At Melissa Ballate’s desk there’s an illuminated display of ever-changing math equations. After some deciphering, it becomes clear it isn’t a game, it’s a clock, creatively communicating time. It’s just one of many clues that Ballate is always thinking differently.
As the founder and president of Blue Daring, Melissa partners with people with vision to bring their ideas to life. What does that mean? That means using strategic branding, design and creative thinking to make things happen. This deep-seeded dichotomy of form and function has been in Melissa’s blood for most of her 38 years; finding the balance has been an art all its own.
Kids dream of a lot of things. But when asked where she had imagined she’d live as an adult, Melissa had a unique answer.
“I never imagined my future home,” said Melissa. “I always imagined my future office.”
If it wasn’t implied by her answer, Melissa’s work ethic is unmatched, innate and unshakeable. She began working at the age of 14, and had four degrees by the age of 22 in everything from marketing to information systems management. Two years prior, she had begun consulting during lunch breaks while working at Cars.com.
“We would avoid telling clients Melissa’s age,” said Vanessa Mentor, Blue Daring’s Ideation Lead and first employee, hired shortly after Blue Daring’s founding in 2003. “That’s how young we were.”
Despite her youth, Melissa possessed a unique lens with which she viewed the world… marrying and leveraging the creative and strategic potential of any idea. She chose to create a company where the relationship between the two was essential, not exclusive.
“Nature in and of itself is a balance of form and function,” said Melissa. “It is when you strike that perfect balance that things are right. That was the reason why I started Blue Daring.”
This balance was also a guiding force in Melissa’s upbringing. She grew up in Chicago’s North side, the daughter of an engineer who was “very shy but very smart” and a hairdresser with a tenth-grade education and a powerful sense for people.
“She was so intuitive in her ability to make people feel not only beautiful but happy when they sat in her chair,” says Melissa. “That upbringing developed the lens through which I look at the world, constantly seeking not just the most beautiful solution, but the one that is going to make people feel the best.”
Beyond her desire to intertwine creative and strategic thinking, Melissa wanted the freedom and accountability that comes with being your own boss.
“I liked the idea of being accountable for the food on my table,” said Melissa, recalling the feeling of being able to provide for her family after securing her first big job. “I was able to move my mom up to a nicer place, and I remember thinking that if I work hard, I can do more.”
Melissa doesn’t just dream; she delivers. Blue Daring is celebrating its 15th year in business in 2018, a long life in start-up years. But when you see the massive amount of work Blue Daring has done in this decade and a half, it feels a whole lot shorter. The staff of 8 she leads from the company’s River West office has partnered with leaders in education, business, manufacturing and transportation, and various non-profits, with almost no challenge too big for the small but mighty team, including:
- Promoting more equitable use of bike sharing in Chicago
- Developing an employer brand for the world’s largest auto manufacturer
- Naming and branding open enrollment for the country’s third largest school district
- Helping the world’s largest manufacturer of firefighter protective gear launch a cancer awareness campaign
Her journey to entrepreneurial success felt both inevitable and, at times, impossible. But Melissa dared to be different, and struck the perfect balance.
Melissa discusses the past 15 years and her daily balance, centered in creative branding, strategic thinking, and…a bit of scotch. Watch below.