I was greeted with a dazzling, warm smile when I logged into my Zoom meeting with Melina. While we spoke virtually à la pandemic style, I can only imagine how vibrant this woman is in person.
Melina Flabiano’s role as Omnichannel Consultant at Estée Lauder is anything but simple: from beginning her new role during a pandemic, to extending her arms to reach brands across the world, Melina’s main focus is catering to the capabilities of the in-store and online customer, especially during these unprecedented times.
Before working for Estée Lauder, Melina dipped her toes into a handful of different career pursuits. She previously worked as a management consultant at Mckinsey & Company, as Senior Strategy Analyst at Pandora A/S, and she even has an MBA in Entrepreneurship and Management Operations from The Wharton School. It is no surprise then that Melina also has a strong entrepreneurial spirit; a few of her startups include Dreamers & Doers, Keaton, and Curious Commerce.
Speaking with Melina was eye opening in many ways, but mostly due to the fact that she has an infectious, self-starter personality. Hearing her career journey is certainly inspiring for a young woman of commerce myself, and I know it will be for you, too.
“Specifically with the pandemic, there's a lot of concern around how customers coming into the store can feel safe. How can we continue to leverage the store footprint, but in ways that make sense now that people aren't like browsing them all like they once did?”
Those are the big questions that Melina tackles on a daily basis at Estée Lauder. The main project she works on is enabling Estee Lauder brands to roll out the buy online/pickup in store system, which has become about 10x more popular as of late. Additionally, testing out same-day-delivery is another project that has been a customer experience gamechanger:
“[Right now,] it's not really a customer expectation quite yet to have a courier service, but through partnerships with, say, Postmates, you can order the things on our site and then get them delivered in two hours. It’s really great for last minute holiday shoppers or people who are wanting contactless shopping.”
Melina’s role centers on the customer’s positive experience shopping online and in-store. Her passion for human connectivity and operations is deeply ingrained in her professional and passion pursuits– starting at the onset of her career journey:
“At McKinsey, I fell in love with consumer and retail sort of by chance. The human connection of having a physical product, whether it's grocery stores or fashion, etc, really understanding the human at the end of the transaction has always been interesting to me. When I took my next role, it was also in strategy at Pandora jewelry; a brand that has such a loyal customer base, that's a phase of transition as malls are reshaping their role.
...understanding the human at the end of the transaction has always been interesting to me.
“As I got deeper into my role there, I started raising my hand for as many opportunities as I could. Just trying to understand how things actually get done suits my personality– I am a little type A, so I found a lot of joy and just like having a huge checklist of things and helping the team get through it. Those two roles, plus my MBA at Wharton and my startup foray, were really a good mix for this new Estée role, which is very ops focused, but has a little strategy component as well.”
Coupled with her e-commerce start-up experience and insight on Shopify versus big corporate systems, Melina is able to package all of her former career experience and channel it into her current omnichannel role.
“Something that motivated me more when I was younger was achieving a certain title by a certain time, because for my generation and a lot of people, you feel like your job is your whole identity. If you can say ‘I'm a VP, I'm a director, I'm a C-suite person,’ then you get a lot of motivation I guess from that.”
As Melina learned, a title only carries so much weight:
“I've realized in my career that it's less about, ‘am I hitting a certain title at a certain time?’ and it’s way more about growth, and ‘am I learning something cool and building the skills I want to be building?’ and just knowing that [titles and accomplishments] will come when [they] come.”
With this in her back pocket, Melina has calibrated her career growth with the help of a few notes she’s made as she’s transitioned from role to role– especially roles in which she was one of the only women.
One: “Find your authentic leadership style. I think when I was starting my career, I didn't really know what a ‘business professional’ really meant. You sort of mirror the people around you, but I was in a very male-heavy organization, so those were the models I had to go off of. When I started having mentors, and even peer mentors from whom I saw different leadership styles, regardless of gender, I felt I could have a style that was playing to my strengths, even if it wasn't necessarily what one pictures as a corporate style.”
I would encourage young people coming up to play around with their own style and see what works.
Two: “I try not to take myself too seriously. I think the stereotype when you're a young professional is you have to be very buttoned up. If people are going to take you seriously at work, I would encourage young people coming up to play around with their own style and see what works.
Starting your own business is no small feat: you need an idea with traction, some support, and a whole lot of spirit (and a few things in between). Melina checks all of those boxes with her start up pursuits, but as she told me, timing sometimes just isn’t right– and that’s ok. Melina has a true start up attitude; you learn from every experience, even if ideas don’t fully come to fruition, just yet:
“I had been working on this business concept called Keaton, and it's essentially a women's professional wear brand. So just literally the worst thing to be working on. Every tweet is like, ‘I'm wearing sweatpants. Isn't that awesome?’ And I'm like, okay....”
“What really motivated me about the concept was helping to be a resource as a brand for young professional women coming up– not only is there a lot of uncertainty about how to present yourself with what you wear, but I think women across lots of different careers early on are facing similar challenges and starting a sort of community around that.
“What it came to was it just felt like not the right time to double down on apparel. It's one of those tough situations because I don't think of myself as a quitter, and I'm very perseverant. That's the way that we're taught to view success; but I'm also thinking, there's opportunity costs here. I could be a founder who starts my big business when I'm 40, when I'm more financially secure because I took this time to build my career in a different way. There's a balance, and I think the right answer as I came to it wasn't as clear cut as ‘I'm just gonna push forward indefinitely on this.’ It just felt like the opportunity and timing wasn't right. So, I'm gonna see where things shake out in a year or so.”
In the meantime, “I really anchored on a role [at Estée Lauder] that plays to my strengths of having both a strategy and operating side. And, I've gotten a lot of joy out of writing my newsletter and putting my thoughts out there more– it's been really rewarding because it leads to opportunities like this and talking to lots of cool founders.
Where some opportunities leave the door slightly ajar, others are open doors waiting to be stepped through. One of those open doors is Curious Commerce, a publication centered on trends within the eCommerce/consumer world, from Melina’s experienced perspective:
“I started writing Curious Commerce for two reasons: I find writing a useful exercise for organizing my thinking, and as I approached my next career step I took the time to reflect on what trends interested me, and why they were interesting. I read a lot of great writing from folks in branding, and I thought my perspective– as an operator with startup experience and larger corporate experience– would be a unique addition to the conversation.
“I really tried to just think about if I'm excited to do my job most days. I think there's this idea that you have to jump out of bed at 6:00 AM and be so pumped to go to work if you are ‘successful or passionate’, but everyone has days where they don't want to do that.
“So, I just try to say the average of how I'm feeling. Are these projects cool? Am I learning something? I'd say learning and being challenged is a big piece of success. Do I like the people I'm surrounding myself with? Do I feel like I have time for the other parts of my life that are important if I'm checking all those boxes? I think that's pretty good.
I've realized in my career that it's less about, ‘am I hitting a certain title at a certain time?’ and it’s way more about growth, and ‘am I learning something cool and building the skills I want to be building?'
“This is probably the first time in my career where I haven't had such a set of steps: when I was working toward my MBA, I was always like, okay, I want to make sure I'm getting X, Y, and Z experiences under my belt. Then post MBA working on the startup concept, I had sales targets and fundraising goals for myself. When things kind of went off the rails, I was like, okay, what is a good next step?”
While steps certainly get you places, Melina now realizes that they don’t always have to be as clean-cut as they might seem. Sometimes, making the most of your situation is as constructive as earning a certain title.
“In the longer-term future, who knows…[my career] could be something more startup oriented again. But, I also feel like in my current role, I think maybe this is also career advice: you can carve out entrepreneurial niches for yourself. It's not everyone's ability to have the financial hit of being a startup founder. I think I had a lot of privilege to get that chance, but you can still get joy and a feeling of ownership from a corporate role, especially if you find one that gives you clear projects to own.
“So, I think having the ability to own my own projects and see them forward and help them grow and be successful over the next year is probably my current big focus.”
As she’s redefined the steps towards advancement in her career, Melina has also empowered herself to tackle whatever is thrown her way, even if it’s something she is not initially familiar with. Her “entrepreneurial niche” within her current role helps flex her self starter muscle; a muscle that has the strength to think outside of the box and trust one’s ability to effectively problem solve.
“One big thing was just learning to trust myself more to learn as I go, and that will serve me in any career. Just the fact that I don't know that much about incorporating a business or like digital marketing on Instagram, or like developing a prototype of a garment [doesn’t matter], but all of that stuff is very learnable.
“Prior, when I was in a more corporate beginning of my career, you have this sense of, okay, first you are in this apprentice phase, you learn a specific skill. Then you apply that skill and get better at that skill.
“It's nice to have the attitude of whatever is thrown at me, I can figure it out. And I may not know all the answers, but that's fine. And then, going back to management, the authentic leadership style has helped me in this new role because I'm starting remotely. It's a hugely complex corporate system. I haven't really met anyone in real life, but just being able to trust myself to figure out answers to problems.
“In the worst cases, I don't know everything, which is fun.”
In the worst cases, I don't know everything, which is fun.