Hubert Burda Media

Valerie Ding: On CruCycle and Philanthropy

The fitness enthusiast, who turned her love for spin classes into a business, chats about setting goals and giving back.

Sans make-up and in a tank top and form-fitting running pants emblazoned with the words “Wolf Pack” across it, Valerie Ding is raring to go. “Good morning,” she says brightly, when she arrives for her photo shoot with her Siberian husky, Bandit, by her side.

An animal lover since childhood, Ding also has four Jack Russell Terriers and a dachshund she adopted from an animal shelter a year ago. But nine-year-old Bandit is extra special, she says: “He makes up a huge part of my daily life and he’s a very important member of my family.” Such a central figure is Bandit that even the logo of Ding’s 16-month-old cycling studio, CruCycle, is the silhouette of him with his head turned up to the sky. “Bandit is the mascot and an inspiration behind our brand,” says Ding, who reveals that CruCycle’s slogan — ride with the pack — was also borrowed from the pack nature of canines. “We wanted to create something that built community,” she explains. “That’s what sets us apart from other gyms. We want people to feel like coming, bringing their friends to work out together and having a great time for 45 minutes.”

The main inspiration behind CruCycle is the Californian lifestyle that Ding, 28, and her co-founders, younger siblings Calvin, 27, and Beatrice, 24, are accustomed to, having spent significant time in exercise- and nature-obsessed Los Angeles. Although predominantly Singapore-raised, the Ding siblings spent every school vacation as kids in Los Angeles, where their parents always kept a home. Los Angeles-born Valerie later completed high school stateside and graduated with a degree in Political Science and International Relations from the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“When we were living in LA, my siblings and I would attend spin classes and each time, it’d be full back-to-back. Starting our own studio was a way of having an element of the Californian lifestyle here in Singapore,” says Ding.

Instead of jumping straight into entrepreneurship upon her return from university, she first joined the family business. Having completed a course in real estate back in California, she was sent to work on a number of the family’s property investments, including the redevelopment of three shophouses along Duxton Road.

After a year in the field and itching to cut her teeth as an entrepreneur, Ding, together with her siblings, opened CruCycle in the groundfloor of the shophouses in October 2014. (The upper floors are leased out.)  While a couple of mainstream gyms had started offering indoor cycling classes, it had yet to fully take off in Singapore. “It might have been the worst idea to set up a spin studio in Singapore. At that point, no one knew what the word ‘spin’ even meant. But we believed in our idea and were willing to work hard and believed that things will somehow fall into place,” says Ding.

For the uninitiated, such classes inject more fun into regular indoor cycling sessions. Wanting to “create something that really allows you to forget about the outside world”, classes at CruCycle are conducted in a dark, soundproof room to a playlist of upbeat music with an instructor who’s able to break into dance at the drop of a hat. “You ride to the beats of the music; it’s almost like choreographed dancing, but on a bike. Everyone in the class does or attempts to do the same thing. It gives your body a great workout,” says Ding who joins in the classes every other day.

Just five months into operation, CruCycle was invited to host an outdoor cycling event at the open lawn next to Marina Bay Financial Centre in celebration of Canadian activewear giant, lululemon’s second store opening at Ngee Ann City. “We were not even half-a-year-old and to be entrusted with such an event was a significant milestone for us,” she says.

The collaboration boosted the siblings’ confidence that CruCycle was heading in the right direction. It was also an indication that their hard work and dedication was finally starting to pay off.

“At the start, we ran everything ourselves. We opened the studio at 6am and then I would be behind the reception handling registration and handing out shoes to customers, while Calvin and Beatrice took turns to conduct the five daily classes. We also did everything else in between. It did get exhausting,” she admits.

But the work is rewarding, she adds, especially when clients come up to say thanks. “I happened to be at reception one night and this girl, who I remember checking in the first time she came, said to me: ‘I really want to thank you guys. I’ve lost so much weight over the last few months. I’m more fit and coming here is an inspiration,” she recalls. “It makes us feel like we’ve actually done something right.”

Pressing on, Ding was keen to ensure that her customers understood the point of difference between CruCycle and other fitness studios. “It’s all about the experience. When you’re with us, you forget about the outside world for that 50 minutes and have fun with your friends and other like-minded individuals. You are not an individual at the gym but part of a larger community, a part of the pack,” she explains. 

Word spread organically both through word-of-mouth as well as social media. Today, the team of three has expanded to a team of 18. In October, the month of CruCycle’s first anniversary, a collaborative activewear collection with lululemon was released and quickly sold out. Class attendance continues to grow each month and the studio recently hosted their second outdoor cycling event at Open Farm Community, Dempsey’s latest F&B establishment.

“I’m very grateful that I am able to work well with Calvin and Beatrice. Of course, there are times when we do blow up at each other and disagree about the business but at the end of the day, we talk it through and make up. Besides, we are family,” she says.

What they all agree on is fostering a culture of philanthropy. Leveraging on the studio’s network and reach, they often stage charity rides to raise funds for organisations such as the Breast Cancer Foundation and Voices for Animals. CruCycle also channels $1 for every ride a person makes at the studio to a dedicated fund that will accumulate and be donated to animal shelters each year. Recently, $7,000 was raised for Voices for Animals, which had taken in 12 neglected huskies. “I’ve got a soft spot for animals, having grown up surrounded by them. At one point, we had eight dogs, 30 rabbits and even live chicks and chickens,” says Ding.

In 2014, Ding and a friend also started Send a Light, a small charitable initiative that distributes small solar-powered lamps to isolated locales around Asia. Ding, in fact, still sports a tan from a recent trip to Sumba Island in Indonesia where she and a group of friends had spent some time handing out lamps to villagers in the area. Previous trips have seen the founders handing out lamps at Myanmar’s Inle and Sagaing regions.

“My co-founder had a college mate from South America whose parents suffered major burn scars from a fire. That struck a chord,” she explains. “The devices are meant to reduce fire risks.” The lamps can be purchased by would-be donors at a cost price of $10.

“It started with just the two of us and when we started talking about it, the people around us became aware of such a cause. Many have expressed their desire to help and give back just by looking at photos on our Instagram @sendalight,” she says. One friend, who was making a hiking expedition to Ladakh, India, even brought along a number of pieces to distribute.”

“I’m happy that we have provided a platform where it is easy to give back. Our trip to Sumba Island, where we were joined by six friends, is a good example.” she shares. “Philanthropy doesn’t always have to be on a big scale, nor is it only possible for a certain demographic. It can be part of our daily life and practices, a simple reminder to ourselves of how blessed we are. When you have a heart, there’s always a way.”

On the business front, Ding is also co-proprietor of MavRx Coffee Apothecary, a small coffee house in nearby Duxton Hill, which opened in 2015. Next in the pipeline is a salad bar that will open this year. Like CruCycle, it is inspired by the Californian lifestyle and will have a menu of healthy food options.

Ding credits her parents and grandparents for instilling compassion, as well as a strong work ethic. “They’ve also taught us to be focused on what we want to achieve. Have a goal and work towards it,” she shares. “In our family, dad has always been the higher council. He can be stern and has raised us such that we would feel guilty, if we did anything wrong.”

Even at 86, her paternal grandfather still sets an example for the younger generation by going into the office daily. Insistent that they all learn and speak Mandarin to maintain their heritage, he regularly converses with his grandchildren in the language.

Whether in recording Nickelodeon cartoons for the siblings to watch when they were younger, or helping with the everyday things like shuttling Bandit between places, mum and grandmother have also been supportive and selfless, says Ding. “There was once my siblings and I had to fill in at the reception of the cycling studio and we were engaged in a little debate, trying to get the other to go, as we were all tired. Mum happily volunteered. Of course, we said no, but it is a reminder that even at this age, she is always there for us.”

“They have always been present in our lives and are supportive in every decision, be it big or small,” she says. “That makes me think: ‘My parents have given me so much, why would I want to do anything to ruin that? It keeps me in line!”