Extraordinary Women in Tech Technology and Innovation track representatives Melissa Austria and Holly Camponez discuss how to cultivate a successful digital innovation mindset and share the impact the EWiT community has on their careers.
Anna Vander Wall: Melissa, tell us about your path to becoming the Founder and Owner at GotStyle–what inspired you to start this company?
Melissa Austria: Starting a business is always about solving a problem. When I started the business seventeen years ago, the men of Toronto dressed like shit–it was all Ed Hardy T-shirts and True Religion jeans, and if I had to continue to look at the men in Toronto, they might as well dress better! I was traveling a lot in Europe and seeing the contrast with how men dressed there, and I thought, “I have to bring this into Toronto or else the women of Toronto will not be happy!”
AVW: I like this real-life application of solving a business problem! Holly, tell us about your journey to become the Creative Director for .Design — how was this project created, and how did you know you wanted to lead it?
Holly Camponez: The best moments in our careers are when our personal passions align with something that will further the business, and this was my experience with .Design. Avenue Code is a global digital transformation consultancy in business since 2008, and as part of our portfolio of services, we noticed the power of design and creative services to create impact. It became quickly apparent that design for digital interfaces is hugely powerful in the modern world, both for driving revenue and also for shaping the way people perceive reality.
I realized that I wanted to create a way to elevate the voices of designers from backgrounds that traditionally have not had a voice. For me, .Design is the marriage of personal passion with something that has a big impact for our clients and for Avenue Code as a whole.
AVW: It’s impressive that you’re both working in areas you’re personally passionate about. Melissa, one thing we really admire about you is that you have an incredible history of being ahead of the curve when it comes to technology in a field (retail) that traditionally has dragged its feet and played catchup. How have you honed your instincts for what’s worth trying, and what is your attitude toward risk and investment?
MA: I absolutely agree with you when you say this industry is archaic: I was at a buying appointment recently, and they’re still doing orders on paper instead of digitally! I started in men’s apparel and work with clients who are in finance, law, tech, and entrepreneurship, and they really opened my world to the possibilities of what we could make retail.
People talk about the retail apocalypse, claiming brick and mortar is dead and retail is online only, and I really disagree with that. For me, digital innovation is about adding things in to make lives easier so that people will still want to shop in-store. We’ve tried a lot of strategies, and we’ve actually been too early in some areas: for example, we launched video shopping about ten years ago, and this was when nobody was FaceTiming, so our customers weren’t quite ready for it!
My philosophy is you have to try things. You’re going to fail, you’re going to be too early, but you have to keep trying again and again to adopt different strategies to shake up how we view shopping. And again, our end goal when trying out new technology is always making our customers’ lives easier.
AVW: Did you subsequently reintroduce some of your ideas that were too early?
MA: Yes, we now do live streaming weekly, and we’re going to start doing live shopping again. During the first COVID-19 lockdown, we did a live shopping event on Boxing Day, which in Canada is bigger than Black Friday. For this event, my store manager and I drank a shot with every sale we made live, which proved to be a great way to get people engaged!
AVW: That’s very clever! It strikes me that you’re in an almost inverted position, Holly. Instead of being in an industry that’s slow to adopt new technologies, you’re in an industry that’s pioneering new technologies and doesn’t have a sense for its own limitations yet. How are you and your team defining where to build?
HC: Melissa’s story shows that innovation isn’t about trying to change people, it’s about trying to speak to what’s always been there, and what it means to be human, in new ways. In my line of work, we walk a really fine line between what the end user needs and wants versus what stakeholders are willing to invest in, which is not always the same thing.
As consultants, we advise on how to reconcile our learnings from the market and what users are responding well to with the stakeholders’ goals. Occasionally we have to have very honest conversations with prospective clients and ask them to re-evaluate whether they are doing something just to check a box or hop on a trend, and point them in a more productive direction to achieve the results they want.
The number one thing I would say to anyone working in emerging technology is get really clear on what you want to accomplish and who it’s for. Without the answers to those two questions, you can spend a lot of time and money and not have much to show for it. Thinking about what to build with the user in mind makes a world of difference.
We learn the most from discovering how users are engaging with what we create. Many times, it’s different from what we expect, similar to how an author may write a book with one intent in mind and then the readers pick up on and resonate with different parts of it. That’s really fun to see, because it speaks to the way in which some of these new technologies are really like new media for communication. It’s constantly evolving, and it always comes back to the end user: who they are, what they need, and what resonates. This in turn shapes what we recommend for our next clients.
AVW: You both mentioned timing as a critical element in innovation because even if you have a great idea, it may not be the right market timing. Melissa, what do you see as other potential roadblocks to innovation?
MA: We tend to think of technology adoption as immediate, but that’s not always the case. For example, when we launched video shopping and it wasn’t adopted, we gave up on it instead of keeping it on the backburner. NFTs are another interesting example: it works in a certain way right now, but it’s going to be completely different a couple months from now. So we’re investing in it, but we’re doing so knowing that it will evolve and look totally different than what we expect right now–my guess is that it will be more about customer rewards.
Going back to your question, I think the roadblock is ourselves. Don’t be so quick to give up on technology; if you don’t get the results right away, keep plugging away at it.
AVW: Looking at the other side of the coin, which new ideas are you seeing today that you anticipate being successful? I know you were recently at ShopTalk Las Vegas, so I’d love to hear your take on this.
MA: First of all, I have to say that it was so great to be at a live event again! Sometimes going to events as an independent business owner can be confusing because you see so many things you think you should add to your tech stack, and you need to consider what’s really important to your business and what you can implement immediately. For me, innovation is really about the planning process of discovering each new product or idea and asking if and how your customer will benefit.
ShopTalk was a great eye-opener to what’s available, and I’m having a ton of meetings after the show to find out what’s useful and how to plan it into my cash flow. It was really informative, and I definitely want to go again next year. In fact, I may also attend ShopTalk London in June.
I also think that we’re at a really critical moment: even though we were adding a lot of technology during COVID, there’s an even greater push to keep evolving right now because we understand what can happen with technology adding to our business. I always thought I had to grow by adding another store, and now I don’t think that’s the only way–I can just grow digitally.
AVW: In addition to live events, we’re exploring so many new ways to connect and do business. Holly, you’re at the forefront of some of those opportunities with virtual experiences. What are the biggest preconceptions or misconceptions about virtual experiences that you’d like to redefine for prospective clients looking to invest in this space?
HC: One of the biggest misconceptions is that it has to be all or nothing. People think that having a virtual experience has to mean investing half a million dollars and 6-9 months doing something massive, or you just might as well not even try. But the reality is that this world is completely unexplored, and it does not and should not look the same from company to company.
Particularly in the business world, people want to get to a solution fast. So they come into a room with one of two extremes: either they already have exact product features and specifications planned, or they have no idea what to do and where to start. The reality is that the range of what we’re able to create can be much broader than what most people have in their minds as a reference for what a digital experience looks like, so we have to ask people to start by zooming out and thinking big picture about their users and their business problems.
That’s why getting people to enter the creative process and spend a little time in the realm of speculation is so important. Maybe not everything we ideate will be viable, but it will give us a different angle for approaching the project. Uncertainty is something human beings are not very comfortable with, but working in innovation demands this.
AVW: Conversations like this make me excited for our upcoming Extraordinary Women in Tech conference in October. Melissa, can you give us a sneak peak of your talk?
MA: My talk is focused on giving comfort to business owners by assuring them that you can bring digital change into your business without having to be tech savvy yourself. Don’t let the fear of not knowing how to do something stop you. I’m definitely still learning from the mistakes that I’ve made and the successes that I’ve had, and my takeaway is you always have to be trying, pushing forward, and showing you can do it.
AVW: That’s very needed, and I look forward to hearing the full talk! Holly, what are you looking forward to about our EWiT conference?
HC: EWiT for me has been one big eye-opener that there are so many incredibly talented women who are pursuing their passions and are very successful in the process. I come away from every conversation feeling so inspired. Meeting Melissa in person last fall was incredible–I just felt like I wanted her to be my big sister! These conversations give you a sense of who people are in a richer and deeper way, and they are already so rewarding online that the thought of having everyone under one roof is mind blowing. I can’t wait to put physical faces to names and share a meal and a hug.
AVW: With that in mind, which women in your life inspire you?
HC: It’s hard to point to one person, partly because I’ve met so many incredible women through this initiative. But someone who stands out is Ulyana Zilbermints, our Chief Revenue Officer. From her very first day at Avenue Code, she brought such an energy of discovery and possibility. She sees the best in people and has a talent for sharing vulnerabilities in a way that allows people to be open and to learn from one another.
EWiT was Ulyana’s brainchild, and she symbolizes what stands behind it, which is celebrating, discovering, and lifting each other up as women in business and technology. I’ve never once felt a sense of competition from her; she genuinely wants to lift people up, and that quality is priceless.
MA: In connection with this conference, I’ll add that as an entrepreneur, you’re in a bit of a bubble because you don’t want to talk about the problems you’re facing. The work that Avenue Code is doing to bring women together allows us, as women entrepreneurs, to find the role models we need.
AVW: Melissa and Holly, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for your insights on how to innovate with technology, as well as sharing your experience with Avenue Code’s Extraordinary Women in Tech initiative–I’ll see you both there in October!
About Extraordinary Women in Tech
The Extraordinary Women in Tech Global Conference 2022 is a networking platform for female leaders and rising tech stars that cultivates an open exchange of innovative thinking, ground-breaking technologies, and mentoring toward personal and professional goals.
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Anna Vander Wall
Anna Vander Wall is a freelance senior editor and writer in the tech industry and beyond. She particularly enjoys collaborating with Avenue Code’s talented Snippets contributors and whitepaper authors.