Melissa Pierce is a Chicago filmmaker and serial entrepreneur. She is the founder of the 600 member local women’s computer programming group, Chicago Women Developers (CWDevs), the founder and organizer of the Pitch Refinery Conference, Co-founder of the forthcoming search engine Where Are the Women, and the COO of Chicago’s newest fashion/tech company Everpurse. In addition to her entrepreneurial adventures, Melissa produced and directed an award winning documentary entitled Life in Perpetual Beta, which was released in 2010.
Melissa, welcome to Capital Network Magazine. We’re looking forward to getting to know you a little better. Would you share something about yourself that can’t be found in your public bio?
I love sleep, and don’t get nearly enough of it.
Tell us about Life in Perpetual Beta, the documentary that you produced. What was your inspiration behind it and were you able to accomplish what you set out to do?
Life in Perpetual Beta was a film project I did a few years ago that focused on asking tech entrepreneurs philosophical questions about social change. I set out to make a film about what it was that was making it so easy to “work by your own rules” and I found it was in large part due to the technological advances of these last few decades. I didn’t have a background in film, so I also made the fact that I was making it up as I went along a theme in the film. I think that aspect of it really resonated with people, and that’s why it had such a great community around it. People were very supportive of me and the project when I was making it, teaching me how to edit, suggesting interviewees, even going so far as to buy plane tickets for me to my next set of interviews. I guess you could say the making of Life in Perpetual Beta was crowd-sourced before crowd-sourcing was a thing. Completing and showing the film at festivals was bittersweet for me, because that meant the adventure was over, but oh man, what an adventure. I highly recommend throwing yourself 110% into doing something you have no idea how to do. It was an incredible experience for me.
You’re involved in a few different projects and companies. Tell us about some of them and what attracted you to them.
My husband would tell you that my greatest flaw and feature is that I like to solve small problems with big ideas, and one big idea is never enough. Most of the time, I start something just because I want to learn about it or how to do it. Life in Perpetual Beta was like that for me. When I wanted to learn to program I organized a group for women interested in, and in tech to learn from one another instead of just learning the little bit of PHP on my own. We built CWDevs over 2 year ago, and we’re now an organization of over 600 women in Chicago. We offer classes, host events, and support one another in all things technical. Pitch Refinery started the same way, I needed to learn to pitch not only investors, but the media and my clients, so I flew in speakers, got sponsors, attracted attendees and hosted a two day conference.
I also like working on passion projects like the Where Are the Women database. I don’t think there are enough women getting credit for being great leaders, so I’m busily building a database of women in strong leadership roles. I’m working on developing a scorecard that changes the way we even measure leadership effectiveness, because as women step into and create these new leadership roles, they bring new skill sets to the table, and there is no metric for some of those nuances yet. I’m pretty excited to figure all that out and get the site up and running.
I’m also working with the local Chicago fashion/tech company called Everpurse. Everpurse is a women’s handbag that charges a smartphone in one of its inner pockets. I was originally just on the advisory board and they asked if I could be the Interim VP of Operations for a few months. Since that time, I’ve taken on the more permanent role of COO. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to bring a tangible product to market and to work with such a brilliant team.
What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now as a female entrepreneur?
As a female entrepreneur, I would say the biggest challenge I face is consciously having to decide whether or not the choices I make in my company today will have a positive impact on the women in my position tomorrow. I have to own that and take responsibility for that. It’s not exactly deciding how long or short my skirt needs to be for a particular meeting, or how I have to negotiate differently in a room full of men vs. a room full of women, it is truly, at the end of the day, did I do good for my company, and did I do something that is going to make it easier for the women who come up after me to succeed. That’s the stuff that keeps me up at night.
In your opinion, what are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
The top three skills an entrepreneur needs are, drive, patience, and tenacity. Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster, and it can throw you for a lot of loops, you just gotta hang on.
Outline your typical day.
Oof, I wake up at 6am to my kids making fart jokes, take them to school, check my mail on the train, work out, and am in my office by 10am. I work with the Everpurse team until 5, go home, have dinner and fun with the family, put them to bed, then I’m back to work on everything until about 11pm. It looks like drudgery when I write it out that way, but it works for me.
What has been your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
Hmm, my biggest failure was probably the first Pitch Refinery conference, the event itself was great, and it’ll happen again. But I thought I could make the whole thing work on my own, and it was really too big a job for me at the time, and cost me a lot of money and grief. I learned that despite all that I have done and aspire to do, having a team is crucial not only to the success of a project, but to my sanity. If it weren’t for the college students who volunteered, I would have been sunk.
What companies or entrepreneurs do you admire the most and why?
At the moment I’m pretty impressed with Lauren Ackerman, still a student at Northwestern, she is just so excited to be alive, doesn’t give up, and is curious about every aspect of doing business. She runs a pretty successful consulting business on the side. I cannot wait to see where her tenacity takes her.
If you could have one super power, what would it be?
I’d like to teleport from place to place. Think of how much longer I could sleep in if I didn’t have that hour commute back and forth to work everyday!
What’s next for you?
I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, life’s just getting exciting! CWDevs is going to grow and partner with local tech companies to get more women in their pipeline. Everpurse is going to ship its first products to market. Where Are the Women is hopefully going to launch and help change the way we think about who and what leaders are.
Sell our readers on why we should follow you on twitter.
You should follow me on twitter because I don’t always talk about entrepreneurship, and never mention ROI unless it’s sarcasm.
Finallly, if you were conducting this interview, what is a question you would have asked yourself?
How many ventures have you started that you realized weren’t the right thing? How do you know what’s right?
I hatch a new plan daily, and have notebooks filled with great ideas. I know if one is a good one if it just doesn’t leave me alone. At the moment I have 7 projects that I’m toying with building, I work on them when they’re interesting and don’t when they’re not. The good ones are usually the ones that I come back to week after week.
Where are you located?