Female Disruptors: Kari Saitowitz is Shaking Up High Intensity Interval Training

With Akemi Sue Fisher

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Don’t lead by fear. Be the kind of leader who others want to run through walls for, not the leader who people run through walls for because they’re afraid not to. This was something one of my managers at Pepsi told me in one of my annual reviews. He used others in the organization as examples of each type of leader to demonstrate his point. This stuck with me. Some may say I embrace this too much, but I’d challenge them to find a competitor with better retention of key talent than Fhitting Room.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kari Saitowitz, the Founder of Fhitting Room. Prior to founding Fhitting Room in 2013, Kari was a Marketing Executive at Pepsi-Cola Company, where she focused on building brand equity for powerhouse brands as well as launching new brands and product innovations. She left the world of boardrooms and bubbles and entered the world of diapers and sleepless nights nearly ten years ago. Exhausted and time-starved, Kari started High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as a means to work off her pregnancy weight. Kari created Fhitting Room to deliver super effective, safe and truly fun HIIT workouts bringing together the best aspects of a one-on-one training session with the contagious culture and social dynamics of group exercise classes. Kari has an MBA from Harvard Business School, where she graduated with honors, and graduated summa cum laude with a BS in Economics from the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I call myself an accidental entrepreneur. Prior to Fhitting Room, I worked for big companies with some of the most recognized brands in the world. After spending a summer interning at a large advertising agency, I started my business career working in strategic planning and business development at American Express, which helped me sharpen my problem-solving skills. After business school I worked in marketing at Pepsi and was fortunate to work on a gamut of marketing initiatives from new product innovation, to managing flagship brands, to creating unique consumer experiences. I loved working with consumer insights to understand how brands can help solve problems for people through products and experiences. The more time I spent working in consumer marketing, the stronger my passion grew to have a positive impact on people’s day-to-day lives. I stepped away from my role at Pepsi when I had my first son. After having my younger son, I wasn’t looking for a job, but the idea which evolved into Fhitting Room grabbed me.

Why did you found your company?

After having my first child, I was introduced to High Intensity Interval Training under the watchful eye of a very smart and highly credentialed personal trainer as a means to lose baby weight. Specialized boutique fitness studios started popping up, and people were getting hooked on the fun, social dynamic these classes were providing. I loved the idea of working out with friends, as I was mostly home with a newborn baby. But I couldn’t find a studio offering functional HIIT workouts and personal attention from certified trainers. Many friends were taking classes 2–3x weekly and seeing personal trainers 1–2x weekly, a time consuming and expensive routine that not many people could afford. The consumer marketer / problem solver voice in my head screamed this was an opportunity.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Fhitting Room had to solve the problem of how to deliver the most effective workout, which includes strength training with weights and moderately complex skills, consistently and safely in a group environment. We introduced a co-instructor model staffing classes with two certified trainers, and we cap our classes at 24 clients to ensure trainers can effectively correct form and offer modifications as needed. All clients are treated like a VIP and leave feeling successful regardless of fitness level, pre-existing injuries or any other individual circumstances. We invest in our trainers, encouraging ongoing education and higher-level certifications. We value employee retention and cultivate instructor-client relationships as if they are personal training relationships. Fhitting Room is focused on helping clients achieve their personal goals.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?

In the early days of concept and brand identity creation I leaned on different groups of friends. Some I worked out with or knew were into the NYC fitness scene, some I worked with during my Pepsi days and have a great understanding of brands. I developed instrumental relationships with many studio owners and other thought leaders in the wellness world who help me kick the tires on industry and discuss business specific questions. My husband, who runs an investment fund and has experience in investment banking and private equity, has been my biggest supporter and most vocal advisor. He helps me step back and see the big picture when I get stuck in the weeds. He helps me tackle challenging situations with a level head and sound business judgement.

How are you going to shake things up next?

We’re eyeing markets outside of NYC to bring Fhitting Room’s upgraded delivery of HIIT to more people, with better trainers, better programming, and our signature high-touch, relationship driven client approach.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s not. Every time I’ve gone against my gut since starting Fhitting Room, I have lived to regret the decision and ultimately had to change course.

2. Work hard, play hard. This was something my parents told me when they dropped me off at college my freshman year. They were proud that my achievements had led me to a great institution, but they wanted to make sure I took time to have fun, enjoy new friendships and have an unforgettable experience. As I progressed in my career, this sentiment guided the types of corporate cultures that I felt most comfortable in and flourished as a part of. Since inception, this is something that we practice at Fhitting Room. Performance expectations are high but having fun along the journey is just as important.

3. Don’t lead by fear. Be the kind of leader who others want to run through walls for, not the leader who people run through walls for because they’re afraid not to. This was something one of my managers at Pepsi told me in one of my annual reviews. He used others in the organization as examples of each type of leader to demonstrate his point. This stuck with me. Some may say I embrace this too much, but I’d challenge them to find a competitor with better retention of key talent than Fhitting Room.

What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.

Steve Jobs’ A Biography — Growing up in the world of branding, I’ve always been a strong proponent that you cannot be all things to all people or you will end up being nothing to anybody. Reading Steve Jobs’ biography strengthened my focus on all the little details, as those details add up to a special experience. One night before opening our first location, my husband walked into our living room to find me sitting in the middle of the floor rubbing different lime green towel samples on different fabric athletic clothing. I must have looked absurd, but who wants to workout somewhere and leave with lime green towel lint covering them? A 5-star experience goes well beyond just having great trainers and an awesome workout.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In — This book is the one that had the greatest impact on me as a manager. Leading my team effectively and keeping everyone motivated is my top priority as a business owner, as Fhitting Room is nothing without the individuals who deliver our experience. In an industry that attracts tremendously diverse talent in every way, Lean In helped me open my mind and view situations in a completely different light. I immediately had my “Chief of Deets and Peeps” read this book as well, and in the years since we often find ourselves talking about how far to “Lean In,” rather than trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog — As an entrepreneur working in fitness, Shoe Dog made my reading list early on, which proved to be a great lesson in persistence, believing in your mission and surrounding yourself by people who share your vision. There’s also an overtone of having confidence in yourself, even in challenging times, and a fake it ’til you make it attitude, which can benefit all entrepreneurs at times.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Derek Jeter and his parents, Dorothy and Charles. Raising two sports-loving boys in this age of prolific electronics, boundless digital content and the instant gratification fostered by both, is a tall order. My boys and I have been reading Derek Jeter’s book series, which began with The Contract, aptly named for the contract Derek’s parents drew up and had him sign in exchange for supporting his dream of becoming a professional baseball player. With eight simple terms that helped reinforce family values, importance of school work, respect and hard work, I would love to hear more from the Jeter family about how to stay the course when it comes to difficult parenting decisions and instilling to children the importance of maintaining high standards for themselves, not just for others. The concept of self-respect and respect for others that was instilled in Derek Jeter by his parents often seems lost on younger generations, and I see the payoff applying in both my own family life but also in my professional life.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Our website: http://fhittingroom.com 

Instagram: @FhittingRoom and@KSaitowitz

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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