Lead(H)er Profile - Melissa Herman, Chief Financial Officer at Wellframe
Where did you grow up and how would you describe yourself as a child?
I grew up in South Jersey, and was a true child of the 80s that was obsessed with reading encyclopedias, acting out WWF moves, and taking long bike rides until the sun went down. At 11, I secured my first job by convincing my neighbor to give me his paper route. When I was 16, I took a job at a local market. A year later, not only did I know how to make some of the best hoagies in the Philadelphia area, I was promoted to shift leader and trusted with the keys to the safe. Thinking back now, my excitement over holding those keys should have been a sign that I was destined for a finance career!
What did you study in college and what was your first job out of school?
I studied Economics at Rutgers University, and had secured a full time job in a stockbroker apprentice program in the NYC suburbs. In my first year, we experienced a recession and 9/11. It was a difficult time for the markets, and a sensitive time to prospect for new clients. We were a small regional firm, and we pivoted to use our time and cold calling skills to plan and publicize a fundraising event to benefit first responders, and to source necessary supplies for the K-9 units at Ground Zero. This experience was my first exposure to the positive impact that companies can make in their communities, and that has stayed with me, 20 years later.
Can you share the details on your career path and what were the critical moments that got you to where you are today?
After my first year in sales, I transitioned into a client services role at an online trading platform startup based in Jersey City. I loved the job, and the technology focus of the company, but in my second month they announced that they were being acquired. Rather than start a third job in the NYC area, I used my severance pay to move to Phoenix, which was experiencing rapid growth. Once settled, I enrolled in an evening Masters program at Arizona State, which opened the door for me to transition from financial services to an FP&A analyst role at Intel. Intel took me from Phoenix to San Francisco, and right before the 2008 crisis, I started a 6 year stint at Riverbed Technology, a network optimization company well positioned for the recession.
Halfway through my time at Riverbed, I relocated to Cambridge, and had the opportunity to lead finance for our fastest growing business units. The business units were born out of multiple acquisitions, including one for $1B, and I learned a lot from the entrepreneurs on those teams.
In 2014, after a decade of working for publicly traded companies based on the West Coast, I returned to the startup world. I joined ObserveIT, a cybersecurity software company originally headquartered in Tel Aviv, and then Iora Health, a primary care provider based in Boston. My transition to healthcare in 2016 was another key shift. Wellframe’s mission has been a great fit for me - I love applying my prior experience from early stage companies and the technology world to help people get the care and support they need, when and where they need it.
What is your current role and responsibilities?
I am currently the Chief Financial Officer at Wellframe, and responsible for Finance, Accounting, Business Operations, People and Culture, IT / Security, and Legal / Compliance. When I initially joined the company, many of our administrative functions were outsourced, so I have been blessed with the opportunity to build a high performing team from scratch.
Looking back, is this where you thought you’d be professionally? Was it always your goal to be in this position?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a crossing guard, then a veterinarian, and then Jerry McGuire. I initially started college as a sports management major, but transitioned over to Economics during my sophomore year. Once I started in my first FP&A role at Intel, I knew I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. As I made a series of moves to progressively smaller companies, I was able to take on larger roles in Finance, and eventually bridge out into other related areas - first Sales Operations, then Accounting, then HR, and then all other administrative and compliance functions. I had always had a goal of solving challenging problems and helping others, but I didn’t find my path until 4 years into my career.
For people who are looking to be in a similar position, what advice would you give to others in terms of helping them achieve their career goals?
Build a great team of experts, and then trust them to do their jobs. I would also emphasize the importance of the first hire that you make at a new company. At two of my startups, I was pregnant when I joined the company, and I knew that my first hire would not only need to learn the company quickly, but also cover parts of my role within the next 6 months. In both cases, I looked for someone who had the right experience, but also the comfort and desire to take on ownership. The first few members of your team are the core of your future organization.
An emerging finance leader should also trust their experience and instincts. While you may not be an operational expert in every area, you know more than you think you do - and if you are open to doing the work to learn and fill in the gaps, you can easily add value.
What are the most important skills that you need to do your job well?
In order to do a finance job well, I would recommend that you focus on adaptability, relationship building and quality of analysis. If your finance career takes you to an early stage company, I would suggest also focusing on grit, talent assessment and confidence. At smaller companies, the finance role can blend into other operational areas, and it is important to be able to source reliable data quickly, and make decisions in areas where you have less experience.
What do you find most interesting/rewarding about your work? What’s most challenging?
The answer is the same - the variety! Our company is engaged in an evolving space at a very unique time. When the external dynamics are combined with internal growth and expansion, it can be an incredibly exciting experience. While no day is the same, and there is no boredom, it can be challenging to carve out time for longer term projects, and we need to pivot frequently. It is important to have a team that can handle ambiguity and thrive in changing times.
What is your proudest professional accomplishment?
My proudest accomplishment has been the growth and success of Wellframe over the last 4 years. When I initially joined the company, we had about 30 employees, and were seeing early traction in the market. Three years later, in 2019, we started to experience amazing progress and recognition as the model started to come together. We were recognized as a Deloitte Fast500 company for our growth, a Boston Business Journal Best Places to Work for our culture, but most importantly, we were seeing increased impact delivered to our customers and their members. While I was excited that my work had helped us to get to this series of wins, I was most proud of how thrilled that my team was to see their efforts pay off in a big way.
Are you involved with any professional organizations outside of the company? Volunteer work?
Professionally, I am a member of the CFO Leadership Council, and was honored to be invited to participate in their Emerging Leader program last year. Personally, I am most passionate about volunteering with organizations that support and mentor women and girls, including the Junior League of Boston, Science Club for Girls, and the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. Volunteering has been an important part of my life in Boston, and I have worked to incorporate my interests in community impact into Wellframe’s company culture. I am the sponsor of an employee-led initiative called Wellframe Cares, which matches our volunteers with local non-profit organizations such as More Than Words, Catie’s Closet and Community Servings.
What’s next for you and your career?
I am excited about the opportunities ahead for Wellframe, as we prepare for the next stage of growth. I will be attending MIT Sloan’s Executive MBA program this fall, and I am looking forward to learning new models and frameworks that I can apply at the company. I have also been focusing more time on networking and learning from others. One of the things that I love the most about Boston is that it is a small community, and very supportive and collaborative.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Spending time with my family - we have a 3 year old son and a 5 year old daughter. We love being outside and exploring new places. I also enjoy working on my family tree - the role of family historian was handed down to me from my grandmother a few years ago. The research is essentially a series of puzzles and matching problems that can be very satisfying to solve. My current project is to work on documenting my husband’s Ukrainian family history for our kids.
How do you manage stress?
Laughter. There can be many setbacks and frustrating moments as you work with your team to build a company. Finding the humor in it can be a healthy release. I have also had to learn to fully unplug during this time when work/life integration is at its peak. It is hard to be home with the kids during the week, but not be able to spend time with them. For the first time in many years, I am no longer working on weekends, as I need them to know some time is only theirs.
How many cups of coffee do you have in a day?
Usually 2-3! Although I am not originally from New England, I have adapted to drinking iced coffee year round, even in the dead of winter.
What's one of your favorite places in the Boston area?
One of my favorite places in Boston is the Rose Kennedy Greenway area. It is a great place to eat lunch outside during the work week, and it really comes to life in the summer.
Any book or podcast recommendations?
I am currently reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, and Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. The latter is with the women’s book club at Wellframe. Both of these books have provided interesting insights for leading and relating to others in this unique time.
What advice do you have for recent college graduates?
All experience is valuable, and you can find something in every role that can be used later. In my first role in sales, I learned how to build relationships, extract the needs of my clients and prospects, and communicate my point quickly. These skills served me well as I transitioned to corporate finance, and was partnering with busy executives in other areas of the business.
I would also suggest that you ask a lot of questions, and try to learn as much as you can about what is happening at your companies. Later in your career, it can be helpful to reference how your companies addressed certain challenges, or accomplished something exceptional. As a last tip, I would suggest that recent graduates not be shy about asking for advice and help from others. It can be intimidating to ask someone to enter a formal mentor relationship, however, almost everyone can make time for coffee or tea, and then it is on you to follow up!