We so easily gravitate to why something cannot work or the challenges of executing an idea but instead of approaching work, ideas, planning with “no, but”, I like to lean into “yes, and”. I challenge you to play this as a game with friends. Pick two friends to plan a party via a spontaneous response game — in round one the first two friends are instructed to start every response with “no, but”, then pick two new people to plan the same event but begin each response with “yes, and” — see who plans the better party!
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Gonzalez.
Continually pushing the boundaries of experiential retail, Melissa Gonzalez is an award-winning innovator, seasoned visionary, and brand storyteller. She is the CEO of The Lion’esque Group, an MG2 company, pioneering the integration of physical environments and cutting-edge technologies to help companies such as Purple, Nordstrom, and Burrow foster foundational consumer engagement and evolve their offering.
A passionate mentor and strategist, Melissa works hand-in-hand with clients to understand their greatest aspirations. She leads creative teams to deliver authentic solutions from concept to completion, helping clients achieve their ultimate vision. In 2019 she was honored with ‘Women In Design’ award of the year by Contract Magazine and was recognized as one of LinkedIn and Design:Retail’s ‘Top 10 Retail Design Influencers of the Year’. When she’s not recording podcasts or dreaming up innovative pop-up spaces, Melissa can be found seeking inspiration in unexpected places (like skydiving 10,000 feet above ground).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career path today was born on a seredipitous opportunity presented to me in 2009, just a few months after leaving my Wall Street career. I was on a pursuit to find a more creative career path when a family who owned real estate in midtown Manhattan offered me the opportunity “to do something creative with their street-level storefront spaces.” It was a time in my life where I made a vow to myself to say “yes” to opportunities and it ended up being the perfect marriage of embarking on a creative endeavor where I could also lean into my business acumen.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
The Lionesque Group, my company, is known for being pioneers in pop-up retail. When I published my book, The Pop-Up Paradigm: How Humans Build a Human Connection in a Digital Age, I wasn’t just thinking of pop-up retail in a bucket, but as an emerging retail format. We have helped clients prototype new concepts, test new markets, experiment with next-generation technology, and beyond. Today we see agile retail being a core tenant in physical retail and are helping our clients reimagine what is possible within 4 walls, creating perimeters that can flex and morph seamlessly to meet changing customer needs, wants and behaviors.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was young in my Wall Street career we often worked late nights and always had early mornings. One morning I had to wake up at the crack of dawn to be in Connecticut in time for a 7 am client breakfast. I dressed quickly and accidentally left the house with 2 different heels on. I fell asleep in the car ride up so didn’t notice until we arrived when it was too late to change. I learned to own it that day, address the mishap head-on and enter the room with confidence regardless of the imperfection. (I also learned to always plan my outfits ahead with fresh eyes so I didn’t make the mistake again!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
In life, my mom has always been my mentor as she is one of the hardest working, determined people I know, so I have to give acknowledgment to that. In addition to her, I have been fortunate to have a network of mentors throughout my career journey, including my former Wall Street boss Herve Francios who helped me embrace financial modeling and networking maven Kelly Hoey. Kelly Hoey and I met on Twitter a decade ago, and it was instant mutual admiration and respect! I admired her ability to see opportunity in connections and her ability to give to others, without an agenda but rather with genuine support.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Disruption can only be truly effective when you are enhancing existing or natural human behaviors. When you try to completely re-engineer how people operate you will find friction and limited adoption. For example, the iPhone became wildly popular because its mission was to make what we already do better (email, talk on the phone, text message, take photos). We already did those things but now we have 1 device to do it all, with enhanced lenses, editing tools, smart algorithms to thread contacts and messages. It wasn’t as robust today as it was day one, but it was intuitive to existing and organic behaviors (which is way even a 1 year seamlessly catches on to how to use an iPhone or iPad device). On the flip side, when an adoption takes significantly more explanation, multiple steps to execute, has a more substantial learning curve, the disruptive idea often isn’t as successful. QR codes is an interesting example of that. It wasn’t until your handheld mobile camera device was developed to read codes, the adoption and interaction with QR codes was very low. People had to download a scanner app, then scan, then were taken to another site. The step of having to download a scanner in itself was an added commitment most didn’t want to take even though the utility QR codes provided was valuable. Today, we have seen them take off, but it took almost a decade.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
I will give you two: “Yes, and” I love this because it’s so simple but it’s what we sometimes forget to lean into the most. We so easily gravitate to why something cannot work or the challenges of executing an idea but instead of approaching work, ideas, planning with “no, but”, I like to lean into “yes, and”. I challenge you to play this as a game with friends. Pick two friends to plan a party via a spontaneous response game — in round one the first two friends are instructed to start every response with “no, but”, then pick two new people to plan the same event but begin each response with “yes, and” — see who plans the better party!
I push myself to see the world in a “yes, and” lens. It doesn’t mean I don’t think methodically but I approach with seeing potential over obstacles.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I am immersing myself in understanding how we as consumers will be reshaped post-Covid-19. I am strategizing on how we can create environments that are more fluid, agile, modular in design — not just the fixtures, but the entire environments. How do we design spaces that can morph like a transformer?
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think men have historically been more confident in asking for what they need — whether is funding, partners etc. They worry less about perfection and focus more on “just making it happen”. I think we as women are getting much better at that. I can admit, I used to cringe at the thought of having to raise capital and lacked the confidence to illustrate how my model worked, yet I have a degree in Finance and spent the first part of my career on Wall Street. When it came to my own business, fund raising wasn’t something I had confidence in for a long time. I had to re-teach myself I had domain expertise in the topic, to remove emotion and to have conviction in my numbers.
You are seeing more women raise capital, more women supporting and uplifting each other and more women being more confident taking risks now, which is great!
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
I was once recommended the book “Thank you for Being Late” by Thomas Freidman. Funny thing is I was introduced to this book by a man who accidentally took my carry-on luggage off a plane. He had made it all the way to downtown San Francisco and came back to do the switch. In our conversation, somehow our conversation led to books and his recommendation to me to read this book, which is a tribute to the importance of pausing to appreciate today’s rapid accelerations to reflect upon its possibilities and its dangers.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This is a tough one! But I wish I could freeze the impulse we have to judge. Especially during 2020, we have seen so much judgment that stifled progress. I wish we could just say I appreciate your perspective; I don’t agree but if it’s well spirited, I won’t stop you with judgment and suppression.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Years ago, Jeff Bezos was quoted saying, “let’s disagree and commit”, it’s how we move forward. Disagree and commit doesn’t mean ‘thinking your team is wrong and missing the point,’ which will prevent you from offering true support, it means giving ideas outside of your own a true opportunity.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!