As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Lopez.
Melissa Lopez is the CEO and Co-Founder of Onyx Offsites & Trainings, a leading concierge team training company that empowers businesses to create meaningful culture, connection, and change. Seeing a need for deeper employee engagement that is inclusive and reflective of changing demographics, lifestyles and work settings, Melissa set out to drive a movement towards positive corporate culture. Prior to Onyx, she utilized her 25 years of experience in the marketing industry to launch her own agency start-up, Katana, which was recognized as one of Inc. 5000’s fastest-growing private companies in America.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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 started after graduating from University of San Diego and heading immediately into a full-time position at a local advertising agency. I began entry-level and eventually became VP of Client Services within the decade I worked there, before changing marketing firms a couple times to gain more experience and become more engrained in digital marketing with bigger brands and budgets.
After spending many years running other people’s agencies, I recognized that there were so many inefficiencies and areas within the business that I would execute differently with a different vision and more defined goals. This led to a business partnership with a couple of other colleagues, and we formed our own digital media firm, Katana in downtown San Diego in 2013. This is where I feel I allowed myself the ability to skyrocket, where there was a clearer vision because I was at last able to define it as CEO of my own business. My business partners and I built our agency from the ground up, with no financial backing, into a multi-million-dollar success, and made the decision to sell to a private equity firm in early 2019 to allow each of us partners individually a chance to pursue dreams and aspirations outside of the agency space.
I took some time off after the sale, as I had felt that I was in a continuous hamster wheel, running in circles my entire professional career. This gave me not only time to better invest into my family, but also a tremendous amount of clarity that I was lacking up until I gave myself the opportunity to SLOW DOWN. I realized that the next stage in my professional career needed to be one that provided me with a greater sense of purpose, contributions back into my community and humanity, and something that I could wake up every morning to and be appreciative and feel full, knowing that I am providing some sort of positive outcome to others. I really didn’t know what type of role that actually would be or where I could realistically find something like that, because let’s be honest, everyone wants that feeling and fulfillment, right? But what does that actually look like, and does something like that truly even exist?
And then Ryan Shortill (friend of mine and fellow Entrepreneurs’ Organization SD Chapter member) reached out to me and asked me to join him and his partner Jered Cherry to scale his company and breathe new life and opportunity into Positive Adventures. I contemplated for a while, and then realized, WOW — God was listening, and I was ready to dive in and see where this could go!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Well, I can share that three weeks after taking on role as Chief Executive Officer of Positive Adventures, our world shut down due to the COVID pandemic, and I never really got an opportunity to immerse myself in the business and the team, because I was put in the unfortunate position of assuming a “wartime CEO” mentality and was faced with making some grueling decisions that would ultimately save or destroy the business.
I was brought in as the new CEO of Positive Adventures on February 19, 2020, with an aggressive business plan created to scale the business and spin out a new entity to divide the company into two — one that focused on the youth programming, with the other concentrated solely on the corporate team programs. I had no idea that I would be closing down the office on March 13, 2020 because of COVID.
As a company that specializes in team-building events for corporations, alongside training and outdoor education for youth/schools, Positive Adventures encountered a complete cancellation of all Spring and Fall 2020 programs, resulting in an immediate halt of all business operations, elimination of all incoming cashflow, and a situation where most deposits for outdoor education and team building programs already scheduled and planned had to be returned to clients. Positive Adventures was then crippled with an inability to book any in-person future events until the COVID-19 crisis ended and group events and activities are once again permitted.
Immediately, I dove into the financials for an analysis of cash flow, how much would be drained after making client deposit returns for cancelled programs, and realized we were in a massive crisis. Our bank account would not only be drained, but we would have no operational funds available to keep the staff in place. I had to reduce overhead expenses immediately, so I had the unfortunate role of laying off and placing on furlough the entire services and operations staff and reduced my sales and marketing managers’ hours down to minimal.
One by one, I spoke with each and every team member, explained the circumstances, and issued termination letters due to COVID-19. Crushed, I knew I had to start from scratch and come up with a new business plan that would pivot the business and identify a way to allow us to continue some level of services, so I could help Positive Adventures survive in this pandemic. As a company that was founded 12 years prior and with so much dedication, sacrifice and hard work the founders put into it, I knew that the wartime CEO in me had to come out.
Alongside the two founders (Ryan Shortill and Jered Cherry), we dug into each and every program and service line of the business, and we recognized that now more than ever, our clients (corporate and schools) needed us. The circumstances of being forced into a remote working (and schooling) environment created a huge disconnect for teams and classmates that were accustomed to continuous interaction and collaboration. Out spun a solution — review all of our program curriculum and pivot the business to offer virtual team-building programs for both youth and the professional working teams. Within two business weeks (end of March), we were prepared to have many of our previous team programs as well as dozens of new virtual-friendly team building programs ready to market, and an entire business plan with supporting marketing plan was rolled out by April 1st.
I am still in awe of what we were able to accomplish in such dire circumstances, and proud of our team for sticking it out this past year and allowing us to get to where we are today. We are finally starting to resume in-person group programming and we successfully launched our new corporate program company, Onyx Offsites & Trainings.
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?
A quick one that I thought of has to do with a big fear many of us have, and that is sending an email to the wrong person! Week two, and I did just that. I was still getting familiarized with third party strategic partners and outsourced roles within the organization, and I accidentally sent an email to a client who I mistakenly thought was our accounting services provider. I attempted to schedule a meeting to discuss some of the budget discrepancies in QuickBooks I found that made no sense and continued to state that I think we are undercharging for our services and that the existing process was messy and needed a lot of work. After sending, I realized that it was not the accounting firm who received that but a client who was actually (and fortunately) found it quite funny and emailed me back and welcomed me to Positive Adventures while kindly saying she could tell I was going to “rock it” there. PHEW!
Lesson learned was to a) always, always review and repeat before sending any email, and b) remember that first impressions are always most impactful, so don’t mess them up ever!
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?
After co-founding my digital marketing firm, Katana, I realized that I had a lot of learning I still needed to do, and I moved forward with working with an executive coach for several years, who not only taught me the art of humility, strength and courage, but also became a close and dear friend of mine that I knew I could call on anytime for anything — professionally or personally related. He was such an inspiration to me: I would listen to how eloquently he spoke and wanted to mirror his approach to change and challenge. I was truly in awe of his ability to make lasting personal connections and impact. His name is Michael Saul, and he showed me through his patience, guidance, dignity and focus how to be the best CEO and leader I can be. He has been a role model, mentor, teacher and my #1 supporter through the ups and downs of being a CEO and a business partner. I am forever grateful to him.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I have always found that scripting out my feelings, thoughts, decision-making process and approach helps me “train my brain” and allow myself the opportunity to run various scenarios through from start to finish and plot out various outcomes. I then run myself through an oral practice with my husband, where he always drills me and pulls out his zingers to make me scramble and think on my feet, and this helps sharpen my mind and approach before entering that tense meeting or big presentation or tough conversation with a business partner or employee.
I actually did this for a really hard conversation I needed to have with one of my business partners. There was a tremendous amount of emotion and frustration that I was channeling, and I needed to find the right approach to have this discussion that wouldn’t put me in a position where I could later potentially regret my choice of words or actions. Being able to put to pen my thoughts, the WHY behind my reasoning, gave me an opportunity to actually see the perspective of my business partner before I walked into that dialogue, and in turn gave me clarity and allowed me to remove the emotional from my approach. And it worked beautifully.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Gender and ethnic diversity increase the likelihood to outperform competition in profit and value, according to multiple studies by McKinsey & Co. Studies also show that for 78% of CEOs, gender equality is a top 10 priority in their organizations, yet only 22% of employees report that gender equity is actually measured.
As a female executive over the past 20+ years, I have certainly experienced and been a victim of gender inequality as it related to promotions, financial compensation and various other areas. I am so pleased that our country is finally in a place where the challenges about race, diversity, equality and inclusion are being addressed, and advocates are stepping up and standing tall to resolve these issues. I see this area as a tremendous business opportunity for the United States at this point of time. According to the World Economic Forum, we are 158 years from gender equity in North America at our current pace. In the meantime, in the U.S. alone we are leaving $2 trillion in GDP on the table by not addressing inequities in our workforce.
Operationalizing gender and race equity is very complicated. Diversity means more women and mixed ethnic/cultural composition on the team, yet how can this be done fairly and while also ensuring that the right individuals are getting the right jobs, right promotions and not have those decisions be based or swayed in either direction by their race or gender? Yet so many skilled individuals are being overlooked for these roles by simple means of their race and gender, although this isn’t being acknowledged as the reason.
I believe that gender and ethnic diversity correlates directly with profitability and outperformance of a company, and studies has shown this to be true. Why? This executive diversification within an organization creates value. This is the level within the company that the bulk of strategic and operational decisions are being made, and these decisions ultimately lead to higher profitability. While women are becoming more and more present in executive roles, there are still disparagingly low levels of ethic and cultural diversity within these executive teams. There is still a large bias that exists in these roles. As women leaders, we need to lean in and acknowledge this, and position ourselves, our companies and our peers in a manner that elevates everyone around us.
Corporate leadership needs to represent where we are at in our world today — diversified, all of equal nature, and all collaborating and working together towards a shared vision and goal — and this is when we will see our businesses grow and scale and reach profitability and success.
We, as female executives — need to be a part of the solution.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
The most important and critical step we need to take towards creating an inclusive, representative and equitable society is to provide continuous education. Teachers are the foundation to all of our development. They expose us to lessons early on, to mistakes our society and our ancestors have made, providing the reinforcement of humanity learning from our past mistakes through history. Above all else, education is the solution. The more education that is equitable reaches into are areas that have been overlooked and forgotten, we will see empowerment and shifting for the betterment of all. We need a fair system to elevate through education, not just based on local taxes.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
CEOs are visionaries, we illustrate the purpose and they WHY behind the business, and we identify the destination and outcome the organization must have in order to be successful. We rely upon our teams to help us better paint that picture and execute that vision into productive outcomes. We need to have the ability to always be thinking outside of the box, as markets continuously change, and business practices and procedures need to continuously be changing as time goes by in order to meet client and customer expectations.
We are mentors, teachers, listeners, trainers, motivators, developers of talent and skill, we recognize that our employees are our most important asset, and we appreciate them and invest our time, effort and money into these employees to help grow them professionally, emotionally and financially.
We are responsible for communicating on various levels and in various manners with our teams, our clients and the greater public. We need to be clear and concise, yet approachable and transparent, so we are trusted and respected as leaders. We need to nurture, develop and maintain relationships on all levels both inside and outside of our organizations. These relationships ultimately lead to loyalty and positive brand representation and reputation of our businesses.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myths I encounter often through dialogue and conversations are that CEOs are ego-driven, live extravagant and glamorous lives, are unapproachable and are dictators and not executors. These are not true at all!
As a CEO in both my current company as well as my previous company, I was in the trenches with all of my team, I rolled up my sleeves, took on multiple roles and hats, and never “left the office” until I knew that we were in a solid place in executing on behalf of our clients.
And as it relates to the “glamor” and “wealth” of the mentality behind a CEO title, I can proudly share that I am always the first to go without pay of any nature when we hit a rough patch, and I consistently have ensured that my team of talent is fairly compensated and often times more so than what I am being compensated. CEOs often sacrifice their own financial livelihood to reinvest in their companies and their employees, because we have a passion and purpose driving us, along with the immense responsibility of ensuring we take care of our teams.
In regard to approachability, many people envision CEOs in large executive suites, with their office doors closed and a literal wall between them so that CEO is untouchable and unable to understand or empathize. I would hope that if you were to ask any of my employees of present or past if I was approachable, friendly, compassionate and supportive, every one of them would share their positive experiences of my commitment to them and my ability to build deep and meaningful relationships with each of them.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think that the biggest one is the fine line of being assertive and confident as a female leader and not coming across as a bully (or another “b” word that I don’t want to use). Throughout my career, I have encountered so many circumstances when a male executive sets expectations and holds his team accountable and when they do not perform, he is seen as a strong leader, and a woman in the exact same circumstances is positioned as aggressive and unfavorable to work with or for.
Another challenge I personally experienced and know many other women executives have as well is the mentality of not being able to be the best CEO and the best mother to my children. For women, we experience feelings of guilt and struggle with the reality that our careers are incredibly demanding and are not 9 to 5 gigs where we can leave the office and leave the work, stress and concerns there. We work late nights, evenings, weekends, overnights, and yet we still successfully manage to be wonderful and engaging mothers and caregivers for our families. Being a planner, strategist and multi-tasker runs in a woman executive’s DNA, and everything is second nature, often to the point of exhaustion. Regardless, we lean in and own both the role of leader of the business as well as leader of the family.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The fact that we are running a tight ship after a year of COVID impact on our budget which translates into our staffing and limitations has made me recognize that my role as CEO doesn’t mean I am only the visionary and delegator. I am an accounting manager, I am a salesperson, I am a marketing director, I am a production manager — I am one of the team members who acts on and executes on the business plan and the day-to-day business operations of our organization. I am a chameleon, and I don’t sit in a big executive office and ask team members to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I am a roll-up-my-sleeves CEO and the person who will always say: “We are in this together, the finish line is around the corner and we all need to continue to perform and work side by side. I am part of that, not just the cheerleader on the sidelines.”
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe that the five most important traits needed in order to be a successful executive in business today are the following:
Courage: Recognize success never comes without some failures along the way, stand tall and be brave even when you feel that the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Be bold, make tough calls even when they aren’t the popular decisions when you know it is for the best.
Passion: Love what you do, live what you love. Your intensity and passion for what you are doing will no doubt be seen in the success of your company and your team.
Resilience: Be agile, push forward and drive performance and expectations.
Humility: Be approachable, modest and transparent. Allow your strengths to speak for themselves, and don’t become egotistical or self-focused in trying to position yourself or your persona as power.
Excellent Listening & Communication Skills: Always be listening, and ensure that you are continuously communicating to your staff, your clients, your network, your industry. Actively engage and be a mentor to your team, offer your support and contributions as often as you can, and never forget to showcase praise and celebrations of your team.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
My biggest advice would be to spend 1:1 time with every employee on a continuous basis, whether that be weekly, monthly, quarterly (based on the size of your staff). This time spent with each individual does SO much. It not only provides you, as the leader, an opportunity to get to understand what drives and motivates each person, but it also helps you build trust, loyalty, understanding and deeper and more meaningful relationships with each team member. My 1:1 connects with each employee are honestly my most engaged and impactful meetings, because not only am I helping them establish short and long-term goals, but I am also giving us both an opportunity to share our dreams, passions, hopes and aspirations. When these are shared with one another, they are understood and built within the execution of business plans, and this truly makes team members thrive both individually and as a group, because they recognize their contributions and where they fit into the greater big picture.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I attribute my greatest successes in life to my ability to be a good mother to my two sons (ages 12 and 9), a parent who is present in her children’s life, and a woman who sets a good and positive example of how to build, run and grow a business. At the same time, I’ve learned to never put business obligations before the needs of my family. I have raised two incredible young men who are caring, kind, responsible and who have a strong work ethic and a deep admiration and respect who all individuals who work hard to accomplish their goals. My contributions to this world will undoubtedly be seen in the impact that these amazing boys will have on our world as they continue to invest their time and energies towards preserving our environment, practicing kindness to all, and stepping in to offer support and a helping hand to anyone in need.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You Are Going to Want to Give Up and Walk Away, but Don’t — I never realized how challenging it was to build a start-up business, and I was doing it with a 1-year-old and 4-year-old at home. There were a lot of sleepless nights, tears of frustration and exhaustion, and some days where I just wanted to throw in the towel and go back to being an employee, so the weight of everything wasn’t on my shoulders. But I learned and earned grit, dedication, and perseverance through these early years, and I set a shining example for my kids in doing so.
- You Really Can Have It All — Juggling a growing family and a growing business simultaneously made it hard to find a strong and consistent work/life balance, and I often felt like I needed to choose one over the other, because I couldn’t do both well. Fortunately, I proved to myself that I really CAN have it all!
- Business Partnerships Are Like Marriages; You Need to Consistently Put Work into Your Relationship with One Another — I had moments of turmoil and agony over the years in business, and it wasn’t because of the business itself, but because of the challenges I encountered with differences of opinion and direction with business partners. I wish I would have invested more time protecting myself and my interests in the starting stages of my former business, as I experienced a lot of heartache and lost relationships after the sale of our company because there were a lot of challenges that were never properly addressed and communicated through the years of our partnership.
- It’s OK to Look Out for Your Best Interests — As a new CEO in my own company, I was always looking out for everyone else, and put my needs and my desires on the backburner to ensure I was fulfilling others. Don’t be the sacrificial lamb of your own dreams.
- Always be learning — your failures are your greatest lessons — In the desire to want to be successful, I missed out on some key learning moments that I should have spent more time analyzing and reflecting on so I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. I have learned this lesson well and now take my failures as moments of appreciation.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to lead a movement to aid in ensuring education can be provided to all people of all ages. So many people do not have access to formalized education on a global level, and to be involved in something of such magnitude would be a dream of mine.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” — Dale Carnegie
This quote has been one that has stuck with me in some of the darkest moments in my life, when I was at my lowest, when I felt trapped, when I lost hope. There was a particular time in my life when my husband and I were trying to start a family, but unfortunately struggled with multiple pregnancy losses and I felt like the wind and life was sucked out of my being, and I just wanted to give up. But I recognized that if I wanted to become a mother as much as I knew in my heart I wanted it, I had to persevere and continue to go down this long and painful journey. It wasn’t the road I envisioned I would be traveling down, but I knew deep down in my heart that regardless of what my journey to motherhood looked like, I would reach my destination. Thirteen years later, I still thank God daily every time I say goodnight to my sons that I didn’t let my agonizing losses stop me from continuing the journey. I have such a greater respect and appreciation for all women out there who have endured similar struggles, and I use my experiences of my journey to help them get to their destination of motherhood.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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.
My dream has always been to have an opportunity to sit side by side with Oprah Winfrey, as she epitomizes what I envision our true world leaders should be. Oprah has become a symbol of success bundled with compassion, empathy and listening, who uses her abilities to help make this world a kinder place to live in.
There are a handful of quotes of hers that I have posted in my home office and that I use as reminders to myself:
“I trust that everything happens for a reason, even when we’re not wise enough to see it.”
“You CAN have it all. You just can’t have it all at once.”
Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.”
“Turn your wounds into wisdom.”
“Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire. This is your moment. Own it.”