032719_MNS_women_conf_001 Marci McGregor Ruth Zukerman Bonnie St. John

From left, moderator Marci McGregor shares a laugh with panelists Ruth Zukerman and Bonnie St. John during Merrill Lynch’s Women, Life & Money panel discussion March 20 at the St. Regis in Buckhead. / Everett Catts

Ruth Zukerman was raised in an upper middle-class family in Roslyn, New York.

But her life changed after divorcing her husband in 1996.

“I was married to someone who was very controlling about money,” she said. “I was always groomed to think that the man will provide the money (for his family). For me to get out there and start to make my own money, it was one of the most liberating and incredible experiences in my life.”

Zukerman, who co-founded two major cycling studio businesses, and paralympic medalist Bonnie St. John talked about resilience and other topics at Merrill Lynch’s Women, Life & Money panel discussion March 20 at the St. Regis in Buckhead.

Moderated by Marci McGregor, senior investment strategist with Bank of America, the event was part of an all-day program titled Women Who Are Breaking Barriers, Overcoming Challenges and Pursuing Financial Wellness, where Zukerman and St. John also spoke individually. In honor of National Women’s History Month, Merrill Lynch chose Atlanta as the kickoff city in 2019 for a national event series about issues that matter most to females.

Zukerman lives in New York City. She, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice co-founded SoulCycle in 2006. Zukerman, a former dancer and aerobics instructor, started the business after getting a divorce in 1996 and taking and teaching spin classes at a Reebok gym in Manhattan. Zukerman later left SoulCycle and started another similar business, Flywheel, with Jay Galuzzo and David Seldin. It opened in 2010. Coincidentally, both SoulCycle and Flywheel have locations in Buckhead.

In December Zukerman left Flywheel to pursue other business opportunities. When questioned at the event about what her next move may be, she said a plan is in the works but she can’t announce it yet. In October Zukerman published a memoir, “Riding High: How I Kissed SoulCycle Goodbye, Co-Founded Flywheel and Built the Life I Always Wanted.” She said co-founding Flywheel was a way to recover from the bad experiences she had while at SoulCycle.

“The first example was the transition from SoulCycle to Flywheel, and that part of my motivation was, ‘I’m not going to let you get away with this.’ I’m going to come back,” she said. “I was competing with the business I had started with, so it was revenge.”

St. John was the first African-American to win medals in a Winter Olympic competition when she won one silver and two bronze medals in skiing at the 1984 Winter Paralympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria. An economist and Rhodes Scholar, she’s also a best-selling author, leadership consultant for Fortune 500 companies and a radio and television personality. St. John was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as a director for human capital issues on the White House National Economic Council. She divorced her first husband and has since remarried.

St. John’s right leg was amputated when she was only 5 after it failed to grow at the same speed as her left leg due to proximal femoral focal deficiency, a disorder that affects the femur, pelvis and/or hip bones in some children. She was given a prosthetic limb and later took up skiing.

“My mother taught me a lot of resilience,” she said. “She had a really tough childhood. Her father left before she was born. She had a lot of demons that I saw growing up. … She tried to commit suicide a couple of times, dealing with her demons.”

St. John, who lives in Windham, New York, and Zukerman, who each have daughters, talked about everything from their divorces to their parents to adjustments they had to make in their lives to remain financially successful. When asked by McGregor about taking time for one’s self, they had similar advice.

“It’s as simple as taking a bath and taking a certain portion of the day to do something just for you. We are so busy taking care of someone else that we forget that we need (to take a little time just for ourselves),” Zukerman said, adding cycling served that purpose. “(Teaching) the spin class became that therapy. ... (Also), put your phone away, even if it’s for 45 minutes.”

Said St. John, “Wake up your spirit in the morning. You have your task mind and your spirit mind. But if you wake up with your to-do list, you’ll spend all day on tasks. But if you wake up with your spirit mind, you’ll focus on what’s really meaningful and take stock of that. If it’s watering your plants or playing with your dog, taking a little slow time will help.”

McGregor then asked how they felt about being open about the trials and tribulations they and other females go through.

“I think it was a big theme on what I talked about” earlier in the day, Zuckerman said. “I found on my experiences with spin class is it’s the sharing of connecting with people and to show them they are not in this world struggling by themselves. When we feel that way, it’s one of our most challenging moments. Sometimes you just want someone to listen. It all comes back to connecting. In this day and age, connecting is falling by the wayside.”

Said St. John, “Loneliness is epidemic. I recently sat down with a group of high school seniors and looked at the difference between looking extraordinary and being extraordinary. They said looking extraordinary lasts five minutes but being extraordinary lasts a lifetime. … I think it’s so hard for people going on social media and trying to look perfect all the time. … You don’t get help.”

In a post-event interview, the Neighbor asked both women what advice they would give a girl going through some of the same self-esteem and body image issues they encountered.

“Quite frankly I would seeking out therapy because sometimes you need that objective third person to talk to who’s not a family member and not a friend, someone who has that expertise,” Zukerman said. “I know that that helped me enormously, and I didn’t really access that until I was much older. I wish I had done it when I was young.”

Said St. John, “For me it was big dreams, and I didn’t have a good present but I could dream about making my future better. So (it was) seeing what was possible, not just what is, and getting help to do that. So (it could be) sharing your dreams with other people and asking for help and advice and getting support for that to maybe reshape your dream, depending on what happens. But keep dreaming and keep getting help and keep moving forward.”

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