Melissa Wong, CEO of Retail Zipline: “If we can develop a greater awareness, we’ll be better as a team”

Wong is the co-founder and CEO of Retail Zipline, the leading communication and execution platform for retailers.

She is passionate about retail communications, having served as a corporate communications manager at Old Navy for more than a decade. She studied at Bates College and currently lives in San Francisco.

Ladders jumped on a call with Wong to discuss the major trends she’s noticing in the industry as we move into 2021.

1.What are the trends you see within your industry currently?

For years, retailers have promised to one day offer a robust omnichannel experience. But due to limited technology resources and shifting priorities, this process has moved slowly. Today, more than ever, retailers have a sense of urgency to connect with their customers through different channels.

Even with temporary closures due to COVID-19, I believe physical retail won’t be replaced by online shopping. What it will look like to run a successful retail shop will simply change to work in parallel with e-commerce.

As such, one massive trend I’ve seen is a sudden understanding among retail executives of the need to equip their store teams with resources to be able to pivot procedures and execute new protocols. As our world shifts, the core of retail’s challenges is how to communicate the game-plan. The good news is, there’s tech to help out.

2. How would you describe your company culture?

Retail Zipline is a fun, friendly, and collaborative place to work. We try to create that fun, personable retail culture at a tech startup. Every day our entire 50-person team joins an informal “Daily Social” video chat to check in with each other, share good news, thank a fellow employee for something, and talk about what’s happening in our business. On Fridays, we like to get a little silly and end our Daily Social by recording a different team “wave” and adding it to a growing repository of memorable GIFs.

Different employee interests – from #skincare-tips to #yummy-recipes to #whats-cooking – have their own dedicated Slack groups for internal chatter. And we make it a point to make all internal information about our product and our business accessible to everybody who works here, so nobody feels out of the loop.

3. What can a job applicant do to catch your attention? What stands out the most to you?

At Zipline, our focus has always been to help people in retail. That means we approach things differently than a typical SaaS company would, and want to feel as connected to our customers as possible. Because empathy for our customers is at the core of what we do, we make it a priority to hire employees who have real-world knowledge of the retail space.

Our Sales Directors have been Retail District Managers, our Customer Success Managers have worked in Merchandising, and even some of our Engineers have spent more than a few summers in high school tidying up fitting rooms and re-stocking shelves. Our customers love us for this (and many aspire to work at Zipline) because we know where they’re coming from.

So when an applicant comes in with the best interest of our customers at heart, and ultimately expresses that they’re aligned on our goal to make store teams happier and more effective, it catches our attention.

4. What’s the most challenging part of being a leader/manager? What’s the best part?

Being a leader in retail requires you to stay on your toes, because the industry is always evolving. But now after COVID-19, more than ever, embracing change and managing how we react is a part of the every-day job.

It’s challenging to understand what employees feel as the company is scaling, since often they see you as the “CEO” vs a peer they can be transparent with. Creating a culture of transparency is challenging but completely necessary in times where there are charged-discussions that need to happen in a productive way, i.e. discussing racial injustices.

The best part of being a leader is watching the business grow and tackle new challenges. To me, growth isn’t one-dimensional, it’s not as simple as a headcount. Productive growth encompassess growing in how we think, what we do and what we’re capable of.

Another incredible part of being a leader is feeling the connection of the team you helped build. Our company feels like a family – it’s rewarding to know people feel like they have a strong support system, even when working remotely.

5. How do you keep your staff motivated? How do you motivate yourself?

Since Zipline’s inception, our team has operated as an all-remote workplace. To motivate our staff, we maintain a culture where transparency and teamwork are valued. As a remote workplace, we put extra effort into making sure nobody’s voice falls through the cracks. At Zipline, everybody has access to everything, whether it’s a formal training module or a brainstorm session in a Google doc. This ensures we’re all working together as one team.

To motivate myself is not an every-once-in-a-while act. I really value consistency, making sure I’m finding time to do things that recharge me so I don’t burn out, like exercise and spend time with my daughter. Pre-covid it is surrounding myself with friends and family, having dinner parties ec.

6. How do you find a balance between work and life demands?

One of my life mottos is “Remember what recharges you.” It’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole of working too much to drive the business forward. However, when you’re depleted, you have to know how to reset yourself and re-charge.

For me, what keeps me grounded and pushes me to take a step back from work on a consistent basis is my one-year-old daughter and partner who loves to be outdoors.

7. What are some of the challenges you have faced as a POC in this industry?

The common cultural narrative paints me, an Asian-American woman, as submissive, quiet and good at math.

Even when these qualities are not accurate to who I really am, the preconceived notions put me at a disadvantage in an industry of primarily white men, since their aggressive alpha stereotype leads to more decision-making power. As a female-founder, the stark contrast in stereotype is exaggerated.

8. How do you feel about the current climate in America right now in regards to race? Is it changing your work culture?

Our work culture is definitely changing. It is making us more aware overall about what it means to be a person of color or what diversity means. It’s made us focus more on fostering conversations that educate us all on what inclusion means and how it shows up at work. We did mandatory behaviors of inclusion training and it was rated 4.9 out of 5 by our team.

Our internal values are around education and advocacy and those both tie into how we show up internally with each other as well as with our customer.

We are working on frameworks for education, onboarding/hiring as well as how to have the difficult conversations that need to happen. It’s an uncomfortable space, but if we can all develop a greater awareness and a productive framework to talk about it, we’ll be better as a team and as individuals overall in the communities we live in.

It’s an important part of who we are as a company in representing America’s most popular workforce and it’s an investment we’ve been deliberate in making in our team.

Our product is specifically for retail workers, a demographic that comprises one in four American jobs, yet has historically been underserved without tools to address their unique challenges.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half of all retail associates in the US are female (48.7 percent) and over one-third are people of color (35.9 percent). Our goal is to use communication solutions to improve the lives of one million of these individuals working in retail by 2025.