Mary Elisabeth

on Fridays I burn my fears…

“What do you do?”

When we meet someone new usually one of the first questions we are asked is “what do you do?”  It’s such an odd question because it’s asking something so broad, typically expecting a narrowly defined answer, detailing our profession.

Whenever I am asked that question I carefully think about how I want to respond or I just say whatever is on my mind.  Because I do a lot of things.  We all do.  And more of what we do is outside of our professional lives (for some of us who don’t make their work their lives).  For me, my work and life interlace, so the distinction isn’t as clear.  Here are some of the ways I like to answer that question:

  • “I make gelato”
  • “I practice yoga”
  • “I write comedy”
  • “I sleep”
  • “I cook”
  • “I run”

If someone is really pressing for a more professional answer, usually I say something like “I create solutions to solve problems (or I’m an entrepreneur)”

Recently someone asked me to describe what I do for work and I used the above description.  She continued to dig deeper into my work, asking:

  • What about it is really satisfying? Making an impact in peoples’ lives (whether an employee, customer, partner, etc)
  • What about it drives you crazy?  It can be a very lonely road & there are lots of ups & downs, highs & lows. And the lows can be very low. 
  • What are your goals?  To leave the world a little bit better place
  • What is driving you?  Honestly, probably achieving. I’m highly competitive.  And making an impact. Doing something that positive impacts people.
  • What is holding you back?  Myself. I’m my own biggest hurdle. Self-doubt. 
  • Do you regret any significant decisions you’ve made about your career? If you had it to do over again, would you do it differently?  No regrets. Lots of lessons though. I live by the philosophy “no mistakes, only gifts & opportunities” 

There you have it. That’s what I do and how I feel about it.

Venture on,

<3 mel

Built to Last?

Should companies be built to last or built to capitalize on market opportunities at the time?

This question came up at a dinner I organized over a month ago after discussing the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business Essentials) by Jim Collins.  The debate around the topic was healthy and active and supporters of both sides made good points.  Since that evening I have been reflecting more about this and asking more people about their responses.

What I have found is that everyone is different.  Some entrepreneurs are motivated to built companies to last and others are interested in tapping into market trends or needs that may be temporary.

Personally, I fall in the former camp.  I like to build companies to last.  Built to sustain.  To last longer than me.  I was reminded of this recently when I recently visited my gelateria in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  To walk into a physical place I helped create and think “I built this…and it still exists.”  It’s a special feeling.

At a dinner I organized with several investors I presented this question as well.  The common thought was that all companies should be built to last, but not all of them will.  But companies that are not built to last will definitely not last.  If you look at some of the largest, most successful companies throughout history, they were built to last longer than a few months so to be acquired and be done.

What about impact to last?  If a company isn’t built to last, but rather built to serve a market need during a certain timeframe, the impact may outlive the company.  Pop stars are an example of this.  Take Katy Perry, who I recently wrote a blog post about (no judgement).  Katy Perry won’t always be a pop star.  She is capitalizing on an opportunity in the market now.  Same with Michael Jackson.  He wasn’t always a pop star.  But both MJ and Katy Perry impacted their industries and the lives of many of their fans.  Tying this back to companies – if Apple were to die tomorrow its impact would live on.  It’s products have touched the lives of many.  The company was built to create an impact to last, even if the company itself doesn’t last.

My conclusion:  Companies are best built to sustain.  They may not last, but if the intent is to build a company to last and the vision is long-term sustainability the chances of lasting are far greater than if you build a company for a momentary market need.  Companies’ impact can outlive their life as a company.

Build to sustain.
Impact to last.

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal

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My Next Venture

Recently I decided on my next venture.  The process leading up to this decision was not short and it’s fair to say that my next venture, in many ways, chose me.

After an unplugged week in Mexico, in the summer I kicked up my self-exploration into full gear…reflecting and spending a lot of time learning more about myself, my goals, my interests and passions, all in efforts to figure out how and where I wanted to spend my time.

I’m a very analytical person and tend to make decisions more so from my head than from my heart.  I have been working on keeping a balance and some of my most recent decisions I have been pleased with the way I have been able to listen to my heart.

First, I decided to leave my job at RPM Ventures.  I have several reasons for leaving, but the story goes…I joined RPM Ventures to learn how to be a better entrepreneur.  I knew that working in VC would give me opportunities to see many companies, industries; meet many entrepreneurs; see what works/doesn’t work; and learn what it takes to be a VC backable entrepreneur building a VC backable company.  Mission accomplished.  Before VC I was on the entrepreneur side of the table and I knew I’d always go back and that VC was a great learning stint.  It was only a matter of time before I left the “dark side” (which isn’t so dark) to tackle big problems to make a positive impact in the world.

After deciding to leave RPM Ventures, then came deciding what I wanted to do instead.  What I learned:  there are so many things I want to do.  I threw a ton of ideas on the table – either ventures to start, companies to join and build, places to travel, sketches to write, people to meet, and beyond.  I asked myself a lot of “thought questions”, spent more time journaling, reflecting, and taking inventory of my interests, passions, and skills.

I realized that I love healthy living.  That may be an understatement.  I am fairly obsessed with healthy living.  Daily I wake up before dawn to go to the gym (either teaching a spin class, going to crossfit, hot yoga, a run, etc), I am uber deliberate about what I eat and how I treat my body, and I could read about health, nutrition, and clean eating recipes endlessly (and could also have such conversations for extended periods of time).  And I am very mission-driven…I want to make a positive impact in the world.  Combine the two and it seemed to make sense that I pursue a venture related to health-food-life-tech.  Figuring that out led me to immerse myself…I started tracking companies and researching trends, and formed a list of over 200 companies in the health-food-life-tech arena (still broad, but more focused than everything).  I spent time talking to founders, potential partners and stakeholders, investors, trying to learn more about opportunities and white space where I could solve some problems.  I was very focused.

Then I received some of the best advice I received along this journey, from one of my mentors.  When I told her about my search, she advised, Stop planning so much.  Be opportunistic.  You’re so focused and planning so deliberately that you may miss opportunities that come to you that aren’t within your lens.

She was right.

I took a step back.  I asked myself some high level questions like “What do I really want with my next opportunity?”

The opportunities I had explored didn’t have that spark.  I didn’t want to be “silo-ed” in a specific function in a company with hundreds of people already.  I did want to… solve a really big problem and a real problem.  I did want to find a mentor and work with amazing and talented people.  I did want to have the opportunity to work in a variety of projects/domains.

When I took that step back, I realized that the opportunity I had been looking for had been in front of me the entire time.  A company RPM Ventures invested in, Social Finance (SoFi), caught my eye the moment I learned about it in 2011.  SoFi connects students and alumni through a dedicated lending pool.  Alumni earn a double bottom line return, students receive a lower loan rate than their private or federal options, and both sides benefit from the connections formed.  I had the opportunity to work with SoFi as part of RPM’s portfolio.  In doing so, I got to know the team, the business, and the potential.

  • SoFi is solving a HUGE problem: student debt. $1 Trillion.  Enough said.
  • I have a mentor.  Many.  And am blessed to work with amazing people.
  • There is room to grow.  With about 60 people and a growing business, there’s always something to do!!
I am glad I went through a “process”…learning about myself, exploring several opportunities, crossing things off my list and adding things on.  Even though ultimately the opportunity I am pursuing was there before all the others, I believe the process I ran was helpful for me to discover what truly was right.

And there you have it…my next venture!  I couldn’t be more excited!

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal







Women Don’t Ask

Hey gals, when was the last time you asked a tough question?

& fellas, when was the last time a gal asked you a tough question?

If it’s been awhile or you can’t remember a time you ever asked or were asked, you’re not the only one.  In “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide” Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever explain some interesting anecdotes, statistics, & theories about women in the workplace.  Here are the highlights & stats to get you thinking…

  • Men ask for things they want 2-3x more often than women ask for things they want, during negotiations
  • “Locus of control” scale – to measure the extent to which individuals believe their behavior influences their circumstances. the lower score the more people perceive their fate to be influenced by internal rather than external factors. the average scores for women are significantly higher than for men
  • Most important step in the negotiation process must be deciding to negotiate in the first place.  Asking for what you want is the essential first step that “kicks off” a negotiation.
  • Turnip vs. Oyster. “You can’t get blood from a turnip” – people believe “what you see is what you get” & most situations cannot be changed.  “The world is your oyster” – people believe “life is full of opportunities, most situations are flexible, rules are made to be broken, and much can be gained by asking for what you want.
  • Women own about 40% of all businesses in the US, and they receive only 2.3% of the available equity capital needed for growth.  Why?  Joanna Rees Gallanter, VC, “Women are often not comfortable talking about what they’re worth.  They’ll go into pitch a a project and naturally put a lower value on it than men do”.  If 40% of the businesses are undercapitalized this puts far more than the long term survival of a few businesses at risk – risk of 9.1 million businesses.
  • If you don’t speak up, you only have yourself to blame if something goes wrong
  • a negative self evaluation combined with stress can lead to depression and 2/3 of all depressed adults are woman.
  • “the denial of personal disadvantage” (Faye Crosby) – people typically imagine themselves to be exempt from the injustices that they can recognize as affecting their membership or reference groups.  A woman may see that other women earn lower salaries than comparable men and yet believe herself to be exempt from this problem.  problem because if women don’t recognize the reality of their situation they may take no action to fight it. at a broader societal levee, people are more likely to push for changes where they have a personal stake and it will take longer for system to change if women don’t push for it.
  • The link between self esteem and a sense of personal entitlement is not hard to see: if you have a low sense of self worth your sense of what you deserve is likely to be similarly depressed and you’re not likely to feel especially comfortable asking for more than you’ve already got
  • People typically comply with the expectations others have of them
  • When people encounter evidence inconsistent with their beliefs they tend to ignore it
  • Double standards.  “With a male executive, there’s no expectation to be nice. He has more permission to be an ass. But when women speak their minds, they’re seen as harsh.” Recommendation for women: speak slowly, softly, hesitate or stammer, when presenting ideas or use self deprecating humor.  appear vulnerable.
  • The LIkability Factor.  Since negotiation is all about trying to influence people, this means that women must be likable in order to negotiate successfully. assertive women are less well liked than those who are not assertive.
  • Self promotion – a Catch 22.  Self promotion has been shown to enhance people’s perceptions of one’s competence. but also poses special problems for women. it may make her less likable. Catch 22 – damned if they do self promote & damed if they don’t.
  • “The glass ceiling for those below it is the floor for those above it. When we take away our ceiling, we take away their floor, and they have a fear of falling” – Judy Rosener
  • Not only are women less likely than men to ask for more than they have they usually come away with less than men even when they do negotiate.  Men negotiated starting salaries that were 4.3% higher on average than the original offers they received, women negotiated 2.7%.  This leads to accumulation of disadvantage meaning that men’s salaries will be 59% higher over course of career.
  • Female characteristic – female commitment to protecting relationships – one of women’s best and most enduring qualities – could literally be killing them!

What can be done?

  • In the workplace, people who mentor women can encourage women not to accept the status quo.  They can teach them that the world is more “negotiable” than it often seems, and they can demonstrate that seeking out opportunities to improve their circumstances can be an effective and often necessary strategy for getting ahead.
  • Before we decide to negotiate for something we must first be dissatisfied with what we have. We need to believe that something else. If we’re already satisfied with what we have or with what we’ve been offered, asking for something else might not occur to us.  Ironically, this turns out to be a big problem for women: being satisfied with less.
  • Lesson for women: In order to judge their worth more accurately and develop a well founded idea of what the market will pay them, women need to learn how to make the right comparisons by seeking out information about their professional peers of both sexes.
  • Careful about “sex-typing” – by which each new generation of children is taught roles and beliefs by previously socialized members of the society. For example, a female financial consultant said she was taught from a young age that asking for anything was like begging and that good girls didn’t beg. so she never asked for a raise. instead, she taught herself to avoid thinking about the things she wanted. this protected her from disappointment, but also impaired her ability to judge what her work was worth.
  • Recommendations to help women ensure work is fairly evaluated: Start your own business, Do everything you can to reduce token status (recruit other women to fields, mentor young women, build networks of women), Choose wisely. seek firms where women already do what they want to do.
  • Need to be able to negotiate for yourself if you want to convince a hirer that you can negotiate for the organization
  • Women don’t need to bar emotion from their negotiations completely.  Many women worry about becoming emotional in a negotiation and that this will be a mistake.  The key to expressing emotion in a negotiation is to use appropriate emotions – those that can help achieve your ends.
  • Using humor can also influence tone of negotiation

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal

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Shit Hits the Fan

What have I done when shit hits the fan?  As an entrepreneur, venturing off to create something new, innovative, & excellent, shit is bound to hit the fan.  Things are bound to not go as expected.  You can’t plan for every possible situation, but you can be prepared to handle whatever comes your way.  It’s like the early American settlers headed west along the Oregon Trail.  They set off to a new place, undiscovered.  They couldn’t predict when an oxen would die or famine would strike.  All they could do was be prepared for whatever came their way.  Meat spoils.  Pull out the other food or kill an oxen to make up for it.

Similarly, I have experienced times when shit hits the fan.  Sometimes it’s messier than other times.  Sometimes I have been more prepared than other times.  And there have definitely been times when I don’t want to clean up the mess.  But I have to.

Obviously there are different degrees of things going wrong.  A child dying of thyroid fever isn’t comparable to meat spoiling (or so it seems…hard to really say what it was like since my only experience was through the computer game in third grade).  An equipment malfunction doesn’t bear the same consequences as losing a key employee.

I remember a time when everything was going great!  Iorio’s was just featured on NPR & several emails & calls came in from folks around the country, recognizing our radio press.  The next day I got a call…not about the NPR bit…not about a great experience in our store…The gelato case.  The gelato case was off & all the gelato inside had melted.  I was in the midst of prepping for valuations for RPM Ventures, & couldn’t get away immediately.

How to react?

There’s no “best” way.  And everyone is different in how they handle shit.  Some panic.  Some get angry.  Some are cooler than a cucumber (at least on the surface).

What do I do?

It depends.  I have panicked.  I have kept my cool.  I have gotten angry.  And sometimes combinations thereof.  No matter what my initial reaction, I always like to make my way to calm & collected in order to solve problems in a rational way.  I find that when I have other people to talk to about the issue at hand, I do much better.  It’s good to get other perspective & another to balance your reactions.  Talking through  problem also helps.

In the case of the malfunctioned gelato case, I talked through the problem with the Iorio’s team member (a recent hire) & she handled it like a pro.  The initial panic quickly decreased as we calmly walked through appropriate steps to take to solve the problem.  Crisis handled.  Why?  Deep breathing & a great team.

The highs & lows are inevitable as an entrepreneur.  Every entrepreneur needs a good support network, especially mentors, to turn to during these times.  To keep sanity & a healthy reality check.

How do you handle the times when shit hits the fan?

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal

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The Facebook Effect

Why did Facebook emerge as the social network, while others faded into its shadow?

The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World by David Kirkpatrick does a thorough job of detailing the Facebook story, from idea conception through 2010.  A much less Hollywood-ized version than the movie, The Social Network.  The book also goes into a lot more detail about the company.  Sure there’s no Justin Timberlake or Jesse Eisenberg but you can use your imagination & get a better sense for the real characters!

Cover of "The Facebook Effect: The Inside...

Cover via Amazon

My notes from the book are listed in length here, but if you’re here for the summary snippet, here you go….My three general takeaways after reading this book:

  1. If you create something really valuable, people will beg for it.
  2. When you are successful people will try to bring you down, take credit, or want a piece of the action.
  3. When you have scarcity, or the illusion of scarcity, you create negotiating leverage for yourself.

Why do you think Facebook took the cake & all of our other personal information?!

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal

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In 5 years, how do you want to answer what do you do?

5 years.  Seems so far away, yet I’m sure it will come soon.  5 years from today I will be 29 years old, one year short of the big 3 0.  In 5 years I want to be able to say (with honesty)…

  • I am making a positive impact in peoples’ lives
  • I respect the people I work with & they do I
  • I love waking up in the morning, not only to go to workout, but also because I’m so excited about what I’m working on & the work environment that awaits me
  • I have a significant amount of responsibility
  • I am facing challenges that I enjoy figuring out
  • I am learning
  • I inspire

Clearly that does not paint the clearest picture about what exactly I will be doing in 5 years, but it doesn’t matter.  Because it doesn’t matter so much what exactly I’m doing in 5 years.  It matters who I’m doing it with, where I’m doing it, and how I am making an impact.

In 5 years, how do you want to answer what do you do?

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal

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Hiring an Analyst at RPM Ventures


Inspired by Sarah Tavel at Bessemer, I am publicly announcing our Analyst search on my blog.  RPM Ventures, the early stage venture capital firm I currently work for, is hiring an Analyst.

What does an Analyst do?  Who is RPM Ventures?  Good questions…I’m glad you asked.

Last year I wrote a blog post “What Does a VC Analyst Do?” (I also wrote a “Morning in the Life” type post that is relevant).  In general, this gives a high level view of what an Analyst at RPM does.  It really comes down to four categories of responsibilities:

  • Deal Flow & Diligence
  • Portfolio
  • Reporting
  • Miscellaneous

(yes, I know these are slightly different than the breakout I included in my blog post, but I find these amended category titles more fitting)

Maybe you haven’t heard about RPM Ventures.  You wouldn’t be the first.  Here’s a bit about the firm:

RPM Ventures is a seed and early stage venture firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We invest across the Great Lakes Region generally in Information Technology and nationally in our areas of expertise, including: Automotive Industry IT and Connected Car, Solutions for Industrial and Retail enterprises, E-commerce, Online Marketplaces, and Cloud and Social Media Infrastructure . Our combination of West Coast entrepreneurial experience and our roots in the Great Lakes Region allows us to bring a unique perspective to investing, as is reflected in our integration of Silicon Valley culture and relationships with a Midwest work ethic and core values.

As a VC Analyst at RPM Ventures you will assist with multiple tasks including finding investment opportunities, conducting due diligence, helping the existing portfolio companies with various projects, investment tracking and reporting, and other duties as required.  This is a very entrepreneurial role and you will get a broad range of experience.  I haven’t yet written a blog post comprehensive of all I have learned while working here because, well, it warrants more of an entire book rather than single blog post.

You may be thinking, “this sounds boring”.  Okay, you, stop reading.  If you’re thinking, “this sounds freaking amazing & exactly what I want to do”, I want to talk to you.  Read on…

The ideal Analyst is…

  • interested in working in venture capital and has a passion for technology and entrepreneurship
  • a strong oral and written communicator
  • able to analyze (duh!)
  • able to play well with others & alone (aka a team player who can handle driving the ball down the court)

Want to learn more?  Apply?  You can always contact me to ask questions or apply.  May I suggest using a bit more creativity (ahem, finding an introduction to us, or figuring out some other way to get to know us).  Heck, I’d be more impressed with a clever video with a parody to “Call Me Maybe” than a blind email.  Just saying.

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal

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Don’t Quit Your Day Job…Or Should You?

A mentor of mine recommended this book, Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job & Your Dream Job.  It was a quick read & though I didn’t read it thinking “I want to quit my job”, it had some good insight to share about following your dream & throwing out your fears.

Following a dream makes sense, if you know what your dream is.  That’s arguably the hardest step.  Acuff recommends questions to help get to the root at what you enjoy.  He also makes suggestions for “falling in like” with your job, even if you don’t love it.

As per usual, I took notes reading this book.  Check them out for a quick read of the key points & advice.

I recommend this book for anyone who isn’t in love with their job or is trying to figure out a dream job, or getting the motivation to pursue a dream job.

Happy reading!

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal

How to Embed Culture in Your Organization

Some of the Iorio's Gelateria Ann Arbor team enjoys a potluck together.  Just an example of the importance of friendship in our culture.

In my 8 years of “working” I’ve experienced different types of company culture.  A less glamorous topic in business school, but arguably the most important to a company’s success, company culture is how a company works.

Some of the Iorio’s Gelateria Ann Arbor team enjoys a potluck together. Just an example of the importance of friendship in our culture.

I’ve been in organizations that do a fantastic job with their culture & others that pale in comparison.  Every organization has a culture, whether it knows it or not.  Sometimes cultures are not easily identified.  Why not?  I think it’s easy to know what the culture is when you set it.  When you create something, & have an intended culture, you live it, & you can describe & talk about it for a long time.  But how do you successfully embed that culture in your company?

I think there are three key things that need to be done to embed culture in an organization:

  • Define it.  Write it down.  Share that with everyone.  It may be clear in your head but that doesn’t mean it’s clear to everyone else. Writing down your mission, vision, & values.
  • Live it.  It’s hard to create a culture in an organization that you spend little time in.  Practice what you preach & be the best example of the culture in your organization.  Really, how do you expect to embed a culture that you don’t belong in?
  • Measure it.  You can’t track what you don’t measure, so how do you expect to track whether your culture is flowing through the organization if you don’t measure it?  How do you measure it?  In a big organization you may do employee surveys.  In smaller organizations it may be a key metric that is tracked regularly (e.g. Iorio’s Sweet Life score, Zingerman’s ZXI, etc).  You can also test it with congruency – how well does your team align with the company culture?  One of the best examples I have of this is an anecdote from my own business, Iorio’s.  At Iorio’s, our team thrives because of our culture…it’s open, it’s fun, it’s consistent, & it’s clear.  I about shed a tear when someone on the team handed over “Iorio’s Commandments” he wrote which embodied our culture to a tee.  Our team gets it. It’s alive.  It’s real.  It’s real sweet.

Maybe because I came from the school of Zingerman’s (an organization I worked for a few years during college), where the culture is talked about all the time & it’s drilled in everyone’s head.  The culture can be much more subtle at other organizations.  At Iorio’s we are, similar to Zingerman’s, very deliberate with culture. …we make the culture very clear, it is well defined, shared with everyone, we live it (even learned to live it more to strengthen the culture…showing up more helped a ton), we measure it (Sweet Life Score, Team Meetings, Reviews, Projects like the Commandments – which demonstrated congruency, MO300 group studies).  Is it not fair to compare the cultures of various organizations (consciously or unconsciously)?  We are quick to judge, oh this is a “good” culture or a “bad” culture, but truth is, there is no universal “good” or “bad” culture.  There can be great or poorly defined or embedded cultures, but good & bad is a subjective measure that is individually determined.  A culture at one organization may be right for one person, but not for someone else.

How do YOU embed culture in your organization?

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal







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