Marcia Masulla

How Intuition Guided Marcia’s Journey from Boutique Owner to Communications Guru

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Top 5%:
Being determined. If I set my mind on something, it's done, game over. I'm going to do it come hell or high water.

Key takeaway: Listen to and trust your intuition. It will rarely fail you.

Marcia Masulla had a tumultuous childhood, to say the least. So when at the age of 25 she owned her own fashion boutique in St. Louis, she initially felt like she had ‘made it.’ “I had this beautiful shop and I would skip to work with my dog,” Marcia tells us. But, the feeling didn’t last long. “I thought that it was going to be my end all be all because I went to school for fashion and I had my own brick and mortar business in my hometown, but I ended up feeling extremely confined,” she says. So Marcia listened to her gut feeling, packed up her things and moved to Nashville to start over in the midst of the financial crisis (some said she was ‘nuts’). From there, her career trajectory took a varied path — from grassroots campaigning for PETA to starting Nashville Fashion Week and working for Yelp. But everything connected to bring her to where she is now: the founder of Roar Nashville, a communications and strategy firm with a focus on fashion, beauty, technology, hospitality, and more. In the full interview below, Marcia tells us how her childhood shaped her career, the lessons she learned on her journey, and why she always follows her intuition.

Marcia Masulla: How She Did it

My early childhood was something that I didn't want to reflect on for the longest time, as a survival mechanism. But I'm now starting to own how my childhood has affected my decisions both professionally and personally.

My father met my mother in South Korea. Both served in the military: my father was an Italian American, and my mother was in the South Korean female army. We settled in St Louis, Missouri when I was five. It was a very tumultuous childhood because my father was mentally and physically abusive to my mother and myself, and to my younger brother from a peripheral angle. He was culturally bound to the idea that women were not at the same level as men. It was made very clear to me that I was insignificant because I wouldn’t carry on the family last name. My mother on the other hand, which is where I get a lot of my tenacity, was very much about getting educated and wanting me to go to an Ivy League school.

Unfortunately, my mother passed away when I was 11, and that was a major turning point in my life. I went straight into armor mode: how the hell do I get outta here? How do I become my own person? And so I started plotting.

I moved to New York at 17 officially, but I really started to stay with friends and not live at home around the age of 14. I went into survival mode, graduated early, and went to Parsons.

I remember being 7 years old and falling in love with fashion and Vogue in particular. I would draw and put together these fashion show runways and showrooms. My father was very adamant that fashion was not a career and that I would not be financially supported if I pursued it. He was against women going after anything really, but the excuse was fashion. I went to Parsons because it was the best fashion school in the world at that time, and I always had this draw to New York.

How did you feel when you moved there?
Free, but also extremely scared. I went there without a dime to my name. My father didn't support me. I worked illegally as a barback at 17 years old. I went into the bar and asked for a job, and they were like, “You don't look like you're old enough.” And I said, “So I can't serve beers, but can I do this?” And they agreed to pay me under the table. That's something that has gotten me through everything: even when things get really bad, I know I'll figure it out.

What was Parsons like?
Parsons was bitchy, hard and very creative. It was tough, and I had this bombastic dream of being a fashion designer.

This was also another turning point in my life. I'm an imperfect human being like all of us are, but I really lean into the fact that I keep it real. And I had to keep it real with myself when I was a few weeks in and looking around at all these talented individuals in the class. To this day I think I have a good eye, but the actual creation process of a fashion designer is not my strongest skill. I had fought my way to get there, but I sat in class and thought, “Oh my God, are you going to take this opportunity and force it when you can only be a mediocre designer at best?” And so I pivoted.

I talked to an advisor and asked if it would it was too late for me to focus on the history of fashion or the business of fashion instead. They said, “It’s not too late, but are you sure?” It was a scary decision to make and honestly, it was heartbreaking, but I trusted my intuition. This sounds romanticized, but every time I've gone against my intuition, it has not served me well.

I was at Parsons for three years. My father had a mental breakdown and major physical issues with his health. Deep down I felt such a hatred and anger towards him, but I still knew the right thing to do was to go back to St Louis.

So I transferred to St Louis University in 2000. I did international business because I was in St Louis, not New York. I thought, what the hell am I going to do with a fashion merchandising degree?

I got into financial services for a while. Insurance, believe it or not, because somebody had to pay for school, so I worked with GMAC Insurance. I basically did anything that would further my scope of education, as far as learning about finances. It seems so random, but it wasn't random in the sense of how do I make a living for myself while I can go to school? How do I continue learning?

I worked at a family-run car dealership called Bommarito Automotive Group as a finance manager. I was introduced by a friend to the family.

Being in business is tough, especially as a woman in your 20s in a male-dominated industry. I put up with a lot of shit, but I also got really tough and the Bommarito family always empowered me. I learned a lot about the art of negotiating, and not taking no for an answer. Getting to the heart of a business transaction has served me to this day, whether it's raising money for the Fashion Forward fund or getting people to care about puppies when I work with my nonprofit, the Tiny but Mighty Fund.

I was having lunch on Washington Avenue, which is where the historic St. Louis fashion district was, and feeling very Carrie Bradshaw. I remember having my intuition kick in and thinking, “This is an untapped quarter. There's a bunch of development, and I love architecture and all these lofts.” Fast forward, and where I was sitting ended up being across the street from where I opened my fashion boutique. So I bought and flipped a loft in the neighborhood and purchased the shop — everybody thought I was nuts. I had been clearing six figures, but I wasn't happy with what I was doing. It didn’t feel like me.

That's when I started working for Northwestern Mutual because the office was downtown, and I still needed to raise more money and network. I worked there for a very short period of time; it was basically a band-aid while I raised money to open my boutique.

Can talk more about how you transitioned from Bommarito to opening your own shop?

I will say that while I lacked support from my family, there have been people that have come into my life that have served a mentorship role. One example of this, was when Johnny Bommarito introduced me to a man named Jack Pruellage, who was a partner of a renowned law firm in Kansas City. I kept in touch with everybody, so Jack and I would meet once a month. We developed an authentic friendship, and when I was opening my store, he invested a significant amount of money in my business. To this day I don't completely understand how and why but holy shit, he changed my life. I want to be that person for someone someday, from a mental standpoint, from a monetary standpoint, and from a business standpoint.

How was owning the store?
I had this beautiful shop and I would skip to work with my dog. I was selling $600 dresses, styling for our paper, and consulting for women's closets. It was such a charmed life, but I had that stupid intuition where I knew that I felt confined in a store. When I wasn't there, the store suffered, but I didn’t want to live at a store 60 hours a week. I realized I came alive by interacting with people and being a part of things like St. Louis Fashion Week.

Once you realized you felt confined what next steps did you take?
I traveled to Nashville to style a music shoot. I was there for just 36 hours, but I was able to get outside of my own head and thoughts. I had that same gut instinct again and decided to move to Nashville, even though it was right during the 2008 financial crisis.

When I moved to Nashville, though it sounded all romantic and dreamy, it was hard. It was hard from a financial standpoint because closing a business and selling my loss during the housing crisis cost me a lot of money. Starting in a market when the economy is shaky was also tough. I took a beating to my ego because I couldn't find a job. It didn't matter where I went to school, and it didn't matter that I had owned my own shop. I couldn’t find a job folding t-shirts when I first moved to Nashville.

Clothing Xchange was kind of happenstance. The owner, Kelly Coots Paul had a store that was doing okay, but it needed some help and we were introduced. It was a huge pay cut for me, and I was new to working for someone else. But she was open to my experience and basically said, “Revamp this entire thing.”

It was kind of like a Buffalo Exchange where you would bring your stuff in. We developed this cult following, and it was a big stepping stone for me. It's where I met a people in the fashion and music industry that led eventually to Nashville Fashion Week.

How were you feeling during this time?
It was one of the hardest times of my life because I had to really trust and respect myself. My first couple of years I thought that maybe I had made a mistake. Why did I go from a city that embraced me at the top of my game to starting over? I had to fight a lot of mental anguish and power through. So I learned as much as I could, did the work and started over.

I became a vegan when I moved to Nashville. At Clothing Xchange we would donate proceeds from sales and events to different nonprofit groups, and PETA was one of them. When a position opened up as a grassroots campaigner, I applied for it and got it.

I was on the road for a year, doing everything from going to a stock shareholder meeting for McDonald's to New York Fashion Week and doing anti-fur demonstrations. Again, I met so many people who I still work with today. I also learned a lot about how to have a voice and express myself, as well as fundraising, communications and press training. Nashville was home base for me, but I was new in the city and wasn’t there enough to really enjoy it. It was tough on me personally, which is ultimately why I ended up leaving after a year.

I was a part of the first few St. Louis Fashion Weeks, and when I came to Nashville I thought there was such an energy in the city. I participated in some grassroots fashion and music shows and seeing the talent and the energy, I wondered why there wasn’t a Nashville Fashion Week. I was introduced to my current partner, Connie Richardson, and a few other people who had the same thought process and were more established than I was, and we started building the foundation for that.

At first, it was about having some very real discussions about is this something that this city can support and is there an actual fashion community and industry here. How do we build a foundation and how do we build something that will be everlasting?

When people hear Fashion Week, they think it's so glamorous, but it's more about being creative with having nothing. It's a lot of going back to putting together a business model. How do we pay for this, how do we bring together the logistics to make this happen?

How did you find the position at Yelp?
My friend Abby, who was in St Louis, called me and said, “We're getting ready to hire for this position, would you be interested?” And I said, “Sure, I'll take an interview.” It seemed too good to be true. You want me to get entrenched in Nashville, hang out with people and local businesses, and the pay is incredible? What made that position so interesting to me was the entrepreneurial angle.

Why do you think you got the job?
I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I was referred. Relationships matter. I also brought my entrepreneurial background to the role. When I was talking to businesses or putting together events or marketing initiatives, having that experience and thinking about it from that angle was helpful.

What was Yelp like?
It was a lot of fun, and made me realize that I wanted to be an entrepreneur again. I knew that was in my blood because even though I worked for a major entity I was working remotely and still very much on my own.

It was also an entry for me to get established in Nashville both personally and professionally. When I was connecting with people in the community, whether it was the mayor's office or contacting businesses to host an event, a lot of those contacts came into play with Nashville Fashion Week and even to this day. It forced me to really put myself out there, entertain people, but also to develop relationships that are still fruitful.

Why did you decide to leave Yelp?
The company had grown, there was more travel involved and I felt like there was a shift in the mission of the company. I lost my passion for the job.

When I announced I was leaving Yelp, people started to reach out with job offers, including the Tennessean, which had started a new arm that was culture-driven and aimed towards millennials. They had a position open up as an Editor and Creative Director for a print magazine and digital. It was kind of a weird project because it was separate from the newsroom, but I got to do everything from photo shoots to interviews. It was reinvigorating my creative energy.

Then we had some changes at the Tennessean and they moved me into the newsroom, where I did everything from podcasting to covering Titans game, to being the editor of 14 writers and covering Bonnaroo. It catapulted me as a voice of the community in a very different way than Yelp, but I continued to share the stories of businesses and people.

Did you ever feel overwhelmed by all the different roles and responsibilities?
Oh my god, yes. Especially when I transitioned into the newsroom. I was wearing a lot of different hats and I never felt like I totally fit in. I would report to the publisher, but I was sitting next to esteemed journalists thinking, but where do I fit into this?

In 2016, there was a wave of layoffs. Some of the more established editors and writers said that it was normal and happens every few years. And then more people got laid off. I remember feeling for about four or five months, when's my time? My time finally came the week before Nashville Fashion Week in March of 2017. I got a phone call asking me to come to HR. And I knew, I just knew. It wasn't personal, but, you lose your job, you lose your job, and it's a blow to your ego.

After being let go, I threw myself into Nashville Fashion Week. At Nashville Fashion Week the community reached out, and I noticed that some people were offering me jobs. But a lot of it was, “How can we work together? I want to be your client. I have something for you.”

I started thinking that everything I had done had led back to me being an entrepreneur again. So, that's why I started Roar Nashville. I quietly started working and within three months, I was already making the same, if not more than I was in the newsroom — and I had the freedom to travel.

I've never had to ask for work. I've always had it come to me. It's not that it's magical, it's just all about building relationships and doing good work. I've had times in my career where it felt kind of all over the place, but I realize now that everything had some type of unifying factor, whether it's entrepreneurship or fashion, that led me to where I am now.

Advice for your career launch

Shut up. (And Listen)
So many of us go into conversations, whether it's a business or personal meeting, and we're not really listening to each other. I will shut up and I will listen. I don't like small talk either. Let's talk with purpose.

Don’t Network, Build Relationships
I hate, hate, hate the word networking because it's so transactional. The worst thing is when you go into a room and somebody immediately hands you their business card. It's about not just looking at your own needs, but really listening and asking, “How does this benefit the other person?” Relationships matter. You need to continue to water your relationships because whether it's on a personal level or a professional level, they come back around.

Take time to enjoy what you’re doing
It's okay to have fun along the way. The last few Nashville Fashion Weeks I’ve finally allowed myself to laugh, have fun, take the headset off and not be so stern. They've been the most meaningful events and they've also been our most successful events because of it.

Pay it back
I'm really conscious about giving back as much as I have taken. We all need to own it when someone steps up to help us, and pay it forward. You can't just always take.

Trust Your Intuition
I challenge us as people and especially women to listen to ourselves. You'll question it because that's what we do, but your experiences and perception are unique to you, so if you really listen to yourself, you'll be surprised by how rarely your intuition fails you.