Sadie Kurzban, founder of the wildly popular dance-based ((305)) Fitness classes, has some firm career insight: “Work your ass off.” And she doesn’t just mean physically (though her classes are notoriously challenging). Indeed, her story shows that hard work pays off. Kurzban was just 22 years old when she founded her business and made her first hires, and now, at 27, she doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. ((305)) Fitness has grown to include 30 instructors and 25 DJs across New York City, Washington, D.C., and Boston -- and between managing her employees and negotiating real estate deals, Kurzban still finds time to teach and work out. “If I can’t find time to teach, I know I’m doing something wrong,” she says.
How did she turn her passion for dance and teaching into a booming career? She started by doing her homework. She studied Econ as an undergraduate at Brown University, where she won an entrepreneurship competition that gave her the financial means to move to New York City and found ((305)) Fitness. And she’s continued learning along the way, navigating the many challenges that come with owning a business, including fundraising and managing a team.
Fairygodboss recently checked in with Kurzban, who shared with us how being a young woman has complicated her work (and how it’s helped!). She offered her insight on how to succeed as a working woman (“Develop thick skin...People will not think to ask you for your opinion, so make it clear that your opinion is valuable by proving yourself through hard work”) and revealed some of the women she finds most inspiring.
FGB: Can you tell me a bit about your career path? How did you get to where you are now?
SK: I started ((305)) Fitness while still a senior in college. I was teaching these crazy dance cardio classes out of the gym at Brown, where I went to school. I loved teaching — it gave me so much life and I felt I was helping students connect with their bodies, blow off steam, and let loose in a group setting. What’s so empowering about this class is the way that it sheds self-consciousness. It’s impossible to take yourself so seriously when you are shaking your booty in front of a stranger.
When I was a senior in college, I realized this was really what I wanted to do with my life. So I studied up on entrepreneurship, changing my major from Political Science to Econ. I took entrepreneurship courses, classes on accounting and marketing. I read up as much as I could and I asked as many questions from people who had taken the plunge before me. I won Brown’s prestigious Entrepreneurship competition and the funds ($25,000) were enough to give me the kick-in-the-pants to move to New York and start ((305)).
FGB: What have some of the challenges/advantages of managing your own business been?
SK: The challenges are always changing, which is part of the excitement! One day, I might be trying to negotiate a new real estate deal, the next day I might be trying to help an instructor-in-training who is struggling with mastering his or her first class.
The advantages are plentiful and never-ending. I get to manage my own schedule. I can run errands when I need to. I get to work with people who I adore. I get to spread happiness and empowerment — it is the very mission of our brand. And finally, I get to leave a legacy on this world of which I am extremely proud.
FGB: Is there anything that you struggled with early in your career that you feel like you've overcome/improved upon?
SK: One of the challenges I’ve faced has been managing a team. I was only 22 when I hired my first team of instructors. I had never worked anywhere. I knew nothing about professional communication. Sometimes I blurred lines too much and couldn’t compartmentalize friendship and professional life (meaning: I’d take things too personally, or I would hold things in rather than expressing myself in a direct way).
Now we have over 30 instructors and 25 DJs across three cities, plus a team of six full-time staff, and I’d like to think I’m doing a much better job of managing a team and keeping everyone motivated.
I’ve learned that people want to feel heard and valued, and even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye, the most important thing is setting clear boundaries and being honest with others. I’ve found that being transparent and honest as a manager has worked in my favor. Dangling a fake carrot only works for so long. Eventually, people see through the BS. My approach has been to manage a team with full honesty, celebrate accomplishments and break bad news rather than dust things under the rug. I find people really respect you when you are real with them.
FGB: Do you ever feel (or have you ever felt) that being a young woman has made it more difficult for you to effectively run your business?
SK: Are you joking? YES. Anyone who tells you “no” or says “I think being a woman has actually worked to my advantage” is either lying or is in denial of the fundamental inequities and obstacles we face as women. There are about a million and one examples, but to name a few: raising money. The fundraising process is essentially made for men. Usually, I am pitching in a room full of older (white) men. I have a mentor who once told me: “one of the smartest things I did was get a partner who was an older, white-haired man. I had the idea and the execution, and I’d let him do the talking in the meetings. Without him, it was question after question. With him, it was simple handshakes over beers.”
Another way: managing a team. As a woman, I am expected to strike a very careful balance of being nurturing and direct. If I am too direct, then I am considered cold, calculating, a bitch. If I am too kind, then I am a pushover and nothing gets done. I’ve had to sit employees down and explain: “I am the boss. There is a power structure, like in any organization, and I sit on the top, and sometimes I’m going to make decisions you don’t agree with.” While I’ll never know (because there is no male clone of me in time), I don’t believe a man has to have these same awkward conversations with people he manages.
On the other hand, here is how being a woman has helped: my product is mostly consumed by women. 90% of our clients are women. Central to our brand identity is female empowerment. Having the experience of being a millennial woman has helped me “walk the walk” in a way that really shines through our product.
FGB: What advice do you have for young women who are starting out in their careers - or for those who are taking on new management positions?
SK: Work your ass off. You will be scrutinized. Develop thick skin. You’ll have to work ten times as hard. Develop an outstanding work ethic that cannot be questioned. You have to advocate for yourself. People will not think to ask you for your opinion, so make it clear that your opinion is valuable by proving yourself through hard work. At the end of the day, money talks and power talks, so if you want to make a difference and help other women rise the ranks, be relentless in your career pursuit, be unapologetically ambitious. Stay committed to your growth. Take in feedback. Welcome constructive criticism. If men think you’re going to cry if they give you “too much” work or if they give you feedback, then they’ll learn to avoid you. Have an attitude of “bring it on” and people will respect you for it.
FGB: I imagine you're very busy managing various aspects of your business - is it hard for you to find the time to teach/work out yourself?
SK: No. Teaching and working out come first for me. If I can’t find time to teach, I know I’m doing something wrong. The areas of my life where I’ve had to sacrifice are mostly personal; I don’t go out often, I don’t drink alcohol (because hangovers kill productivity) and I know I have to put marriage and family planning on hold for many years to come.
FGB: Is there a woman (or women) -- whether or not you've met -- who most inspire(s) you?
SK: My goodness, the list goes on and on!
Amanda Freeman: CEO of SLT. She’s built a tremendous fitness business and bootstrapped the whole thing. She’s also single parenting in New York City. I give her all the props in the world. This woman is honest, direct, authentic. A true star.
Patricia Moreno; in the fitness world, she is my idol. Her message is deep. One of the first to say: “enough with ‘beach body’ and all this consumerist crap. Let’s actually empower people to be their best selves through exercise.”
Emma Watson: I went to school with her and she was always extremely humble and kind. She has used her public platform to spread an empowering message. She is intelligent, poised, and a real fighter.
Serena Williams: if more young women looked up to Serena, we’d live in a better world. Truly, the greatest of all time. Unapologetically herself. Extremely ambitious and driven. A role model of owning your body and your sexiness.
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