Skip to main content

Melinda Villarreal: Founder & CEO of Fashion Conservatory

Melinda Villarreal

​​​​​​​Fashion Conservatory

​​​​​​​Preserving the history of fashion online through commerce, community and education. 

Associate in Arts
Communications Design
Delaware College of Art & Design, Wilmington, DE

Bachelor of Fine Arts
Major in Communications Design, Minor in Art History
Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY

Pro Tips & Life Lessons

As a female child, I was always reprimanded for being bossy, outspoken, opinionated, and confident. In truth, I was demonstrating tendencies that could have been cultivated into amazing leadership skills and likely would have been if I was born male. Even though I reconized and rebelled against the gender gap at a very early age, it has affected me my entire life. All of the traits that were shamed out of me in my youth are traits I need as a founder. 

Society often wants you to feel ashamed of the things that make you different. Lean into your uniqueness. No one ever got ahead by being the same as everyone else. A single person can change the world and that person can be you.

​​​​​​​Position: Early Stage Startup Founder

What does a typical day look like?

There is no typical day when you’re an early-stage founder. No matter how much you plan or organize, it’s going to be chaotic. Everyone on the founding team is trying to do the jobs of 5 or more people, triaging what’s most important that day or week. We’re constantly having to learn new skills or software and plans can change on a dime based on new information. The most important thing is to be flexible, make decisions quickly, and keep moving forward.

I typically roll out of bed at 8am and I’m working by 8:15. First thing in the morning is usually decision making, and triaging problems that have arisen during the night. Late morning is coordinating with the team what needs to get accomplished for the day. By lunch I’m usually taking meetings, sometimes back to back 11am-5pm. After 5pm is when I can get my own work done. I try to be wrapped up by 8 or 9, but often work until 11pm or later. Then it’s back at it first thing in the morning!

I know this sounds exhausting, and it can be(!), but I love what I do. I adore the people I get to work with and I deeply believe that what we’re building will help people, small businesses, and the environment.

What was you path? How did you get here?

​​​​​​​My grandmother gifted me my first piece of vintage when I was 4, a 1950s child’s circle skirt with hand painted gold flecks. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and I was hooked.

When I was 7, I started my first business selling my “art” (it was not art, it was the type of dirt clay creation only a young child could get excited about) on the side of the road. Living on a farm in the middle of nowhere (our closest neighbor was a mile away) did not deter me from setting up my roadside stand and waving to the 1 or 2 cars that passed by every hour or so. A very kind lady stopped and bought all of my “art” for $10 and I was over the moon! I didn’t know it then, but that woman was the spark that started my journey to becoming a startup founder.

By 13, I was looking for opportunities to make money on the side. The term “side hustle” had not yet been coined, but that’s absolutely what it was. My side hustle of choice was candy sales. Whatever was trendy, I had it. Blow Pops, Twizzlers, Caramellos, were all popular choices at the time and my mom’s warehouse club membership made it easy to stock up. I didn’t know the terms for what I was studying, but 13 year old me was very interested in profit margins, market size, and customer behavior. Two treats in one, Blow Pops were a clear winner. Easy to transport, multiple flavors, kids were willing to pay a premium, and you could get away with eating one in class.

In college, I was wearing my mom’s highschool bell bottoms, scouring vintage shops and mapping out antique malls on roadtrips. I was also renting out rooms in my Brooklyn apartment to make ends meet. In the late 90s, I was buying on eBay, and by the early 2000s I was a seller myself, dipping my toes into the emerging world of ecommerce.

My love of fashion and entrepreneurship grew hand in hand, eventually converging into my first full-time business venture in 2010, when I began selling antique, vintage, & collectible (AVC) fashion online. AVC fashion expertise is self taught and although I had been a customer in this product category since I was a child, I still had a lot to learn. I searched high and low for advice, a mentor, an organization, anything that would help me become a better seller, but I kept coming up dry. There were a few small groups on social media that were supportive and helpful, but that was about it. Nothing that really filled the need I had.

On the ecommerce side of the business, marketplaces were failing us. Like all AVC fashion sellers, we work with one-of-a-kind items (in retail terms, meaning we typically only have 1 of each piece), and people selling OOAK do better in groups. But marketplaces were pushing us aside, creating policies and search algorithms that helped big brands succeed, while simultaneously harming small businesses like ours. Sellers were struggling to make ends meet and many of our peers had to close their businesses. We were seeing vintage fashion become incredibly popular, yet watching vintage experts, people that have been selling for 20+ years, close their businesses. It was heartbreaking.

The heartbreak was the catalyst. I set out on a mission to build Fashion Conservatory, a place for our beloved community to thrive. A platform focused on AVC fashion where we can share our knowledge and support eachother.

What do you love about this job?

The challenge and the learning!
They say that building a startup is like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down. It’s scary, it’s uncertain, it’s hard, and I love it! I like to push myself out of my comfort zone, learn new things, challenge my own beliefs and see what I am capable of. Being a founder allows me to do all of that and still work in an industry that I adore.

What do you find frustrating about this job?

Did you know that female founders receive only 2% of venture capital? That jumps to 15.6% if you have a male co-founder. Yet, companies founded or co-founded by women consistently outperform all-male run startups.

Last year, only about 1.87% of the $31 billion held by 200 venture capital funds was allocated to startups with diverse leaders. Women and minorities are grossly underfunded and, as a Latina woman, that really hits home.

What is your work schedule like?

Honestly, I haven’t had a day off in more than 6 months. This is pretty typical of the early-stage startup founder lifestyle. There is no such thing as work/life balance.

What is the average salary for this position?

​​​​​​​Oftentimes, startup founders don’t take a salary. When the business begins generating revenue, all of the funds are put back into growing the venture. Marketplaces take a long time to become profitable, so I expect to go without a salary for the next few years.

What skills are required?

There is this illusion of a startup founder that’s portrayed in the media: One brilliant visionary, often a white man that’s an ivy league dropout, leading a genius team to overnight success and billions of dollars! It makes for a great story, but it’s not reality.

In truth, every day is a challenge. The majority of startup founders are overworked, underpaid, have no resources, and are struggling to survive until tomorrow. Weirdly, we love it.

Founders are comfortable with being uncomfortable. We’re faced with new experiences and problems almost daily. Successful founders are problem solvers, fast learners and decisive decision makers. Your job is to build a team and lead them to success. Everyone needs to believe in your vision and trust your leadership, especially during the hard times.

This job requires excellent storytelling and sales skills. Startups need to grow quickly and that requires capital, but how do you get the attention of investors? You can tell a story that grabs attention and gets people excited about your idea.

It’s not glamorous. More than anything, this job requires resilience and self confidence. Every day is stressful, exhausting, and uncertain. You’re constantly facing the fact that 90% of startups fail and you don’t want to be one of them. You have to believe in yourself, your idea, and your team, even when everything seems to be falling apart, and still keep moving forward.

Tell us about a project you're proud of!

I’m really excited about this Day in the Life project. I can’t wait to see what people submit. I love learning and this is a really fun way to learn more about the fashion industry and the people that make it happen. My hope is that it will help a lot of young people discover careers in fashion that they didn’t even know were possible.

I’m also really proud of the Label Archive. We’re going to keep growing it, but it’s already the largest archive of fashion labels online and all of the information is verifiable with cited sources. There is a big problem with misinformation online, so it was important to the team that we could assure factual resources, and I think we’ve accomplished that.