We had the good fortune of connecting with Zoë Melo and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Zoë, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Many of my life’s greatest achievements required me going outside of my comfort zone. Whether it meant moving to another country, choosing between becoming a doctor or a fashion model, overcoming shyness to perform onstage, or investing money to start my own business. For me, taking risks isn’t just about the outcome, but the process in and of itself. As a dream-chaser since a young age, I remember analyzing the risks I wanted to take in order to achieve my goals. But not always you have a clear picture of the outcome. In the early 80’s, I was 18 when my family sent me to New York to study English. After living there for six months with my brother, I fell in love with the city. When I finished my course, I returned to Brazil, and at that point I had to make a decision between going back to school to become a doctor or start my courier as a fashion model. I had to choose between security versus uncertainty, and at the end I took the risk that has given me valuable personal and professional experiences. Late 1999 I was already living in Los Angeles when I was hired to do a photoshoot for French photographer Veronique Vial, one of the photos was for her end of the year 2000 postcard. I remember that it was during this photoshoot that I decided to quit my modeling career. The photo represents a lot of what was going through my mind at the moment, I was questioning about the impact of the fashion industry in our environment, over consumption, etc. And that’s when I realized I wanted to do something completely different than being in front of a camera. The process of navigating a new beginning meant a process of self-reflection. I continually found myself wondering about such existential questions as: What is coming next? And how to start? But one thing was clear to me. Whatever I would do must be good for people and planet. During my time as a model, I also worked in projects with very talented artists, designers, and interior designers, and was passionate about crafts and artisans communities. Six months after that last photo shoot, I launched my first exhibition at SALT store on Abbott Kinney in Venice. The exhibition showcased the work of designers and artisan communities from around the world. Each product was hand made using natural or recycled materials, and they had a beautiful stories behind them. When I began, I had no idea what the outcome would be, but at the end it was a tremendous success. Later a friend introduced me to the founders of Artecnica Inc and after our first meeting, I was thrilled to be hired to direct the Product Development department of the company. There I worked with renown product designers from various part of the world and traveled to develop the products in artisan communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia for the campaign “Design With Conscience”. At Artecnica I was able to learn the necessary skills of the design industry that gave me enough confidence to later start my own business. As an entrepreneur, I learned quickly that we must go up against tremendous odds to build a successful business. But even in the beginning, I never thought about the risk of failing, I still see it more as an experimentation to improve the chances of achieving future goals.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
After working for few design companies, I started my own consulting firm as a liaison between designers, manufacturers, corporations, and non-profit organizations around the globe, collaborating, interfacing and guiding all parties along the way to transform concepts into successful products, with a special focus on sustainability. In 2006 I was recognized by Dwell magazine as a Nice Modernist for my work with social and sustainable design. In 2007, I was encouraged by Brand designer Peter Scherrer to start a business together. We rented a large space in Culver City and launched TOUCH, a brand that develops, markets and promotes social and sustainable design projects. We also consulted brands and designers on a variety of projects worldwide. After our first exhibition during New York Design Week, TOUCH received worldwide attention and media coverage. And that’s when we realized we were on the right path. For the next year we were very busy consulting clients, curating exhibitions, producing and selling products to stores and museums, as well as giving lectures at design schools and events. We also created our first low-down, a trend report with focus on design for a better world, the needs, lifestyles and choices of the global community and where it would be heading, today and beyond. When the markets crashed in 2008, TOUCH lost a few clients and we decided to move to a smaller space to reduce our overhead. But even with all the uncertainty, TOUCH continued to grow with new projects and clients. I quickly learned that, as a small business, we constantly face unexpected challenges. Patience, vision and persistence is the key. In 2015 Peter and I had a meeting about our future goals and at the end we decided to take different path. It was very challenging for both of us since we really liked working together. Peter had a very important role as a partner and director of the brand and marketing. So obviously I knew it would be difficult for me to continue without him, but after few weeks, I made the decision to continue running the company and Peter helped me through the transition. After 6 months, TOUCH evolved into a social design enterprise. I partnered with a business expert and a long-time designer collaborator, and we re-designed the business model with focus on the collective impact; not just individual return. We named it ‘Business to Social Business’. A social design enterprise working with designers, artisan communities, brands and collaborators that build meaningful partnerships into every project we undertake between the public, private and social sectors to sustainably scale solutions from social, environmental and business perspectives. Funding is by far the biggest challenge for this type of business model. Given that most of the social entrepreneurs are individual entities, it is therefore difficult to accumulate enough funds at the beginning. But with our expertise and community engagement we have been able to create the pilot model of “Neighbors by Design”, a community centered design platform, and a Live Experience event that was very engaging and everyone was very happy to be part of it. The past year with COVID, we had to cancel our events, but were able to work on few projects with Del Rey neighborhood council making masks for low-income people, hospital workers and assistant living elders. As well as the planning of MODA.DOC, a documentary film about sustainable fashion in Latin America, from concept to business model of a community center for women in Kenya and started a new collaboration with Portuguese brand MANICOMIO that creates products made by artists and designers with mental health problems. I truly believe that a social entrepreneur can play a big role in changing the way people live their lives. Whether it is the people we work with or the causes we espouse, social enterprises are game changers and very welcome in today’s complex world. What sets us apart, is our international multidisciplinary background that enables us to tackle challenges related to developing holistic products and projects with circular solutions in mind. Sustainability to us is not a theory, but the fundamental basis of our work.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
First of all, see LA from above at Griffith Park Have tacos at Grand Central Market Walk around Echo Park Lake Visit the Getty, ICA LA museums and pose in front of streetlights at LACMA Achieve farm-to-table dreams at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Relax on the sand at Point Dume State Beach Take a scenic drive around the Palos Verdes Peninsula Bike the strand along the coast Have an oceanfront, roadside meal at Neptune’s Net Visit my favorite Design stores on Abbott Kinney, West 3rd Street, Silver Lake and ROW DTLA Eat some whole food plant based at Cafe Gratitude in Venice. Have brunch at Metro Cafe in Culver City. Have them over for dinner, drinks and watch a movie in our backyard. ( 6′ apart).
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My shoutout goes out to all my collaborators, volunteers, partners, clients, family and friends. Much love and gratitude!!! A special shout out to Mason Lee, my partner in life. Peter Scherrer, my former business partner who has played a huge role in starting my own business. Audrey Stimson who has been a great supporter and collaborator. Aurora Meneghello, the founder of ‘Repurpose your Purpose’ for the support. Brett Heeger, Attorney at Law firm GGH for his valuable advises. Anita Doron, Valentina Vandeveld and Natalia Menhem, my very special TEDx team. Marcella Echavarria, Life style specialist for believing in our work since the beginning. Liz Comstock, my neighbor who was the first to join ‘Neighbors by Design’ project. Books: Massive Change by Bruce Mau Clay Water Brick by Jessica Jackley Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development by Vandana Shiva Wabi-Sabi: For artists, designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren