From Clinical Psychology Student to Operations at SoulCycle to Head of Platform at Female Founders Fund – Interview with Emily St. DenisFeatured

I spoke with Emily St. Denis, Head of Platform at Female Founders Fund and an early team member at SoulCycle. We discussed her experiences in operating roles, building wellness brands, and transitioning to venture capital, as well as her best advice for current and aspiring women in entrepreneurship. Emily graduated from Skidmore College, where she studied psychology with an American Studies minor. With the goal of becoming a clinical psychologist, she spent most of college working at hospitals and in research labs and by graduation, had already begun to feel quite burnt out. Emily had never considered she might excel in another field, and decided to experiment with different industries figuring she could fall back on psychology if need be.Finding the right career path: Emily realized that her knowledge of mental health could be applied to consumer insights work where she could leverage her understanding of behavioral science and human psychology. This revelation and a warm introduction from a friend led her to her first role at Horizon Media where she focused primarily on advertising analytics and strategy. Finding the right company: Quickly, Emily realized firsthand the importance of finding purpose in her work. While she liked her team, she did not feel connected to the advertisements she spent over 12 hours a day analyzing and optimizing. Around this time, a SoulCycle studio opened near her apartment. The boutique indoor cycling company only had three locations in New York City at the time and was very much in its earliest stages as a startup. Having been an athlete for most of her life, Emily went to take a class and immediately fell in love with the brand and experience. Finding the right role: When her mom attended a class with her and shared Emily’s enthusiasm for SoulCycle with the instructor afterwards, he mentioned that they were hiring a new studio openings manager and would love for Emily to apply. Feeling confident about how the application process had gone, she was disappointed when she learned she did not get the role. The recruiting team noted that they were looking for someone with a few more years of experience but felt that her background with analytics and Excel may be a fit for their operations team. Through the encouragement of friends, she decided to move forward with the Operations opportunity as a way to get her foot in the door at the company and in the broader startup world. Her hesitation was quickly ameliorated as early as the interview stage: pressed for interview space, her first meeting with a recruiter took place on the floor of a SoulCycle studio surrounded by bikes. For Emily, this represented the hands-on culture and style of work of the operations team. In April 2013, Emily was hired into the Operations Department as one of the first 30 corporate employees.In its early days, SoulCycle was filled with infectious energy -- there was a lot to do, and everyone wore multiple hats; the founders themselves not only oversaw high level strategy but also sprayed shoes after a class.Operations, in particular, was a catch-all department where different challenges from other departments were solved. These experiences gave Emily incredibly diverse exposure in building a business from the ground up. Emily ran all of supply chain and procurement, managed retail partnerships, designed and rolled out new products and equipment , organized popups to market the brand, designed standard operating procedures and brand standards, led trainings, and more. Looking back, Emily’s time in operations played a significant role in how she works now: she is incredibly detail oriented, streamlines processes from the get-go to maximize efficiency, and creates best practices looking toward growth and scale. Finding the right stage: SoulCycle grew quickly. From 2013 to 2017 the studio count increased from 13 to 75+, and after some time, Emily felt she was ready for a new challenge. Realizing that this entrepreneurial structure was part of what she loved most about her role, Emily left to join a growth equity firm that invested in health and wellness companies. On behalf of the firm, she operated as the Director of Operations for one of their portfolio companies, an international barre franchise called Xtend Barre. At Xtend Barre, Emily leveraged her learnings from SoulCycle with an eye toward branding and growth and touched new parts of the business like marketing, retail, branding, instructor training, and more -- but after some time, decided she wanted to make a greater impact by working with earlier stage companies. She began to explore venture capital as an option. Without an MBA and prior experience in the field, she learned more about VC by taking calls and coffee meetings with new connections in the field. In Spring of 2018 a friend forwarded an email from Anu Duggal, the founding partner at Female Founders Fund, with a job description for a platform role at the fund. Emily was interested but also hesitant to apply because she felt she did not meet each of the listed criteria. She applied nonetheless and advanced through the application process; in one of the final stages, she completed a 3-part project around designing the brand aesthetic, creating new channels for opportunity, and generating events strategy and execution plans. While she did not have prior experience in venture, her operations background was particularly relevant to this project. Through operations, Emily learned to break down large problems, quickly solve unexpected challenges, and execute on diverse initiatives. As a team of three, Female Founders Fund operates much like a startup itself. Emily loves being able to support inspiring founders and work in an entrepreneurial environment while integrating the hands-on process and execution focus work she loved about operations. Best advice: reflecting on her career path to date, Emily shared her best advice. 1. All too frequently, women refrain from applying to new opportunities because they worry about not having all the requisite skills. Of course everyone has different talents and leanings, but ultimately most skills can be learned and Emily has found that having a great attitude is much more important. Put yourself out there for the opportunities you want even if you don’t check all the boxes: with a growth mindset, you can navigate the steepest learning curves. 2. Encourage others to take chances. A few of the opportunities that were formative in Emily’s career started with the encouragement of friends and family when she was unsure of her own capabilities and potential. 3. Tenacity is Emily’s key driver of long-term success. Even the most successful individuals (and perhaps *especially* the most successful!) have experienced career rejection and failure. In the moments of apparent defeat, remember that success is not about how many times you fall but instead how many times you are able to get back up again. --Elpha Techies is a biweekly column by Jessica Li, featuring stories and best advice of women in tech. Interested in being featured or know someone who may be a fit? DM Jessica. Jessica Li, an Elpha Ambassador, is a recent graduate of Harvard College and is now working in the Bay Area in Morgan Stanley’s Global Technology Investment Banking group. Over the past few years, she has been involved with the Boston and SF startup ecosystems and as a venture investor with funds including Rough Draft Ventures/General Catalyst, Romulus Capital, Global Founders Capital, and Female Founders Fund. She is passionate about supporting female entrepreneurs, operators, and others in tech and beyond! She also blogs about early stage founders at Medium (@jessli).
Great feature as usual, @jessli - thanks so much for sharing!"All too frequently, women refrain from applying to new opportunities because they worry about not having all the requisite skills..."^I've noticed this theme time and time again here on Elpha and elsewhere. I agree that women in all fields have this tendency to limit themselves. I think that reading stories like Emily's is a really great way to reinforce that: you don't have to check off all the boxes or follow a straight line or even know where you're going -- it all starts with believing that you've got what it takes!
Of course! I totally agree and thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and for your support of the series :)