October 31, 2018

Lead(H)er: Berni Fisher, VP of Product at M.Gemi

When Berni Fisher felt the hard, metal handles of the heavy Suffolk University bookstore basket digging into her arm, she came to an important realization: Maybe she didn’t want to be a lawyer after all.

Fisher had been told growing up that she would make a good lawyer, and so she entered her freshman year at Providence College with the intention of turning those remarks into reality. She continued on the political science and socioeconomics track when she transferred to Keene State University in her home state of New Hampshire and was accepted into Suffolk University Law School, but the books—and the prospect of living in a big city—ultimately sent her home to rethink things.

Not ready to completely let go of the idea of law school yet, Fisher applied to Vermont Law School. While attending, she took an entry-level job at a mapping company called Geographic Data Technology when she was waitlisted. There, her career path took a sharp turn.

“Life leads you certain ways, and I do believe that everything happens for a reason,” Fisher said. “I didn't intend to not go to law school. I just intended to take a year off. I said, ‘This seems like it’s just right, right now, and I’m learning all these things that I wouldn’t otherwise learn.’”

Thanks to some knowledgeable mentors willing to help her progress, Fisher learned rapidly. The small company gave her the opportunity to become a manager and work in quality assurance, data sourcing, project management, contract negotiation, and more, ultimately ending in product management. During her 13 years at Geographic Data Technology—which, as a leader in GIS mapping, was acquired twice in that time—Fisher received her MBA thanks to its tuition reimbursement program.

Fisher wasn’t looking for a new job when Apple called her asking if she’d be interested in a job. The tech giant didn’t specifically say what her role would entail, but Fisher, whose entire career had focused on maps, knew that it would likely be in the same field. She and her family agreed to give the job a try for at least two years, and they made a move to California.

“It felt very startup-y,” Fisher said. “It was the Maps team, and the app hadn’t launched yet, and it was very small, with a ‘do whatever you need to do to help get this out the door’ attitude.”

She took on a vendor management role, ensuring that third-party providers supplied the team with data when they needed it, and working with Apple’s integration team to make Maps a reality. When the app did launch, though, it went famously awry, with enough bugs that iPhone users were far from happy about the development.

Fisher, though, took it all in stride. It was a learning experience in her California experiment, and she knew the lessons learned would follow her to her next job.

Fate stepped in again, and a former coworker who was now working at TripAdvisor called Fisher to see if she’d be interested in coming home to New England for a job in product management.

“I'd always loved product management, and I’d always loved being able to put the customer first,” Fisher said. “This was definitely an opportunity to learn from a very product-driven company.”

Making the transition from an engineering-focused company like Apple to a product-driven one like TripAdvisor was a welcome change, and Fisher felt perfectly at home working on the back-end processing of user-generated content.

Her next career step towards M.Gemi, meanwhile, was more challenging. Fisher was a fan of the company’s shoes but felt unqualified for the head of product role because she had never worked in eCommerce or retail. She expressed that concern to the recruiter at the company but also said that she’d be willing to learn, talk things out, and dive into something different if the company would let her. Thankfully, it did.

“I came from big companies, and there was some trust that I could come into a small company like this,” Fisher said. “I have a side hustle, which I think helped to show my entrepreneurial spirit and my commitment to moving fast and doing whatever it took to keep your business running, so I think that’s an element that helps me to be successful at the startup stage.”

At M.Gemi, Fisher is in the perfect environment to continue learning and growing in both the startup and retail spaces. The company is small enough that it’s open to experimentation and new ideas, and her coworkers—particularly the women who take up about half of the company’s leadership roles—provide continual support and inspiration.

Fisher’s future goals include continuing to make a tangible impact on her co-workers and company, helping both grow while she continues learning.

“I just really thrive on constantly learning and growing as an individual, and my career doesn't have a set path,” she said. “When I did try to set a path, it didn't work out the way I thought it was going to, so I've learned to just kind of roll with it and be open to opportunity.”

Rapid Fire Questions

What do you like to do in your free time?

I like to run, read, and to spend time with my family.

How do you typically handle stress?

It’s 1,000 percent running. Exercise is the way I destress.

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?

Two at home, and at least two if not three in the office. I usually go out for the 2 p.m. latte—it's my last cup of the day, usually.

What’s your favorite spot in the Boston area?

Fenway Park!

What would you say is one of your greatest, non-family-related accomplishments?

I'm not very good about saying those kinds of things about myself! If I could tell it differently, I think I’m most proud of how I lead. I feel like I'm good at helping other people see the potential in themselves. I feel like that's a payback service, as the pay it forward mentality. I literally would not be here right now if it weren't for the people who taught me how to do what I’m doing, who saw the potential in me. To me, that is the biggest accomplishment I can give, is to let other people see what they have and help them get to their best potential.

Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?

No! In no way in hell did I see myself working for an eCommerce, retail, shoe company.

What’s your advice for recent college graduates?

I would say not to pigeonhole themselves into what their degree is because that's going to limit their opportunities—especially nowadays—to really seize an opportunity, try it out, and be open to understanding what you loved about it and what you didn't. That will help guide the rest of your career.

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.
Images courtesy of Berni Fisher