Mel is the Co-Founder/COO of Mirza, a femtech meets fintech company on a mission to close the gender pay gap. After graduating from UVA, Mel launched a career focused on building fast growth companies. From launching and scaling sales territories in Europe, to making college education more accessible, to managing a luxury real estate portfolio, Mel fell in love with the process of building a concept from the ground up. A lifelong ideator, Mel had launched side hustles and passion projects while working, but it was during her time at London Business School that she realized she wanted to go all in on her own business. Mirza is her second company and is the manifestation of her passion for equitable access for all womxn and the desire to operate in the social impact space.
Q: How did you come up with your business idea?
This past winter, I had started doing a lot of research into menopause and was truly shocked at how little I knew about my own body and the various changes it will go through. As I kept researching, I realized how little most women know about our bodies and how those changes impact so many other aspects of our lives. One day in January, my now co-founder, Siran, and I were talking about this research and realized that women think about our bodies and careers in separate tracks; we don’t think about how they interplay. However, motherhood is directly correlated to the gender pay gap - we can’t not think about them together. Mirza was born out of a mission to close the gender pay gap by tackling the motherhood penalty and the structures and barriers that keep women from returning to work after having children., We’re building a financial strategist for future parents, because we want men to be involved as well.
Q: What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
My career path has been what some would consider “non-traditional.” After I graduated from UVA, I started off working in sports marketing at Golf Digest Magazine. After being laid off, I went to work for a travel startup in Barcelona, worked in a James Beard Restaurant in Boston, tried my hand at an education startup, then worked for a different luxury travel startup in Denver before moving to London to go to London Business School. (Whew!) I’d planned to get my MBA as a mechanism to join a large corporate and finally “build a career” for myself, but turns out I can’t quit entrepreneurship and startups!
While I was at London Business School, I launched a sleep-focused CBD company with another friend from school. We were both Americans thinking that CBD would cross over to London and wanted to take advantage of the market opportunity. It was a great learning experience! I think we built a great brand story and products, but there are so many things I would have done differently; marketing, fundraising, etc. I am incredibly grateful that I learned so much working on something that I wasn’t as particularly passionate about before I got to Mirza.
Q: What do you think are the most common mistakes novice entrepreneurs make? How can they avoid making them?
From my experience, the single biggest mistake I’ve seen is that novice entrepreneurs don’t ask the right questions to validate their concept. When you first start telling people about your idea, it’s very easy to sell them on why it’s so important and skip all of the questions that determine if there’s actually a need for your product in the first place. To counter this, I would say ask all the questions you can without once mentioning your idea, then see if your solution is valid. And be as open as you can to adapting your product based on your research. Confirmation bias is real! So use any contradictory or constructive feedback to pivot when you need to and build something people will use.
Q: In your opinion, what's the most effective way to close the gender pay gap?
Siran (my incredible co-founder, who spoke with Data Bird previously) talked about how important policy change is, and I couldn’t agree more. There are multiple institutions and structures at play that prevent women from reaching equal pay. Additionally, on the other side is a need for a vast cultural shift in which we (finally!) move away from this concept of a nuclear family, with men as breadwinners and women as caretakers. Now more than ever, we see that there are many different variations of what a family looks like; a single parent, two moms, co-parenting, that are all happy and successful, and it’s on us as a culture to educate ourselves on what families look like now and how we can support all of them. A big part of what we want to do at Mirza we call “social lobbying” - building up our brand and content to challenge these norms and support this cultural shift. We’re currently working on a podcast on Fatherhood to be released this fall, and I am excited to see what new conversations that will originate.
Q: Do you think luck played a role in the success of Mirza?
I had a college boyfriend who always used to say, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” and I think that with Mirza, we’ve hit a jackpot in that we’re both lucky AND good. So much of my own personal luck is from the privilege and access I’ve had growing up, and parents who were financially able to support me in many of my capricious career choices before I went to business school. Even the way that I met Siran - her husband was a co-best man with one of my flatmates - feels so serendipitous. And I still want to pinch myself working with Siran every day; she is by far one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I couldn’t be luckier that she is “my person” in this endeavor.
I think that part of what makes Mirza good is that we are tackling a problem that needs to be solved. The benefits of closing the gender pay gap and bringing more women into the paid economy are endless, and there is a huge lack of resources for individuals on how to navigate these big life decisions. Our mission has drawn people to us, like our CTO, Dr. Robert Elliott Smith, who is equally passionate about gender equality. The Famtech industry is full of other founders on similar missions, and when you’re working in the social impact space, you will attract incredible, motivated people who also want to make a difference.
Q: What are your goals for the future?
Personally? I’d like to get back to fluency in French and Spanish, and learn more songs on my keyboard (impulse quarantine purchase).
Professionally? Leverage the data and community of Mirza to the point where the US mandates paid parental leave at a federal level. The fact that the US is the only OECD country to not have mandated paid maternity leave is one of the more embarrassing stats about our country and I refuse to quit until we’ve accomplished that.
Q: If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
If you’d asked me this four years ago, I would have said that I would never have left New York City after being laid off and would have found a role that projected me into a specific career path. I’ve always wanted to be successful - my superlative in high school was most determined - and my definition of success was running a global empire before 30 (LOL). I had a lot of shame around the fact that my career path was full of lateral moves while I watched friends accelerate past me.
As I’ve grown up, however, I’ve both redefined success and appreciated more and more the way that I got to where I am. My breadth of experience has made me highly adaptable, autonomous, and an incredible networker. Success is now “what impact will I have on the world and how can I make it better?” Don’t get me wrong, I would love for Mirza to become global, but in the way that we can help the most women and make the most difference.
Q: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
My first manager at Inspirato, Ashlee Collins, is the best example of how I want to be as a manager now. When I first started, she gave me complete autonomy to run a near-million dollar budget and build out an entire retail operation, even though I hadn’t had experience doing that before. Her trust in me to do the work and ask for help when I needed it was so empowering and made me want to work as hard as I could to do it right.
She also emphasized that I should never be afraid of titles. The message was always - reach out to the people who need to make these decisions and don’t worry about semantics or hierarchy - you are just as worthy of their time as they are of yours. I think that message, especially for women, is so important.
Q: What are your favorite books?
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi have both had a profound impact on me and the way that I view race in America, especially as a white cis woman. They should be required reading. I love anything by Michael Lewis, and would highly recommend that people read The Fifth Risk, especially prior to November.
My guilty pleasure lately has been young adult dystopian fantasy for the escape, although some of the dystopia is unfortunately feeling more and more real. Sarah J. Maas writes empowered, strong female characters that I love. And honestly Harry Potter will always be on this list for me because I grew up with it and love the story, although J.K. Rowling and her transphobia are so horrifying that it taints the magic.
Q: What's your advice for female founders who are just starting out?
To echo Siran, ask for help! Message people on LinkedIn, ask for connections - people love to talk about themselves, and are more willing to give 15 minutes of their time than you think. Also, know your own personal boundaries, and don’t be afraid to say no. I think that in a fundraising landscape especially, women get so little funding that it can be tempting to take whatever comes at you, but knowing your own value and advocating for your business is important. It’s ok to turn down opportunities that don’t meet your values. Lastly, celebrate your wins! The road as a founder is HILLY and there will be low days that will hit hard. Hold on to those successes! And find a support system that you can share it with. It can be really lonely to be a solo founder and hard to explain why one email made your day - find someone who gets it. Even if you want to message me and tell me all about it, I would love to celebrate with you!