To love something enough to fight for its greatest good is noble, but to love yourself enough to be willing to walk away for your greatest good—actions like that—change the world.
Francesca Messina is currently the head of Marketing at MCA International.
And was the Director of Marketing for the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, a nonprofit organization based in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. This interview occurred while she was with FIAO. When talking about her work with FIAO and describing what they do, Francesa said:
“What we do is we execute after-school programs in local New York City schools, we have an entire 40,000 soft facility here with a pool gymnasium, and we offer programs to the community—everything from teaching city kids Swimming and Water Safety to basketball programs…it’s a real tool for the community to have a place to go to kind of be able to do a lot of interesting activities that they might not normally do… It’s a unique situation.”
As the Director of Marketing, Messina’s responsibilities include completely re-branding the organization on/offline so that its place as a community organization—emphasis on community—becomes even clearer. From redesigning the 36-page website to applying for city grants, in just three months, Messina has distinguished herself as a person who markets from the heart.
How does a person working in a not-for-profit, an industry known for grinding their workers to exhaustion, seem to have such positive energy while doing her work and tirelessly advocating for equity in the workplace?
For Messina, work has always been associated with love and family, “I’ve been here for about three months, a total departure from what I’ve spent the past ten years of my career doing, which was working in a very in the most male-dominated sector. I was working for industrial distribution, marketing, and industrial district distribution. So Plumbing and Heating supplies, boilers, pipe valves, and fittings.”
To hear Messina speak about what sparked her love for the plumbing industry, an industry that did not particularly love women back, is an education in itself:
“I have such a passion for, you know, the work that I mean; people don’t realize that plumbing infrastructure keeps our entire country safe and sanitary without great plumbing infrastructure. There’s just disease.
I felt it was such a noble calling that I was out there living that business and selling these products and working with these contractors because I thought it was for the health of our country and safety of our sanitary system.”
And even though she understood the Plumbing Industry inside and out, the fate that befell her mother also happened to Messina. Her mother could have inherited her father’s (Messina’s grandfather’s) plumbing business but was not allowed to because plumbing businesses at that time were not passed down to daughters. Instead of Messina’s mother, who was college-educated and capable of owning and running the business, it was Messina’s father—her mother’s husband—who inherited the business because women did not inherit plumbing businesses even in the 21st century. Messina’s parents opted to sell their multi-generational business to a new owner rather than pass it to Messina or any of their three daughters.
Ever industrious, Messina channeled her frustration into action, so her journey to advocating for equity in the workplace began! “I’ve sat on so many Women in Industry panels to talk about why it [this insane tradition that only sons can inherit plumbing businesses] is and how we can change this.”
Messina’s first job out of college began with an internship at American Girl, which developed into working in Retail Operations for the company: “I was working for American girl at the time is retail operations because my focus was always on operations [growing up in the family plumbing business] I’m not going to come home to work for the family business. And so I worked in American Girl for about four years.”
At American Girl, Messina traveled throughout the US to prepare stores for Grand Openings, training staff to handle inventory, point-of-sale, and the technical aspects that keep the stores running smoothly. Then, one day, her father let her know that a Marketing Position had opened up in Plumbing, and Messina returned “home” to plumbing—not as an owner, which, if she had different body parts, she would have unquestionably been able to be, but as Marketing Support for a different plumbing company. Francesca would spend ten years working in the plumbing industry at other companies, including the Luxury Products Group. But what was Messina coming “home” to?
“I went back to work in the plumbing industry. And that’s when I started this 10-year career working in plumbing, not as an owner or anything along those lines. But as a marketing support person, we spent so much time working on understanding the B2B side of marketing. When you market to other businesses, contractors, and you know, individual plumbers, you know, heating professionals, oil companies. It’s incredible, the language you learn and the different needs of these businesses. And it’s beautiful, but on the same note, it can be pretty rough around the edges.”
Even as early as her first day, Francesca was confronted with images of women with x-marks over their faces to remind salespeople in the showroom to prioritize plumbers over homeowners. But, in contrast to many of us, who may have taken those images as a cue to exit, Messina used them to educate. She explained that equity is not a cause that the president of a plumbing company gives lip service to; it happens on all levels:
“And one of the first things I did like in there with the C-Suite—the ownership—I explained, “…this can’t be like this is, you’re not looking at the whole picture: we can sell to the homeowner in the future is going to want to buy direct.
And of course, that’s what’s happened in the industry. Many of the primary plumbing companies, Holder and American Standard Delta, now sell directly to the homeowner on their website; I went through that transition.
And it was so interesting to see me back in 2013, pushing the owners to consider homeowners to diversify. And to get that level of pushback, like c’mon ‘you have had no new ideas in 50 years, you’re selling to the plumber. And it was a passion of mine. It helped to bring about a sense of equality at the Point of Sale, not only from leadership and those running these companies.”
That was the “heart part” of all of this. Messina was trying to educate people who saw anyone who was not a plumber and women as second-class citizens. The exciting part of Messina’s perspective was that, as a child, it was expected that homeowners could not access her family’s showroom unless their contractor accompanied them. Even though her native perspective differed from what she advocated for in her role as a working member of the industry—an industry steeped in inequity, Messina was still willing to raise her hand and possibly even risk her position for equity.
And, true to form, Messina’s activism did not stop at work. She noticed the problem and joined organizations where she could openly discuss it to encourage reform,
“I joined a bunch of industry organizations to try to put myself into rooms where there were other women who might be feeling the same way I felt, and what I began to notice was the women who worked in our industry all seemed to work in the same roles, like marketing, or HR or in showroom sales, the “fun” of the product. I would sit in more general meetings. I was part of the networking organization called the American Supply Association, and I’d suggest things such as; Let’s do a benchmark on every level within the company in every role, which percentage is male and female. We can’t just look at this business and future majority staffing needs as being male-dominated; we’re going to take a hard look at where leadership is from an equality perspective…”
Messina didn’t give up or walk away. She made a case for diversity, equity, and inclusion to advocate for more women in the workplace. As plumbing businesses started to come around to the reality of the massive benefits accompanying diversity, they would approach Messina for insight into how to attract women to the industry. Her advice: “It’s not about just posting pictures of women; it’s about looking at those benchmarks, looking at the data, setting goals, and trying to achieve those goals for diversity and inclusion.”
But despite the headway she was making in an industry that is so near and dear to her—plumbing being a major part of her family’s culture, Messina had to choose to shift out of the industry because the environment was changing unexpectedly.
“Now I’m working on an all-women team, where our executive director is a woman, our HR director is a woman, operations directors, myself, the marketing director, I’m a woman. It’s a total departure from what I was living, which could sometimes become very dark, especially as I feel like our country has become more divided. My industry became more challenging to work with—many manufacturers are from an extremely conservative place. Many distributors are very conservative. They’re small business owners, and most of our manufacturing is still in the Midwest…so huge players have employees in places of extreme thinking. And I never tried to be one side or the other, to bring it back to this place. It’s not us versus them. We need to hire more women. It’s about creating a more equitable work environment for people. And when your workplace, your environment, everything around you tend to be more challenging—people were looking at equity in kind of a negative light. And it becomes even harder for you to fight that fight within an organization….People would be less interested in hearing about equitability.”
She decided to transition away because she was losing ground in the fight, and the consequences were starting to get too severe:
“I wondered, is this really what I’m gonna do for my life? I wanted to do something that changed the world, and I always found that plumbing did. But then I realized do I fit in? Am I gonna be able to continue when I’m fighting a battle that is just so great in scope, where I’m losing credibility, and I can’t seem to figure out how to get the credibility when the data usually was good enough? Now the data wasn’t good enough, in their mind, in the minds of the leaders that I was working with.”
She found her way to the non-profit where she is now. But this shift did not come without great emotional hardship; how did Messina get through this—having to step back from an industry she so loved—that she was born into?
“I always tell anybody who doesn’t know where they want to go for the next step in their career. There is no such thing as rock bottom, there is no such thing as “it can be worse,” in life, you always claw your way back, and you always figure out how to make it work.”
These words ring so powerfully because they were the words Messina used to encourage herself to make peace with her exit. She exited this job to save herself. Yes, she had a huge mortgage, two children, and her husband’s support, but change, something new, a unique fear that shows up in times like this. And Messina pushed through it.
So, how did she get to the other side of this total career reorientation? Networking! In case you didn’t notice, Messina is a people person with tireless energy for connecting. She used it to find a place for her frustrations within the industry, and it was this capacity for connection that helped her to match up with her current position:
“And networking is vital. I reached out to my network outside of plumbing to try to find people who were working in industries or businesses that I wanted to get into, and not-for-profit was high on the list.
And so another important piece that I always tell people is to keep your network strong. Continue to develop great relationships with people. Really try to help others. If you help people within your network. Try to solve problems for them or ask them for help. You develop a level of kinship when you ask for help.
…It’s about trust. The network is critical.
“You know, another important piece I always tell other people that I work with: figure out how to be a fast learner, figure out how to learn on your own, because from a marketing perspective, and this was critical because you know, Google changes their rules every day. Facebook changes its policies, minute to minute. So, as a marketer, you constantly have to be learning what’s next, learning about the latest changes to an algorithm, and learning about how SEO has completely turned around from what it was three days ago. So my work, Marketing, is always going very fast-paced and constantly changing. And I think that’s giving you kind of an edge when it comes to something similar or even some of the operational things I did in the plumbing industry because I would be able to learn very quickly.”
From helping to ignite the shift to diversity, equity, and inclusion in an old boy’s industry to realizing and continuing to challenge DEI, Francesca Messina reminds us that head and heart can come together at work! Her advice for other women who are ready to believe that they can thrive at work:
“I want her to know: Just not to give up—keep fighting! Because that’s what you have to do. Yes.”