While we might be biased, our Co-Chair for this year’s Stepping Out in Style event, Melissa St. John, is a true diamond in the rough. Melissa has long embodied passion and persistence, even in the face of tragedy and hardship. Her story is a true inspiration demonstrating how hard work and the power of women helping women is truly one of the greatest assets we have as a community.
Melissa’s story starts long before she bought her business. As a young girl, her admiration for her father and his wisdom knew no bounds. Spending many years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway watching the annual Indy 500 race, she grew up surrounded by men while watching a male-dominated sport. Then one day, a woman drove onto the track and really sparked Melissa’s interest. The driver was Lyn St. James, one of a small group of women who have qualified for the Indianapolis 500, leaving an incredible impact on Melissa. It was in that moment—when Melissa witnessed a woman race and compete in a man’s sport— that she realized she could do whatever she put her mind to, just as any man could. Lyn would go on to say, “if you have not crashed, you are not driving fast enough”, a motto Melissa has applied to her own life repeatedly.
In early 2006, Melissa found herself at a pivotal point in her life; she had recently lost a child due to post-surgical complications for congenital heart defects, she had a 7 year old and a newborn, and she was leaving a marriage due to her husband’s addiction struggles and stress from the loss of a child. Melissa also had a huge opportunity: to purchase Relocation Strategies. Heeding the advice of those whose opinions she valued most, Melissa took a chance and was able to secure a home equity line of credit for the deposit to purchase her business on November 1, 2007, which is documented as the first day of the recession.
Melissa fought through a recession to find new clients to fuel her business as all of the corporate client accounts she purchased in the acquisition were permanently on hold. Struggling to find her footing as a new business owner, as a newly single mother, and as the breadwinner for her household, the day-to-day was a ferocious uphill battle, but worth it. Melissa doesn’t know what she would have done without the support of her family and close-knit community for support. Recalling the hours and the dedication she committed to the business, especially in such a brutal economic downturn, Melissa admits if she would have known about Dress for Success Indianapolis as a resource, she would have, without question, taken advantage of the wonderful opportunities and services they offer and share.
After securing her WBE Certification in 2008, Relocation Strategies was asked to provide services for the Indiana Convention Center as they were specifically looking for a woman-owned business. She attributes securing this key contract to helping her business turn a corner and truly become the dream business she always wanted. Through NAWBO-Indianapolis, Melissa was able to meet other like-minded women business owners, fostering a support network of encouraging women. Melissa notes that, on average, a woman will tell 27 people that you did a good job, where a man will tell one, meaning the more women we surround ourselves with to support, refer, introduce, and build-up, the more likely we are to see women succeed.
Without a strong base and support group, Melissa doesn’t think she could weather the storms of being a business owner. “It’s important to include women whose skill sets are different from yours so there is a balance to what strengths each woman brings,” says Melissa. “Surrounding yourself with women you can trust is so important when taking steps to keep moving forward. Helping the women behind you to move forward is the only way. Look for people who lift you up, help you grow, recharge you, challenge you, and lend a hand when you need it. You must return the support to others and give back.” As Melissa’s mentor says, “She was climbing a ladder and was reaching back to pull me up; my job was to turn around and lift others up.”
After hitting a second recession in 2020 and having to pivot her business for a second time, one thing is for certain: Melissa is no stranger to adapting to change. With so many projects on hold and once again having to reframe what offerings and services her company provides, she has managed to make the right decisions again and come back out on top.
In her own words, Melissa recalls buying her business. “Fifteen years later, I can honestly say that buying my business was the best decision I have made in my life. I used my gut, my heart, and my brain since I knew my kids and time were most important to me. I would make this work since I loved my job so much!”
Over the course of her career, Melissa has learned some important lessons she’d like to share with others to inspire them to keep moving forward:
- If you don’t ASK, you don’t GET.
- Choose wisely who you spend time with. You become most like the five people you spend the most time with.
- Don’t be afraid to crash. If you have not crashed, you are not driving fast enough.
- Find a seat at the table to volunteer.
- Don’t follow your dreams… create them and make them happen.
- Leverage your resilience to overcome challenges. As Melissa’s dad would say, “Be a duck and let water roll off your back. Keep swimming, keep driving, keep paddling in your boat.”
- Find your passion and you will never work a day in your life.
- Be better, not bitter.
We’re incredibly proud to have a leader like Melissa involved in our organization and are continually inspired by her every day! We hope these lessons will help you in your own journey of passion and persistence.