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Female Founders: Melissa Bentivoglio On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. In my business, I am constantly learning and iterating and re-evaluating the strategy, operations and the business. As the CEO, there is a lot of pressure to be the strategic innovator, visionary and exhibit leadership. As Socrates poetically said “ True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves and the world around us”.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Bentivoglio.

Melissa Bentivoglio was immersed in the world of elite classical ballet training and competitive dancing from a young age until University. While healing from a sports related injury, Pilates was prescribed for rehabilitation. In 2018, Melissa designed her own custom reformer which eventually went into her boutique fitness studio, Frame Fitness, located in the heart of Toronto, which opened February 2020.

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?

Throughout the majority of my young life into my emerging adulthood, I was dedicated to elite classical ballet training and competitive dancing. While healing from a sports related injury, Pilates was suggested to myself for rehabilitation. I saw it as a natural evolution to my life as a dancer. This drove my deep dive into Pilates instruction and fitness training. I became a teacher in Toronto’s top studios for over a decade and developed a robust private client roster of professional athletes and top executives. In early 2018 my focus shifted from fitness training to product design. I embarked on the journey of industrial design and prototyping whilst renovating and designing a fully bespoke brick and mortar boutique studio in the heart of Rosedale, Toronto. Frame Fitness opened February 2020 with my custom “ Frame By Melissa” studio reformers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

​​The most interesting story that has happened to me is actually starting the company. It was very serendipitous. I had been working for two years toward designing my own proprietary Pilates reformer, while concurrently building out my brick and mortar space. After 24 long months, my studio was finally open. I had started to sell out classes, and the energy within the studio was infectious. Six short weeks later, the pandemic happened and my studio was forced to close its doors. Although devastated as a result of the forced closure, those first few weeks of the pandemic created an opportunity for me to spend quality time with my three kids and allowed my creative juices to flow. I’m not a big TV watcher, so when my three kids were asleep at night, my seldomly idle mind was permitted to wander back to an idea I had had while designing my first reformer. At the time I had completed my first reformer design, I was 9 months pregnant and did not have the mental bandwidth to fully explore the proof of concept which was ignited as a result of becoming so inundated with work and preparation to open my own studio, that I was unable to train my private clients, a few of which had reformers in their homes but still required me to instruct them.

This was the start of a journey in which I partnered with my husband, while we were both at home in quarantine together, uprooted my three children and moved to another country

(Toronto to LA) to start a business during a global pandemic.

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?

I am not sure how funny the “mistake” was, but it was a valuable lesson I learned at the inception of forming Frame Fitness. Amidst the earlier days of seed fundraising, a potential investor waited until I finished my lengthy pitch to tell me that even though the concept had relevant market value, a female mother of three without prior CEO experience would not be able to lead a company of this magnitude (given the hypergrowth in the competitive landscape and the market comparables that we would be going up against). I became very combative and tried to substantiate my value. This unfavorable perception of me could have negatively impacted my confidence and my ability to raise capital but instead I focused on my affirmations and my unwavering belief that I could do anything. Two months later and one hundred hours of pitching, I completed a successful seed raise. I have now learned that if you are trying too hard to persuade a potential investor of your value,or anyone for that matter- it’s the wrong fit. You can’t persuade people who won’t listen.

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?

My mom has been instrumental in assisting me in fulfilling my passions and dreams from a very young age. Her unwavering support from the time I was a determined eight-year-old entering dance competitions to moving to another country with my husband and I to help raise our three children while I was working 15 hour days to launch this company -would NOT be possible without her. Lee, my partner in life and this new venture has also helped me achieve a great deal of early ‘subjective’ success. His positive attitude is a nice compliment to my competitive type A personality. Furthermore, he is innately gifted at developing and maintaining a far reaching and vast professional network which has proven invaluable in this business.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Less than 2.3% of VC money in the U.S. last year went to female-led startups. A substantive decrease from 2.8% the year prior. Persisting gender inequality is a very complex social matter. Similar to any oppressed group, there are deeply challenging systemic barriers holding women back from achieving gender parity in positions of power. Societal norms and institutional laws all play a role, contributing to this disparity. Women were and remain disproportionately affected by the socioeconomic fallout of the pandemic. Moreover, working women are more likely to take on all familial and household responsibilities. According to Forbes Women, working mothers are eight times more likely to look after a sick child. This uneven distribution of unpaid work contributes to the “ double burden” that women routinely experience.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

First and foremost, laying the groundwork for the youth, who are our future. If gender equality is tacitly instilled at a young age, representing the norm, it will facilitate and foster a gender balanced strategy. In addition, we must change the narrative and start to foster the confidence in young women to believe that they can be leaders and entrepreneurs. Creating a home environment which fosters egalitarian modeling will help to reinforce the gender balanced strategy. It is also so important to make funding more accessible to women given that 97.7 % of institutional money is given to men. As a women-led company, I recently requested from a headhunter that I wanted “MORE women applicants,” so far I have received one.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

I’m biased as a strong female personality, but I believe that women’s strength and resilience are just some of the many reasons as to why women are natural innovators. Women in general have the propensity to be very intuitive beings and are very focused on understanding their teams and consumers. Women bring unique perspectives and viewpoints to revolutionize products and industries. Most concisely, more female founders will allow us to get closer to achieving gender parity and thus sustainable economic growth. More women should become founders because women-led startups employ more women, and when considered as a group, are more likely to succeed, with higher dollar-for-dollar returns on investment.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

The founder’s trap. I find it exceedingly frustrating when warned about the myth that founders become incapable of delegating and that they must do everything themselves. While elements of that resonate, particularly when a startup is in its infancy, the execution of the business plan is essential to success and that requires a team.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to seek a “regular job” as an employee vs. entrepreneurship. If I had listened to the peripheral perspective, I would not have raised a $5M seed round with fitness veterans. Statistically speaking, start-ups have a disproportionately high failure rate. A successful founder has a plethora of traits that correlate to success, but the absolute most critical traits are resilience, a strong sense of self (because you will be told YOU can’t do it more times than not), adaptability, and the ability to anticipate and thus mitigate as much risk as possible. Lastly, an unwavering belief that you are doing something meaningful and impactful. When someone is extremely passionate, there is no stopping that person.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Trust your gut instinct. That intrinsic feeling is evoking emotion for a reason, trust your intuition.

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. In my business, I am constantly learning and iterating and re-evaluating the strategy, operations and the business. As the CEO, there is a lot of pressure to be the strategic innovator, visionary and exhibit leadership. As Socrates poetically said “ True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves and the world around us”.

Allow yourself to say no! As a CEO and business starter, it is important to have a clear, passionate vision. If something comes your way that deviates from that vision, it is okay to say no! Only you know what your vision is, and you should never let anyone change that.

Make sure to instill balance into your life. With the digital and work from home world we live in, it can be very easy to slump into work mode 24/7. Eventually you will run out of energy and focus, which can only hurt you in the long run. Be sure to continue to work on yourself and a work-life balance, mental, physical and emotional health should always be a top priority.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help! When you start your own business, it feels like your baby, and can be difficult to allow others to get involved. However, asking trustworthy people for advice and help may lead you down a stronger road than you thought.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I am still on my journey to success, but I vehemently believe that living in a conscious world, where women-led companies are the norm, health is a priority and conscious consumption exists, will make the world a better place. As I continue to evolve my platform, I would like to focus on achieving gender parity, and continue to educate and draw awareness to our subconscious role in perpetuating societal inequalities.

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 like to inspire a movement where women say no to the endless pursuit of physical perfection. Say NO to FaceTune and the filters that literally make you unrecognizable to yourself. Not being able to post a photo without using a filter or airbrushing it, is extremely harmful to a woman’s self esteem, even if this harm is of insidious nature. It is a terrifying thought that many women can’t leave the house without makeup or post a photo that hasn’t been digitally altered and airbrushed. On the surface, this toxic and damaging thought process was instilled at a very young age and every woman has experienced the feeling. Why do men not feel the need to hide their face or alter their social posted images?

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.

This answer could vary depending on the day, but I would say Jessica Alba. I find the story behind her brand, The Honest Company, to be very inspiring and something that we have all experienced as consumers — not being satisfied with the quality or safety of a product, but also not being able to find any great alternatives. Clean products have become very popular, but in 2011, Alba was one of the first to disrupt the market with a mission-driven company. The Honest Company provides safe and clean alternatives to standard products that often contain harmful chemicals. As a woman who became a mother in 2011, honest products became staples in my household. In addition to her entrepreneurial success, she is an advocate for gender parity in the workplace with many initiatives such as closing the gender wage gap and actively seeking more female hires in C-suite positions.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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