Melissa Di Donato: 'Pressure makes diamonds'

POWER MUMS: The Salesforce vice president interviewed 40 nannies and still works out at 5.30am six days a week.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 25 Jun 2015

Business software company Salesforce is known for its explosive growth over the last few years.  Some might be frazzled but Power Mum Melissa Di Donato, vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific, says she is thriving on it.  

An American based in London, Di Donato is one of the twelve-strong European management team. Before having her first child (now eight months old), Di Donato dedicated her spare time to animal welfare and is now committed to promoting women and girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). She also sits on the corporate board of iDEA, the Duke of York's competition for young people with digital business ideas, and was part of the London Mayor’s Business Programme. Phew.  
Di Donato is also the first Power Mum to have a PR chaperone. When I ask why, the PR says it is protocol, and anyway ‘some day I want to be Melissa’.

So how’s it going?

I love it! I got to this place in my career through hard work and passion. I joke that my first husband was my career.

Tell me about your day.

I get up at 5.30am to work out before the baby gets up four days of the week and at the weekend. I sometimes have a personal pilates trainer. I block out 7am-8am and 6pm-7pm every day to spend time with the baby and take no calls in that time. It’s really important for me that one of us bathes her at night.
I get a taxi home from the office so I can take calls from San Francisco in the car. When she’s gone to bed, I jump back on calls or go out for dinner and the nanny takes over again.

How do you make it work?

I married a wonderful man, a CEO. I met him at a private equity dinner – where else would I meet someone?! I was blissfully happy on my own with my dog.
He is my mentor, my best friend and partner. He is my inspiration (and he's twelve years older than me). He’s also the chef in the house. I would starve if it weren’t for him! 

So do you both travel?

We never travel at the same time. Before having the baby I travelled 70% of the time.  Now it’s more like 30%. I don’t like to be away morning and night for three consecutive days.

Do you think that becoming a mother has changed you?

Motherhood has made me softer, more empathetic to the teams.  When the baby came I re-prioritised.
Having a girl is a huge responsibility. I’m dedicating more of my time to being a role model that my daughter and her friends may look up to.  I’ve shifted from focusing my foundation [charity] time on animal welfare to getting women and girls into STEM. I feel a sense of responsibility.
I want my daughter to look back at me when she is 20 and say, ‘Wow, my mom did everything. She did great at work, she donated her time, she has a business she grew from zero to something significant at Salesforce,’ and so be proud of me.
What she studies is her decision – she could be in liberal arts, who knows – but when I think about being a role model to girls they need to think technology is cool.

What has surprised you about motherhood?

Putting something off for five minutes is not going to break anything, whereas everything before was super urgent. I realise what the really important things are.
I work well under pressure. Pressure makes diamonds – I believe that. I like having a really busy day. But sometimes I have to prioritise and say no. It’s been good for my team because I’ve empowered them a lot. I can’t do all the meetings but I trust my team and they are great leaders. I make sure I do what is really important for the business and for my family life.

How much maternity leave did you take?

I originally asked for six weeks off. The head of employee success sat me down and said it probably wasn’t the smartest idea [laughs]. She said, ‘Now, let me put it a different way… You’re gonna take more time off.’
So I took three months. But I never took one week off fully. Even an hour per day eased my mind so I could keep in touch with what was going on. For the second baby - if there is one - I’ll probably take more time off.

Do people treat you differently?

I find it weird when I say I have a daughter. And every time I see someone they ask how my baby is: ‘Wow you look great. How’s it going with the baby?’

Does it change your relationship with work?

It doesn’t make my work less important. I love to work. I love to find success. I like to make the people around me successful. I like to make people proud of the work I am doing.
I think my travels and experiences will be great bedtime stories for my daughter. And the gifts I bring from Oktoberfest or Japan or Australia. She’ll look around her nursery and see all the places Mama has been and she can be proud.  

Tell me about being a role model.

For the first time in my life we went away and I didn’t turn off airplane mode on my phone from Sunday to Thursday. I have to be a role model for my team – women and men – time off is time off and they shouldn’t feel obligated to work. So I need to set the right tone and when it’s their family time it is their family time. Before I used to choose to check in but now I think I set a better example and am a more well-rounded leader for them.

Is our business model compatible with family life?

Yes. There are millions of way to work. I work for a US company that asks me to be available when they need me. Never more than now can a Mom be a successful executive and a successful Mom at the same time.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

Get good help! I think I’m doing well because I’m not doing it alone. It would be remiss to say I am a career mom and balancing a baby and cooking. I have extraordinary help. We interviewed, like, 40 nannies, and have one who is amazing and the baby smiles when she comes through the door. I know when I leave home I can focus on my job. And when I go home I can go and focus on my job there.
We had a night nurse. I thought I could do it without but I was told I must, and I was very fortunate to get a Scottish midwife who I used to tease was like Mary Poppins and used to come and rescue me with her umbrella!

Do you sleep?

Knock on wood, the baby has been sleeping through the night since she was six weeks. From 7pm on the nose to 7am, when today I had to wake her up because I only get an hour and I said, ‘Chop, chop, wake up, you’ll be hungry for your bottle in fifteen minutes’.

The Scottish midwife was a sleep trainer and trained her to sleep from the word go - from four days old. We took the midwife with us on our first holiday with the baby at two and half months.
But it is challenging. There are nights, like last night, when I don’t sleep. And last weekend we were really sick and it was horrible. Not every day is perfect but every day is a learning experience. And we only have one baby. It may be different if we have a second! It’s been a journey for sure.

Christine is a contributing editor of MT, owner of and a partner at Jericho Chambers.

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