Clean Skincare & Business: Melanie Bender
Versed is a community-driven clean skincare brand for all developed by CEO Katherine Power (also the CEO of Who What Wear) & President, Melanie Bender (@alsomelb). Versed prides themselves on being the cleanest drugstore skincare brand. The company is committed "to reducing waste, lightening our carbon footprint, and preserving Earth’s ecosystems" with their cruelty-free, vegan products. With great EWG (environmental working group) standing and affordable pricing, they are high on my list of favorites. Their branding makes my everyday skincare routine easy and straight-forward. I had the chance to sit down with one of the masterminds behind the branding and development of their products, Melanie Bender. Melanie was previously General Manager at Versed and Vice President of Marketing and Brand Development at Clique. Keep reading below for her career path, the mission behind the brand, and the steps/tips she took to get to where she is today.
Can you tell me a bit about your career path and what led you to the role you're in today?
In one word: nonlinear. I think I started out at 22 having a quarter-life crisis, only knowing what I had done and knowing that's not what I saw myself doing for the next 40 odd years. I came from a very strong science and math background. In university, I studied aerospace engineering and global environmental science. I started working in environmental planning which is basically sustainability consulting for retail management and felt like I was missing my calling. I was a girl who always loved fashion and personal expression and hadn't really opened up the space to consider that as a career option. At the time, I had just moved to New York and started to listen to my intuition for the first time. I started following my curiosity and that has to lead me to such wonderful places in the past 12 years.
On Flexibility Within Career Path
First, I went into marketing and digital, then into fashion and beauty. As I went more down the path, I went further into brand strategy, customer marketing, brand development, product development, and retail distribution. I was fortunate to give myself a lot of flexibility to pursue the ideas that I was interested in. Sometimes that meant taking on a new job and other times that meant looking at a certain job I was currently in with a different lens. Looking at it from a perspective of "we're doing this but what if we did that" and crafting the position I was in, to the position I wanted. I joined Who What Wear in a marketing role. Throughout my career, I've been good at figuring out how I can be an asset to the people I’m working for. Understanding what their role is and how their goals can align with my goals so we can go down that road together. I knew Katherine was interested in starting up a beauty brand and so I raised my hand to lead that role. With the help of an incredible in-house development team, Versed was born. I had been leading Versed through pre-everything (pre-distribution, pre-product, pre-branding) when Katherine asked me to take on the role of the General Manager of the brand. It was an incredible opportunity that at the time I didn’t even know I wanted. I was very fortunate to have her see that I had the ability to do something even before I even really did. Over the course of my career, it has been a combination of being really curious, having the conviction/my ideas and executing against those, and having people who supported me and helped create crazy opportunities that sometimes I didn't even know I wanted yet.
What are your main responsibilities as a General Manager for Versed?
I basically run all aspects of the day-to-day business of Versed and the vision for the brand/business over the next 1,2,3,4,5+ years. It's a big job, a fun job, and a very collaborative job because I'm not doing any of those things by myself. I lead our leaders in marketing, product development, creative, retail distribution, brand education, and eCommerce. My role is empowering them to be the best that they can possibly be in that role, not necessarily being the expert in the room but letting them be the experts of their given departments. I figure out how they need to be supported, what tools and resources they need, where they need me to give input along the way. Most of all, providing clear direction of what success looks like so we all have the same end goals and deadlines in mind.
What does a typical day (or week) like for you?
Like a billion meetings haha, typically 7 hours of meetings a day. I am definitely a person that blocks out all their work on a calendar so I get to everything.
What do you like most about your working for this company in the role of General Manager versus working in the role of Vice President of Marketing as you have in the past?
I've been fortunate enough to love a lot of the roles I've had or looked for ways to love it. I think to myself "What do I love about what I'm already doing and what would I love even more that I can incorporate into this role to make it a better fit?" Without a doubt, the best thing about what I get to do as GM of Versed is the people I work with. We inspire each other, we support each other and we push each other. We want every idea to be as strong as it can be and that means taking constructive feedback at times, reflecting on where things went great, and where things didn't go as planned. To be in an environment that's fully supportive and pushes me to be the very best, that's where I like to be as someone that likes to go a million miles a minute. It's been a great environment for that and for the charge to be destructive and create what can be the cleanest and most sustainable. It's so fun and rewarding, there are all these problems that we need to figure out. With work, specifically developing formulas, I've always said the answers are always out there. None of its impossible, but it takes a lot of work and having the right smart people sitting at the table. That has been so liberating as a millennial woman on a team of 95% of millennial women, seeing what we've been able to achieve makes it so rewarding and meaningful.
How did you get involved with working for Who What Wear?
I've followed them well over a decade. I remember when it was Who What Wear TV and just always loved what they were doing by creating content, leaning into digital, and making style accessible. I had a good friend I met through work that went to work at Who What Wear. During my role at Westfield, I lead a panel by SXSW on the Future of Retail, and Katherine's Head of Communications reached out to me and said "Katherine would be a great voice on this panel" and I said "Hell yea." Just about a year later, they had a position open up and my friend recommended me, and having that personal connection was a great way to go into that. It happened very quickly. In all the opportunities that I've worked out, it's kinda amazing how quickly they've come together. There have been times that I was looking for the next opportunity for what felt like years at a time, like pushing a boulder going up the hill and not going anywhere. Years and years of building a foundation and the changes can happen very quickly.
What do you enjoy most about the work you do? / What are you most excited about right now?
I love our new product. Every new product is about how can we make this something that hasn't existed before. That wasn't available clean, not available at the mass price point, that didn't do as it said it was going to do. We never wanna make something that pretty much exists and that's a lot of fun. I love leading our growth. We are looking at new international markets, and new distribution channels growing their direct-to-consumer site. I'm a very growth-minded person and that's one of the real joys about being in such an early stage business: there's a lot of opportunities out there. It's all about how you prioritize and execute each one and there's so much that is possible. Also, our clean positioning, sustainability positioning, how we interact with our community, and how we prioritize diversity and equity, are also things that are personally very important to me. Being able to bring those into my 8-6 makes it that mean that much more.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face day-to-day?
Ambiguity and ambition. As a start-up, there is no set road map, no playbook you inherit and you are first building a roadmap from scratch. You are figuring how to execute each thing on that roadmap and building a team from the ground up. Your needs and processes look so different from Y1 to Y2 to Y3 because your scaling so quickly. Now add in COVID and how much uncertainty that has brought, it has been hard to be a leader right now because all the uncertainties are compounded so much. However, I'm so so ambitious about the space because I believe clean skincare is for everyone and we're the ones that are getting to do that right now. I love how quickly we've moved into that and the impact we've been able to have. I like to build a rocketship and go big and fast but more importantly, I love to execute something that stands for something. It's always about balancing what we think we can achieve with the quality we can maintain and finding that edge/balance and keeping it.
On Staying True to the Brand/Executing Goals
For me, that’s always been having a strong north star, whether that be a vision board or a mission statement. That kind of thing that you can always come back to and say "Is this us, Is this not us?" Then, breaking down the hugest of goals into a week-by-week work plan. I think what we’ve been able to do is a testament to that because there are huge goals but by being real solid on the path to get there that’s how you make those big things happen.
How has it been for you to see the company grow into what it is today?
Of course, I think I have to say I expected it. But I will say, I had been working on the brand close to two years before it launched. You get to a certain point when your working on something but its not out there that you are like “gosh does this even matter to the world?”, “Will all the work I’ve been doing amount to anything?” The moment we saw it take off, it was a feeling that hit me to my core. To see other people loving the brand that we created, having amazing results from the products we put out there. Feeling like we had created an inclusive home that hadn’t existed in skincare. Seeing the numbers is great, but I don't think you can ever anticipate the feeling of connecting with people. It’s the one-on-one connections that seem to mean the most.
My Favorite Versed Products:
- Fix it Emergency Eye Mask: works like a Summer Friday's Jetlag mask dupe, the best thing everrrrrr for under eyes/ dark circles
- Stroke of Brilliance Serum: EWG certified, makes the appearance of skin brighter, helps with blemishes and acne scars
- Just Clarifying Serum: clears up inflammation/redness
- Zero-G Smoothing Eye Cream: works great for under eyes/dark circles in PM
Healthembody readers can get $5 off their first order with code: GOODSKIN5