My First Job: A courageous path to CEO in Denver’s tech scene | Crain's Denver

My First Job: A courageous path to CEO in Denver’s tech scene

Melissa Risteff co-founded Denver-based Couragion in January 2015. | Photo courtesy of Couragion

Along with Laura Farrelly and Mike Castillo, Melissa Risteff founded Couragion in January 2015 with a mission to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology and math.

The company helps kids explore and figure out what is important to them, and connects them with appropriate role models via a mobile application.

Couragion was a 2016 class member in AT&T’s Aspire Accelerator, and the National Science Foundation awarded the company a $750,000 grant in February.

My First Job

My first job out of college was as a database marketer at General Electric. I was trying to use advanced profile methods that could do better and more predictive targeted marketing, and this was before data science was as sexy and fast growing as it is now.

What we found was that we needed some form of automation to solve a problem we were working on. We looked high and low, and found that there were no products on the shelf for what we needed. Ironically, we were looking for something that looks like Salesforce today.

When we didn’t find such a product, GE was keen to build a business around this need. They hired a team of consultants under my leadership and gave me a crash course on tech so I could handle it. They taught me everything about developing software.

As I was growing up at GE doing software development, I was recruited to become a Six Sigma Black Belt. In part because of that, Sun Microsystems recruited me soon after. They wanted me to come in and transform a knowledge management team, and eventually I moved into more of a strategy role in their educational services division.

Moving big to small

I’ve always had a great amount of respect for people who choose to work at big companies, but for me, there came a point when I started to feel like I wanted to move faster. I felt like I was spending a lot of time influencing other people and not enough time moving as fast as I wanted to.

There was a point when I started thinking more and more about that first job at GE, when my team was able to be more entrepreneurial. We ran up against a need, came up with a solution, and were able to get it to market very fast. That gave me a taste and I knew I wanted more.

After leaving Sun Microsystems, I worked at a few small companies. I fell in love with the tech and my teams. I loved the business analytics and enterprise collaboration worlds, which were extensions of what I did at GE and Sun Microsystems.

But what I was finding during that time was a lack of purpose.

A courageous transition

When we decided to found Couragion, there were a couple different dynamics at play. I knew that I wanted to be the leader, setting the vision and the pace. I also knew that I wanted to be with an organization that would have a social impact. 

As for why we chose this mission, I have been in tech in Colorado for 20 years. In all that time, I was constantly seeking diversity on my teams and, in general, having a hard time hiring. We just were not attracting women or people of color into the STEM fields. I wanted to change that and felt I had the experience to do it.

Moreover, I grew up in a rural community. I didn’t have access to a lot of role models in tech. My co-founder Laura Farrelly grew up in an urban community and felt the same way. Because we both arrived at the same problem, we felt it was something we could change.

Looking back

Having worked at big companies, I have a tendency to be partner driven. I think in terms of win-wins and about how to operate within larger ecosystems. That will never leave me.

I think that experience and perspective makes me a better leader. When you are being groomed to become an executive at a larger company, you gain a perspective you can’t gain at smaller organizations. I’ve always prided myself on understanding systems, and between those things, I think that when I decided to step into the CEO’s role, it felt natural.

Almost every job I’ve had was a result of me really going after it. There was always a craving to learn more and to take risks. At a certain point, though, I had to decide if I was climbing up the right ladder and that the ladder was on the right building for me.

This brings up the issue of women tending not to take the leap to become CEOs. They always want to do that one more thing before they feel prepared. I can relate to that. The first time I said out loud that I wanted to be a CEO, it was in the fall of 2014. The recruiter I was working with had given me all these great leads to various executive jobs, and they were all appealing, but I finally knew what I wanted and said it.

It’s interesting because after we announced Couragion, I had people emailing me asking, “What took you so long?”

April 17, 2017 - 12:00pm