January 03, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
These women must have had great New Year’s Resolutions last year — look what they have accomplished! We are so proud to feature them as “Women to Watch” in this first of a two-part series and can’t wait to see where 2016 will take them.
It all started at 30,000 feet. Coco Meers had a problem to solve: she needed a manicure once her plane touched the ground. Thankfully, as a student at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, she was being groomed to create solutions for these very situations. Thus, PrettyQuick was born; an innovative app that offers hand-picked salons for quick and easy appointment booking, perfect for getting your beauty fix whenever and wherever the mood may strike (even mid-air).
“I was frustrated that, despite the plethora of things one could book on a mobile device, an eyebrow wax or blowout was not one of them,” Coco recalled. “After one more flight delay, I worked out the foundations of a business plan.”
It was not initially an easy road. “When I was developing PrettyQuick, there were numerous moments that felt a lot like failure. I had never worked in technology, never raised money before, never had to hire a full team before. I made countless mistakes, particularly across the areas of engineering, talent and financing. We actually built the complete wrong product when we first got started.”
Five years and thousands of salons later, that kernel of an idea is now the nation’s leading appointment marketplace for salon and spa services. “Time-pressed young professionals,” like Coco herself, were clicking and booking all across the country, causing some big names to take note. This past June, Meers sold the venture to Groupon for an undisclosed sum. Though she remains as general manager, overseeing all aspects of the ongoing business as well as work on the next stages of growth, the Alabama beauty is evaluating the next field to conquer.
“Big, but simple ideas, with simple execution and low adoption barriers” are top criteria. A former international brand marketer for L’Oréal, dividing time between their headquarters in New York and Paris, Meers was tasked with bringing new products to market in the cosmetic and haircare industries. This honed her ability to think ahead and analyze her market, leading us to believe coming up with the next household name of an idea will not be a problem for this entrepreneur.
“I am deeply passionate about building things. I feel so lucky to be able to create a better way with smart, talented people. That’s my number-one priority, no matter what industry it’s in. I love the beauty and fashion industries for the way they can empower women and bring out a woman’s natural confidence, but I am open to other industries so long as there are problems to be solved and solutions to build.” Coco stays actively involved with the start-up community and has recently begun investing in female founders.
“As simple solutions, the best ideas emerge when there are irrefutable pain points. Pain can be micro, in our individual consumer lives, or macro, in the larger human or ecological sense. I am constantly on the lookout for friction points in my own life,” she explained. Some of these may have changed since the development of PrettyQuick – Coco and her husband, Ethan Meers, now have daughter Poppy, 10-months to think about, meaning manicures may now have taken a backseat. “As a new parent and busy professional, I’m obsessed with apps like Radish (chef-prepared meal delivery in seconds) and Instacart (never go to a grocery store again). Big or small, good ideas have to solve real problems.”
Describing herself as “maniacal about what I am working on,” Coco feels that it is important to take a breather from trying to solve problems and just observe. “For me, travel is the best way to step out of execution mode and into the reflection mode. This winter, my Ethan and I have trips to Antigua, Jackson Hole and Morocco lined up to break with routine and come back with fresh eyes,” she shared.
Now, with the tailwind of Groupon behind her, and new trails to blaze ahead (in work and travel), Coco is going back to basics, working on chicken-and-egg solutions in marketplace strategy. “It’s what makes network effect businesses like OpenTable or Uber so hard — and so lucrative. We need strong voices on our team at all times who represent both merchant and member. No matter how great our technology is, it is irrelevant unless people are using it.”
With a key role in “Domesticated” (now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre), two films currently screening on the festival circuit, and an audition for a Tracy Letts play, Melanie Neilan has 2016 at her feet.
“In “Domesticated,” a drama with a ton of comedy, I play an über-smart, extremely acidic, sarcastic teenager. One of my favorite scenes is when I impulsively throw a bowl of oranges off the table to express my anger at my dad,” she said. “I have learned so much from writer/director Bruce Norris.
“I am currently attached to three film projects, one, a short film that deals with a hard-hitting and relevant social issue that the filmmakers want to develop into a full-length feature. My manager, Nancy Scanlon, is developing, under the banner of her company Au Courant, a biopic set in the Victorian era, and I will play a starlet. My current films include My First Love, in which my character transfers her love notes on Hostess CupCakes.”
A purple belt in karate, Melanie has studied since childhood at the Irina Makkai Classical Ballet & Dance School in Highland Park. Dividing her time between Chicago and Los Angeles, she trains in ballet in Santa Monica. Melanie was a founding ensemble member of A Red Orchid Youth Ensemble. “I look up to Michael Shannon, who is a founding father of A Red Orchid Theatre, as he has always been one of my longtime acting heroes, and I admire so much his current work in ‘Boardwalk Empire,’” she shared.
Her greatest hero of all and lifelong mentor, however, is her grandmother Merle Reskin, beloved Chicago arts patron, actress, and singer. Merle, an actress and singer who, along with her husband Harold, saved the historic Blackstone Theatre, which is now a part of DePaul University and bears her name.
She was in attendance at the opening night of “Domesticated,” with her daughter, Melanie’s mother Leslie Neilan.
“Merle played the role of Ensign Janet MacGregor in the original Broadway cast of ‘South Pacific.’” This wasn’t a road show either; it was the real deal,” Leslie said. “I remember when Melanie was five, my mom was being presented with an award for philanthropy and she brought Melanie up onstage, too. Melanie looked at the audience and gave a royal wave. I knew then that she loved being in front of audiences.”
Melanie says there’s something particularly terrific about this strong bond between the women in her family. She cites her grandmother as “the potent force driving my love of the craft; without her stories and passion for the arts, I would not have discovered the world of theatre in quite the same way. And her humor always keeps me laughing.”
She is similarly influenced by mom, Leslie: “My mother’s turn headlong into the field of producing is one of the most inspirational things I have ever seen. She has a real gift for storytelling and [is] unbelievably insightful. I hope to be a part of a horror film she and my agent Nancy Scanlon hope to produce.”
Leslie Neilan will be producing her first feature film this year based on a story she has written called The Book of Leah. She and Alan Roth, recipient of an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fellowship, are the screenwriters. She has two other children, Sean and Spencer, who are both engineers.
Looking forward to 2016, Melanie hopes to spend more time in Los Angeles, particularly during pilot season. “I want to continue to work in theatre and film, and break into television. I’d love to find more ways to express my love for languages, singing, dancing, unicycling and yodeling.” Yodeling? “Most of my friends know I yodel, so if I see them across the street, I yodel, and they know it could be no one else but me,” Melanie said. “Yodeling is a random and surprising thing. When I do it, it gives me great joy.”
To explore uncharted waters is Dianne Campbell’s resolution for any year. In the not-for-profit world, no one works harder at making a great idea a reality. As founding director of both Lincoln Park Village and the Chicago Children’s Museum, she loves to start organizations from the ground up and develop entrepreneurial relationships. As executive director of Lincoln Park Village, she keeps grassroots efforts going.
She has worked recently with Northwestern University to help develop planyourlifespan.org, a free website used to plan for health events that can happen with age. She recently met with the founders of the start-up, Luna Lights, to see how the Village might assist in a new approach to nighttime fall safety.
“They have invented a unique pressure pad and small portable lights to reduce fall risk and detect falls if they happen. They are onto something big and important, and I hope we can help,” she explained. “Leveraging the experience and wisdom of our members for the public good is something I love to do.”
Lincoln Park Village is part of a national movement started by other entrepreneurs in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in 1999. There are almost 200 Villages around the country. “We are a not-for-profit collaborative that helps its members, now 423 people strong, to lead vibrant and secure lives,” Dianne said. “It connects members to each other and to trusted resources and provides opportunities to learn, grow and give back.”
Membership begins at age 50, and activities offered for this month include meditation, learning to play the banjo, mastering the Apple Watch, memoir writing with Beth Finke, touring the Chicago Tribune’s printing plant, and dining at new local restaurants. “In 2016, we want to expand to include more service volunteers, such as drivers and tech helpers, and to support member requests,” she said. “We are launching a series of programs to support people navigating the transition from their current job into what’s next in their lives. We will celebrate our seventh anniversary with a benefit on June 21.”
Wife of lawyer and author Tom Campbell, Dianne is beloved because of those small acts of kindness not in her job description, such as taking a member who needs to talk out for tea, visiting people in the hospital, treating someone for a manicure to perk them up, or simply knowing what an individual member might need on a particular day.
Former Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago executive Ruth Ann Watkins serves as board president of Lincoln Park Village: “Another board member told me recently that they had been on many boards and that she is the best executive director they had ever seen,” Ruth Ann said. “She is masterful in connecting people and ideas which have resulted in friendships among members and innovative and strong partnerships both in Chicago and across the country. She is an ardent advocate who never sees a problem that can’t be solved.”
Dianne is a “Woman to Watch” because she is both savvy and sensitive to others. As non-profits meet funding and numbers challenges in 2016, she is someone to both hold the course and navigate an organization into new directions. “I am attracted to the adventure of helping build useful and sustainable enterprises. What I love most is bringing people together to make a great idea a reality,” Dianne shared. “I love galvanizing the talents, hearts and minds of a variety of people, all of whom have gifts to give, to work together to build something that can make a difference in people’s lives.”