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

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







Personal Commandment #7: No Mistakes, Only Gifts (Learn)

Another improv inspired mantra, No Mistake, Only Gifts, is all about not being afraid to look like a fool, say something silly, or make mistakes. In an improv scene if you’re worried about messing up, you will not look as natural nor be as much in the moment. Don’t worry. Don’t fret. When there are no such things as mistakes, you don’t have to worry about making mistakes.

Consider everything as a learning opportunity, so that if you do happen to make a “perceived” mistake, learn from it & it will be a gift.

Life gets much better when the worrying about failure is out of the question.

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal


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Personal Commandment #6: Enjoy the Process

Enjoying the process is something I really began to appreciate when I started improv training. Improv is all about the process. You don’t know your destination when starting an improv scene. The scene can take a very unexpected direction. You could start off talking about cats & end up discussing World War II. When you don’t know the destination you are forced to pay attention to & appreciate the process.

Same holds true for life. Nothing in life is really certain, so best to enjoy the process. When it comes to setting goals, too. Say you are training for a marathon….if you don’t appreciate the training, the process, running regularly to prepare for your destination, what happens when you sprain your ankle the week before the race?  Was it wasted time?  Not if you were enjoying the process.  If you were so fixated on the destination though, you may be disappointed.

The process is what we have now. The future is not set in stone. Enjoy the journey. Enjoy the process.

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal


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Personal Commandment #4: Respect Everyone

I may not agree with someone. I may not particularly like spending time with someone. But I sure as hell am going to respect that person.


Because I would want to be treated the same way. I don’t care if people agree with me (in fact I enjoy a healthy debate & constructive criticism). And if someone doesn’t like me, okay. Fine. But please respect me. Respect my time. my space. my beliefs.

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal

What activities (in work and life in general) make you feel most fulfilled and happy?

As I reflect on the activities that make me feel most fulfilled & happy I find that they correlate to my passions.  No surprise, right?  These activities are more specific than my passions, which I see has the umbrella for the activities that will fulfill me & make me happy.

  • Working out
  • Helping people
  • Creating something meaningful
  • Cooking
  • Learning
  • Challenging myself
  • Spending time with people I care about
  • Exploring new places, ideas, people
  • Making & seeing an impact
Thanks for inspiring the question Live Bold & Bloom!

What activities make you feel most fulfilled and happy?

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal


jaded & confused
what do I have to lose?
no risk means no reward
end with no glory to hoard

nothing is exciting
everything has holes
working without passion
analogous to selling souls

what is real
what is true
I’m not sure
I know what to do

jaded & confused
I have everything to lose
my dignity, strength, passion, hope
I feel like such a dope

maybe I should find
what’s real in my own mind
why do I really care?
rather than blankly stare

when I find what is right
what is true
then I will know
that’s what I should do

Venture on,

mel, the Venture Gal

Authentic Self

If I were 100% honest with myself
what would I say?

Would I tell people how I really feel
instead of waiting for another day?

Would I cry when I feel sad
and smile when I am glad?

Would I eat what I truly enjoy
and still avoid dairy, wheat, corn, and soy?

If 100% honesty was all I knew
what would I say and what would I do?

Would I leave this place
in search of another space?

Would I change my friends
so that none are pretend?

Would I pursue my dream job
rather than work for the man Bob?

It would be interesting to see
who I would be

Because beneath all the filters
I still am me!

venture on,

mel, the venture gal

ES569: People and Culture featuring Serial Entrepreneur Josh Pokempner

Tuesday night’s class focused on People & Culture, the most important part of any organization (in my opinion).  Our guest speaker was Josh Pokempner, serial entrepreneur & founder of several successful companies.  Below are some of my raw notes for that night’s discussion with Josh:

  • Business is trying to control circumstances so intended results happen.  my response:  life is trying to control circumstances to intended results happen.
  • we can’t control how well a product does, but we can control our corporate culture.
  • how to create that great culture?
    • servant leadership
      • rich person = someone so in love with what they do, so much they can’t wait to get out of bed to do it. can’t wait for alarm to go off so you can get out of bed. my response: what is it that i can’t wait for? what is it that makes me wish my alarm will go off?!
    • create & practice a shared mission, vision & values
    • “5 ways of being”
  • book recommendation: “Man’s Search for Meaning” – achieve happiness by dedicating yourself to someone or something.
  • “there’s a soul to a company” – JP
  • “In this business you have to be comfortable with bumpy flights” – JP on the life of an entrepreneur

After Josh shared his stories & wisdom, students asked some thought provoking questions.  Some that were especially thought provoking for me include:

  • How do you balance sharing information with your company & sharing information that scares people? (for instance, the company is low on cash, & you don’t want to scare people into thinking they’ll be cut)
    • Josh recommended “Just tell them”
    • In my own experiences an open book culture is a powerful way to get the team to take ownership & better know how they can impact the success of the business.  People cannot act in the best interests of the company when they don’t know what those interests are.  Being honest & open beats little to no transparency.  Be authentic. Don’t unpleasantly surprise your team & they won’t unpleasantly surprise you
  • For companies early on, low on resources, how do you build a fun team environment?
    • My thoughts: So you don’t have cash to take your entire team to Cedar Point, how do you still incorporate fun team activities (if that’s part of your culture)…do it within your means.  You don’t have to spend a ton of money (or any at all) to build culture through activities.  Going to a park & playing frisbee will cost you the price of the frisbee.  At Iorio’s we do team bonding activities when times are flush & when times are less cash rich.  It doesn’t matter.  Be creative & find a way to make it work.
  • How did you find the people you hired?
    • Josh brought in people he had worked with before.
    • If you don’t have that luxury & you’re starting for the first time, or you need to hire more people than you have previous colleagues, remember this – building your culture starts with your job posting & application.  What do I mean by this?  The language of your job posting & application sets a tone.  If you are a fun & creative company, make your job description & application fun & creative.  This is the best way to attract talent aligned with your culture & give you a great pool of candidates to hire from.

After Josh finished speaking, the discussion about culture & people continued.  A few nuggets of wisdom to share:

  • “Culture is based on 99% of what the CEO does & 1% on what he says” – Fry
  • “Culture is the single most important factor in recruiting & retaining key employees” – Fry
  • “Employee behavior consistent with the culture should be recognized” – Fry
  • CEO plans culture, lives it, reinforces it, manages it, tracks & measures it, modifies as needed
  • “Personnel selection is decisive. People are our most valuable capital” – Joseph Stalin
  • “as leadership changes, the effectiveness of people may also change”

And some questions that were asked:

  • Should vision statement be about 1 product (if company only has 1 product) or something bigger?
    • Tony thinks it should be bigger
    • I think a vision is big.  Your core vision for your company is that north star…what are you reaching for.  For instance, Disney’s vision is to “make people happy”.  At Iorio’s our vision is to “deliver sweetness”.  These visions are big & broad.  I have found it helpful to also write “vision statements” that may reflect more tangible, shorter & longer term visions for specific aspects of the company.  A vision statement that is written out could be short term focused & looking out at 1 year from now & that may only include 1 product.  I recommend writing vision statements when launching a new product, taking on a new initiative, starting a new company etc…answer questions like “what does this product/company look like?” “how do our customers respond?” “what are the challenges we are overcoming?”  paint a picture of the future.  Put yourself in the future.  A vision statement should be written as if you are in the future.  For more visioning tips I recommend reading some of Ari Weinzweig’s tips on visioning. I, and many others, have learned from him.
  • What do you think comes first, the culture or the people?
    • Tom mentioned that half the people he meets that start companies don’t think about the culture, even if, as an investor, he hints at its importance.
    • I think culture is an iterative process, especially early on.  Like product iteration.  Create culture consciously. Bring on people that align with that culture, learn from them & team dynamics, iterate culture consciously, bring on more people. Rinse & repeat.

Bottom line: Create culture consciously & continually.  All this talk about culture in class has me enthused about learning more & sharing more about what I’ve learned about culture.  What questions do you have?  What would you like to learn about culture & people?

Venture on,

MEL aka Venture Gal

Growing Companies – Culture & Leadership Featuring Serial Entrepreneur Jennifer Baird

This week our class hosted our first guest speaker for the semester.  Jen Baird, serial entrepreneur, currently CEO of Accio Energy & former founder & CEO of Accuri Cytometers.

Jen got her interest in being an entrepreneur when interning for a VC firm.  After graduating from the University of Michigan with a psychology degree & from Kellogg School of Management with her MBA, she worked in consulting for over half a dozen years.  After consulting she took the leap into carving her own path, a route that was quite challenging for her.  When she co-founded Accuri Cytometers she was at the start of a 5 year journey creating, launching & scaling a product & team.  She grew the company from 2 to 80 employees, raised close to $30M in capital, launched a European subsidiary, & approached profitability.  Jen claims to really excel at is the people part of the organization (which I would argue is the most important part!).  She claims “companies are built of people.  They are the building blocks”.  This makes sense given her psychology degree & operational experience building & leading teams.  She clearly has learned a lot from her experiences.

What really stood out to me about Jen is that she knows herself well, exudes passion, is very personable, & is quite confident.  In particular, this is what I learned from listening to Jen & reflecting on her discussion:

“Power of focus is what you choose NOT to do”

On any given day my to do list could be pages long, but really do I need to be doing all those things?  Where is my time best spent?  I have been attuned to this lately & the way Jen described “choosing NOT to do something” caught my attention as a different way of thinking about prioritization.  Another piece of advice she had was to check in every 6 months to see what else can be delegated or eliminated.  Otherwise I become a restraint (similar to how I felt at Iorio’s – stifling our growth).

There are aspects of us that are similar.

Jen’s open style of management mirrors my open book philosophy & values based management style.  A few things we both advocate: all hands meetings, open door policy, building trust & communication.  She also mentioned that she likes to share details & has learned that sometimes it’s better to not share too much.  Something I’m working on also.

I still have questions I’d like to ask Jen, & I will ask her:

  • How do you decide which business opportunities to pursue?  Why Accuri?
  • Challenges you faced as female? How did you overcome them?
  • Where do you learn? (books, people, etc)

Following Jen’s talk Tom discussed management styles.  The key thing I took away after this lecture is that knowing who you are you are is a continual process/discovery that never ends.  In particular he asked: Who are you?  What is your impact on people?  What are your values?  What does success look like for you?  We need to figure out who we are.  It is hard enough to be ourselves, let alone someone else.  If we don’t know who we are it’s difficult to hire people around us to make us better.  Tom recommended developing a vision for yourself.  Know what you’re good at & what you’re not good at.  How best to do this?  I’m still figuring that out.  I do know that spending time with myself, in silence, thinking & reflecting has helped me.

He also emphasized the importance of trust.  To earn the trust of others (e.g. board of directors, customers, employees) you must first trust yourself.  If you don’t trust yourself, it will show, & others won’t trust you.  A great book I read that goes into detail about trust is “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen M.R. Covey.

We also questioned “what is the role of the CEO?”  50-75% of the time she/he is working with people. From time to time GreatLakesVC shares his Weisdom with me & he once told me that the job of a CEO is to make everyone else better at what they do.  To achieve the most in a resource constrained organization, the CEO should be controlling about the company vision & values because every employee should know the story of the company & exactly what the company is trying to accomplish.  The danger of being controlling is slowing down progress & not empowering people to the fullest.  The more someone wants control, the more things need to go through that person, & it slows things down (exhibit ME/Iorio’s).  It is really important to get the message right for the first people you hire & make the culture & values clear.  This way, when you stop hiring people, the people who are hiring people get the message right & hire based on the culture & values of the company.  Recently at Iorio’s we saw a great example of congruency without our organization.  One of our team members created a series of “Iorio’s Ten Commandments” to be a way to share the ground rules & operations of the business.  The result – a set of guidelines that scream Iorio’s culture as we created it.  The fact that we didn’t write them…& that they are so spot on to our culture & values is a huge testament to our ability to create congruency in our business.


Venture on,

MEL aka Venture Gal