magic cards surrounded by flowers and bug

How Businesswomen Navigate the Design World

No matter what context or field, a woman in charge is an empowering force. Even in an era where gendered nouns and female distinctions of success are becoming more and more antiquated, female CEOs still encounter enough unique struggle for them to be celebrated when they overcome it. I sat down to zoom with Melissa Constandse and do just that – uncover and celebrate the struggles she has overcome and thrived under while creating her own Brooklyn-based stationery company, Open Sea Design Co.

Her Campus (HC): So, tell me about how you got to where you are now? What made you want to start a studio-like Open Sea, and what steps did you take towards getting there?

Melissa Constandse (MC): I started Open Sea after I had been working with another studio called Nothing Something for several years. It was a very small studio, so I had to do a little bit of everything, and that really helped me learn the inner workings of a studio and working with clients… Stuff that they don’t necessarily teach you at design school. That studio just kind of disbanded and had all these clients that I had been working with that I had really good relationships with, so I figured I’d start my own thing. I found out about this big stationery trade show that they do here in New York. Without really having anything, I signed up for it.

cards and stationary with magnifying glass Photo by Melissa Constandse

HC: Was that the first one you’d ever gone to?

MC: Yeah, it’s crazy. And that’s where I sort of learned how it all works. I started the Open Sea Stationery Line – it was small but it was something – at a trade show. By the end of it, I had just a handful of stores to start with, and that gave me enough momentum to just keep building and building, and gave me the confidence to make new products knowing that I would have people to sell them to.

HC: I feel like you guys as a brand have such specific inspirations. The Victorian era, naturalistic art, animals, plants… When did you first start incorporating it into your work?

MC: It wasn’t until I started the Open Sea stationery line that I truly could incorporate all of that. At first, I was a little more cautious about it because I wasn’t sure if people were going to like it, so our floral cards were the first line that I released because I wanted it to be a little on the safe side. Then I started to see that people responded to the more esoteric stuff, and that’s when I was like, “okay, we can just do whatever we want.” 

HC: Did you ever encounter any challenges related to being a woman in the creative field, or anything that posed an obstacle?

MC: When I started to work on my own, it became a little bit more of a fight to get clients to agree to pay what things cost. Which was surprising, like I didn’t suddenly raise the rates, and with the type of people that we worked with - small businesses and creatives - I didn’t expect that to be an issue. I feel like being a woman maybe had something to do with it. And I definitely had some unpleasant experiences. There was one client in particular who was just horrible… just completely disrespectful stuff that I don’t know if he would have said to a man. I mean, I don’t know. But it just felt like he sensed that he could talk down to me because I was a much younger woman. But then, once I moved into the stationery world, it is by far just mostly women.

books and stationary with skull on top Photo by Melissa Constandse

HC: That must be nice to have that community, too. To share stories. 

MC: It’s really inspiring, and I love it. I mean, if you go to a trade show you will notice right away that most people exhibiting are women. And then the community that I’ve built on Instagram has also become like a real-life community. There’s this one designer who has a print shop called Poison Apple Print Shop – and before I started with stationery I would look at her Instagram. She makes these beautiful witchy prints that have all these stories behind them, full of symbols. I would just look at it and think, “How awesome must it be to go to work every day and get to make artwork that’s just full of the things that inspire you?” Seeing people like that inspired me to do the stationery line. Once I entered the stationery world, it’s just been great because it’s mostly women. And in a way, it’s pushed the work a little bit in that more feminist direction. Because I always just felt so inspired by these amazing women that I keep meeting along the way.

HC: For women who are overall looking to become their own bosses, or work in the creative field, or just young people in general, what kind of advice would you give them?

MC: I would work on your communication skills and your assertiveness. I think that as women that’s a big challenge. We’re always apologizing, we’re always afraid to ask for what we know we deserve. It’s a big problem where women are much less likely to ask for raises or to negotiate more competitive salaries. I know it would’ve helped me at the beginning for sure. I would say embrace the other women around you and build that community. As bad as social media can be, it can also be an awesome tool that will help you connect with other people around you who like similar things, do similar things and don’t be afraid to connect and collaborate and feel inspired by them. So work on your communication skills, assertiveness, just not being afraid to demand what’s right and to get what you need. And then embrace the women around you, work with them and not to be cheesy, but lift each other up!

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