Two years ago, Melissa Gonzalez met MJ Munsell at the 2018 Design:Retail Awards, where the two were accepting honors for their accomplishments in the retail design industry.
Gonzalez was in attendance with her team at retail consultancy The Lion’esque Group as the group’s work was named one of the Best Store Designs of 2018. For her leadership, Gonzalez was separately awarded the title Retail Design Influencer — two years after she was inducted into Design:Retail’s 40 Under 40. On the other hand, Munsell, then-principal at global architecture firm MG2, was named a Retail Design Luminary, becoming one of the award’s three recipients (all of whom were female).
Today, Gonzalez and Munsell have joined forces through their respective firms, which merged in January. As founder and CEO of Lion’esque, which focuses squarely on transformative retail experiences such as engaging pop-up stores and revolving brick-and-mortar spaces, Gonzalez has amassed a client list including department store chain Nordstrom, sportswear giant Puma and consignment platform The RealReal. Munsell, now chief creative officer at MG2, has helped build one of the largest architecture firms in the country.
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“That was kind of serendipitous,” Munsell said, describing her first encounter with Gonzalez. “We never thought at the time that we’d be working together as partners.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, FN spotlights two of the industry’s pioneering female executives. Here, they discuss their passion for retail (and their favorite shoes right now) as well as offer advice on how to succeed in a male-dominated space.
How did you become interested in the retail industry?
Munsell: My grandmother was a small-town retailer in Christopher, Illinois, and she had a corner store called The Vogue. As a young girl, I used to sit in her store, play with the cash register and watch her work with her customers. When I got a little bit older, around high school, she would let me do her windows. At the same time, I started working in retail myself and [later on] worked quite a bit on the sales floor in a variety of environments through college. Retail was always in my blood; it was a synthesis of everything that I’ve always been passionate about — my background is in interior design, combined with my love of fashion — and I never looked back.
Gonzalez: Prior to starting Lion’esque, I was in institutional equity sales, but I was also producing indie films. I was actually a veejay in a show on BET! I always had that right-left brain pull. I was doing well on Wall Street — it was a lucrative career path — but it didn’t fulfill my artistic side. I left in 2009, right when the market hit the fan, to pursue more creative endeavors.
Despite making strides in recent years, retail is still a largely male-dominated sector. Can you describe your experience?
Gonzalez: There have been plenty of times over the years where I’ve been the only female panelist and had to break into that kind of club where people already know each other. I’ve had my moments where it didn’t feel right, and you would have to prove yourself on that panel because they can be a little dismissive of the things you’d say. I just approach it with the confidence that I was asked to a panel because of the coordinators of the conference — who may have been men or women — and they value what you do because you’re coming from a land of expertise. And, as someone who’s had a background in Wall Street, which is definitely male-dominated, you kind of grow a thicker skin.
Munsell: I’ve seen a lot of change in the retail industry as I’ve gone on in my career. I came to Seattle to lead the Nordstrom account for another firm and was part of the team that worked with the family. Everyone in the family, of course, were all men, but I’ve also had the opportunity to work with some amazing women. Now, it’s been 30 years that I’ve had a longstanding relationship with Nordstrom, including at MG2 — and that’s why I’m here. This firm does not see boundaries in terms of gender, age, background. I feel I can do anything here.
What are some of the challenges you faced in the workplace? How did you overcome them?
Munsell: Maybe 10 years ago, I was in a meeting with two leaders — one man and another woman — because my team was having a lot of challenges with a particular client. We got into a very heated conversation, and I told someone to put down their phone and to please listen to what I was saying, as I was very concerned about the morale of my team. That conversation got translated into: [MJ] threw a cup of coffee at this man — one of the male leaders — and that was not true. If you showed any kind of elevated expression [in an attempt] to be diplomatic, it can be misconstrued as, ‘You lost your sh**.’ I just thought about it for years afterwards.”
Gonzalez: Unfortunately, there have been moments when I’ve had men be more welcoming to me than women, and that should never be the case. As women, we can definitely help create opportunities for each other and support each other. I think it’s a balance: We have to root for each other yet not see each other as competitive threats. I think you’re seeing more and more women do that [today].
How has your relationship with one another evolved since the merger?
Munsell: Melissa and I are both retail strategists, so it’s a natural synergy. I come from a more traditional route, while she comes from more of an analytical side, and she’s very creative. One of the things that draws us both together is we have a strong sense of purpose.
Gonzalez: This partnership puts us in a really great position where we can be a partner throughout the life cycle for our clients — and that organic synergy kept us together. We moved into a bigger office. We’re hiring and growing the team. We’re integrating opportunities to do cross-office collaboration, where we can lean on each other’s expertise. It’s still the early days, so we’re still navigating the waters through that.
What advice would you give people who want to break into or grow in this industry?
Gonzalez: I would focus on your domain of expertise. It’s funny, when I used to work on Wall Street, my approach was to [try to] understand topics that [the men] would relate to. I would learn the highlights of a game to be a part of that conversation, and I took golf lessons because that was the sport they played. It was sort of leveling the playing field, but at the same time, as women, we shouldn’t feel that we have to do all the things [men] like to fit in. I think that if you do things from a very authentic place, people will respect that.
Munsell: I believe that you should never underestimate yourself and never hold your voice back. Many tend to hold back from taking a stand on issues because it can be intimidating, and I want to help them have that confidence. I’ve never been afraid to say what I think; that’s just my personality. My parents raised me to be strong and independent and to not feel the need to lean on anyone else. I have a daughter who’s 20 [years old], and I want to help her navigate those situations and show her how to be assertive — but you don’t have to not be a woman at the same time.
What’s your favorite pair of shoes right now?
Munsell: I just got a pair of Givenchy Chelsea boots with gold chains, and I love them so much. I was never a sneaker girl, but I also have a special edition of the Comme des Garçons x Nike Shox. I was in Paris last week and had them on when I was in Le Bon Marché, where I got the Givenchy boots.
Gonzalez: I’d have to say Sarah Flint. I had struggled with heels, but that shoe she created — the Perfect Pump — literally holds up to its name. The arch support is incredible, and I literally wore them all day the past two days because I had a ton of meetings. I also wore them all day at NRF [2020: Retail’s Big Show], and I was fine.
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