Her hands-on approach clearly worked at SoulCycle. After running the company since 2006, she and Cutler negotiated a high-profile sale to Equinox. Eager to pursue new challenges, both left the company in 2016.
“I used to say that you could learn more by taking a class or working behind the front desk for an hour than you could at your desk for a year,” says Rice, who has rolled up her sleeves at many WeWork locations. “And I think it’s the same thing at WeWork. The times that I really understand the nuance of the company are when I’m in the buildings.”
Rice—who WeWork Chief Operations Officer Jen Berrent calls “one of the most important entrepreneurs of our generation”—sat down to share how she’s navigating the transition from entrepreneur to team player, what advice she’s giving to another set of female founders, and why right now is a great time to be a woman.
After building your own brand, what drew you to WeWork?
I’m generally obsessed with community. In an increasingly digital world, what we are doing is so unique. As people are spending more and more time on their devices, we are creating a bigger and bigger physical community. It’s so needed.
Other people’s energy can empower you to create in a different way. It’s hard to be an entrepreneur. There are days when you think your ideas are brilliant, and days when you think you’re crazy. Every other day, it’s easy to give up. But when you have a place like this to come to, where you come in the morning and there’s somebody who knows you and says hello, it’s hard to articulate the positive impact that can have on a business.
How have you immersed yourself in the WeWork brand so far?
The best way to understand this brand is to be in the buildings and talk to the members. There’s nobody that understands this brand more than the people working on the front lines. All the community managers and people working in buildings are really passionate and engaged. What we want to do is give them the tools to create an even more connected member experience. They’re already out there doing a great job, so before we can do that, we need to learn from them.
How have you been building your new team?
In order to bring a fresh perspective to the member experience, [I’ve been looking for] a combination of institutional knowledge—people who have been doing this for a long time and get what the best of customer experience already is—and then bringing in people that are brand-new to WeWork and passionate about making people smile and feel good. The combination of those fresh eyes and institutional knowledge will really help us create an even more powerful member experience.
You’re an advisor to the women’s club The Wing, which WeWork has invested in. It was started by two female co-founders, Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan. What advice have you given them?
I saw their original deck when The Wing wasn’t called The Wing. [Cutler and I] were first introduced through a friend, and we started working with them to imagine the original concept.
The advice we’re giving them changes along the way. It’s a familiar journey to be on with them, because I’ve been in their shoes. When you’re an entrepreneur, the skillset is always changing.
With Audrey and Lauren, we meet regularly with [WeWork Chief Operations Officer] Jen Berrent. Right now we’re looking at a five-year road map for them in terms of scale. Because WeWork has gone to so many cities and because we’re such a global business, they’re looking to us in terms of which cities they should go to next, how many locations each city can hold, and what type of capital does it take to build those locations.
You’ve used a career coach throughout your professional life. How have your questions for her changed over the years?
Elizabeth and I had questions early on in the business, and we googled “career coach NYC” and found her. We originally used her because we wanted to make sure our partnership had a foundation of trust and transparency.
At SoulCycle, I went from working the front desk to having 2,000 employees. Working with [a coach] has helped me to become a better leader and to make difficult decisions by talking through them with her. A coach can help you figure out your personal leadership style and how to make decisions that are authentic for you.
What kind of questions do you ask your coach now?
When I came to WeWork, we talked a lot about the difference between being an entrepreneur and working within a business. Being the new person in the room, the shift is that I’ve spent the last few months listening and absorbing what’s going on here.
Stepping into a new role, how do you influence others and get your ideas heard?
By presenting ideas in a way that allows people to collaborate on your ideas. If you turn your ideas into more of a dialogue than a monologue, it’s easier for other people to feel invested. You want to present it and make it everybody’s idea. Then people can be much more enthusiastic about it.
What’s the secret to having staying power as a brand?
Brands need to listen to their customers. They will tell you what they want. Also, the ability to innovate. Just when you think you know what someone wants, they begin to take it for granted. The ability to consistently innovate and surprise your customers gives brands a lot of staying power.
Which brands do you look up to?
Apple has been relevant for a long time. Apple changes with us and even leads a lot of our change. I also look at Nike, another hero brand for me at always staying relevant. Whereas for Apple, the product always changes to stay relevant; with Nike, their messages always stay relevant. They’re always on the cusp of what’s going on in the world.
In a recent interview in The Cut, you remarked that “right now it’s very chic to be a woman.” Can you unpack what you meant by that?
It’s a wonderful time to be a woman in business or just a woman in the world. It’s a time where women’s voices are taken more and more seriously. More people are looking to women to be leaders, to step up. With the spotlight on women, it’s our chance to be the leaders we’ve been asking to be.