Female Disruptors: Anne Mahlum of [solidcore] and Ambition on The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Hire the right people and know when to add new positions. It’s easy in the beginning to hire people based on passion or people who work like you. If you do that and don’t understand the skill sets that someone’s bringing to the table that you don’t have, that might not benefit the business. Hiring people different from you and getting diverse skill sets and opinions around the table is critical.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anne Mahlum.
Anne Mahlum is founder and executive chairwoman of [solidcore], a fast-growing boutique fitness company she founded in DC in 2013. She successfully raised more than $70M in private equity to be able to grow [solidcore] across the US. The company now has more than 85 locations (entirely corporately owned) across 27 states with more than 800 employees. Her latest venture is Ambition, a new fitness and wellness venture which will open its first studio in Manhattan in February 2023. Anne is also the founder and former CEO of Back on My Feet, a national non-profit organization that uses running as a vehicle to help those experiencing homelessness change the way they see themselves so they can change the direction of their lives. Anne is an active philanthropist and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations serving people in recovery, as well as organizations working to help the wrongly convicted.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I thought when I was in high school and college, I was going to have a very traditional path, meaning go to college, get married, get a very stable job, two kids, and a house, just like I saw growing up in North Dakota. It wasn’t until my last year in college that I started to think, “I’m not sure if I want that.” I wasn’t brave enough to go against the grain at that point. It took a few more years to realize — I was in my early 20s at the time, living in Philadelphia — I knew I didn’t want that traditional life, but I didn’t know what I wanted. It was a lonely, confusing, and isolating time, and I spent the next two years searching for my purpose. I was running every morning and happened to run by a homeless shelter and began to talk with the people I saw there as I ran by each day. I quickly realized that I should start a club for them and share this gift of running. For many people, it just would’ve stayed a running club. But I think because I was doing so much inner work on myself to understand what motivated me, I began thinking about this in a different way. I knew these guys could have a different life if someone paid attention to them and gave them an environment to succeed.
That vision was enough to go all in and try to build my first organization, Back on My Feet. I did that for six and a half years, grew it across the country, and helped thousands of people move out of shelters and live independently, all by starting with running.
And then these voices started to come back. So, I was like, “Ok great, Anne. It’s time to go do something else.” I was very resistant to that at first because I didn’t want to fail, and I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to do something bigger or better than what I had just done. But the voices didn’t go away. And at some point, you drive yourself mad if you’re not listening to yourself, and you’re like, okay, “I’ve got to do this”. So, I left Back on My Feet and started [solidcore].
I discovered Pilates and how strong it made me feel, and I didn’t think anybody was doing it well from a brand or community perspective. So, I opened the first started [solidcore] studio in November 2013, and we have 86 studios today.
And then the same voice happened again last year. So, I have resigned to the idea that this will be my life. I’m going to create, build, and scale, then pass it on to someone else and do it all over again.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
The health and fitness industry isn’t new, but how I disrupt and make people pay attention is how I choose to live my life as a female. I’m not married, I don’t have kids, and I do what I want. I’ve made my own wealth, and I think it’s disrupting the gender roles in business and the gender roles in entrepreneurship and what is possible for women.
We need to stop and ask ourselves what we want instead of falling in line with the societal messages that are everywhere. I do that well. I’m not scared to change direction. The great test I give myself to determine if I’m living my life to the fullest is that I reflect on where my life was 12 months ago. And if everything is the same, I know I’m not pushing myself.
That’s a good measure.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s funny because you would think I would’ve known better, but when I opened [solidcore], the first studio, we knew we would be playing music and having a microphone. I didn’t stop and think about how the sound would travel and disrupt the people above me. So, every morning for months, the police would show up when I was coaching that 5:00 AM class. They would show up because they got a noise complaint, and they would knock on the studio door and try to come in. There was only me in there, so I was on the microphone saying, “Can you come back after class?” I’m talking to the police, trying to get them to leave me alone, and going back to talking to people in the class, “Get into a lunge!”
So, I think that was probably the funniest mistake I made I would think, “I know the cops are coming today, and I’ve got to this class, so I’m gonna lock the door.” What I learned through that was making sure that I didn’t find myself in that situation again. When the company grew, it needed to have a little bit more professionalism and maturity than that.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I haven’t talked to her in a while, but Mary Wittenberg, the CEO of New York Roadrunners, was a mentor of mine when I was running Back on My Feet. She had been in a senior leadership position for a while.
I remember talking to her about feeling like I wasn’t appreciated, “I feel like I work so much on Back on My Feet, put it first, and go above and beyond.” And she stopped me before I could finish my sentence and said, “Anne, if you’re going to play in this big space and be a CEO here and in other places, you can’t look for appreciation at work. You need to get that from home. It is your job to make sure everybody else around you feels appreciated and that you are serving them, not the other way around.”
She was the first person who taught me to have proper expectations for what an experience was. And I still see that people get upset, disappointed, and frustrated when they don’t have appropriate expectations about what an experience will be. Like they made up a contract in their head about what your relationship was going to be, and the other person didn’t agree to it.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
No, and I’ve talked to my team about that. People constantly get hammered with innovate, innovate, innovate. And innovation for the sake of innovation is irresponsible.
You need to have a good reason to do it. A lot of innovation with [solidcore] happened in the early stages of developing the workout when we made our machines. We took some significant innovative risks in the beginning. You need to assess what’s working and double down on that. People would think innovation meant getting online or making an at-home product. But that’s not our bread and butter. The reason [solidcore] works is the in-person community. So again, double down on those aspects and don’t try to follow what everybody else is doing or “disrupt” the at-home market.
[solidcore] is the best at the in-person community, and continuing to perfect, develop, and foster that is what is in our best business interests.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Start before you’re ready. From an entrepreneurial perspective, many people don’t start. They sit and have an idea for years and never do it because they think they need funding or have a list of excuses for why they can’t start. They claim they must have it all figured out before taking step one. There is nothing that exists today that is successful, whether it’s Amazon, whether it’s Tesla, that didn’t start with what is step one. Take it to something tangible when you look at a house. The first thing in building a house is creating the plans to build the house, and then you get the materials. And for some reason, with business or ideas, people jump toward the very end, and then they either convince themselves that it’s way too hard, that they’re not capable of doing it, or that they don’t know what step six or seven or how to do step six and seven. Therefore, they’re not the right person to do it. And nobody who has started something has known every aspect of their business. You need to know enough to be resourceful, get the ball rolling, and bring in the right people who know what you don’t know. And again, back to expectations, you need to expect you’re going to miss things. You’ve got to take the first step, and then you’ll be able to figure out what step two is.
- “Don’t freak out when things go wrong, and be ready to problem solve.” So, the second good piece of advice is somewhat aligned with the first; you cannot freak out when things happen. If you think that you will wake up every day and things will be smooth, your business won’t make it because you’re not pushing hard enough. Your job is to come up with solutions. That is a big part of being an entrepreneur.
- Hire the right people and know when to add new positions. It’s easy in the beginning to hire people based on passion or people who work like you. If you do that and don’t understand the skill sets that someone’s bringing to the table that you don’t have, that might not benefit the business. Hiring people different from you and getting diverse skill sets and opinions around the table is critical.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I’m onto venture number three, opening another fitness and wellness company called Ambition. We are seeing many boutique fitness studios focus on one workout, and they deliver that one thing exclusively. People run around to the different studios to get all these different experiences. At Ambition, we will put four of those modalities under one umbrella. The program will be very different for each class and format we’re doing, but you’re going to save time and be more efficient. The brand we’re building will resonate with folks about challenging themselves.
We have gone too far into the self-care world. People say, “I don’t feel a hundred percent today, so I’m going to take a break.”
I have days where I need a beat, and I know that, but it’s not when I feel 80 or 90%. I go to workouts when I don’t want to because I’m not only going to show up when I’m only 100% motivated. Ambition is going to be about that. We’re not going to announce at the beginning of class that a fetal position is available if the workout feels too hard. We want to push you and develop an internal dialogue: “I can show up for myself even when I don’t want to.” Ambition teaches resilience and shows people they are stronger than they think; we can do hard things. We can push through even when we want to give up. We teach people how to elevate and grow to the next level.
I’m an ambitious female. I want to contribute and see what I’m capable of. I want to show up, push myself, and know I’m not the only one.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I have been speaking a lot about masculine and feminine energy. No men say, “I want to be a housewife.” There’s not a movement against it, but as women step into their independence, we want our own money, we want to feel financially independent, and we know we’re smart. We want a seat at the table; we have opinions, thoughts, ideas, and all these things. We have had to learn to step into the more masculine trait of being decisive, ambitious, and disciplined, holding our own and standing up to people, even when our opinion differs from everybody else’s. I still think that most people, women, and men included, do not take kindly to that.
We look at women, and we want them to be feminine. We want them to be amenable. We want them to be nurturing; we want them to be all these things. So, when a woman shows up to a meeting and is hard on somebody and says, “I expect more,” or is hard driving, it still breaks people’s brains.
We want her to be kinder; we want her to be softer. It’s a challenge to balance that polarity constantly. Women will constantly have to fight that battle until we start celebrating female and feminine energy in leadership roles more than we are.
I didn’t grow my Back on My Feet or [solidcore] quickly without ruffling some feathers, breaking some rules, being very demanding, and being hard charging. And some of those are all male attributes. But, again, people are like, I don’t like her, and I’m okay with that. Would you say the same if I was a man? I think women need to stop apologizing all the time because someone has an issue with them. You can have an environment that is hard work, encourages you to show up, push yourself, be results-oriented, and not apologize for that. I don’t see driven men always apologizing.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
My favorite go-to podcast is Brené Brown. She talks about trust and has an acronym for it–BRAVING. She goes through each of these letters, and I’ve never heard someone talk about trust like Brené does. And it’s a 30-minute podcast, and it makes you think about how you show up for yourself and how you show up for your friends. And I’ll give you one example. She talks about the gossip, like when you run up to your friend, and you’re like, did you hear that so and so broke up? And you think you’re connecting with me because you’re giving me the dirt, and all I’m thinking is, “Hmm, that wasn’t your news to share. And I am never telling you anything.” That is sacred to me because you now display that what I tell you isn’t safe with you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It would be around helping people change their relationship with alcohol. I know some people might say more profound things like “world peace,” but I’m being realistic about my personal experiences. My relationship with alcohol has changed dramatically, and I’ve been very vocal about that. And I think there would be a lot more people better off health-wise from a social standpoint if they stopped drinking. Instead, we use it to numb. We use it to suppress. We use it to connect with people falsely.
And I think there’s so much quality of life if you remove alcohol from your regimen. I’m not saying you’re not going to drink ever again necessarily, but when it’s a daily thing or such a consistent thing that you can’t go to a concert, dinner, or out to meet a friend without alcohol, I don’t think your connection is real.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life,” from Jerzy Gregorek, a Polish man who went from being an alcoholic to winning four World Weightlifting Championships. If you’re making the easy decision and going after the immediate gratification, more times than not, your life, at some point, is going to get hard. That means you have no savings. It means you’re choosing to go to a party instead of your friend’s or your friend’s parent’s funeral. It means you’re choosing the food that tastes good but is bad for you instead of the food that will fuel you. And if you do that enough times, you will create complications for yourself down the road.
Another concept that guides me is from Andrew Huberman — “Be very wary of things that give you a high dopamine release with minimal effort.” Think about alcohol, for instance: you get a little bit of a peak of a high because the alcohol is hijacking your brain and releasing dopamine. Or maybe it is buying something you can’t afford. You get an instant dopamine high, and then the next day, you realize you can’t afford it and have regret.
I always ask myself, am I making a decision? If you’re in that place where you are living a life of immediate gratification, you must start asking yourself questions when you want to do something. Does this serve me today? What about tomorrow? Or does this benefit me today and not tomorrow? And you need to have fewer of the latter decisions than the former ones.
How can our readers follow you online?
Instagram is the place I’m most active — @annemahlum. People can also follow along at @solidcore and @wegotambition. Visit AnneMahlum.com and sign up for the email list to get continued content.
In January 2023, I am launching a new podcast called Choose 90. Choose 90 is actually a simple formula for getting the results I want in any area of life: 90% of the time, I am committed to consistent thoughts, actions, behaviors, and habits that contribute to my success. And the other 10%, I allow for the variety and normal ups and downs that happen in life.
My goal for the Choose 90 podcast is to help people achieve ultimate optimization in their careers, their health, and their wealth. On the show, I interview successful people who have adopted consistent strategies to help them achieve their goals and get to the “how” of what they do so that anyone can use those tactics to optimize their own lives.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!