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Joining the workforce at the age of 15 to become a fry cook, Niki Leondakis climbed her way within the cutthroat hospitality industry, earning high-powered positions within the Kimpton Group, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Equinox Group. Now in her present role as the CEO of CorePower Yoga, Leondakis looks back at her inspiring journey and the importance of being mindful and present through the practice of yoga
After 20 years working as the president and COO of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, Niki Leondakis put a wish into the universe to become CEO of CorePower Yoga… and that wish came true. Her well-established work within the hospitality and restaurant management business (Kimpton, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company) and for the Equinox Group put her in an elite position to use her knowledge of service and fostering community within CorePower Yoga. And as if in another destined way, Leondakis found her life-long commitment to serving others, which began at the tender age of 15 as a Hardee’s fry cook, in a new, unique environment where she could bring “as many people to yoga as possible.”
“I landed here [CorePower Yoga] because I really believe in the power of yoga, the transformative power of yoga, and what it can do for people’s lives,” Leondakis tells Athletech News for our CEO/Founder Corner series.
There’s more to the core of CorePower Yoga’s teachings, which are centered around guiding people towards learning how to be present on the mat and coordinating breath-to-movement action with the asanas of yoga.
Leondakis stresses the physical practice of yoga can be applied into one’s life off the mat and has the capacity to help one become a more conscious and self-aware human being.
Read on to learn more about how the inspiring business leader’s life of intention led to her current CorePower Yoga role, how she got her first paid job at Hardee’s and her beliefs on what makes a good CEO.
Athletech News (ATN): Tell us about your background
Niki Leondakis: I grew up in hospitality. My hospitality experience truly started at a young age. I was one of five kids in a Greek immigrant family and my grandparents owned a diner in Western Massachusetts, where I grew up. So I kind of grew up hanging out in that diner. That experience led me to fall in love with watching my grandmother run that diner after my grandfather passed. (He passed before I was born.) As a woman in an era that women really hadn’t professionally entered the workforce yet it was really unique to me. So I was fascinated and inspired by what I saw in her.
I ultimately ended up studying hotel and restaurant management in college and had a vision of opening my own chain of restaurants. I went to work for Marriott right out of school because I really believed that they would put me through the best training to really learn the business side of things. I worked for Marriott for a few years, then I moved on to Ritz-Carlton for eight years, which was really formative in my understanding of service, excellence, and creating [an] incredible culture within a company. I had the privilege of working with Horst Schulze (former President and COO of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company), who’s a visionary in creating corporate cultures around service, but also service to your employees. That was really impactful on me. I learned a lot and after eight years with Ritz-Carlton, I was recruited to join Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, where I ultimately became President and Chief Operating Officer of Kimpton.
After 20 years of work there I was very proud to have been part of building a great place to work, again based on watching my grandmother [and] my experience with Ritz-Carlton. I was very passionate about that because growing up in a family of Greek immigrants I was often treated by the kids in the neighborhood or in school as less than, as different, as just not belonging. I ate different foods at home. My parents spoke a different language and they acted differently. We were made fun of for that. So I grew up abandoning my heritage just to fit in and to be accepted. I had that same experience as a woman, as a manager, a leader in the workforce. In my early 30s again I found myself abandoning my femininity, really presenting myself as very gender-neutral just to be accepted by all the men around the table. I felt I had to hide a lot of my natural feminine, or female, qualities, whether it’s nurturing or compassion, to act more like the male colleagues I worked with. [I did this in order] to demonstrate that I was tough-minded and that I could make difficult decisions like they did to get promoted and thrive in my career.
At that time there were a lot of questions whether women could be leaders in politics or in business because we were considered “emotional.”
Those experiences ultimately led me to become really passionate about creating workplace cultures where people could be their true and authentic selves, whatever their background, experience, gender identity, ethnicity, race, religion, body type. Whatever their difference was to bring that to the table as additive. It became very clear to me after a while that equality isn’t sameness and we should never have to act like others to fit in and be accepted. I did that for quite a long time and when I finally came to realize that was a waste of so much of my personal energy that I wasn’t able to put a hundred percent of my best energy toward my job and towards doing the best for everyone I was leading. I didn’t want anyone to ever come to work and feel like they didn’t belong or had to act like someone who they weren’t to fit in and be accepted or to be promoted and ascend in their career. So that became a personal passion.
I made a left turn in my hospitality career to get into fitness and wellness as CEO with Equinox because that’s been a personal passion of mine. I was a lifelong runner — marathons, half-marathons — and just physically always staying fit, healthy, and well. The idea of working in wellness and fitness, to help optimize human potential, was such a personal passion [of mine]. It was just a really exciting and interesting thing for me to [achieve] after 34 years in hotels and restaurants. [Soon enough] I landed here at CorePower Yoga!
ATN: Please tell us about your current company and how either your role or the company came to fruition
Niki Leondakis: CorePower Yoga is an incredible organization with almost a 20-year history that was developed by its founder, Trevor Tice. Visioning, creating a company where yoga was made approachable and accessible. He had this ankle injury that left him seeking new ways to create a workout. That’s how he got started in yoga and in 2002 he opened the first yoga studio in Denver, Colorado with this vision of bringing yoga to a wider Western audience, with the goal of more than just a workout.
I think the broader goal, after practicing yoga, was a goal of unity and understanding, approachability, and accessibility for yoga to all. Today we have over 200 yoga studios throughout the United States. We are the largest operator of yoga studios in the Western world. We maintain Trevor’s vision of making it accessible and approachable. It’s more than just a workout — it’s still bringing to people the transformative power of consistent yoga practice in their lives, in their state of being. It’s built on the pillars of inclusion, community, and a powerfully intense physical practice combined with a mindful practice.
We’re rooted in this rich heritage but it’s more conceptualized through contemporary culture and what people want today. It’s set to music. It’s fun. It’s energizing. But that mindfulness infused throughout the practice creates inner peace and an inner glow when you finish your practice.
ATN: What was your journey like to get to this point?
Niki Leondakis: My personal journey led to my professional journey. A few years ago I suffered a great deal of loss. My house burned down in the California wildfires. My husband and I had built our dream home and it just burned to the ground. Our dream home was, as two very busy, career-oriented people, came together and entertained friends and family and where our relationships really manifested all of [their] best. When that burned to the ground it wasn’t just the loss of a house. It felt like the loss of us.
Then a year later [my husband] passed away from a sudden heart attack and I lost him. I had left my job at the time to take a break and really decide what I wanted to do next in my life. When this all happened I didn’t have my career at that time. I didn’t have my husband and our marriage and I didn’t have my home. I really lost my footing and didn’t know where I fit in in the world. But what got me through every day was getting on my yoga mat. I had a longstanding practice of yoga and I just kept getting on my mat every day to find the present moment and to find gratitude for what I had, not what I didn’t have, and to not worry about the future too much and not dwell on the past and what I had lost. That really helped me.
A few months before my husband passed I had gone through teacher yoga training to really appreciate the deeper philosophy and history of yoga. After he passed I traveled to India and did a lot of soul-searching and [to] further my study in yoga and Ayurveda. That connection to that yoga philosophy and lifestyle was what got me through those difficult times.
I found myself trying to figure out how to move my life forward after all of this. I was sitting with my sister one day and she said if you could be CEO of any company what would it be? Without blinking an eye I said, “I’d be CEO of CorePower Yoga.” I practiced as a member at CorePower Yoga in San Francisco and I was a student practicing there regularly. I used to go to my studio and look at everything that was going on and as a business person, as a brand person, as a person of service to others, I could just see it was very easy for me to [en]vision where I would take the company if I had the opportunity. I could also see all of the things that were so unique about the CorePower Yoga experience and the value of the community that it provided and created for the people who practiced and were members at CorePower Yoga.
I had this, “It would be so cool” [moment], but it was sort of this far-off dream… because there was someone in that [CEO] seat and it wasn’t necessarily mine to go after. But I did two months later get a phone call and a search firm saying they were looking for a new CEO. So I landed here because I really felt the universe was calling. I said it out loud and it happened.
ATN: What was your first job?
Niki Leondakis: I grew up in my grandmother’s diner, but I didn’t get paid for that. The first paying job I had [was] when I was 15. I forged my work papers — I used some kind of White-Out tape they had at that time and changed my birthdate so I looked like I was 16. I was a fry cook at a Hardee’s. I made french fries and fried apple pies and fried fish sandwiches.
ATN: What makes a good CEO?
Niki Leondakis: A couple of things. One, listening skills are critical. Absolutely critical. Genuinely listening to others and not just the spoken word. But a lot of people don’t always say all that they want to say. So listening for the unspoken and reading between the lines. Listening for the static in the conversation. What are people trying to say when they’re not saying all of it? Sometimes there are unexpressed wishes that are showing up through facial expressions or body language. Really truly seeing and listening for the cues of what people have to say to you.
The humility to know that you don’t have all the answers and you don’t know everything. That’s impossible. But to be humble enough to seek answers from others who may have more information than you do. I think first and foremost I’ve always believed that the team members with you on the front lines with your customer every day (in our case our students and our studio team members) have a wealth of information. So getting out there and listening to the people on the front lines who are closest to your customer will know more than you ever will sitting in a boardroom.
ATN: What does philanthropy mean to you?
Niki Leondakis: Philanthropy means a lot to me. It’s a very big part of my life. I grew up watching my mother, grandmother, and my father giving back. Supporting your community was really an important part of the way I grew up. Watching those role models means gratitude for everything we have. I try to just remain grateful for everything I have, giving back and making a difference for others.
For me, it’s always meant that using whatever platform I have the good fortune to stand on. I stand on this amazing platform called CorePower Yoga and come from a place of higher purpose and serving others, trying to make their day better, their lives better in whatever way I can, and not just for our students, our customers, [but also] for our employees. Philanthropy is doing good in your own backyard. Anyone you touch, if you can touch them in a way that makes their life a little bit better, that’s philanthropy. It’s giving back. It’s paying it forward.
For me, that’s the most important thing in life — what impact you have on others.
ATN: How do you manage stress?
Niki Leondakis: For me, I get out in nature. I try to do that every single day and I fit it into my day. If I can’t get out, I try every day to capture the beauty and just stop and take in the beauty of a sunrise and/or a sunset. Get up and watch the sunrise and just be with that and take that in and find gratitude for that incredible, magical experience of what happens around us when the sun is rising.
It helps destress because every day a sunrise represents opportunity. The beginning of a new day — it’s the opportunity for a do-over. We get to start again. Whatever happened yesterday we can shake that off and today’s a new day. We learn from our mistakes. We don’t need to dwell on them but appreciating the beauty of a sunrise is the beauty of new opportunities and the magical things that can happen with that fresh start.
ATN: Where do you see the future of fitness going?
Niki Leondakis: I wish I had a crystal ball. A lot of people do believe that hybrid fitness is what we’ll see in the future. I think a lot of people turned to digital at-home workouts because they had to. We know from our own research (consumer, CorePower Yoga members), and we did quite a bit during the pandemic, digital workouts and going outside and walking were the top two things we found people were doing at home.
But the thing that you can’t get at home, which is why we’re seeing our students coming back to us now that things are opening back up, is community. That community connection. There’s something magical that happens when people come together physically in a room, in an environment, practice yoga together, and put that intense amount of energy out there. Combine that with that mindfulness and that coordinated breath-to-movement in a group setting and doing that on a regular basis — that sense of community belonging and connectedness to others is irreplaceable. You can’t get that digitally.
Candace Cordelia is a Pennsylvania-based journalist and on-camera broadcaster/host, with a reporting background in wrestling, entertainment, and lifestyle. Her reporting work has been featured on websites and in publications such as Bustle, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, New York Daily News, am New York, ABC News, Yahoo!, Good Morning America, Madame Noire, Sister 2 Sister, etonline.com, Diva Dirt and The Everyday Fan. Her favorite workout influencers include Chloe Ting, Cassey Ho, Pamela Reif and Mary Braun. She still can’t stand burpees and Rebbl Dark Chocolate Immunity Elixir is one of her favorite post-workout protein sips. You can follow Candace on Twitter @CandaceCordelia and on Instagram @thatgirlcandace16.