Sameera Desai Sullivan ā€™05, Gā€™06: Not Just by the Numbers

An alumna turns her accounting degree into a global career in fashion and fitness.

As the chief accounting officer and global controller for SoulCycle — a fitness studio that offers cycling classes, fitness apparel and an at-home exercise bike — Sameera Desai Sullivan ’05, G’06 keeps the company’s finances in order. But the job is not just about the numbers for her: It’s a lifestyle.

She takes their classes on her bike at home, where her husband has also gotten into the cycling workouts. And when she is in the office, Desai often takes a mid-day break for a class (especially if the playlist has Beyoncé or Jay-Z on it).

“It is such a big part of the culture at SoulCycle HQ: You’re having a tough day, go ride. And when I come back, I feel a little bit differently. We use riding as a way to motivate and relieve stress,” she said, an embodiment of the company’s mission to provide fitness experiences that benefit the mind, body and soul.

Mind, Body, Spirit

SoulCycle’s mission is not unlike The University of Scranton’s commitment to the development of the mind, body and spirit of its students. And, though she’s Muslim, it is that Jesuit character that appealed to Desai when she was choosing a college.

“The concept of cura personalis was instilled in me throughout my education. It made me a well-rounded student and professionally ready to enter the world. I was then able to share all the experiences from the foundation that Scranton set,” she said.

She was born and raised in Zimbabwe, where her mother worked for the United Nations. When Desai was 17, the family moved to New Jersey for her mother to work at the UN headquarters in New York City. The University’s proximity to her family and its Jesuit ideals made it a natural choice.

These days, she’s back in New York City, since SoulCycle is headquartered in the West Village. She initially joined the company in February 2019 to help expand the international footprint in the UK by opening the first SoulCycle studio in London.

Desai, who also holds an MBA from Scranton, started her accounting career at PwC, recruited by fellow Scranton alumni who were partners at the New York City office. But since then, her career path has been atypical for an accounting major.

Desai joined SoulCycle after eight years of working in finance at fashion and beauty brand Marc Jacobs, where she finished her tenure as vice president of finance, global controller. That international experience — plus the French minor she took alongside her accounting major at Scranton — made her a great fit as SoulCycle expanded outside the U.S.

“It’s not the public accounting straight path; you can end up doing something different."

“It’s not the public accounting straight path; you can end up doing something different. There were unique perks like regularly attending Fashion Week and traveling to all the international offices — not bad for an accountant!” said Desai, who said it is important to her that current Scranton students see the breadth of options that an accounting or business major offers them. It’s why she volunteers as a career coach and mentor for current students, and is also a member of the alumni advisory board and the President’s Business Council.

Alternative Plans

At SoulCycle, being flexible means finding new locations to offer their classes outdoors — even in New York City — promoting their new at-home bike and class subscription and streaming classes live from the studio for members to ride on their own bikes at home.

“I’m super excited for the at-home experience, because it makes me feel like I’m back in the studio if I just turn off the lights, light a candle and ride at home,” she said, but also adds that their members are still craving the camaraderie of riding in-person.

All their outdoor classes offered in New York City have been sold out, which makes it worth the time and effort it took to find a space to set up their stationary bikes in a safe, socially-distanced manner. SoulCycle is currently set up at Hudson Yards, a new mixed-use development on the west side of midtown Manhattan, with plans to add more outdoor locations almost 30 in total including Tribeca and Brooklyn and finding ways to keep offering innovative ways to ride as the weather starts to change.

“I make myself available, to my team and to alumni, because one of the biggest challenges is access, right?"

While leading her team through these alternative plans throughout the pandemic, Desai focused on leadership by example.

“I would never ask people to do things that I would never do, and that tends to go really far,” she said. “I make myself available, to my team and to alumni, because one of the biggest challenges is access, right? So, allowing them to be connected and for me to help connect the dots, ‘Oh, you want to do marketing? I know the chief executive officer at X, let me connect you.”

A Royal in your Court

Which is exactly what she did for Tiffany Smith ’18 (pictured at left with Desai at right), who she met through Scranton’s alumni mentoring program. Desai introduced Smith to fellow alumna Patti Clarke ’86, the chief talent officer at global advertising agency Havas, at a networking reception in New York City for the President’s Business Council. Smith, a marketing major and communications minor, went on to a summer internship at Havas, which she then parlayed into a full-time role with the company after graduation.

“It was awesome to have Sameera there — of course, I was nervous to be meeting a chief talent officer, that just sounds intimidating,” Smith said. “So, it was awesome to have someone to connect us and stand by my side as I was trying to make a good impression.”

In the years since graduation, Smith continues to rely on Desai for career guidance and wants to help her plan future young alumni events. Desai has organized SoulCycle classes for Scranton alumni in both Hoboken and Philadelphia, and she and Smith would love to do another for young alumni in New York City.

“It is really nice to know that you always have someone in your court,” said Smith, who now works at the Italian Trade Commission, helping Italian beauty brands enter the U.S. market. “Sameera has a genuine concern for students and it stems from all the support that she got when she was a student at Scranton.”

Desai said she is simply paying it forward.

“My job trajectory is because of alumni who came back to campus and believed in me and gave me an opportunity,” she said. “I think it’s important to be able to give back and hopefully give somebody else the same opportunity an alum gave me.”

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