Melissa Chee, President and CEO, ventureLAB

Sanchi Illuri

March 4, 2019

For International Women’s Day 2019, we’re featuring women entrepreneurs in the ventureLAB community. Each day this week, we’ll feature a woman entrepreneur who inspires and leads her team to success, and makes an impact on her community. Read more interviews in the series here.

Our first featured entrepreneur is ventureLAB’s President and CEO, Melissa Chee. Since joining ventureLAB in 2017, Melissa has been a tireless champion and advocate for this region’s and organization’s vision.


What is success to you?

In my career, success is always, “Am I learning?”; “Am I engaged?”; “Am I really passionate about what I’m doing?” More importantly, “Am I making a difference?” And, on the flipside, “Am I being recognized for that impact?” 

On a personal level, success means remembering to take care of yourself and your family. Whether you’re a man or woman, it’s a tough thing to do. In a personal realm, I think success is creating the boundaries that allow you to step back from the day-to-day, to pause and make sure that you really are experiencing everything that is moving around you. I’ll be honest: that’s something that has always been a challenge for me.

For ventureLAB and this ecosystem – not just the ecosystem we serve but also Ontario and Canada – I think success is taking advantage of the full opportunities that this country has to offer, both in its diversity and its amazing technical and business talent. It’s really an untapped opportunity to elevate the nation. 


Is there an early life lesson that helped to shape who you are today?

I have always been raised to do my best. My dad has really guided me from both a professional and career standpoint. He’s a great advisor, mentor, and dad. He always told me, “Don’t focus on external factors; focus on making sure that you’re doing something that you love, and give it 150%.” That has really guided my career. 

I’ve always been involved in community. That also started from a very young age, and has been guided by my mom. She was a stay-at-home mom for the younger part of my childhood, and in my teenage years decided to go back to school to get a second degree. That was an immense inspiration for me. My mom has always been involved in community, whether it’s been at the school library or volunteering at the food bank. Even now, well into her early seventies, she continues to volunteer at the hospital, deliver meals to others, and work at the red cross. She’s a great community leader. 

Both my parents really formed my outlook and where I wanted my personal and professional life to be: to do something that mattered and have impact in the community. 


Who would you consider to be a significant influence on you professionally; why?

One: my dad. He was a trailblazer in his field, and really navigated a remarkable career for himself. My father pursued his career with such determination, focus, and passion, always relentlessly standing by his principles and taking great pride in creating visionary ideas combined with pragmatic execution plans. Watching him over a stellar 40+ career, I watched in real time how simply doing your best always and making the most of your present role, presented unique and interesting career opportunities, rather than focusing on chasing what’s next. My dad taught me that a career is never linear and like all things in life, you need to celebrate the best in any given role and make sure you are challenged and learning.

The second big influence on my professional career is my husband. He has been a grounding force and enabled me to pursue, as cheesy as it sounds, my dreams. This particular role as ventureLAB’s CEO is a culmination of my entire career. It still shocks me how integrated my career has been here, and my husband was the catalyst behind that. As I was leaving my last job, he said: “You need to do something that you’re passionate about – you have immense capacity, experience, and leadership, and you need to find something that you can gain real reward from.” He’s always been a trooper and a great role model for our children. He’s been a source of inspiration and support to enable everything that I’ve achieved in my career.

The third set of inspiration and support for me has been my mentors and managers. I have been very fortunate to have worked for some stellar managers and leaders who, early on in my career, really supported growth and provided great opportunities. They taught me that you really need to be open to taking constructive feedback. I’ve always been one of those people who asks for feedback, and, certainly in my professional career, I’ve looked for managers who provide constructive feedback. It’s really helped elevate my game to the next level. I hope that in the teams that I lead here, and in the teams I’ve led in previous organizations, we’re creating a community that really respects each other, and is super high-performing. I have high expectations for the teams and organizations I lead, but I do it with mutual respect and with the belief that my team can continue to elevate their game. I hope the folks that work with and for me see that and find inspiration in it. 


Do you have advice for other small businesses and entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurship is about your DNA. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a big or small organization: entrepreneurship is not about size, but about approach, insight, and culture. First and foremost, any organization needs strong focus. That means figuring out what to say no to and what you should not be doing. Whether it’s product development or adding a new feature that a customer requested (but which isn’t on your roadmap), there are tough decisions that can really make or break a company. You have to be laser-focused on the thing you really need to deliver. 

The second thing is having a mindset – and this goes part and parcel with having an entrepreneurial spirit – to fail fast. The importance of failure is tied to the importance of focus. Have the courage and organizational decision-making capability to fail quickly and move on to the next thing. Failure is important, and not just because when you recognize it you move on to what is hopefully the correct path; failure is important because it builds out the organization and allows for a breadth of critical thinking and decision-making that elevates the company’s direction and journey. It puts you on a path that allows for future success.

If you look at any organization – a big multinational with hundreds of thousands of employees or that one-person startup working out of their garage with a great idea – you’ll see that one of the most important things about whether or not they are successful is their team. If you create a culture where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes, where people aren’t afraid to fail quickly, you create an internal DNA that allows people to face adversity and make the right decisions.


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