Melissa Villanueva: “Take the time to get to know your team if you want to create a fantastic work culture”

Every person on your team has a story and if you don’t treat them like a number, they won’t treat you like SOLELY as a company. You can both be people. Showing your human side and appreciating them allows you to have honest, respectful, thoughtful dialogue for the betterment of what’s best for both parties. […]

Every person on your team has a story and if you don’t treat them like a number, they won’t treat you like SOLELY as a company. You can both be people. Showing your human side and appreciating them allows you to have honest, respectful, thoughtful dialogue for the betterment of what’s best for both parties. At one point, we had a new employee who seemed great in the interviews, but during her first couple weeks she was constantly late and even missed a shift, which is cause for termination. We sat down with her and said this absolutely cannot happen, and she quickly got it together. Three months later after we started developing a good rapport and she let me know that she was three months pregnant. I put two and two together and realized that during the time she seemed a bit rocky. She was working 90 hours a week between three jobs and had just found out she was pregnant. She is an absolute rock star on my team, and I am glad I did not jump to conclusions during her first couple weeks.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Villanueva. Melissa started the dream for Brewpoint Coffee in all the wrong ways. Only six months into dating her boyfriend Angelo, unemployed, no business plan in order and neither were involved in the business side of coffee before. The journey began with Melissa uprooting her corporate life to do community work in the Philippines, while Angelo was home in the States pushing her to dream bigger and out of her comfort zone. Melissa decided to take his advice, and with no idea what direction to go but with all the inspiration and support, the dream of Brewpoint Coffee was created. When Melissa first got home from the Philippines, she searched Craigslist to find an espresso machine and began developing what her and Angelo thought was a three-year plan to open a coffee shop. Quickly after starting the first location, Melissa and Angelo realized they had the opportunity to get their foot in the door to build up the community around them with their popularity and platform growing. Through Brewpoint, Mel and Angelo were able to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their community focused ideals. Fast forward four years to the present; three cafes deep, roasting in house, 25 employees, a growing wholesale business and event space, Melissa and Angelo are able to reflect and see that none of it would have been possible without the support of family, friends, and customers. At Brewpoint, we know that coffee is no commodity anymore, with many coffee shops and roasters to choose from close to home, we want something different to drive your reasoning through our doors. We want to ensure that we don’t only have great quality coffee BUT our coffee defines who we are as a community. We want our community to share a story of the things we are passionate about on a local and global scale as well.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Melissa! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Absolutely! Have you ever looked on Craigslist for an espresso machine but ended up buying a coffee shop instead? That is the story of Brewpoint Coffee. My boyfriend (Angelo) of six months and I were both unemployed because we wanted to do something that made the world a better place, and we believed that a coffee shop could do that. With no plan, little experience and our families support, we found the courage to purchase a turnkey coffee shop in Elmhurst, IL and opened up Brewpoint Coffee in September 2014. Fast forward four and a half years later, we are now married and have three successful coffee shops, a wholesale roastery, and an event space all in Elmhurst, IL.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Two and half years into business, we decided to open a flagship location. We were renovating an old 4,000-square foot loading dock to become a café, roastery and event space. We envisioned this would be a destination location for the western Chicago suburbs for coffee. It was our first buildout and we were incredibly excited by this project. Right when were about to break ground we got a call from the Elmhurst Public Library. They had an existing cafe and the owner was retiring. They wanted to know if we would partner with them and take over the cafe. Though I love new opportunities, this seemed to be too much at once. We were planning to go to two shops, not three! However, after doing a little research, we decided to pull the trigger and take over the library cafe. Who knew that this would be a business saving decision! The additional cash flow that the library cafe added ended up being exactly what we needed to help us absorb some of the costs of the buildout and make our overall expansion much more successful.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Our mission is “to create and empower authentic community spaces through coffee”. We are excited to announce that we have signed on with two major distributors to bring our coffee nationwide. Along with that, I am currently co-authoring a book titled “How to start and run a coffee shop” that should be on shelves this fall. My goal is that we will be able to help empower other coffee shop owners to engage and build their communities across the nation.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think there are a couple reasons for this. First, I think that most people (whether they know it or not) want to have work that is meaningful. Meaning that work aligns with what they believe is important in this world. If this component is missing, then at some point work starts to feel unsatisfying and empty. Second, it’s hard to find work that is both meaningful and pays the bills. It’s up to owners to make sure the positions they’re creating are reasonably sustainable both for the company and the employee. Lastly, I think that work needs structure. If my team is working their tail off (even if they love the work and the mission) but I have no way of assessing or recognizing their hard work, they will start to feel unappreciated and their work will feel less satisfying.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

The most important metric that will be affected is employee retention. If staff are unhappy, they’re more likely to leave the company. This reduces productivity because existing staff will need to bridge the gaps left by former coworkers and on the broader company level, they’ll now need to invest more time and energy into training and hiring. This makes the company less profitable and less efficient. And all that extra weight on staff reduces their creativity and interrupts rhythm and momentum. Not to mention, in an industry like mine, customers like to see familiar staff, so it can play into sales as well!

One thing I will also add to this is that a common assumption is that a company with bad morale must mean bad, or worse, ill-intentioned leadership. However, this isn’t always the case. Maybe you need to improve or clarify your mission and vision. Maybe you need to improve your structure and communication. A lot of times it’s a mix of these. The moral of the story is it’s not always the out to claim a CEO is a manipulative leader. Sometimes it’s the well-meaning but inexperienced CEO who doesn’t know how to lead.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

1) Know your mission, live your mission, and attract others who want to be a part of it.

  • Our mission is to create and empower authentic community spaces through coffee. During the interview process, the first thing I ask is if the potential employee has been to Brewpoint before. If they have, I ask them what they enjoy about it. If not, I ask them to visit and let me know if there is something about Brewpoint that attracts them more than the average coffee shop. At the end of the day, having team members who appreciate the Brewpoint experience motivates them to extend the experience they enjoyed.

2) Communicate, communicate, communicate.

  • Not every decision you make as a CEO of a company will make the staff happy, but the more you communicate and keep everyone in the loop and explain the WHY behind your decisions, the more most of your staff will trust you. For example, one of my core commitments to my team is to never get into a situation where I can’t pay my staff or be put in a place where I will have to sell ownership of our company (not that selling your company is bad, I just like to prioritize our mission over an abundance of profits); my staff knows this and they can trust my decisions are for the health and longevity of the company which supports them.

3) Work alongside your staff during tough times.

  • When things get short staffed or if the weather is horrible and you want to stay open, be willing to be on the front lines with your team. Not only is this a model example of great leadership, but it shows your team you aren’t afraid to do the hard work that they do every day. In Chicago this winter, the weather dropped below -50° with windchill. Instead of having our employees come in, we allowed everyone to stay at home and my husband and worked the whole day at the shop. This ended up getting attention from a service industry Facebook group that very much affirmed our decision and requested that this standard be the model for all business owners.

4) Have an organized team.

  • Having simple things like a clear job description, clear lines of authority, clear ways to succeed and be rewarded goes a long way. Everyone wants to be acknowledged when they go above and beyond but without clear guidelines it will be easy for staff to feel taken advantage of or unappreciated. One of my managers recommended creating an incentive system called “crew coins” in which our team would be rewarded for being great employees. Once this system was executed, we noticed a huge rise in perfect clock ins, perfect drawers, and better sales!

5) Take the time to get to know your team.

  • Every person on your team has a story and if you don’t treat them like a number, they won’t treat you like SOLELY as a company. You can both be people. Showing your human side and appreciating them allows you to have honest, respectful, thoughtful dialogue for the betterment of what’s best for both parties. At one point, we had a new employee who seemed great in the interviews, but during her first couple weeks she was constantly late and even missed a shift, which is cause for termination. We sat down with her and said this absolutely cannot happen, and she quickly got it together. Three months later after we started developing a good rapport and she let me know that she was three months pregnant. I put two and two together and realized that during the time she seemed a bit rocky. She was working 90 hours a week between three jobs and had just found out she was pregnant. She is an absolute rock star on my team, and I am glad I did not jump to conclusions during her first couple weeks.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

This is a great point and a loaded question. This reminds me of an episode of NBC’s “The Good Place” (SPOILER) where the humans essentially find that it is impossible to do good because everything we do in today’s society has become incredibly complicated. The process of buying a well-sourced tomato may start with looking up a farmer’s market on your phone…that was made in a sweatshop. And that automatically makes a thoughtful deed tainted.

I say this because every good decision I make towards creating a good work culture and business feels tainted by the larger system. I am by no means perfect but the things I believe would make a better work culture in America start with fairer wages and having prices match the true value of a product. I am probably one of the rare business owners who has no intention of becoming a millionaire or billionaire. I don’t want to make thousands of times more than my lowest paid employee. I want to create a business that does good through its product and its culture. Ultimately, I want to invest in my team and my producers to create fair wages for everyone down the line. This means not hoarding profits but continuing to invest in the health and longevity of my business. Ideally, I want to build a sustainable business that also invests in sustainable systems all the way the farmers we work with.

That said, this is a steep hill to climb. In order to build this, we’ll need to price coffee for both financial and environmental sustainability which is closer to $4 a cup. Changes like this must be driven by owners. The pay gap needs to shrink between owners and the lowest paid employees. We as owners need to start educating and encouraging consumers to pay a fair price for a cup of coffee as well. Finally, this will also take nationwide legislation to build structures to ensure individual equity, fair pay, environmental sustainability and countless other commitments to our shared future.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

If every leader is honest, we would admit that we are good at maybe 5% of things and are horrible at the other 95%. If I had to give my leadership style a title it would be “a visionary” and my management style is “empowerment.” I tend to see opportunities, connections and the potential for progress in every conversation I have. I love to explore these and see what the best possible outcomes are. I love having the ability to get others invested in and excited about what we do at Brewpoint. This helps me get them on board to engage their talents to balance my lack thereof.

An example of what I mean by visionary leadership is in how the identity of our brand to our community has evolved. The elements of our brand that we choose to highlight and advertise tell our community it’s not just about great coffee but it’s about building a great community. For example, in September 2018, we decided to have a month-long women’s empowerment campaign for the one-year anniversary of our new Workshop and Roastery. We chose to highlight my position as the CEO/Owner of Brewpoint. As a Filipina American we felt it was important that we make it clear that Brewpoint is female and minority owned. And every event we hosted that month supported women and minority communities. We believe in the power of representation. And we want the next generation to see themselves in these roles.

As for my management style, I believe in individual empowerment. For me empowerment is a delicate balance of providing direction and while extending trust. As a CEO my time, energy and attention are in high demand. For me this means that I often need to give people a foundation and then let them take the lead. I prefer that they check in with me as necessary rather than be with them every step of the way. For example, my first year running the business I took on my first intern, Sara. She was eager, excited and she wanted to get as much experience running a business as possible. I started her off as a barista, she quickly moved up through management and quickly became my right hand. She got there by taking on small projects and running with them. She would check in intermittently, bring her plans and suggestions and ask lots of questions. While I didn’t always agree with all her approaches this allowed me to collaborate with her at key times and give her insight into how I was seeing the challenges in front of her. This developed into more and more trust which required less and less oversight. She stayed with us for a few years after her internship and she was integral to getting us through some key times of growth. When she left our company, I was sad on a personal note, but I was incredibly excited for her because I knew she had tons of talent and had gained plenty of invaluable skills with us.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I meet an entrepreneur, I often wonder is this person the passion side (passionate about their product) or the business side of their operation? Except for my passion for community building and my love for consuming coffee, I am the business side of my business. In order to really show that we were serious about coffee, I needed some who LOVED coffee. Someone that would hardcore nerd out about coffee. Someone that would leave barista shifts and go home and read and study about coffee. And I found that person in my now Director of Coffee, Ben Tanen.

When we hired Ben, we were simply looking for a barista and he was looking for a little coffee shop to gain experience so he could go on and do bigger and better coffee things. To both of our surprise, it didn’t take long for us to find that his place was with us in our company to push for the best and fairest product possible. He gave us the insights that inspired us to start roasting our own coffee. And through his investment and inspiration he was able to continually build out a more and more important role in our company. This eventually led me to build him a space that would be any coffee nerds dream. What is now our Roastery. I would have built our company very differently if I didn’t have Ben. I am very grateful to have him, and I love where we are at.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We never in a million years could have dreamed that Brewpoint would be as successful as it is and with that success, we believe that there is a responsibility to truly make the world a better place with it.

This can take many forms but one example that we are particularly proud of was our #NotAfraidtoLove campaign. During our second year in business, there were terrorist attacks in Paris and there was a lot of fear, anger and confusion. We felt compelled to do something because people’s real pain was used to stir up fear and hate against immigrants and Syrian refugees. We partnered with the Syrian Community Network and created a campaign called #NotAfraidtoLove with the message that though it is okay to be afraid, at the end of the day we must either choose whether or not to live in fear. Through our customers we were able to raise $3,000 to give to Syrian refugees in the Chicagoland area.

Sometimes as a business owner it can be easy to confuse your platform with your purpose. In this case we were able to use our platform to engage a community to actively love and support others which fulfilled the deeper purpose of why we do what we do. It’s still one of our proudest moments as business owners and influencers in our community.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

I must believe at the end of the day, that goodness will prevail over all the crap we see in this world. That if we persevere to do what we are good, right and true the world will get just a little bit better. This quote reminds me to never stop seeking joy and goodness in this world, because it’s not just for me. It’s for all those who came before and all those coming after us.

And trust me, I know it can be hard to believe. Whether it’s something personal like a penny-pinching landlord who let’s your place of business constantly flood or when someone you’ve invested in drags your name through the mud. Or it’s the bigger stuff, knowing that justice is hard to come by, that there are way too many people that have too little because a few have too much. People will always be broken but that’s no excuse to stop trying.

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. 🙂

I imagine a movement that inspires other female and minority business owners to create sustainable, profitable business structures that reduce the gap between their highest and lowest paid employees from a thousand times to twenty-five times. Businesses that build structures that educates their community on what a fair price is, and fair prices support benefits, sustainability, better work-life balance. That it allows fair pay to employees and producers. That it allows for growth that is measured, intentional and sustainable. I imagine a movement that shows that the structures that are in place now are unjust, unsustainable and short-sighted.

If treating people and the environment with dignity and inherent value are our core values, I think we would have a lot less problems in our world. My goal is to build that into my business and help others achieve it as well.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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