When we think of Venture Capital, the first image that comes to mind is not often that of an impeccably dressed mother.
With female founders bringing in just 2.2% of US-based venture capital this year – and with about three-quarters of US venture capital firms having zero women partners – it is undoubtedly a man’s game. One that’s complete with v-neck black T-shirts. But Forerunner Ventures is pleasingly setting about to change all of that, with Melissa Grillo playing a key role in leading the charge. As Head of Talent & Business Development at Forerunner, Melissa connects people, brands and culture in innovative ways that resonate with the modern consumer. With over 15 years of experience in leading brands like J.Crew, Warby Parker, Moda Operandi and Gilt Group, she’s part of the brilliant team at Forerunner – founded by Kirsten Green – who are shifting the Venture Capital landscape, with one of the largest-ever funds raised by a female-founded firm. Investing in the likes of Glossier and Away, they clearly have an eye for talent. Did we mention Melissa did all of this while raising two young daughters? We spoke to the incredibly inspiring Melissa about the modern customer experience, life in a male-dominated field, sleep deprivation, and how she manages the juggle (or struggle, as she likes to say). Imagery by Yumi Matsuo
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your family?
My husband and I are both first generation – his father was from Turkey and my mother is from Italy. This has shaped who we are, including what we cook, how we discipline our children and other intangibles. I like to think that is why I’m an obsessive house cleaner! And we gave both of our daughters’ Turkish names – Peri which means “winged spirit” or “fairy” and Ayla means “halo of light around the moon.” We live in Brooklyn in a very Italian neighborhood, which was not intentional, but I do think I was drawn here. It feels familiar to me as I spent my childhood going back and forth to my grandmother’s house in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn every weekend.
What have been some of the highs and lows of motherhood?
The hardest thing for sure is that no one tells you how the lack of sleep affects your state of mind and general happiness each day. The days where I manage to get 7-8 hours of sleep because no one has barged into our bedroom at 5 am are my best days. Without a doubt, the biggest high is the massive amount of love in our home that didn’t exist before they were born. Now that my eldest daughter Peri is 7, the best thing is watching her turn into an extremely compassionate and very cool kid. She has no hang-ups, and I am focused on nurturing that so that she can avoid many of the insecurities that I had growing up, and still occasionally face. The most recent high with my 3-year-old Ayla is that she started really talking about three months ago. She had delayed speech and having her put together a few sentences so we can get to know her better through words has been one of the best experiences in my life. We are just really excited to connect with her on a different level.
How would you describe your approach to parenting – Do you like routines?
Routines are awesome but, to be honest, we have a hard time sticking to them because there are so many unpredictable things that come up that cause us to veer off-schedule. Because we both have intense jobs, knowing that each of us has a role to play is what makes things work for us. For example, I get the girls dressed in the morning while my husband, Nedim, makes everyone breakfast. We try to make all the lunches the night before and whoever is home that night is in charge of making them. Other duties have emerged as the kids get older, like Nedim helps Peri with the math portion of her homework while I am in charge of the writing, reading, and art. I’m sure our routines will continue to change over the years as the kids get older.
We’re working harder than ever before – how do you make time for yourself/self-care?
On-demand services allow me to keep myself together and maintain my sanity. The fact that I can drop into Skin Laundry or visit Sania’s Brow Bar on my way home from work and only spend 15 minutes to feel refreshed and look more put together brings a ridiculous amount of joy and value to my life. GlamSquad has recently started appearing more frequently in my routine. They help me put myself together for special occasions that require me to look more “glam” while letting me work on my phone; it’s such a genius business model.
What do you love about raising children in New York?
I am one of those people who needs to be constantly stimulated. Luckily in New York the options for entertainment are endless and the city has become so kid-friendly. I am so appreciative of how Brooklyn Bridge Park & Industry City are fostering kids events, playgrounds, waterparks, arts & crafts, etc. Amazing parks are popping are up all over the place and cool indoor spaces like Camp in the Flatiron allow for both kids and adults to be entertained. I take my kids to all the cool experiential museums like the Color Factory and 29 Rooms. We just started doing some Broadway shows with the kids, and I am excited to keep introducing them to more and more as they grow up. My neighborhood really fosters community so we can have all the benefits of living in the city yet have the small town experiences of walking next door to our friend’s house for dinner. I think I secretly crave the suburban experience, and our neighborhood lets us have a taste of that convenience and community.
What does your role at Forerunner Ventures involve?
At Forerunner Ventures I have a really unique and fun role that allows me to be the caregiver that I naturally am. I support our companies on the Talent and Business Development front, which essentially means that I strategically connect our companies with amazing people who could potentially be great fits for roles within those companies. Along with connecting talent, I also curate events and learning sessions that allow our brands to connect with each other and with other leaders in the industry. I love when everybody gets something out of an event or an encounter. That’s simplifying it a bit, but day in and day out I support our companies in their growth by connecting them with people and companies that can help them scale.
You’re a senior executive in a very male-dominated field (which Forerunner Ventures is pleasingly shaking up!). Has this been a challenge? How have you gone about navigating your own career in the VC industry?
Forerunner Ventures is a special place for a number of reasons. One of which is that our founder Kirsten Green is a female leader who is very respected in our field because of her successful track record helping companies grow. When I first met Kirsten, we connected on a personal and professional level. I’m not sure if it’s because I work for a female-led company, but luckily I have only felt validated by my skills and the successes I’ve brought Forerunner and our companies, not my gender. Navigating my career has consisted of me carving out a space for myself and pushing forward in the best way possible, including being adaptable. I have been lucky to grow alongside our company and our portfolio. Four years ago my role was very different, but because I was willing and able to listen and evolve with the company, my current role reflects what is most valuable to our needs. Because I’ve sculpted my duties to match our company goals, my role is more valuable today than it ever has been in the past.
What makes a great entrepreneur?
Self-awareness and conviction. A great entrepreneur knows their vision and will fight for what they believe, but they also listen to the opinions of the experts brought in to advise them and take feedback seriously. No one has ever built a successful company by themselves!
Talk to us about what makes for a wonderful customer experience in this shifting landscape.
The customer experience has changed significantly, and consumers demanding more from the brands they choose to spend their hard-earned money on. Consumers aren’t just looking to purchase a product or service, they want to be delighted by the entire experience that’s in tune with their preferences and one that adds to their overall lifestyle experience. A brand’s digital savviness also plays a role. Social media channels and technology allow a brand to have an emotional connection with their customer, a connection that is now expected and that allows a company to break through to create brand loyalty. Brands need to talk to your customer and ultimately become their best friend, which means listening and responding to them, being authentic and being caring – basically all of the things that an actual best friend does to gain and keep your loyalty and trust. Customers didn’t demand this two-way dialogue before, because it really wasn’t an option and wasn’t necessary when choices were limited. Who would have thought we would have so many mattress brands to choose from 10 years ago!
What are some of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on? Are there any you are most proud of?
My time at Warby Parker was really memorable because I was there in 2012 during the early stages when we were just getting started. I was a consultant for about a year and had been brought on to help figure out how to establish Warby Parker as a brand and drive new customers. I met amazing people there, many of whom I am still in contact with today. I had a similar experience at Gilt Groupe. Being brought on during early to help companies grow and scale was a special experience. The best part about Forerunner is that I get to have that kind of experience every day for the many different companies we work with.
Many of our readers are entrepreneurs or aspiring business owners. Having advised some of the world’s most admired brands – including J.Crew, Warby Parker and Birchbox – what do you think sets these companies apart?
In terms of these three companies, and most successful companies, much of it comes down to leadership. I was and am lucky to be able to work with some of the best founders out there. Neil and Dave from Warby Parker and Katia and Hayley from Birchbox are just incredible founders with a vision and passion that is insurmountable. Not to mention they are also really genuine people that want the best for their company and employees. I also saw this in Lauren Santo Domingo at Moda Operandi, Andy Dunn at Bonobos, and many others. Without an exceptional leader, it is hard to build a “forever” company and almost impossible.
What are some of your most vivid memories of working with these brands – memories you’ll never forget?
There were quite a few “firsts” that were really cool, such as doing the first Facebook Live and Twitter talks at Gilt Groupe and J. Crew, as well as establishing a social presence for a number of brands. This was all coming-of-age technology at the time. The campaign for Warby Parker’s first store felt truly groundbreaking. Here was a brand that was challenging an industry that had never been challenged before. Going into retail seemed like a huge risk, but a necessary move that worked out pretty well for them! “Firsts” were easier to do back then, because everything was so new and the only option was to test and learn. We were paving the way for how retail brands approach marketing in the digital age. We created marketing practices that had never existed before, and the success of those practices could suddenly could either make or break a brand. Many people never have one “first” experience of that level in their career, and I was so lucky to have had years of them.
Talk us through why you think Glossier has been so successful?
Glossier is successful because of all the things I mentioned. Emily’s people really trust her and her ability to stand by her vision. This circle of trust includes not only her employees but everyone who is a fan of the brand because the brand’s entire ethos is so customer-centric.
What industries are you most excited about when looking to the future?
One area we talk about is the innovation or product production and all of the necessary steps that need to be completed before a product hits a site or store. For example, what systems, tools, platforms or new business models can be created that increase efficiency, are better for the customer and, hopefully, the environment? We consider personalization during every step of the process. We have a few companies, such as our premium, personalized hair company Prose, which have illustrated that customers really value brands that integrate their desires and needs into the end product.
What are some of the brands you love most?
I love all of our portfolio brands, but right now I am using a lot of Necessaire body products – the texture and fragrance-free formula really works for my body. I am a huge Everlane fan for basics. Their wide leg crop pants are a core part of my uniform. For shoes I love Loeffler Randall and for dresses Warm; I love supporting local designers and the women who run those brands are friends and New Yorkers. Reformation (another Forerunner brand) and Mara Hoffman are also favorites as I have become really aware of buying sustainable fashion and these two are the best examples of beautiful clothes that also have a purpose. For daily fragrance, my go-to is Glossier You or any scents by Ellis Brooklyn. I am also super into home design and a big fan of Parachute Home, Etsy, and ABC Home (which has a special place in my heart because my dad was in the furniture business and we would visit there often as kids).
How do you approach the ‘juggle’ of family and career? What are your favorite hacks for managing daily life? (Apps, routines, meals, etc.)
The juggle is more like a struggle and it is real! But I am very lucky because my mother-in-law lives close by and helps us out with the kids. Our community is great and there are five people I can always call in a bind. Right now, I concentrate on weeks rather than months as a way to keep my stress levels at bay. Looking too far into the future make me feel out of control and overwhelmed. In terms of daily hacks, my husband and I put everything into our calendars — from dentist appointments to work trips and so on — so that we can be as prepared as possible and know who needs to be home from work on what day and who needs to take the kids to school. Oftentime his work trips will appear on my calendar and although this might be confusing for others, I need these reminders to let me know what is going to be different in the next few weeks and how I will need to adjust. It takes a ton of coordination to manage a household while having full-time careers!
How much sleep do you get a night?
These days never the recommended eight hours but more than six hours. Progress!
Do you meditate?
I don’t do traditional meditation but I make pottery at a sweet place near my house called Clayworks, which results in a similar kind of mindfulness and provides me more solace than I can express. My friend Gisela has introduced me, or maybe I should say she forces me, to go to yoga classes with her at a place called Prema Yoga. I try to go on Monday mornings, this ritual helps me clear my mind and prepare for the upcoming week. These days my meditation also comes in the form of some “me” time, which as a mom is hard for all of us to come by unless we purposely carve it out for ourselves. Other days I listen to an audiobook on Audible or a podcast to chill out, these days it is all about some quiet time!
What's the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Always know you belong around the table. The second you question your presence, your confidence is gone and you become an ineffective leader. Oh, and of course always be yourself- sometimes it might have to be an edited version based on the situation, but never change who you are because that authenticity is why you got where you are in the first place.