Since last summer, a startup in beta mode has been asking volunteers to participate in 55-minute sessions called “gathers,” where strangers discuss their deepest hopes and fears. The fledgling company Peoplehood is led by entrepreneurs Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, who combined sweat and spirituality in their latest venture, the high-end fitness chain SoulCycle.
Nearly 1,000 people have participated so far, Ms. Cutler and Ms. Rice said. On a recent evening, I was one of about 20 volunteers who signed up for a remote session moderated by Shamicka Jones, an actress, dancer and model who, in Peoplehood-speak, is a “super connector.”
Mrs. Jones wore a sweatshirt with “PPLHD” on the front and was infectiously cheerful. After taking us through a series of breathing exercises, she introduced the topic of the day: uncertainty.
Before the discussion got underway, she drew up the ground rules. If you weren’t the one speaking, you had to listen actively, without interrupting. To express your support for a speaker, you should use one of three responses: to get; put your hands on your heart; or raise your hands, palms facing the screen.
Mrs. Jones then gave us a conversation prompt: “But how I really feel is… White† To fill in the gap, group members expressed concerns about the war in Ukraine, the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and the return to a pre-2020 work environment. During this part of the meeting, which lasted approximately 20 minutes, I attempted a to be a good Peoplehood person. I snapped. I put my hands on my heart. At one point, while trying to juggle active listening and come up with the right answer, I accidentally did jazz hands.
Then we were separated into pairs. Each person was instructed to speak continuously for three minutes. The question this time: what keeps you awake at night? When we all shared our worries with a stranger at 3 a.m., we all got a new partner for another prompt: Name something you look forward to.
Six minutes later, we returned to the full group to share our reflections. Then we did some light stretching to the notes of soothing music. Class fired.
ms. Cutler and Ms. Rice see Peoplehood as a natural successor to SoulCycle, which became a phenomenon because it gave his clients the feeling that they were sculpting not only their bodies but also themselves. The chain’s devotees wear SoulCycle gear as they pedal together on stationary bikes in candlelit rooms under the tutelage of guru-esque instructors shouting messages of empowerment.
“What Elizabeth and I found at SoulCycle was that people came because they thought they wanted to get in better shape,” Ms. Rice said in an interview. “But eventually they found connection in those rooms. We quickly learned that the product we were selling was a connection with other people.”
“A decade later,” she continued, “we realized that connection should be its own product. We are modern medicine for the loneliness epidemic.”
Before the first SoulCycle class in 2006, Ms. Rice was a talent manager at a company whose clients included Will Smith and Jennifer Lopez; Ms. Cutler worked as a real estate agent and acupressure practitioner in Jin Shin Jyutsu. They met in Manhattan, where they were married mothers of young children.
They shared a common frustration at the time: most gyms found them uninspiring, even off-putting. Together with Ruth Zukerman, a third founder who left SoulCycle in 2009, they came up with the idea for a fitness class as a bonding experience. It would also be chic, with instructors being “more like spiritual gurus” than “drill camp sergeants,” as Ms. Cutler described the original vision in a 2018 interview.
The first location was a former dance studio, tucked behind the lobby of an Upper West Side apartment building. SoulCycle quickly became a much-discussed chain. In 2011, luxury fitness company Equinox dove in and bought a majority stake. Before leaving their active roles in the company in 2016, Ms. Rice and Ms. Cutler each received a $90 million payday. Now, with Peoplehood, they are back in boot mode.
“We’re thinking about how we can fit this into the zeitgeist in a way that makes it joyful, uplifting and meaningful, as well as creating a brand around it that makes it cool to work on your relationships,” said Ms. Rice.
Its headquarters are in a three-story building, now under renovation, in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan. On one wall is a message: “Confidentiality is a promise we make to each other. What is said in the room stays in the room.”
ms. Cutler and Ms. Rice will also sell Peoplehood merchandise, including prayer candles, caps, tote bags and sweatshirts. They declined to say what the cost of a session will be or how much money they got from investors in a recent fundraising round.
Marketing materials shared with investors are laced with spiritual language and startup jargon, including references to Peoplehood’s “digital and physical sanctuaries” and the two founders’ “superpowers” of “finding, training, and to achieve scale.”
“A Little Woe-Woo”
The seed for the idea of Peoplehood came early in the SoulCycle days, when Ms. Cutler woke up fearful of her new life as an executive and entrepreneur. She fiddled with her phone in the dark and searched Google for “life coach.” Within a week, she and Ms. Rice were meeting regularly with Meredith Haberfeld, who runs a coaching and leadership development company.
“Once I gave them the idea of not having a lumpy carpet where things get swept under the rug,” said Ms. Haberfeld, who is now a Peoplehood advisor, “they were very committed to having the kind of relationship characterized by each other. through transparency, personal accountability, accountability and real conversations.”
Spin forward to 2019. Ms. Cutler invested in start-ups and advised entrepreneurs. Ms. Rice was the chief brand officer at WeWork, reporting to Adam Neumann, a role in which she coined the tagline “Made by We.” Ms. Rice left WeWork after two years, around the time of the company’s public implosion. (She is an inspiration for the character Elishia Kennedy, played by America Ferrera, in the Apple TV+ series “WeCrashed.”)
Ms. Cutler and Ms. Rice had become concerned about the state of discourse in America — not just on social media, but at the dinner table — and they were seriously working out their next big thing. When the pandemic hit, they consulted with scientists, psychologists, spiritual leaders and therapists to develop the meetings. Last summer they recruited friends (and friends of friends) to attend the first Peoplehood sessions.
“It’s kind of woo-woo, and I’ve really felt a really positive impact,” said Julio Alvarez, a 34-year-old tech industry leadership coach who attended pilot classes. “The pausing, the breathing, the listening, the sharing – that’s what we need more of in this world.”
Carolyn Cary, 60, a friend of Mrs. Cutler, who lives in Carrollton, Georgia, has attended both types of meetings offered by the company—sessions for individuals, such as the one I attended, and those intended for couples. “It’s like yoga for the mind, and I need that,” she said.
Not everyone is sold on the idea. Jerrold Shapiro, who teaches aspiring therapists as a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California, warned of the dangers inherent in support groups run by people who are not trained to screen and direct group therapy participants.
“I can’t tell you how complex and complicated it is to be a group therapist,” said Dr. Shapiro. He added that, in his opinion, a company offering classes similar to group therapy sessions not led by mental health professionals would “be pushing boundaries, which is scary from a professional standpoint.”
Asked about that issue, Ms. Rice said Peoplehood is not intended to replace the work of psychologists and psychiatrists. “It feels therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” she said. “They’re vitamins, not drugs.”
“We went through a very thorough training process for our guides,” she continued. “They go through many days of training and they practice for many weeks before being put on the schedule. They are still monitored and receive additional training every week.”
Ms. Jones, the leader of the session I attended, said she had benefited from the Peoplehood training. “I thought I was a good listener,” she said, “but I found I was a mess. The reality is, how often do you have time to just let your thoughts unfold before someone else weighs in?
Selling spirituality and personal fulfillment outside of places of worship and therapists is nothing new in American life, said historian Natalia Petrzela, an associate professor at the New School who has studied cultural movements. A century after nineteenth-century transcendentalists advocated the betterment of humanity through communion with nature, the cleric Norman Vincent Peale brought a gospel of positivity to secular audiences through his bestselling book “The Power of Positive Thinking.” As part of the rapid social change of the late 1960s, idealists revolting against rat race materialism joined communes and meeting groups.
The next decade saw the rise of Erhard Seminars Training, known as EST, a program led by the self-improvement guru Werner Erhard. EST participants tried to break free from old patterns during rigorous 60-hour seminars. Amid criticism of the movement and its leaders, EST splintered in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Mr. Erhard helped spawn an industry of authors, motivational speakers, spiritualists and TV presenters who promised answers to existential questions and offered solutions to the ills of modern life.
Tara Isabella Burton, who studied the “religiously unaffiliated” in her 2020 book, “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” wrote that many people who have lost faith in institutions will put their trust in Instagram. influencers who specialize in self-care. A center dedicated to self-improvement and community — expertly marketed and built on the model of a high-end fitness chain — could find a large audience, she said.
“Being people sounds like a natural pinnacle of how we think about spirituality and commerce in 2022,” said Ms. Burton.
Author Amanda Montell, who claimed SoulCycle played a “church role” in her clients’ lives in her 2021 book, “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism,” said she was skeptical of the company in Ms. Cutler’s works. and Mrs Rice.
“Leaving your physical fitness in the hands of spinning instructors feels like less of a risk than putting your spiritual, psychological and emotional health in the hands of someone trying to build and scale a massive business,” said Ms. Montell.
Ms. Cutler and Ms. Rice hope that Peoplehood will become a regular part of their clients’ lives by teaching them what they call “relational fitness.”
“What we’re doing here is really using a lot of that SoulCycle playbook to help people connect with themselves and with each other,” said Ms. Cutler.