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A Vision of Success: Monica Monte on How Poverty in Childhood Shaped Her Career

Now a successful businesswoman, Monica Monte remains driven by the vision she created for herself as a child growing up in poverty.

“I always knew that getting a degree and having a career was a mandatory part of my future,” she says, “because I didn’t want to repeat the cycle of poverty that I had grown up in.”

As chief marketing officer for Real Agent Pro in Rochester, N.Y., she has actualized her dreams of building both a successful personal and professional life for herself. In between getting married and raising two daughters, Monte earned her MBA at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business school and has since accumulated years of corporate and startup experience in marketing and management. She also makes time to give back to her community by volunteering and serving on nonprofit boards.

We recently spoke with Monte, an alumna of The Consortium, about how her education and varied experience have helped her in her career and what lessons she has learned along her path to success.

What role has your background played in your career decisions and success?

The fact that I pursued college in the first place was because of my background. I grew up very poor, I grew up in group homes and foster homes, and I knew that I wanted a better life for myself when I grew up. I knew that education was the key to changing the dynamics for my future and me.

So, from childhood, I always knew I wanted to get an education. There was no question that I was going to go to college, and I worked in a hospital as a teenager to help pay for my education.

I hated being poor. I hated being hungry. I wanted security. I wanted to be self-sufficient. I wanted to be able to take care of myself and take care of my family, so college was going to happen.

What prompted your decision to leave your long-time employer Bausch + Lomb?

I was there for 22 years. I had a great career there. It was actually the only place I worked full time outside of internships because I had so many different opportunities there; there was never any reason to leave. I just kept advancing and having a lot of unique, challenging opportunities. I was in human resources for four years and spent the rest of the time building my marketing career.

I did not leave there by choice. They got bought out by Valeant; they pretty much gutted the company here in Rochester. I left there in 2013.

Did it just happen that you found the job in real estate, or was that an area you had wanted to move into?

Actually, my son-in-law is an entrepreneur, and … he was excited about the opportunity to have a senior leader help him build his company, Real Agent Pro. So, I started on the ground floor, kitchen-table planning, and since it was in its infancy, I joined the team in both an operations and marketing capacity. I helped set up the business from the ground up.

Obviously, I’m not used to the startup environment, so that was a good learning opportunity for me.

The company has since grown. It was on Inc 5000’s List of America’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies — we were number 308 — and on the Rochester Chamber Top 100 as one of the area’s fastest-growing privately owned businesses; we were No. 7 for 2018.

What role did you play in helping the company take off?

My son-in-law and I are the ying and the yang. He’s an entrepreneurial salesperson. He has the go-go-go vision. He wants to do things, move forward. I am from corporate. I want to make sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed — planning, ensuring that there’s quality assurance and processes and procedures. So he has his foot on the gas pedal, and I have my foot on the brakes; together, we move the car forward.

My role was to put that kind of infrastructure in place, or at least provide the guidelines, insights and advice to do that.

How has your MBA helped you in this role?

So, I talk about this a lot because my son-in-law pulled himself up by his bootstraps instead of [through] traditional education. He didn’t get an advanced degree, but I always tell him that the fundamental business principles will be a linchpin of the success of our company. You can move forward, but if you create a business on a weak foundation, it’s going to eventually crumble.

So, those fundamental business principles, those sound principles that have built all the successful companies we know today, need to be applied to our organization. I understand that the entrepreneur gets things done. That’s [good], but if you don’t have the fundamental business principles [in place], you’re going to make a lot more mistakes than you need to. Obviously, we still make mistakes, but you want to minimize those.

The entrepreneur can self-learn, and nothing’s wrong with that — you have to continuously learn — but through the MBA, you get connected more quickly to the best insights, proven, tested insights that have made companies succeed or fail. So I’ve always been able to say, “Well, I already know companies have tried this or have tried that, or here are resources that we should leverage.”

Do you still manage your own marketing and communications business on the side? What has that experience been like?

I had to put that aside to pursue this.

I was putting my business plan in place for that and doing some marketing and communications consulting, but it got interrupted.

What I can say is … because I’ve spent five years building this startup company, when I go back to my own marketing communications company, I think I will be more successful. [With] my MBA, my corporate experience and my entrepreneurial startup activities, I will be able to run any business that I ever imagine.

My experience is 360; it is wide and deep now. I’ve learned things that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn in corporate America. There are so many resources in corporate America that are not in the startup community, which forced me to learn new things that I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to learn otherwise. Now I can apply that to anything I do in the future.

My tool belt is complete. I have the education I need. I have the corporate experience I need. I have the entrepreneurial experience. So, I feel very secure and very happy with everything that has come together for me.

I understand that you have served on the board of Hillside Children’s Center for 15 years and as chair of the board from June 2016 to June 2018. Why is it important to you to make time beyond your professional life to remain active and involved in your community?

[With] Hillside, it’s not necessarily that I was looking for board membership. It’s good to do and I would have done that, but I specifically wanted to be engaged with Hillside because I had been in a children’s home myself.

I was also elected to its board of governors, which oversees all of the boards. So, in addition to being on the Hillside Children’s Center board, I’m on the board of governors for the Hillside Family of Agencies.

Beyond Hillside, is it important to you to do nonprofit work?

Yes. I would have joined a board at some point because I like sharing my insights, my knowledge, my expertise to help support and build my community.

Even before I was on the boards, I always volunteered to speak to youth — mostly high school kids in low-socioeconomic areas — to help inspire them to see that no matter what their circumstances are, they can break out [of that] and be successful. Whatever their dream is, whatever their vision is, they can achieve it, and I’m an example of that.

The reaction from the kids is very powerful for me, to see that they feel inspired and hopeful that they can achieve whatever dreams are in their own mind, [that] “if she can do it, I can do it.”

Everybody has a different mantra when sharing with the kids; mine was about education. I told them the only reason — besides my own drive — that I’ve been able to be successful is because I stuck with education. I made sure that I graduated with honors from high school and college and then went on to graduate school.

The key to success is education, and I told them, no matter what’s happening to them, don’t drop out of school; find a way to get it done.

What role did The Consortium play in your pursuit of an advanced degree and in your career?

The Consortium made my desire to get an advanced degree possible. It made it easy for me to focus on just making sure I was doing the work I needed to do to get the education, to get the degree, without having to have the financial burden, without having to juggle a job. And I had two kids when I went to graduate school. So, The Consortium’s support made it possible for me to pursue the degree in an expedient way. I was able to go full time and get it done.

I went straight from undergraduate to graduate school because I had seen so many people who worked and then weren’t able to go back, especially those who had kids. I know it is good to work and then get an MBA, but it doesn’t work out like that for everyone. But that’s not a reason not to pursue it; I am proof of that. Doing it the way you need to do it, as long as you’re getting it done, is the best path, because if I had said, “Well I’ll just wait, I’ll see if I can work first,” I don’t know if I would have been able to get back into that mode.

What do you believe is the driving force behind your success thus far?

From my childhood, I have always been good at vision-casting for myself. I’ve always had a vision of how I wanted to live my life, how I wanted to spend my time on this Earth. I focus on how our time here is limited, and so how do I want to spend that time? I just have a vision of what I want to do, and then I do anything I can to achieve that goal.

From childhood, I knew that I wanted to have security and an education, and that’s what I got. Once I had my education, I knew that I wanted to have a successful career, so that’s what I planned for. Obviously, I have personal vision-casting as well, as far as being a mother and wife, but from a business perspective, I always had that vision.

What are your hopes and goals for your future?

I want to continue leveraging all the experiences I’ve had. I want to circle back to my own marketing and communications vision. At this point in my life, I feel like I can focus on the things that I have fun doing. Obviously every job has things that you love and things that you hate, but at this point in my life, I can carve out a niche and focus only on the things that I love doing.

Do you have any recommendations for young, aspiring business people — students, corporate leaders and entrepreneurs?

For entrepreneurs, I say, to match your vision and drive, make sure you also have the underlying principles that traditional businesses use to build a strong foundation, which means you may need partners, people who have skills that you don’t have.

For people pursuing advanced degrees, make sure you stick with it no matter what obstacles come up.

Years ago, a friend of mine, who’s now the president of Complemar, … was trying to decide if he should get his MBA. He had a new baby, and he said, “Well, it takes two years, and I have a heavy workload, so I don’t know — two years is a long time.” And I said, “Yes, two years is a long time, but the only thing you know for sure is that the two years is going to go by no matter what you do. So, the only decision you have to make is whether, at the end of that two years, you want to have an MBA or not. That’s the only decision that’s in your control.” He said that made the decision for him. He ended up getting his MBA, and now he’s the president of his company.

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