Athlete, Warrior, Social Impact Fighter, San Francisco
I was impressed and a little intimidated by Vanessa when we first met. She was the woman who casually mentioned that she rode her bike to another town and back (100 miles, no problem, all before the rise of the South African sun) was a speed reader, worked on removing barriers to adopting cryptocurrencies for emerging economies and was training for an Ironman. She also divulged that she named and was fighting Ursula, a tumor that revealed itself during her friend’s graduation ceremony. “Ursula has tentacles, malicious intent, is relentless, and really f***ing hard to kill.” Sense of humour is added to the list of impressive qualities and talents.
I quickly learned that Vanessa does not give up easily nor does she take NO for an answer when it comes to pursuing her dreams. Her actions have intent and she possesses incredible discipline while setting (and tracking) goals. “Ursula has taught me a lot in this process, most importantly how to deal with uncertainty of this disease (every treatment option has ~30% effectiveness rate and the sample sizes are tiny)“, Vanessa writes in a Medium piece documenting entire experience.
I admire Vanessa’s open book approach to adversity. It has proven to welcome wide support from her immediate circle but also from a large network of strangers around the globe. It encouraged others to reach out to their support system in the times of struggle and pain. “You’re a true warrior”, someone wrote in response to Vanessa’s story. Another reader was encouraged to check a lump on his chest that went ignored for years. THAT is inspiration, positivity and strength.
Of course Vanessa, true to form, was an open book in the WOW Woman answers, and absolutely crushed it. I didn’t expect anything less! True gold fears no fire, is the Chinese proverb in Celo’s motto (Vanessa’s workplace). I think it perfectly encapsulates this WOW Woman and her strength, determination, generosity and kindness.
2. Where is your hometown?
3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?
Partner at Celo.
4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career-wise)? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of, and what was the turning point to set you on a current path in life?
My parents are both immigrants, my dad from Croatia and my mom from Canada. They met in a small town called Los Gatos in California, after my dad was forced to flee Chile during the Pinochet regime. Neither of my parents attended university but both understood the value of a good education. Every night before bed, as my dad was tucking me in (in addition to making sure the walkway was clear in case of a fire emergency), he said “school is number one”.
I navigated the college admissions process on my own, selecting Cal State Long Beach because my best friend wanted to go there, Cal Poly because I heard it was beautiful, and University of California, Davis and Sacramento State because they were driving distance from home. Unbeknownst to me, I accidentally selected “Early Decision” at Cal Poly, which means you find out in December, months before other schools, and you have to make a decision with imperfect information. The youngest of three children and the most stubborn, I knew I had to get away from home to develop my own sense of identity. Despite my dad’s insistence that I should live at home and save money and that we couldn’t afford school if I lived away from home, with my mom’s support, I signed the loan paperwork for Cal Poly and accepted.
Because I was Early Decision, I ended up in Tower Zero of the Sierra Madre dorms, of which all students were Early Decision too. It was here in Tower Zero that I met my best girl friends, with whom I’m still close.
5. What did you study in school?
I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which requires you to declare your major when you apply. So at the ripe age of 17, I chose Graphic Communication, following my love of art and creativity. It wasn’t until the summer before school started, as I was attending the Open House, I found out I actually selected the wrong major. My intent was to study Graphic Design, but instead found myself in a major that focused on print production (as in operating large printing presses, in addition to creating the designs to print). Notorious for not letting people switch majors, I quickly navigated the school’s politics and was able to transfer to Business Administration, while still minoring in Graphic Communication.
Throughout my career, I’ve consistently oscillated between creative and business pursuits. In 2016, I went back to school to study Interaction Design with a focus on social impact.
6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?
I distinctly remember the shift when I lived abroad for the first time. Having spent my whole life in California (and not traveling outside of North America), living in Europe for a semester expanded my comprehension of home. After this experience, I knew I needed to explore more and I spent the next two years living in Chile and London and accepted almost any opportunity to travel since.
In high school I imagined a husband and children by my mid 20s. And then at 25, my late 20s. The date keeps shifting but the goals are the same. I’ve focused a lot on my career, although that has always been a goal as well.
7. Was there a time when life knocked you down or out and how did you get back up on your feet?
I found the lump on my back while attending my friend Kristy’s graduation. I thought it was the stadium seating, with the chair having an uncomfortably sharp edge. My physical therapist friend advised I get it checked out ASAP. Trying not to overthink it, I got a biopsy a week later. The doctor discovered I have a rare tumor “friend” know as a Desmoid Tumor, aka Aggressive Fibromatosis. I call her Ursula.
She has tentacles, malicious intent, is relentless, and really f***ing hard to kill. Borderline impossible. Instead of the sea, she lives in my fascia, the connective tissue between the skin and muscles.
Since 2011, I’ve had two surgeries, two months of radiation, two medical therapies, one trip to the ER, and two experimental operations (called HIFU). I’m currently trying Ayurvedic medicine, yoga, meditation, essential oils, and on a pill form of chemotherapy. The last surgery, in March 2018, ended up being more massive than we anticipated, removing 50% of my left lat muscle, three tips of my spinal processes, and skin about the size of a sheet of paper. The recovery has been slow and frustrating, with the tumor returning in four places (including wrapping around my ribs) and pushing through the skin graft, which has resulted in daily wound changes since September and my withdrawal from swimming until it’s healed.
Ursula has taught me a lot in this process, most importantly how to deal with uncertainty. My key sanity measures include (the list is long!): community support (I’ve been relatively public about the process and have had so many people offer support and love), spiritual reading, poetry, yoga, physical therapy, psychotherapy, acupuncture, massage, exercise, journaling, art making, nature, music, and a home cooked meal. I now have a toolkit for whenever I feel off-balance, and I leverage different tools depending on which symptoms arise.
8. Advice for other women?
I love creating communities with like-minded women. These support circles are critical to my overall health and well-being.
I have my college friends (our group texting name is the Swan Squad), who I’ve known the longest. The five of us live within a day’s drive of one another and get together at least twice a year (typically involving something Taylor Swift). We are always there to share funny stories, support one another through life’s challenges, and celebrate life’s accomplishments.
Caroline, Cassidy, and Karen are my do-it-all ladies, who live in San Francisco and are all in a similar stage of life and are “crushing it” in both work and life. Together, we’ve raced triathlons and marathons, traveled, hosted extravagant birthday celebrations, cooked gourmet meals, debated work options, and are always down for an adventure. Our friendship group solidified after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro together in 2015.
The “baby bird” group is six of us who were early employees at Square. Beth hosts a holiday party each December and we have lots of inside jokes. A big chapter of our lives was spent working insane hours, building a company we are all proud of. Half of our group has completed Yoga Teacher Training, so there is always an element of zen and perspective in our conversations.
And Project FAP, a group of researchers and designers, which includes Sierra, my high school friend, Emily, who i met ~6 years ago in a park, and Katie, my grad school friend. We get together at least once a quarter over food or in nature and discuss everything from research proposals to egg freezing.
9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it, for "feminist values"?
This is a complex question. A lot of this depends on where you live geographically and the network of people around you that either lift you up or oppress you. I’ll take this from the angle from the diversity and inclusion movement over the last five years in Silicon Valley. It started as a white feminist movement. A lot of very patient people have done a lot of education that diversity does not equal hiring more white women (or simply hiring women in general). Intersectionality has become a more common word and recognition of unique identities has become more accepted. I saw this with The Women’s March on Washington, which lacked racial diversity in the early days.
There is a lot of negativity and trolling online, which can be exhausting. The way forward for me personally is to do what I can 1:1 and through my choices and my power to make the world more inclusive.
I’m practicing this now with the company I’m helping to build, making our hiring process fairer, offering my time for mentorship and meetings with people who don’t necessarily have access, and active outreach with diverse communities.
10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?
Anywhere in nature. My favorite part of cycling outside is taking in the smells, sights, and sounds of the natural world.
11. What extracurricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?
Growing up, I did jazz, ballet, and tap dancing. I never considered myself an athlete. I tried out of the tennis team in high school and didn’t make it, which pretty much sealed the deal on my athletic ambitions. It wasn’t until after college while living in London that it started to change, when I signed up for a 5K with my coworkers. I trained a bit for the event and run / walked the 5 kilometers. When I moved home a few months later, my college friends and I signed up for the Big Sur Marathon relay, a beautiful race on the California coast, and I trained for my 5 mile portion! My uncle got me a book on beginners running technique, which talked about how running long distances is what most people would classify as “jogging”. This reframing helped change my relationship and perspective with what it means to run long distances.
While sitting at our desks at Apple, my coworker (and college friend) Kelly and I were remarking on how weak our arms were. We decided we should start swimming to strengthen our upper body. Since I already loved biking (mostly bike commuting - something I picked up from living in Copenhagen), had started running, and was now learning how to swim, we signed up for a triathlon. Our goal was to do the shortest one, a sprint distance triathlon. Unfortunately, for the race we wanted to do (Wildflower Triathlon Festival), the sprint requires a mountain bike, so we went a step up to the olympic. And Wildflower is known for how hilly the course is (relative for triathlons), so now we had some training to do. We joined the local community triathlon team, and about 6 months later, we finished our first triathlon! I met Kelly at the finish line, and she responded “never doing that again.” My response was, “what can I sign up for next?” I was hooked.
Over the course of the next five years, I gradually upped my racing, to half marathons, half ironmans, marathons and eventually an Ironman! I completed my second Ironman during my second week of grad school, in the midst of complications and treatments for my Desmoid Tumor.
12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?
My mother recently told me a story that when I was four years old, I told her that when I grow up, I want to have a home with a white picket fence and make more many than my husband. Pretty much still have the same goals :D
I recently met a Canadian man in Dar es Salaam who travels part of the year and teaches yoga in a new location every time (through yogatrade.com). Sounds like a great retirement plan to me! I’m currently halfway through my yoga teacher training and would like to get certified in Urban Zen next year. When I was in the hospital in Ohio, an Urban Zen practitioner lead a meditation and aromatherapy session right after the doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to swim the same again after surgery. It was a critical healing moment that I’d like to be able to pass along that gift to others going through treatment.
13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?
Reflecting on my previous relationship, I’ve discovered I have an outsized fear of failure. Chris and I had dated in college and got back together 7 years later. Three years in, the story with the happy ending that I had in my head about the relationship didn’t match the reality. It got to the point where I was crying almost every week and reached a breaking point. I’ve been seeing a therapist to try and unpack what caused me to stay in the relationship for so long, and the overwhelming feeling is one of avoiding failure. It’s been a great and painful teaching moment that I’m still unpacking.
14. Anything you'd do differently, if you had another go at life?
It’s easy to want to make changes to the past but that would change who I am today, so no regrets.
15. What inspires you?
Travel is the single most inspiring act. As I mentioned, my father is from Croatia. I’ve always felt a deep connection to Europe, and last year, I achieved a lifelong goal of getting my Croatian citizenship.
16. What are you hopeful about?
I feel most hopeful in the mornings, when I’ve had a full night’s sleep, I’m cupping a warm beverage while wearing soft socks, and the sun in beaming through the window creating a long shadow on my orchid plant. I feel hopeful about my love with my partner, my possibility for healing, my ability to empower people around the world with the financial tools we’re building at Celo, and a general sense of love and community.
17. What are some ingredients to a good life?
My first thought! FOOD. A bit of a tangent...last week, I was in Nyarugusu refugee camp in Western Tanzania. The Congolese refugees have been in the camp for up to 22 years. The current diet involves five staples distributed monthly by the World Food Programme: white maize meal, dried peas, a grain, oil, and salt. A few fortunate refugees get remittances from family that has been resettled, but for most refugees, they have no income or access to cash because they are not allowed to work (and thus cannot supplement their diet). My coworkers and I spent many hours discussing “if you could only have access to five raw foods for the rest of your life, what would you choose?” My five ingredients for a sustaining life would be: quinoa, beets (root + greens!), almonds, apples, and coconuts. I choose these for variety in the form of food combinations and overall nutritional value. What would your five be?
Overall life ingredients include:
Dance whenever the mood strikes (with or without music)
Let go of things while you sleep
Wake up before the sun
Eat to fuel your body
Share food and love with those around you
Celebrate EACH year of life (epic birthday celebrations)
Always have a book handy
Experience the world by bicycle whenever possible
18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?
Things I wish I would have started (or didn’t) when I was 14:
Don’t start drinking coffee - it will be hard to quit later! (Thanks Starbucks Frappuccinos for the onramp).
Journal for clarity (I LOVE the practice of Morning Pages and wish I had this tool much earlier in life).
Ride your bike to school (This I figured out later after living in Copenhagen. At the time, it was seriously “uncool” to do anything but drive the < 1 mile to school).
19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)
The Book of Joy with Tutu and the Dalai Lama is my favorite gifting book. It’s a conversation between the two spiritual leaders on finding joy in the midst of the universal experience of suffering. The book talks about the difference between healing and being cured. You may not be able to find a cure, but it is always possible to find healing.
“Adversity, illness, and death are real and inevitable. We chose whether to add to these unavoidable facts of life with the suffering that we create in our own minds and hearts…the chosen suffering. The more we make a different choice, to heal our own suffering, the more we can turn to others and help to address their suffering with the laughter-filled, tear-stained eyes of the heart. And the more we turn away from our self-regard to wipe the tears from the eyes of another, the more- incredibly- we are able to hear, to heal, and to transcend our own suffering. This is the true secret to joy.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
Right now, I’m reading The Poisonwood Bible as I’m working on a project with the World Food Programme and Congolese refugees. I enjoy pairing travel with immersive literature.
20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three (or more) women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description? What would you tell them if you had an opportunity, of why you admire them?
Michelle Morrison is a passionate contributor to making the world a more beautiful place, from the communities she organizes and manages (Designers and Geeks, speaker series at Square, Facebook, and Dropbox, to name a few), to her entrepreneurial side projects, and availability to always take a call or give a hug. Her humbleness combined with her vision and ability to execute has allowed her to build an amazing network of women around her. (instagram)
21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?