By Anne Louise Cropp ’99 MBA/MHA

Penn State Smeal College of Business graduate Melissa Gonzalez has a passion for creativity and a mind for business.

She enrolled at Penn State with plans to pursue a career in marketing, but a summer internship on the trading desk at Lehman Brothers before her sophomore year offered a different perspective that charted a new direction.

“It really opened my eyes to the possibilities in finance and being in a dynamic environment,” she says.

At the conclusion of the internship, Gonzalez changed majors, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Finance and a minor in Spanish in 1999. She embarked upon a career as an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston but never abandoned her pursuit of creative endeavors. In fact, while juggling the demands of institutional sales and trading, she produced independent films and spent four years as a co-host of BET’s Latin Beat. She also earned a degree from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

“My career on Wall Street was exciting in that it was fast paced. I was exposed to so much at a young age, but it wasn’t feeding my creative soul,” Gonzalez says. So, one day in 2009, while working as a vice president for investment bank Merriman Curhan Ford, she declined a promotion and walked away from it all.

At the time, Gonzalez planned to pursue opportunities in the entertainment industry, including acting. However, in what she calls a serendipitous moment, she discovered a different opportunity just around the corner.

While filming a television pilot, her co-star asked if she wanted to partner with him and do something innovative with some vacant space in a hotel his family owned in Manhattan.

RS Pop Shop emerged from their collaboration.

Gonzalez describes the venture as a revolving storefront that gives companies one month to showcase emerging brands in a visible New York City location. It has since grown to include four street-level storefronts called The Market.

That same year, Gonzalez founded The Lion’esque Group, which is named in part to honor her time at Penn State. The group’s core mission is to help clients develop a human connection in a physical world.

“We lean into agile retail, helping brands understand changing consumer behavior and create environments that better serve those needs, wants, and demands,” she says.

Since its inception, The Lion’esque Group has channeled its expertise in strategy, design, and project management into more than 150 brick-and-mortar experiences in cities across the United States for clients such as Nordstrom, Stella & Dot, Burrow, and Amazon.

Last year, the group completed a merger with MG2, a Seattle-based global architecture design, construction, and branding studio, to create an end-to-end business that includes experiential design, operational strategy, and architectural services.

Gonzalez says the pandemic has in many ways forced people to stop pursuing perfection. Instead, she said, they have learned to test, learn, and iterate.

In summer 2020, for example, Gonzalez and her team created a “revolving pop-up shop” in the Seattle market. Retailers in the space rotate, allowing brands to come in and test the viability of the market while also providing a source of foot traffic for the surrounding neighborhood.

No matter the size or scope of the project, Gonzalez says she believes her unique career path is one of her greatest assets in leading The Lion’esque Group.

“I’m always bringing in strategic thinking and an analytical point of view as I think through the story we want to tell: What are the points of gratification and pain points for customers? How is the industry shifting? What is the white space opportunity, and how can we infuse that into the store environment? It’s not a traditional design perspective, but it’s a really great complement to my team.”

Gonzalez has been recognized as one of the leading ‘Women In Design’ by Contract magazine, a ‘Top 10 Retail Design Influencer of the Year’ by design:retail magazine, and one of the ‘Top 10 Voices of Retail’ by LinkedIn.

Reflecting on her career, Gonzalez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, says the opportunity to work with Penguin Random House in 2016 to create a storefront in San Juan has been one of her most memorable professional experiences.

There, The Lion’esque Group created a store that featured more than 1,000 titles in a variety of genres in both English and Spanish and a robust event calendar to help readers discover new books and authors.

“The mayor came to the grand opening. There were people lined up outside the door, and hundreds of books were sold the first day. It was incredibly rewarding, not just from a business perspective but for what we were able to bring to the community,” she says.

Indeed, a passion for serving her community is something that Gonzalez says dates back to her days as a student at Penn State, when she was president of the Penn State Latino Caucus and a founding member of Smeal’s Women in Business student organization.

“Part of my job as a member of the Latino Caucus was to not only keep the University president informed but also to help create opportunities for support and mentorship for my peers,” Gonzalez says.

Considering the influence her mother has had in her life, Gonzalez embraces the opportunity to mentor others, while her love of education keeps her connected to Penn State and Smeal.

In 2017, she was the keynote speaker for Smeal’s ‘Powerful Women Paving the Way Conference — Women in Business’ signature event.

In her keynote address, she recalls telling the audience that as an entrepreneur, being busy is not always the same as being productive. She recommended that participants set goals and check on them regularly, and she stressed the importance of separating the financials of their business from their passion.

“People may call me a pioneer in the pop-up industry, but to me, it’s really just telling a story.”

“When it came to my business and my numbers, I had such an emotional connection that it took much longer to get a handle on things. But once I did, it gave me more control over how I priced things, what sort of clients we would pursue, and what kinds of projects we would avoid. It was very empowering,” she says.

Gonzalez says that amid the pandemic, necessity is driving innovation. “Things like contactless payments, QR codes, RFID (radio-frequency identification), the use of touch screens, endless aisles, and more are creating opportunities to do some really great stuff in the next couple of years,” she says.

For Gonzalez, that means the opportunity to continue to creatively tell her clients’ stories in a physical world. “People may call me a pioneer in the pop-up industry, but to me, it’s really just telling a story,” she says.

The Lionesque Group An MG2 Company

In 2014, Gonzalez authored The Pop-Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connections in a Digital Age. She is also a regular guest on ABC News Radio, talking about retail and marketing, and has her own podcast called Retail Refined in collaboration with multi-media company MarketScale.

Photo by Grace Brown Photography