Founder of [solidcore] and Back on My Feet Washington, DC
It all started with… running.
You know those existential questions that hit you in your early 20s—“What am I meant to be doing with my life?” “What is my calling?” They hit Anne Mahlum hard. She quit her job and then ran. Literally. Anne had been a runner since she was a teen and a decade later still used the activity as stress-relief. One day, she ran past a group of homeless men and invited them to run with her. She partnered with their shelter to start a running club, which would become the non-profit, Back on My Feet. Under Anne’s leadership, the organization opened 11 chapters across the country. But she wasn’t out of breath just yet. Anne got the itch for a new business challenge and in 2013, left BOMF to develop her own fitness practice called [solidcore]. She expanded to nearly 10 studios across the U.S. and has attracted clients such as Michelle Obama. This is Anne’s story on how she went from semi-lost soul to full-fledged serial entrepreneur.
Top, Sachin & Babi; Bracelet, Eddie Borgo; Ring, Melanie Auld
It seems like you could have comfortably stayed at Back on My Feet. How did you come to the decision to not just move on, but start something entirely new?
I sensed with every ounce of my being that my time at Back on My Feet was up. I know how to build structure, I know how to build sustainability — but I don’t know how to sit and operate a business. And that’s what that organization needed. You work towards security in your job, but in that same breath, security can truly rob you from taking a risk, being bold, and discovering what you’re made of.
When you have a vision — whether it’s the one you had for Back on My Feet or for [solidcore] — how do you persuade people to buy into your dream?
When I was a kid in North Dakota, it was cold and there was nothing to do. One day, my dad told us to get our swimsuits. We hopped in the car, pulled up to a hotel and looked at my dad and asked, “Are we getting a room here?” My dad said, “No,” and just walked in like he owned the place and asked where the pool was. That stuck with me. If you walk into a room looking like you don’t know what you’re doing, people can smell that. No one wants to jump into a ship that they’re not sure is going to float. You have to be so sure of what you’re doing and communicate that.
I don’t like to blend in. My work attire is a lot of sports bras and shorts. But outside of the studio, I am probably the most overdressed person around. I like to wear things that nobody else will wear.
There’s a fine line between confidence and being a know-it-all, right?
Definitely. I was a young CEO at Back on My Feet. A lot of high-level people wanted to help me grow it. They’d ask a question and I’d say, “I already thought about that. This is what we are going to do.” I wasn’t doing that to make them feel bad; I was trying to show them that I was capable. But I realized I alienated a lot of them. I’ve learned that the people around you need to feel valued and heard. If you ask people to give their time, make it worth their while. They’re not there to sit around and listen to how smart you think you are.
Were you ever shocked by the reality of what working for yourself meant?
That’s a big part of being an entrepreneur — proper expectations. Whenever you start something, you have to understand that there are going to be surprises. If you don’t prepare yourself for that, it’s going to eat you alive and you’ll start to beat yourself up. Also, in times when I can’t get my headspace right, I choose not to be around my team. Don’t bring that energy into your work. People can feel that and don’t deserve to it.
CLUTCH, OPENING CEREMONY; CUFF, Sarah Magid; SUNGLASSES, Elizabeth and James; BAG, Opening Ceremony
Did you pick that wisdom up from anyone?
I became friends with Mary Wittenberg, former CEO of New York Road Runners, when I was living in New York. I remember saying to her, ‘Whoever said it’s lonely at the top is right. I feel like I constantly give praise and compliments, but people don’t think to give gratitude upward.’ She said, “Anne, if you’re going to be the CEO, you have to learn to not expect that at the workplace. You have to get that at home.” If you’re looking for praise, it’s not going to happen. When you stop expecting it and it happens, it’s a nice surprise.
I’m not looking to get comfortable. I’m not taking the easy path.
What’s it like being a female entrepreneur?
I try to think of myself as an entrepreneur first — you don’t want to be defined by a gender or race. That said, there are things women still struggle with. Early on, I worked with a couple of men who treated me like a “girl,” saying things like, “Oh, sweetheart” or acted like I didn’t know what I was talking about. I fired both of those people and said, “You don’t get to treat me like that. I’m paying you to be here and to educate me. You don’t get to belittle me or roll your eyes at me. If you can’t look at this as an opportunity, then I have no business with you.”
GOWN, nha khanh
You clearly dedicate your physical and mental self to what you do. What makes that commitment worth it?
Firstly, Lady Michelle Obama is a good client and we’ve become good friends. Recently, we were hanging out at my house and looked around the room at 25 people whose lives have been truly impacted by [solidcore]. For me, that’s very cool. I created something that fostered these friendships. That’s what entrepreneurship is about for me: creating a community that is strong and profound. And I’m sure I’ll do it again and again.
Look at the tallest skyscraper in New York, a big social movement, or an impactful company. They all started with one person who thought something, said something and did something. You can’t help but think, ‘Why can’t I?’ If you allow yourself to think of yourself as that person, you start to think bigger and dream bigger.