Female Founders: Melissa Mezzalira of CatsEssentials On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Success is not only measured by financial means. I used to believe that until you become a millionaire, you are not successful. Success is also about achieving small wins, receiving a stellar review, having your company featured in a magazine, and accepting an award. More than anything, you have to believe that what you’re doing is bigger than you, and for the greater good of other people. In my case, I’ve dedicated my life to the betterment of felines and the environment.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Mezzalira, Founder and CEO of CatsEssentials.
Social entrepreneur and modern cat furniture designer Melissa Mezzalira is reinventing the way in which the world provides quality, comfortable, and luxurious experiences for our beloved feline companions. A “Catpreneur” inspired by a tenacious drive to change the world, her contemporary Italian design roots and appreciation for an elevated decor aesthetic are reflective in her furnishings, comprised of eco-friendly materials and organic bedding. Her sophisticated cat furniture line presents small-scale replicas of high-end product models commonly enjoyed by conscious cat parents, which are accessorized and customizable to their needs, preferences, and design choices.
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?
Thank you for selecting me for this series! To be honest, I didn’t really establish a clear career path in my earlier days. My background is actually very hectic as I’ve jumped from a technical school, to a sociology degree, to ultimately earning a master’s degree in international business. In between, I worked at many different jobs, including a freelance consulting position that started in Italy and transitioned to the United States. Although my career path didn’t progress in a straight line, every experience, class, and job helped shape where I am today. Everything kind of fell into place after I earned my master’s degree, which is when I decided to combine my passion for cats and design with everything else I’ve learned and done before. At this point, my main goal focused on improving our beloved felines’ lives and delighting cat parents with beautiful and functional furniture, all while respecting the environment.
There were two main factors that were consistent in my life. The motto, “there has to be more,” has kept me wanting to learn more, explore more, and move to new places. Moreover, the idea establishes my clear objective to remain self-employed and not work for anyone else. I think it had a lot to do with my upbringing in a family of artisans. Seeing first-hand the hard work and determination that my parents endured every day to provide for our family has definitely left an impression on me. It showed me that although entrepreneurship is hard, it can also be extremely rewarding to create something on your own. On top of that, I wanted to create something that had a mission which allowed me to make a difference in the world not only for my own good, but also for the good of others. I am the kind of person that gives 120% in everything I do — I just can’t help it! So I thought, why not pour that 120% into my own company and dream?
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I first started CatsEssentials, I was making cardboard cat scratchers. I created my own design and private label while hiring a manufacturer in China, the leading cardboard manufacturers in the world. I would import the goods from there, but right before the pandemic, shipping costs started to rise and orders were delayed, which compromised the quality of my products. So, I decided to transfer the production to the United States to have more control over the delivery. Interestingly enough, there was no such company that could create my products here. After contacting countless cardboard manufacturers in the States, I realized that the manufacturing abilities in the country are mainly limited to cardboard boxes and based on machinery limited to producing standard sizes and shapes. I even tried to find manufacturers that could provide the single parts to establish an assembly line to construct the products, but to no avail. That’s why I pivoted the scope of the product line and decided to create something completely new, which has never been seen in the pet market. I redirected my focus on something that I could make here– in the United States– with fabric, wood, and fillers.
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 I asked my product development team to make the prototype of a cat pad that I had designed, I also asked them to wash it to calculate the fabric shrinkage. To our surprise, it shrank into a little felt ball despite the fact that the wool batting used was marked “washable.” The face of the product manager who brought me the sample was priceless! I learned my lesson; never trust anything they say until you try it yourself! It’s a good thing to always make prototypes and test them under various conditions before launching new products!
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?
I have to give the majority of the credit to my parents. Not only have they taught me about taking pride in the quality of my work; they also stressed the importance of quality over quantity, and to persevere through the challenges of business ownership. My current approach in business reflects all of those lessons that I’ve learned at an early age by observing them every day, and helping them out each summer when I was growing up. The area where I was born is the home of many shoe manufacturing companies and my parents were part of that world. All the elements from design, to engineering, to scaling a business, to accounting (i.e. helping out after dinner with the invoicing) have left an undeniable mark on me, which is reflected in my approach to operating CatsEssentials. Besides my parents, I can always count on the encouragement from my sisters– along with the few people who have been supportive fixtures in my life– who are always ready to celebrate my wins! Last but not least, my two adored felines (Maya & Baby) inspire and motivate me every day.
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?
As women, we often display lower levels of self-confidence than men. We don’t believe enough in ourselves to know without a doubt that we are capable of starting our own businesses. I have to attribute this disparity to a combination of social barriers and inequalities that are unfortunately still challenging women today. Society requires us to show up more, do more, and prove ourselves more often to be taken seriously; so much more than men are required to do. I believe that women have so many invaluable skills and abilities to create dynamically successful businesses, but due to our male dominated society, we often fall victim to self-doubt. We need more women role models to inspire the masses to break this trend of derailing our own entrepreneurial ambitions. Since women are usually required to balance work life with family obligations, managing a business seems like a far-fetched idea– or unrealistic fantasy– to many.
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?
As individuals, we should definitely work on improving our “sisterhood” (meaning women supporting women as well as men supporting women). If we empower women to believe in themselves, then more of us can create better opportunities for ourselves, our families, and other women as well. We need to build professional partnerships and collaborations that advance women as a whole.
As a society, we have to move past the unconscious gender bias that impacts women every day and appreciate our invaluable skills and abilities. We need to take the time to learn more about each other and embrace our strengths and weaknesses, as well as create more public opportunities to share inspirational stories of women in business to serve as a tangible frame of reference, much like the objective of this article. Since not all women want to be founders, we also need training programs (taught by women) to deepen the working relationships among women at all levels (from employees and managers to COOs and CEOs) as well as career advancement programs.
In terms of our governmental entities, there should be more policy and funding support earmarked for the professional development of women. For instance, increase the amount of dedicated SBA loans and child support funding for working women, and establish more professional networks dedicated to promoting women’s empowerment. We also need more women in politics to represent us and fight for our specific needs.
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?
If we want to achieve equality, we need more women willing to put themselves out there and show the world what we can do! That way, we can shape a world that is more in tune with who we are, more empathetic, and responsive to our needs so we don’t have to solely rely on male dominated businesses and industries. I always try to hire and work with other women because I think it is important — now more than ever — to lift each other up! Sometimes it is still hard to find women in some specific fields (in my case IT, and manufacturing like upholstery and woodwork) but I would love to find some!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
As a founder, you have to risk it all! In my opinion, you can start small and then grow from there by taking calculated risks. Sure, being an entrepreneur requires you to take risks, but it’s not like high-risk gambling. After all, building a company or business is not an overnight mission, or a get-rich-quick effort.
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 believe that you have to be self-driven, self-confident and a problem solver to be a founder. If you are the kind of person that needs someone to push you to accomplish something, then you probably won’t have the drive needed to succeed. You have to be confident in your abilities and truly believe in your goals, mission and vision. I call this being unapologetic about your own power! The setbacks, frustrations and challenges can be very hard to overcome if you don’t. Finally, you have to anticipate the future, or consider what could happen in advance, so you can have your plan ready. When unexpected things happen, you have to be able to quickly find a solution to continue operating your business, even if it’s a temporary fix.
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.)
1. Success is not only measured by financial means. I used to believe that until you become a millionaire, you are not successful. Success is also about achieving small wins, receiving a stellar review, having your company featured in a magazine, and accepting an award. More than anything, you have to believe that what you’re doing is bigger than you, and for the greater good of other people. In my case, I’ve dedicated my life to the betterment of felines and the environment.
2. Building a profitable business always takes longer than you originally imagined. This is not a quick effort; this is a process! If you think about it, your new business journey actually started long before you opened your company. It started back when you were still taking classes, working in other job capacities, and learning new skills. Running a business requires determination and motivation to keep going, especially when the results are not happening as fast as we wish.
3. The challenges that we face as women founders are larger and more complex than our male counterparts. As women founders, we have to deal with not being taken seriously, having to prove ourselves, and not even being considered as the CEOs or decision-makers of our own businesses! If we stay committed to our goals and remain steadfast in actualizing our vision, then we can create something special on our own terms.
4. There’s a whole lot that we don’t know! Many of us women are usually very detail-oriented, so we often think that we need to know everything before we start something. The truth is there is always something that we don’t know, so you may as well start now and figure things out along the way!
5. There’s only one of you. Only you can create what you do. Even if you’ll have competitors or people trying to steal your idea, it will never be exactly the same as your own because your story is different and unique to you.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
First of all, our main goal is to make our furry friends’ world better, and that is what we do each and every day. On top of that, CatsEssentials’ contribution to no-kill cat shelters is meant to bring some resources and funds to organizations committed to saving kitties’ lives. The more we grow as a company, the more we are able to give back and make a larger impact.
In terms of the environment, we are very proud to use only non-toxic materials and fabrics in an effort to help reverse the damage that we unfortunately have already done to our beautiful planet. We also work in partnership with One Tree Planted, which makes it simple for our customers to get involved in global reforestation. For every product purchased that is made from wood, we plant one tree in the Amazon rainforest, which plays a critical role in the fight against climate change.
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.
It would definitely be something that combines my love for cats and promotes women’s empowerment. The pet industry has been experiencing an important growth of women in key leadership positions as well as innovators. On top of that, the cat industry in particular is a pretty tight-knit community with more and more women starting their own small businesses. I think it could be a great place for us to bring in more women and make this a woman-dominated field. At the same time, I would love to create “The Modern Cat Ladies Movement” that embraces our feline friends as sentient beings and advocates to change the misconceptions that many people still have about cats (especially if we keep comparing them to dogs) and educate people about this. Reclaiming the new, unapologetic modern Cat Lady (against the “old crazy cat lady” stereotype) would be ideal! It kind of goes along the lines with rejecting the sexism that is still prevalent in the workplace, and in business.
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.
It would definitely have to be Oprah Winfrey!
I totally admire her for what she’s been able to accomplish despite all of the challenges that she has faced in her life. Not only did she build an empire and become a powerhouse as a person of great influence, but she has also brought a completely new perspective to our talk shows. She has been empowering so many women around the world by creating a woman centered, spiritually emotional television show. Last but not least, her huge philanthropic history has impacted so many people and continues to enrich the lives of so many individuals to this day.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you for including me and my insights on your platform.