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Meet Melissa Waters, Lyft’s Savvy Marketing Leader

Melissa Waters, Vice President of Marketing, Lyft

Alumna: Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Business MBA, ’07 and University of Houston, BA, Journalism, ‘99

As vice president of marketing at Lyft, Melissa Waters has risen quickly within the marketing ranks since graduating from Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Business in 2007, but her journey has not been perfectly smooth. On her first day at Lyft – also her first day at work after her third maternity leave – Melissa’s boss left the company, and she was handed responsibility for the department of 80 marketers. With an infant and two other small children at home, Melissa says she had never been so overwhelmed.

She bounced back quickly and is now thriving in her new role. Melissa has applied this same grit and determination to pivot from her early career in public relations for non-profits to marketing consumer packaged goods at Diamond Foods to technology marketing at Flip Video, Pandora and now Lyft. She has succeeded by building and leveraging a strong network, including mentors and team members, her husband, and her parents who have served as role models for how to manage career and family. Melissa pays it forward, too, often meeting over coffee with people who want to learn from her career journey and how she juggles it all with extraordinary results.

I had coffee with anyone who would talk to me.

After graduating with a degree in journalism, I worked in public relations and development for non-profits. I wanted to transition to the corporate world and needed more skills to do that. I found the MBA invaluable because it gave me exposure to different facets of business. Babson is a small, supportive community that applies theory to the pragmatic. They have an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, too, bringing together professors from different disciplines to solve cases together, which mimics real word executive teams.

Between my first and second years at Babson, I had a marketing internship at Home Depot in Atlanta. I brought coffee to entice people to talk to me so I could learn about the business. When Home Depot canceled its rotational program, I had to rethink my post-MBA path. Around this time, my husband got a job offer on the west coast. I didn’t know anyone here, and I was pregnant when we arrived. In the six months between arriving in San Francisco and having my baby, I had coffee with anyone who would talk to me. I had about 35 informational interviews.  It was a way for me to get to know San Francisco and the industries and companies here.

Once a week, I went to the plant, put on a hard hat, and got in the manufacturing line to see how the product was made and how operations work.

I felt like the next right step was to work for a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company. It is an ideal post-MBA place to land because they truly teach the fundamentals of marketing. Through my informational interviews, I learned that there was a healthy CPG market in San Francisco.

My first full-time job post-MBA was at Diamond Foods, where I got my feet wet with traditional packaged goods marketing. Once a week I went to the plant in Stockton, California, put on a hard hat, and got in the manufacturing line to see how the product was made and how operations work. As a brand manager, you own everything – not only the go-to-market strategy, but innovation, channels, promotions, pricing, shipping, margins. You become a general manager of your product.

What I didn’t love about CPG – which is what catapulted the next phase of my career to tech – is that it is more “set in stone.” You’re trying to move the business incrementally and do it better than your predecessor. The pace wasn’t motivating for me.

A colleague told me about an opportunity at Flip Video, saying, “It is all ex-CPG people who work there. You can get exposure to CPG thinking, but it is in the tech space so I think it would be a good fit.” That was the beginning of my tech career, and I haven’t looked back. I love it.

I go into meetings with product managers and say, “I want my team to be with you in the innovation phase. Bring us along from the beginning.”

I love the pace of innovation and the creativity of tech marketing. What you can think of, you can make. The possibilities of technology energize me. What I learned in other roles allowed me to be successful at Flip.

Often in tech marketing, a product manager hands the finished product to the marketing team and says, “Go sell the product.” Being an ex-CPG person, I go into meetings with the product managers and say, “I want my team to be upstream and work with you in the innovation phase. Bring us along from the beginning.”

Flip was a dream team of gold standard folks, but the business closed when I was nine months pregnant with my second kid.

I went on maternity leave and said, “I’ll see what happens.” My head of marketing at Flip went on to be the CMO at Pandora. He called me and said there was no marketing infrastructure and asked me to come help build it. When I started at Pandora, there were 450 employees and one marketer. Over five years, we built the marketing infrastructure to 60 people and managed 80 million unique monthly users.

I wanted an opportunity to build again. I joke with my team: “When it’s rinse and repeat, you won’t find me here.”

I love to build, and I like that about tech – you are building rather than maintaining. I wanted an opportunity to build again. I joke with my team: “When it is rinse and repeat, you won’t find me here.”

Over the summer of 2016, I was on maternity leave with my third child. I talked to a recruiter about the opportunity at Lyft, and I felt inspired by the possibilities. The ridesharing category is still in the very early stages and there is so much left to do.

My first day at Lyft, the president came to me and said: “The CMO is leaving, and you will lead the department.”

On my first day at Lyft, the president of the company came to me and said: “The CMO is leaving, we are restructuring the department, and you will lead the department as vice president of marketing.” This was a moment of huge change – on Day One at Lyft, I had a new job, a new team, and it was my first day after maternity leave. I also have two other school age children, and I had just been home with them for several months. It was a massive jolt and a really intense time.

Find someone who helps you take up more space in the world.

My husband said: “You are capable of this job. Once the intensity of this situation diminishes, you are going to recognize that this is an amazing opportunity.” I firmly believe one of the best decisions I made for my life and my career is who I married.

My husband and I both have examples in our families of equality in marriages and careers that we look to as role models. My parents both work full-time. My mom got a master’s degree when she had two little kids at home. I had someone say to me years ago: “Find someone who helps you take up more space in the world.” You want relationships that help you reach your potential, and that is true both personally and professionally.

The through-line in my career has been people. Staying networked has given me great opportunities.

My job is to be like an orchestra conductor – a conductor doesn’t sit in the principal violinist’s chair.

Hiring the right people is critical. I run a team of 80. It is not my job to be best at the role I am hiring for. My job is to be like an orchestra conductor – a conductor doesn’t sit in the principal violinist’s chair. They have a vision of what the sum total of the work will be, and they are here to get the best from the team.

Michelle Obama is an inspiration to girls all over the world.

Michelle Obama is a personal hero. She faced challenges growing up, went to Princeton, became a successful working mother and reluctantly became First Lady. Through that, she has become a guiding light and inspiration to girls and women all over the world.

Michelle Obama is an inspiration, but Melissa Waters may find that one day she, too, helps more women to be brave and not perfect.

Words that define her: Fearless
Advice for young women: Be bold. Be curious. Do informational interviews. Buy people coffee.
Personal time: With three kids, I am all work during the week and all kids on the weekends.
Favorite book: I give all the women I work with How Remarkable Women Lead. It is hands down the best book about women and leadership I have read.
Words of wisdom that inspire her: Brave before perfect
Song that makes her turn up the volume: “The Greatest” by Sia

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3 Responses to “Meet Melissa Waters, Lyft’s Savvy Marketing Leader”

  1. Amanda

    I loved reading this article and appreciate you sharing your story. Thank you for sharing a very motivational and inspirational message – be brave, not perfect!

  2. Sandra waters

    I am so proud of my Very Brave ,
    Not perfect daughter!!!
    You are an inspiration to me and I can’t wait to see what happens next!!
    So much love,
    Your imperfect, not so brave,
    Mom

  3. Michelle Clark

    This was the perfect encouragement for where I am in my career. Thank you for a great piece on a great example!

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