Motivating others is constantly going to be your job. You will need to watch for burnout, seek buy-in for revenue strategies, and have hyper self-awareness, because everyone is paying attention to you as a gauge of what is going on in the organization.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Kaiser, CEO of DISCOVERY Children’s Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. Melissa Kaiser is the chief executive officer for DISCOVERY Children’s Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada’s premier interactive museum dedicated to curating STEAM programming for children through interactive and educational exhibits. In her role, she is responsible for overseeing the museum’s fundraising, community relations and program management. Melissa has more than 20 years of professional fundraising experience with an extensive background in capital campaigns, strategic planning and executive management. Prior to her role at DISCOVERY Children’s Museum, she was the executive vice president of development for Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. In addition, Melissa has served as the senior director of development at Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, where she helped a highly successful major gifts program launch the first endowment campaign in the organization’s history. Since joining DISCOVERY in 2018, she has spearheaded major initiatives for the museum including helping it to become the first museum in Nevada to participate in the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Museums for All program as well as launch the first public makerspace and DISCOVERY Lab.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ithink the defining moment in my life that brought me to this career path was when I decided to be an art history major instead of an economics major. My dad, who was mostly paying for my education at a top liberal arts college, cautioned me against this choice, insisting that economics would give me a better business background. I listened to his appeal, but in the end decided to follow my passion, studying art history abroad and picking up French as a second major. In France, I held my first internship at a museum, and the following summer back home in Pennsylvania, my second. My first job after graduating college was at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, America’s oldest museum and school of fine arts. After seven years, I moved on to other non-profit organizations to grow my fundraising and executive administration skills, and eventually came back to PAFA nine years later as Executive Vice President of Development. I think pursuing what you love and making it into a career is what made the biggest difference for me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was fortunate enough to help close a $1 million gift to DISCOVERY Children’s Museum shortly after I arrived. This significant gift has enabled DISCOVERY to become the first museum in Nevada to participate in the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Museums for All program, offering families on assistance reduced admission of $3 to the museum by showing their SNAP, WIC or EBT cards. We also decided to extend the subsidy to foster child caregivers. To promote the program, we are able to invest in a robust Spanish language marketing campaign and build partnerships throughout our neighborhoods with the highest poverty levels. Additionally, we have begun translating our educational museum signage into Spanish and English to support the significant Latino population living in Las Vegas. Since launching the program last fall, we have welcomed more than 20,000 Museums for All visitors.
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?
The funniest mistake I made by far was thinking that our work day began at 9 a.m. Even when I showed up to work “early,” I noticed that all of the employee parking spots were filled, everyone was settled in their workspaces, and there was no morning chatter — everyone was already productively at work. I was amazed and impressed by this disciplined culture. This went on for a few weeks, with no one telling me I was showing up late, not even my assistant. I don’t remember how I figured it out, but I remember being mortified to think I’d been setting such a poor example as a leader by appearing to breeze in to work on my own time. Lesson learned: read the employee handbook cover to cover to learn the policies and cultural norms of the organization before you start leading it. Doing so also helps identify which policies you disagree with and want to change right off the bat. Outcome: we now have a 9 to 5 workday.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
DISCOVERY Children’s Museum has been a pillar of the Las Vegas community for nearly 30 years, offering more than 26,000 square feet of hands-on exhibits — including a 5,000 square foot traveling exhibition gallery, which features STEAM based learning activities for children ages birth through thirteen. Serving 250,000 visitors a year, we have occupied our world-class facility in Symphony Park since 2013, and are proud to be helping lead the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas as a community hub for families across Southern Nevada.
Unlike some of our peer children’s museums, we are not shying away from technology in our learning curriculum. In fact, DISCOVERY Children’s Museum prides itself in welcoming technology and innovative advances to anticipate the world our community’s children will inhabit. While we strongly believe in the power of physical engagement and accommodate many learning styles, we recognize that technology is and will continue to be an inextricable part of work and play in the future. It is our goal to stay ahead of the curve and demonstrate how technology is empowering our children by facilitating quick thinking and fast-paced learning, for example. As the region’s only museum dedicated entirely to the educational enrichment of children, I believe it’s our responsibility to model what’s possible.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Reflecting the rapid growth and progress of our community, we recently launched DISCOVERY Lab — the first public makerspace environment of its kind in the region. Staffed with professional educators with a wide range of skills in science, technology, engineering, art and math, DISCOVERY Lab is designed to stimulate exploration, creativity, risk-taking, critical thinking and collaboration through a hands-on approach. Recognizing that all children are not classroom learners, an open-making area presents art and design materials to provoke inquiry and creativity, and a guided-making area provides cutting-edge technology through an interactive computer lab featuring coding and CAD software, a laser cutter and 3-D printers, in addition to a workshop area featuring real tools and a kiln. Resources available for use include tools for woodworking, circuitry, sewing, sculpting, ceramics and painting. Through workshops hosted by community artists, engineers and tinkers, we’ve basically created a mini art school geared towards older children in the museum.
DISCOVERY Lab offers a variety of high-tech and no-tech interactive experiences that allow visitors to follow their ideas from conception to creation. Our 3-D workshops featuring free Tinker CAD design software have by far been the most popular. Parents love learning this technology that is changing the world as much as the kids do. And they love learning that the cost of an at home 3-D printer is about the same as an X-BOX.
Dependent on grant funding, we soon hope to prototype spatial computing into interactive play exhibits. Our local high-tech industry shares an interest with DISCOVERY in providing children with vocational skills that will increase employability. With early exposure to computing technologies of their future workplaces, we hope to not only foster curiosity among our young patrons, but to bring seemingly unattainable career paths within their reach.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be sure as you build your team that you hire people with skills and styles complementary to yours and to each other’s. It will assure diversity of thought and help the team learn to be respectful of other people’s differences. Never come in thinking you have all of the answers. Seek input from your team on your most important decisions and set goals collaboratively. Give your team respect and autonomy, reward their performance, and make sure you laugh together daily and often. Conversely, don’t try to stick it out with a team that isn’t working. Change fosters momentum and new energy and always ends up being better in the end. Most importantly, love what you do, and you will attract a team that does as well.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
One of the practices I learned at a former job was setting time aside on the senior management agenda to report feedback from staff and to discuss feedback to staff. I think it is important to have communication flowing up, down and across the organization when you manage a large team. It creates transparency, eliminates leadership blindness, and brings institutional challenges to the forefront.
It’s also important that you get to know everyone’s name on your staff and hear their stories. When I first started at DISCOVERY, we held an All Staff meeting on our Fantasy Festival stage where the team paired up in twos with someone they didn’t know well. They learned each other’s name, how to pronounce it, what they liked to be called, and then a story about their proudest moment working at DISCOVERY. After that exercise, one member of the pair then introduced their partner’s name and story to the rest of the group. What I learned and heard that day has stuck with me a lot deeper than studying names, titles and faces on an organizational chart.
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?
I had a boss once who encouraged me to apply for a grants writing position at our organization and offered to teach me all that I needed to know to do it well. It wasn’t a job I would have applied for on my own, but she said it was a skill I’d need if I ever wanted to be a Development Director or CEO of a non-profit. It turns out she was right, and my career took off not long after that. I also ended up meeting my future husband through that job, but that’s a story for another day. I am also grateful to my husband Roy who has been my confidante and number-one champion throughout our fourteen years together. (And yes, our former co-worker, Jane, was at our wedding and we remain close friends to this day.)
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think it’s important to be a leader in the community outside of your day-to-day job. At this moment in time, there happens to be a strong coalition of female arts and culture leaders in the Las Vegas community. Together we are submitting a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts to establish an arts festival in Symphony Park, home to DISCOVERY Children’s Museum, the coming expansion of the Nevada Museum of Art, and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, where the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre are resident companies. I am also serving as volunteer co-chair of the host committee for the American Association of State and Local History which is bringing its annual meeting and conference to Las Vegas in 2020.
It’s also important to me and my husband, who has also spent his career in the non-profit world, to contribute to other philanthropic causes we believe in. Whether serving on non-profit boards, attending events or making personal donations, we do what we can with what we have. For me, supporting the arts and helping more art to be created is one way I try to help bring goodness to the world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
You mean, besides the fact that our workday started at 8 a.m.?! Ha ha. No seriously:
1.You will be the person of last resort. For everything. Not to say that you have to be an expert on every subject — thankfully I have an incredibly knowledgeable Board of Trustees supporting me on the really big issues — but all of the difficult day-to-day tasks, such as editing legal contracts, proofing the budget, and consolidating the strategic plan? They’ll be yours.
2. You’d better like math. You’ll be constantly assessing, benchmarking, analyzing, projecting, forecasting and working to improve the financial performance of the organization. (You were right, Dad. Those economics classes really did pay off.)
3. People are going to try to influence you about something every second of the day. Whether it’s your staff, external constituents, or your supporters — managing up is real.
4. Motivating others is constantly going to be your job. You will need to watch for burnout, seek buy-in for revenue strategies, and have hyper self-awareness, because everyone is paying attention to you as a gauge of what is going on in the organization.
5. You will have to manage yourself. This applies to both your work and your personal life. I go the gym every day at 6 a.m. and make sure to get at least seven hours of sleep so that I am clear-headed and able to be 100 percent present throughout my day and accomplish all of the above.
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. 🙂
Distracted parenting is a real issue in today’s world. Kids are growing up in households where parents are distracted by making ends meet. They are also observing their parents looking at their phones during dinner and playtime, and as a result, they are missing out on critical interaction with their adult caregivers. Many parents who come to DISCOVERY Children’s Museum admit that they don’t know how to play with their children. I’d like to start a movement of caregiver-and-child engaged play, even if that takes the form of joint media engagement. Play is a powerful medium for children and adults alike. If you don’t exercise your imagination, it atrophies like any other muscle. Imagine the good more play would bring to the world, if only we valued it more.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result.” — Mahatma Gandhi
I think a lot about history and the service that we are called to do as human beings in our communities. When I decided to move to Las Vegas after living most of my life in Philadelphia, many intelligent people I knew shuddered at the thought of living in a city that they perceived to be without history or culture. However, to me, taking the helm of the Children’s Museum meant I was also taking the helm of an important part of the community. To the many people who helped bring DISCOVERY Children’s Museum to fruition and have spent their lives here, the museum is a crown jewel — a miracle that was born in the desert close to thirty years ago. To be called to sustain and further the museum and the cultural community in Las Vegas is an honor to me. Because the community here believes anything and everything is possible, it is a place where through your noble actions, you can make a big impact. (And for the record — Las Vegas has plenty of history and culture, folks. Just plenty.)
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to have breakfast with Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons. I love music, especially alternative rock, and have always been awed by the ability of singer-songwriters to put themselves out there and make such a deep emotional connection with their audience through the lyrics and rendering of a song. I didn’t know before I moved to Las Vegas that Dan was actually born and raised here and is a fourth generation Nevadan. Let’s just say that to the locals, Imagine Dragons are as iconic as the Vegas Golden Knights — so much so, that whenever Imagine Dragons comes on the radio, an instant sense of community pride comes with it.
From what I’ve learned about Dan through interviews and his recent documentary Believer, I’ve grown to admire him beyond the vulnerability and humanity that he shares with the world through his music. Lyrics can be cryptic, but in real life, Dan is not hiding his truth. He openly shares his experiences with physical and mental health issues, his battles to overcome guilt and shame from his religious upbringing, and even the difficulties he has faced in his marriage. Through his actions, Dan is destigmatizing the notion of men vocalizing their feelings, which I think is beautiful and much needed in today’s world.
Dan also has a deep commitment to community service that is genuine and real. He has organized music festivals with messages aimed at preventing bullying, violence and teen suicide among vulnerable youth, and has aligned with the Tyler Robinson Foundation here in Las Vegas to help families fighting childhood cancer. I’d like to talk with Dan not only about his activism, but what it means for to him to be a dad. Who knows, maybe we could even come up with ways to work together on programs at DISCOVERY to empower children from a young age to live their truth.