Riding the Waves: From Back Injury to Business Mogul – Helaine Knapp’s Inspiring Story

Meet Helaine Knapp, the Founder and CEO of CITYROW and the author of Making Waves.

Through her groundbreaking work, Helaine challenges the notion that business is a male-dominated landscape, shedding light on the emotional and challenging aspects that women face in the entrepreneurial world. With female-owned businesses having grown by a staggering 114% over the past two decades, now constituting 42% of all businesses in the U.S., Helaine brings a crucial perspective on what it takes to thrive as a woman in business.

Helaine’s journey to becoming an influential industry leader and visionary began with a personal setback. After sustaining a lower back injury, she needed a low-impact yet effective workout, which led her to discover the transformative power of rowing. Initially skeptical, she soon realized the potential of combining rowing with strength training. This innovative approach spurred the creation of CITYROW, a fitness brand that has expanded from a single studio in New York City to a nationwide phenomenon.

In her book Making Waves, Helaine reveals the array of skills she has honed through a decade of navigating the tumultuous startup world—grit, resilience, creative problem-solving, and deep interpersonal skills. Beyond her professional achievements, she is passionate about empowering other women to embark on their entrepreneurial journeys and transform their lives as well.

Check out our full interview with Helaine below.

Helaine Knapp of CITYROW
Helaine Knapp of CITYROW

What inspired you to begin CITYROW, and how did you transform your initial hesitation about rowing into a groundbreaking business idea?

Helaine Knapp: I had gotten really into group fitness in NYC, but I developed a horrible back Injury (eventually requiring surgery), which derailed me from going to those workouts, which I loved! I was frustrated to be sidelined and wondered why I was in this position.

It was from that frustration that I had the spark of inspiration around rowing as something low impact and also highly effective, but I was hesitant to dive into starting a company because I had no experience and also had a full-time job (which I also loved). Eventually, it became a drumbeat too loud to ignore. After seeing the results for myself around rowing, I looked at macro trends and also saw an opportunity to bring something new to the market.

Our original tagline was: “Results today, body for life”!

In your book Making Waves, you discuss the challenges of being a woman in the business world. Can you elaborate on some specific challenges you faced and how you overcame them?

Helaine Knapp: There are SO many challenges for women in the business world. One major one is that the venture world is just not cut out for women: we still only get 2% of funding, which is atrocious.

So, we don’t get the money that men do, and we’re not immune to the feeling of inadequacy around that, not to mention being hit on at investor meetings. There’s a lot to contend with.

Then, there are just the natural elements of being a woman. I’m a crier, I get stressed, and I care a lot about people. All of that made the downturns and letdowns harder because I felt them deeper and more emotionally.

CITYROW has grown significantly since its inception. Could you describe the key milestones in CITYROW’s expansion from one studio to a national brand?

Helaine Knapp: Growing a company like CITYROW involves too many milestones to count! We first went from one to two storefronts, which was huge for us at the time.

Then, as our growth started skyrocketing, we went into franchising, which happened at the same time as our early bet on digital/connected fitness. Those were two major milestones (in 2018) that were huge decisions that changed the course of things for us forever.

We also made decisions along the way to shut down certain parts of the company that weren’t working—at different times, we decided to no longer award franchises and then had to formally shut down our franchising business. We went through a couple of rounds of layoffs. The list goes on.

Milestones continued to be major (like raising a Series A round and eventually getting acquired), but I always tell people it’s really important to celebrate the small milestones, too—as a team, we drank mimosas while watching my first Interview with Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show and had ice cream for dinner when I signed our first term sheet.

How have your personal experiences and background influenced your approach to leadership and entrepreneurship at CITYROW?

Helaine Knapp: There isn’t a founder out there who isn’t influenced by his or her personal life and background. I write in Making Waves a lot about that: how when I was young, I didn’t have a ton of friends – I was a shy, chubby kid. This impacted my worldview and business in a lot of ways, including being a part of me starting my company in the first place! I don’t think we can escape our early years – the key is learning to embrace them and use those experiences as fuel for greater things.

Also, I was definitely a classic tech founder (and those lessons were always at the forefront of my approach: move quickly and hire amazing people, plus witness insane exits, so they were always attainable in my mind), but at my core, building community was incredibly important.

You’ve mentioned that managing a startup requires grit, determination, and resilience. Could you share an example from your journey where these qualities played a crucial role?

Helaine Knapp: Once again, there might be too many to count! But grit and resilience are fundamental: we ran out of money numerous times, went through really tough HR issues, had investors who used to be friends suing me, had to fundraise on down rounds – you name it, and I went through it.

The only way I ended up where I did was through my own determination and the support around me, always encouraging me to persevere and find one more rabbit to pull out of the hat!

Considering the growth of female-owned businesses in the U.S., what changes have you noticed in the business landscape, particularly for women entrepreneurs?

Helaine Knapp: We have made strides, which obviously makes me happy. But we’re still too far behind our male counterparts and have a LOT of ground to make up. Some of this, of course, is up to us, and a lot is up to society (and funders/investors) to pick up the slack.

I think a big part of this is books like Making Waves (not a shameless plug, I promise!)—the more we women tell our stories, the more other women are empowered to do the same. We gain more collective power that way, and society inevitably changes for the better.

Can you describe a moment or decision in your career that felt like “rock bottom” and how you navigated through it?

Helaine Knapp: In 2019, we had an investor with a much-needed infusion of funding back out. We had already maxed out our credit cards and paused payroll. I sat at my friend’s house with my head in my hands with no idea how to move forward, but we did what we had to do – I figured out the raise, moved some chess pieces, made some insane moves, and we lived to tell the tale!

As a fitness brand leader, how do you prioritize physical and mental well-being in your workplace? What advice would you give to women who are hesitant to start their own business due to the emotional and logistical challenges involved?

Helaine Knapp: As a company, we always prioritized fitness and wellness (group outings for workouts, optional “lunch and learns” on all sorts of helpful wellness topics, etc) and ALWAYS supported and took care of each other (this goes back to hiring the right people in the first place). We also made time for social outings, too, which was a more relaxing and fun way to get to know each other on more personal levels, versus staring at each other all day in Zoom meetings.

Boundaries are key to physical and mental well-being. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your business (or company or job or whatever you’re engaged in). Sometimes, you need to dig deep to establish boundaries, but you can—and now SHOULD—set them and adhere to them.

As for hesitancy around starting a business, if the feeling that you need to do something is there and growing louder and louder to the point you can’t ignore it (which is what happened with me), you’ll regret not doing it so much more than playing safe and not taking the risk.

In Making Waves, you discuss the importance of deep interpersonal skills. How have these skills impacted your business relationships and company culture?

Helaine Knapp: Interpersonal skills (and building the community I mentioned before) are absolutely key to any success in business. This includes relationships with employees, clients, and investors. I’ve always been good with people but it’s a skill I keep working on.

By the way, being good interpersonally starts with being self-aware, which I also work on continually.

These relationships are about being authentic, as honest/transparent as possible (though for everyone’s peace of mind, you cannot be this 100% of the time), and engaged. I also try to connect people and help as many people as I can along the way – not for selfish reasons, only because I actually do want to help, but that has come back to me in surprisingly wonderful and helpful ways!

What are the next steps for CITYROW, and how do you plan to continue innovating and inspiring in the fitness industry?

Helaine Knapp: In January 2024, we completed an acquisition transaction with Water Rower, our rower manufacturing partner.

They are taking the CITYROW brand, clients, and content and developing it further moving forward. I’m so excited about the synergies—this was absolutely the right home for my company—and what they are going to do with it!

I am also evolving: right now, I am focusing on strategic consulting for early—to mid-stage companies with an alignment of values, goals, and incredible people.

I’m also joining more boards as both a director and advisor, which I love!

What would you say is the most important lesson you hope readers will take away from Making Waves?

Helaine Knapp: You’re not alone (so don’t go it alone). Jump in any way (even if the water is freezing cold!). Know yourself (everything starts with you).

Lastly, is there a specific mantra, quote, or affirmation that you hold close to your heart?

Helaine Knapp: If you think you can, and if you think you can’t, you’re right.

Follow Helanie online at https://www.helaineknapp.com

Published in Featured Articles, Featured Women
Founder & Editor | Website

Emily Sprinkle, also known as Emma Loggins, is a designer, marketer, blogger, and speaker. She is the Editor-In-Chief for Women's Business Daily where she pulls from her experience as the CEO and Director of Strategy for Excite Creative Studios, where she specializes in web development, UI/UX design, social media marketing, and overall strategy for her clients.

Emily has also written for CNN, Autotrader, The Guardian, and is also the Editor-In-Chief for the geek lifestyle site FanBolt.com