Lead(H)er: Lauren Melton, Vice President of People Operations at Ellevation Education
Lauren Melton graduated from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and went straight into what she calls “employee relations bootcamp.” Drawn to dynamic human resources classes while in school, Melton joined the human resources department at The Pierre in New York, giving her career an equally dynamic start.
“I very quickly learned a lot of employee relations skills that I’ve seen people go their entire career never having encountered,” Melton said. “I dealt with everything from unfair labor practices and contract negotiations to investigations around some really challenging situations.”
By the time she was 28, Melton was a human resources director and looking for ways to grow her overall business knowledge in her field. She wanted to improve her business skill set and become more familiar with the operations side of hotels, but that experience came with nonstop, 80-hour workweeks.
“It was really useful for my career long term,” Melton said. “Improving my financial and business acumen has made me a stronger human resources leader.”
Melton had always been interested in technology companies, so she leveraged her newfound skills to seek out a role at a tech company making an impact with its products. Though she originally planned to take up to a year off after having her second child, Melton soon took on a part-time job at a tech manufacturing company. Her role quickly became full-time and eventually a leadership role. Melton has been working in the human resources departments of tech startups ever since.
Her next company, DealerRater, was acquired about one year after she joined, and Melton has now spent the last three years at Ellevation Education, a web-based software program supporting school districts to build strong English language learner programs, as its Vice President of People Operations. This marks Melton’s third role at a later stage startup that’s ready to invest in a formal HR department for the first time. Much of her job has focused on how to successfully build and scale that department as the company itself grows.
Melton’s role at Ellevation is a mix of strategy and hands-on support. In a typical day, she can be found doing anything from meeting with the CEO and leadership team about upcoming goals, to phone screening job candidates, and helping employees with benefits issues.
“I enjoy trying to figure out how to add value to the organization and to make sure it’s supported in meeting its objectives,” Melton said. “To me, that means never hearing anyone say ‘I have to do this because HR told me to.’”
Throughout her career, Melton has worked to put in systems and processes that make it easier to work with HR and collect data that enables informed decisions. That means promoting people based on the actual impact of their work, rather than on arbitrary timelines, and encouraging ongoing conversations about performance rather than scheduling yearly -- and often impersonal -- performance evaluation meetings.
“I do have a chip on my shoulder to make sure other departments see value in our efforts because historically HR hasn’t been seen as a strategic partner in many organizations. I can’t wait until there’s a day where fewer people even remember the paper-pushing HR departments and instead see HR as true partners in helping them achieve their objectives,” Melton said.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I have two boys who are 6 and 8, so in my free time I’m mostly at hockey, baseball, and rugby games. I’m obsessed with my Peloton bike and ride it every morning at 5 a.m. I just completed my 750th ride on Columbus Day weekend. I talk about it all the time, probably to the annoyance of my co-workers..
What are your strategies for managing stress?
Definitely exercise. When I first had kids I thought I didn’t have the time to workout. I thought, “I can't do that. I am a working mother. It's selfish.” And then finally one day I just hit a point where I knew I had to make it part of my day and that self care is important. So that has been my number one way to eliminate stress -- sweat it out every morning. Organization and feeling prepared are also helpful. I'm an early bird, so I try to come in to work early, and that sets me up. If I get in at nine or after nine, I feel like the whole rest of my day is just a mess.
How many cups of coffee do you have in a day?
I gave up coffee about a year ago, so every morning I drink green tea matcha. But I drink it cold, which people actually find very weird.
What’s one of your favorite places in the Boston area?
I love spending my free time outside, and a lot of it is spent on the Cape at Bayview Beach. I grew up right down the street, my parents still live there, and it’s one of my kids’ favorite places to go.
What’s one of your proudest accomplishments so far?
I'd say building small, highly effective teams and feeling confident in them. For instance, seeing the growth and development of the two women that I work with has been amazing. Being a resource to support to their development is an aspect of my job that I love. I've come into some of these small companies and it starts out as just me, an individual contributor, and when it gets to the point where you get to have a small team like this and get to see them really growing and developing and enjoying what they're doing, it's just so rewarding.
How does where you are now compare to where you saw yourself 10 years ago?
Honestly, I did not think this is where I would be. I was living in San Diego working in operations in a hotel and overseeing a division of 250 employees with zero work-life balance. I didn't have kids at the time either. So it was fine that I could put in a thousand hours and do that as I was on track to be the general manager of a hotel. It’s just so different than what I'm doing now. I was putting out a lot of fires back then so I don’t think I could have pictured myself in a more strategic role like this.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
Don’t be afraid to take a role just to get your foot in the door with a company, work hard, and get exposure to one specific area of it. In small, fast growing companies, I've seen people transfer and move into other roles down the road once they've proven themselves. Coming in expecting to be a product manager right after graduating college is not going to happen. I had to remind myself that nothing has to happen on a certain timeline. I started as an HR coordinator at a hotel, and many peers and friends were working for the corporate offices of some hotel company or in real estate investment. My first job out of college might not have been as glamorous as theirs. But it’s much more productive to focus on what you’re learning and how you’re growing instead of comparing yourself to others.