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Female Disruptors: Melinda Haughey Of Proxi On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

“Write it down” — I’m one of those people who carries around a lot of ideas in my head all the time. I can’t do anything without analyzing what is going on and taking mental notes. When I first started Proxi, this habit was fine, though the mental notepad got really really long. The challenge came, though, when we started hiring our first developers and team members. As you can imagine, carrying around all the visions for the company in my head wasn’t smart when working with a team. With the encouragement of a mentor, I started writing down as much as I could — trying to get all of those ideas and knowledge out of my head. It is still a skill that I have to practice and get better at, but I see the value already from using these written notes to make sure everyone is on the same page.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melinda Haughey of Proxi.

Melinda is a former U.S. intelligence professional, successful researcher, and CEO of fast growing startup, Proxi. She uses her expertise in geospatial visualization, online communities, and collaboration to inform the direction of Proxi, mentor other founders, and drive research in human-computer interaction forward. Melinda received an engineering degree at Texas A&M and is a PhD candidate in the college of engineering at the University of Washington.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

It has been quite a career journey to becoming the CEO of Proxi. I grew up in the Houston area and then earned a Chemical Engineering degree from Texas A&M. While pursuing that degree, I worked on some data analysis projects and found that I was actually more passionate about data analytics and visualization than chemical engineering! Then, while I was finishing my degree, I was recruited into the U.S. Intelligence community. I spent a lot of time working in dark rooms doing intelligence analysis both as a direct employee and later a contractor. Many of the tools and visualizations I was building were geospatial and I became fascinated with how the technology I was building would be used and perceived by others, especially people in the field. One day, someone told me about the field of user experience research, and it was exactly what I was getting excited about! I started thinking about ways that I could work more in this area, yet not lose all the experience and knowledge I had built up to date.

And then the 2016 elections happened. As someone who has always been active on social media and involved in the national security space, I began to worry about growing online radicalization. Around this time, I heard Professor Kate Starbird talking on NPR. She was talking about her study of online communities, misinformation, and how user experience on social media platforms could be contributing to the radicalization. I was fascinated–and within months found myself at the University of Washington working under Dr. Starbird to get my PhD.

During this time, I studied online communities, especially the ways that information was shared across platforms. I also spent a lot of time working with leading tech journalists, helping them understand what was happening on social media since they didn’t have ways to collect and analyze data en masse. It was these skills — understanding online communities, data visualization, and user experience — that helped form the social element of Proxi.

Fast forward to Fall of 2020: many people in my Seattle neighborhood were looking for safe ways to trick-or-treat. I cobbled together some existing tools and built a crowdsourced map so that parents could easily see homes that were providing safe Halloween experiences. The map went viral, even being featured on Good Morning America. I could see there was a need for a better tool to build collaborative, community centered maps–and realized I may be just the person to solve this problem.

However, I did need help. That’s when I called my longtime friend Chelsey Roney. She was a serial entrepreneur who successfully built and sold a SaaS business. In short, she understood the business side of founding a startup. Proxi was born! We built out a prototype in less than 6 months. Since the launch we have found time and again that this tool was really addressing a need with local communities, experts and influencers.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Maps are an intrinsic and an essential part of our digital lives, helping us navigate the world and develop spatial awareness. Yet the mapping technology space is dominated by a handful of incumbents whose technology is difficult to customize and use by everyday people. By putting the power to make easy maps in the hands of parents, business owners, and local guides–all with the goal of making it easy for everyone to decide where to go and what to do with trusted recommendations at their fingertips.

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?

When we first started we weren’t yet sure how important Proxi would be to local communities. We had successfully made a made in our hometown of Seattle that went viral, but for our next map we wanted to go national! We decided to build a map of Christmas lights…across the entire country.

We spent an embarrassing amount of hours reading about holiday happenings in the U.S. We were manually adding hundreds of points to our maps each day to try to make it look like people were using it all over the country. Though this map only went viral in the Seattle area — not nationally, we sure did know a lot about holiday light shows!

But more importantly, we learned that knowledge is local. A national Christmas lights map was not going to be as trusted as something built by your local city, community or neighborhood. From then on we became passionate about putting the power to make maps into the hands of local leaders.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Our first mentor, Mona Akmal, was essential to Proxi becoming a reality. After Chelsey and I had finished up our proof-of-concept prototype, we were still hesitant about becoming a real company. Mona is a successful, inspiring CEO here in Seattle and she offered us some unexpected advice. In our first meeting, instead of having us walk her through the business model, the product, etc. she instructed us to look inward. She told us to envision where we would be in 10 years. What we would do for fun, how would we spend our day, and what would people know us for? Chelsey and I separated for a week and came back to share our visions with one another. What became clear is that we both had massive visions for our future. Among other things, we wanted to be supporting and investing in women founders. We knew to reach that vision, we had to really lean in and start now. Instead of Mona explicitly telling us to “go for it,” she allowed us to inspire ourselves.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

As someone who has spent the past three years taking classes on social science, I’m keenly aware that disruption doesn’t always mean success. Disrupting can be good when the existing solutions are built by organizations who don’t show a propensity to change and evolve with their consumers. We feel that’s going on in the mapping space right now. Our primary competitor hasn’t added features in years. Due to the sheer size of the organization, this competitor is the go-to choice for making interactive maps today. We are able to disrupt because we understand our users and what they need when it comes to mapping. We’re focusing on making the best product possible for them and their communities.

I think disrupting can be negative when it comes solely from a place of monetization, without regard for the community they are serving. When anyone starts a pitch by saying, “Look at this amazing size market, we’re going to make money here,” it turns me off. Because you know that they are going into this venture solely with dollar signs in their eyes. They may disrupt with technology, but without actually understanding the community and their needs they could actually be hurting existing processes that work well without technology.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Just Launch it” — When we were first building Proxi, I was the one with the product and user experience expertise. I had spent so much time thinking about and perfecting how to make the website as beautiful as possible. I kept fixing and iterating over and over. At one point, my co-founder Chelsey basically said that we need to “Just launch it.” And we did. It was painful to me because I knew it wasn’t perfect and that there were a few bugs. But she was totally right — we needed to get it out into the world to make sure what we were building was actually the solution to a problem that people were facing.

“Your Story Matters” — When I first started talking to people about Proxi, I would start with my story about the neighborhood trick-or-treat map that I had built. It was a really awesome story, but we started hitting roadblocks with investors or friends who thought the vision Chelsey and I had was too small or just for local parents. I thought if we stopped telling this origin story, and instead leaned into my geospatial expertise, I would be more successful. I wasn’t. What I found was that I needed to lean into my story even more to describe what I had learned from our experience and how it was directly relevant for the bigger vision for Proxi. A mentor told me that my personal story matters, and leaning into it, instead of out of it, is where I’ll connect with people the most.

“Write it down” — I’m one of those people who carries around a lot of ideas in my head all the time. I can’t do anything without analyzing what is going on and taking mental notes. When I first started Proxi, this habit was fine, though the mental notepad got really really long. The challenge came, though, when we started hiring our first developers and team members. As you can imagine, carrying around all the visions for the company in my head wasn’t smart when working with a team. With the encouragement of a mentor, I started writing down as much as I could — trying to get all of those ideas and knowledge out of my head. It is still a skill that I have to practice and get better at, but I see the value already from using these written notes to make sure everyone is on the same page.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Next, we are building out ways for local experts and content creators to reap value from their maps. We’re helping them with advertising and affiliate linking. Their knowledge and experience is more valuable and more trusted than sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and we want to make sure they are compensated for that.

We’re also building out better ways for consumers to interact with these maps, like saving, layering and sharing the maps so they have a personal guide at their fingertips.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

At the moment, funding and childcare are foremost on my mind. The vast majority of the funders out there are men. Yet we know that women often do the most planning for what they will do on weekends and on trips. Women are the ones who lean into local guides and expertise the most, often as part of the invisible labor that they do around the house. This means that some men may not see the value that we are bringing to consumers.

The second is childcare. We know how much damage the pandemic has done to women. As I answer this, our three full-time team leads are dealing with no childcare due to COVID. My daycare is closed because of cases and Chelsey’s nanny has COVID. We know that women often do the majority of work picking up that slack.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

When we were first starting Proxi I discovered the StartUp podcast which walks through the experience of starting Gimlet. I actually was listening to the podcast at the same time as I was going through my first fundraising attempt with Proxi (then Map Your Idea). I think the podcast did a really good job of normalizing and making apparent some of the invisible challenges of starting a company. I would encourage anyone who’s thinking they might go on this company building path to listen to season one. One of the best parts about it was listening to the host totally botch their first pitch with a VC investor. It was so relatable.

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. :-)

I really wish that we could find ways for people to better connect and know their local physical communities that keeps what’s good about social media–and resets all the bad. There’s a lot of good that’s come from online communities, but there’s nothing quite like the physical feeling of spatial belonging. (Though I know that’s a lot harder for a lot of people now.) I wish there was a way to create a stronger sense of spatial & neighborhood community. I want to find ways to augment the progress that we’ve made in online communities with in real life experiences and recommendations that empower local communities, local businesses, and local charities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I can’t remember where I first heard it, but at one point I had heard the quote “Become comfortable with discomfort” and it has stuck with me for many years. As you can tell from my background, I’ve spent much of my adult life switching professions and throwing myself into new challenges. Sometimes this can be frustrating, and I think “What’s wrong with me that I can’t just chill for a moment?” But it is also what has made me successful and helped me develop into the expert that I am today. If I’m not drowning in what I need to learn next, then I know that I’m not pushing myself enough. I truly believe that the second you stop being willing to be a beginner at something is the moment that you stop learning and growing.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on line on Twitter @MelindaMcClure and you can follow proxi on Instagram at @proxico. We’d love for you to head to our website and make your own map for your community or local area. I think you’ll love it!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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