Ampersand Women: Erin Allweiss & Melody Serafino of No. 29
June 12, 2014 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Melody (left) & Erin in front of a work by Andrés Carranza.
When I first met today’s Ampersand Women—Erin Allweiss and Melody Serafino of No. 29 — I knew they were destined to be bosses.
And in the fall of 2013, they took the leap, opening up their own New York-based communications firm. Since then, they’ve been thoughtfully telling the stories of an impressive mix of business leaders, organizations, artists, and individuals. The common thread? “All of our clients are actively moving the proverbial needle and making the world better,” says Erin.
We recently met up at Pioneer Works (a No. 29 client) in Red Hook to discuss business-building, lessons learned, and the thrill of calling your own shots.
How did you end up in communications?
Melody Serafino: Honestly, I never imagined it. I always thought I wanted to work in television and even interned for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in college, but despite my incredible experience, I didn’t feel very challenged or inspired by that path. The first job I got out of college was in PR, and I immediately fell in love with the fast-paced and ever-changing nature of it. I loved having the opportunity to work with interesting people to shape their stories, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Erin Allweiss: I thought I was going to be an environmental lawyer. I began my career in Washington working on policy issues for Oxfam, but quickly realized I preferred the excitement of turning a study or legislative action into news. Really, it boiled down to the fact that I love to tell stories, and it’s hard to imagine a better place to have honed my skills than on Capitol Hill, working for an extraordinary member of Congress (Earl Blumenauer) and for organizations like ONE and NRDC. I was thrown into the deep end, and it was the best training.
What lessons have you learned since starting your own firm?
EA: That we’re building a life, not just a business. When we started No. 29, we knew we’d be spending most of our time working, so we laid out two rules: 1) do what we love, and 2) work for businesses, organizations, and people we respect. It makes our work easier, and enriches our lives. The other lesson is communication. Having a business partner is like any serious relationship, and we have to collaborate on a daily basis. Melody and I complement each other, so for the most part, it’s pretty effortless.
MS: When we first started No. 29, Erin and I talked through the things that were important to us and how we wanted them to be reflected in the way we run our business. We often joke that we are life partners, but to go into business with someone, you need to see your relationship that way.
We both believe in these two things: 1) Don’t be afraid to be honest with clients. The benefit of running your own business is that you have ownership over the types of clients with whom you work. Clients hire us for our expertise and ability to work as an extension of their team, so we want to ensure we are delivering as much value as possible and setting everyone up for success. 2) It’s not about how many hours you work a day; it’s about how you use those hours. I’ve always believed this, but now I can actually live it.
What’s your personality at work in three words?
MS: Focused, energetic, curious.
EA: Energetic, (com)passionate, kinetic.
When you were little, what did you want to be?
MS: A milkman (yes, man, not woman). It’s ironic because I’ve never liked milk.
EA: An environmental lawyer.
When you “grow up,” what do you want to be?
MS: Able to give back to the communities and causes that I love in a more significant way.
EA: Doing exactly what I do now, but with a bigger team.
Not that kind of intercourse. This kind of Intercourse.
Best advice you ever got?
EA: My mom, who finds joy and fun in everything she does, told me that every ten years, you’ll look back and wonder, “Why wasn’t I kinder to myself, and why did I take everything so seriously?” So, I try to pretend I’m ten years older than I am, telling my “younger” self to adhere to that wisdom.
MS: “You can sleep when you’re dead.” – my dad
What do you wish you’d known when you started working?
MS: I started my first job two weeks after I graduated college. I was so anxious to start working and move to New York City that I barely gave myself a moment to recalibrate. Most of us will work for the majority of the rest of our lives. I sometimes wish I’d taken a beat before diving in headfirst.
EA: It’s okay if you don’t take the LSAT.
Do you have a style philosophy?
EA: Don’t force it. If you feel uncomfortable before you’ve even left the house, it will only get worse. Go with gut instinct, and always wear funky shoes.
MS: It’s not about the labels. It’s absolutely possible to look great without shelling out a heart-attack-inducing amount of money. All you need is a good eye and a bit of creativity.
If you could have a power lunch with anyone, who would it would be?
MS: I read Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra a couple of years ago and have been infatuated with her ever since. Talk about a power lunch!
EA: Eleanor Roosevelt and Lena Dunham.
If I could have happy hour with anyone, who would it be?
MS: Zelda Fitzgerald. I’d love to get inside her head, which I imagine might take a few drinks to do.
EA: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Carol Kane.
EA: …too often defined by the amount of money someone makes. Success to me is a full life, which means something different to everyone.
MS: … being proud of the work that you do and never having to compromise who you are or what you believe in to make a comfortable living.
EA: …best when found in unexpected moments.
MS: … important and possible. Don’t waste your time doing things that make you unhappy even if they are the safe bets; you’ll thank yourself later.
MS: Following trends.
EA: Brooklyn. (Not true; I just want the NYT to stop driving up rent and real estate).
MS: Handwritten notes.
What’s your motto?
MS: Treat everyone with equal respect. My parents drilled this into me. Though it seems obvious, it’s shockingly lacking in practice. People remember those who treat them well (and those who don’t!). You never know where someone will end up, and you can control how you’ll be remembered.
EA: Who Dat!
Wait, we’re not finished yet! See how Erin and Melody get it all done:
– Interview & photos by Tory Hoen
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