Vanessa is an award-winning communications and brand executive, distinguished as a strategist, team-builder and creative risk-taker across not-for-profit, institutional, private and luxury sectors.
As the Chief Communications Officer at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of arts, culture, and the humanities, she is responsible for the full suite of Mellon’s communications efforts, including the public launch of the Foundation’s recent shift in strategic direction which places social justice at the center of all its grantmaking.
Previously the Chief Brand Officer at The University of California — widely recognized as the world’s most prestigious public higher education institution — she spearheaded multi-million dollar integrated marketing, advocacy, and communications programs alongside laser-focused targeted campaigns, frequently with small budgets but big impact.
Beyond her current role, Vanessa led the conception, design, production, brand and marketing for her sustainably-made cult luxury jewelry line, Coléoptère. Championing sustainable design and cradle-to-cradle practices, her work with Coléoptère helped open the dialogue around “slow” production in this luxury vertical.
Vanessa is frequently invited to speak on strategic communications, branding, and innovations in marketing, and is a vocal advocate for the power of design.
A dual citizen with a deep commitment to a global perspective, she’s lived across the US, Europe and South America.
Finish this sentence: I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for ________________.
…other women. The Creative Director who gave me my first design position, my clients…almost all women, colleagues, mentors and mentees, friends, creative collaborators, and of course, my mother, all brought me here.
What qualities do you look for when hiring someone on your team? What qualities do you avoid?
Thinking about the overall team dynamic is critical. But with that said, there are some shared qualities I look for — candor, curiosity, kindness, collaboration, confidence. Team members should be forthright, generous, and supportive with themselves and with others and seek to understand how their contributions fit within a larger strategic context. Each role benefits from a team member who is self-aware and has an understanding that successful work is done with others. Success in the workplace is almost always a shared outcome.
With that said, I’m not sure that there are consistently specific qualities I avoid — people are a mix of qualities, the impact of which is particular and peculiar to each individual — but it’s never helpful to be too self-serious or unaware of your surroundings. Reading a room is important.
Promote open positions outside of your usual platforms and look for referrals from unexpected places. Do not rely simply on your tight network, but instead be willing to stretch.”
What’s one piece of career advice you wish you could give to your younger self?
I once had a colleague pull me aside and ask, “Why don’t you speak more in meetings? You clearly have things to say, and you will speak candidly one-on-one.” My reticence was a mix of perfectionism and a lack of certainty, but the fact he was moved to ask me directly encouraged me to be more forthright and open in group settings. Once I was willing to do this, my career blossomed at a surprisingly faster pace. There was, clearly, a direct correlation. And, it’s important to remember that there are many ways to shape a full life — being open to something that doesn’t look like a traditional career trajectory is a very legitimate path forward. Creativity, flexibility, thoughtful confidence in your contributions — these qualities can be jet fuel for a career.
Which three books, podcasts or news sources do you think everyone should read? Why?
I’m not sure that I have a shortlist of three of anything. I take in a lot of different media, and I try to ensure there is a diversity of ideological perspectives in order to better understand the landscape in which I’m doing my work. Being culturally voracious is also important for what I do…so from moment to moment, my list of must-knows could veer from a museum show, the latest insight about social media or a playful podcast, or a book about gardening or about the importance of the Colorado River. Or just some cozy mystery. And I think it’s hard to assert things that are universally meaningful — so often, what a novel, or piece of investigative journalism, or philosophical musing, or data-driven report, or poem can give is predicated on what the reader is looking to receive, their experience, and how open they are to another’s thought and expertise. I have books that I return to over and over again. They are rich, complex, nuanced, and complicated…I understand something new about the world and myself when I revisit them.
Diversity, equity and inclusion is front and center right now. How do you express your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in your personal and professional life?
I haven’t historically foregrounded my own dual nationalities — Brazilian and American — but it has, of course, and undeniably, shaped me. And I am a lifelong and committed feminist, advocating for myself and other women in my professional and personal life. But perhaps the most important mode of expression of this commitment is through the work I’ve chosen to do every day. I’ve spent my career working in spaces that actively look to improve the lives of people, whether through raising awareness of critical social issues, government efforts, education, or philanthropy, ensuring that the most social, cultural, and economic opportunities are open to everyone.
What’s one tangible step every employer should take to help build a more representative organization?
Examine organizational tendencies in hiring. Too often, “cultural fit” is a convenient way to exclude excellent candidates who aren’t like you and the rest of the organization. Promote open positions outside of your usual platforms and look for referrals from unexpected places. Do not rely simply on your tight network, but instead be willing to stretch.