Melanie Aronson is the founder and CEO of Panion, a community management platform and app for meeting like-minded people through common interests. She has a bachelors in anthropology from Columbia University and a masters in documentary filmmaking from the School of Visuals Arts in NYC. She is also a Fulbright recipient.
Melanie worked in sales for Apple for almost 3 years and for more than 10 years as a freelance filmmaker, photographer, and designer. Melanie has lived an international life, residing in NYC, Barcelona, Florence, Malmö and now in Lisbon.
Melanie, can you start off by telling us about yourself and why you chose to start Panion?
I didn’t intend to start Panion, one thing led to another and it just. I had just finished film school and headed to Sweden on a Fulbright to research for a documentary about integration. I heard the same story again and again that people coming to Sweden were struggling to make new friends so I came up with an idea for an app that helped connect people platonically through shared interests. Fast forward to the beginning of the pandemic and we realized that an app for meeting people in person was no longer a safe product to be promoting and that we needed a new direction. We also saw a lot of people using our new group feature to create support groups in different cities around the early stages of the pandemic. We came to realize the power of community, even if online amongst total strangers and started to dig deeper. We eventually decided to pivot to become a community building platform with a focus on empathy and impact-driven communities that truly helped people in some way shape or form.
Can you tell us what drives you to be successful as an entrepreneur?
I’ve always had one of those brains that loves to create and come up with new ideas. As a child I did a lot of art and was able to entertain myself from a young age through making up fantasy games with just about anything I found around the house. As I have gotten older, I channeled that into drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and anything else I could create along the way. I’ve also always been passionate about social issues and finding ways to even in small ways bring awareness and social change to people’s lives (hence the documentary filmmaking). I think a combination of these two drivers keeps me going as an entrepreneur. I want to build to build tech products that make a difference and I love figuring out the best recipe for how.
What advice do you have for other up-and-coming young Women Leaders?
I am of course a member of a number of groups for entrepreneurs that support women and have participated in female-focused accelerators, but I by no means define myself as a female entrepreneur. I’m an entrepreneur and the struggles of being a woman make me a more resilient one. Focus on how to become a better leader and how to develop yourself as a person instead of focusing on how the business is rigged against you. Yes, it’s harder as a woman, but those struggles make you become a more successful entrepreneur, so embrace them and be thankful for what they teach you along the way.
Are you active on social media professionally? If so, what platforms work best for engaging your followers?
I am trying. I personally do not like social media and want to spend as much of my life living it instead of talking about living it. However, I see that it’s necessary to build a personal brand as a founder, so I try to be engaged in on LinkedIn and to some extent Twitter. When I free time I prefer to focus on things that do not require more screen time, but now I’ve started to see social media as part of my job and incorporating it into my workday rather than my after-work time.
What is the major difference between being an entrepreneur and working as a filmmaker?
I find more similarities than differences to be honest. Both involve a lot of storytelling, research, fundraising, project management, and creating a product for a target audience. The main difference I’ve experienced is that my filmmaking was a bit more independent. Yes, I worked on films as part of a team, but they were often shorter-term projects or projects with intermittent filming that lasted over a few years. With Panion I’m working with the same people every day. I lead, but I’d say my style is quite collaborative. Honestly, I feel my filmmaking career really prepared me for a number of challenges that I’ve faced in the startup world.
Who was your biggest influencer?
This one is tough. I’m honestly not sure. I think meeting people who are successful, yet humble, people who truly do good without having to promote it has greatly impacted me. I’ve traveled a lot and met a number of everyday people who have influenced me in a number of small ways. From seeing people with tough situations who can still see the positive side of life to people who have offered me help out of pure generosity. I’d say my encounter with a lot of tiny influencers make up one big whole.
What is the most challenging part of your work as a CEO?
Leadership and managing people. Anyone can be a CEO, but not everyone can be a leader, and that is certainly the most challenging part.
What is a day in your life like?
Pre-covid or post-covid life? Right now, I wake up, do yoga and meditate, eat breakfast, get ready for work, work from home, after work usually see some friends. These days I go to the park or to the beach and have a picnic and read a book. (I just moved to Portugal).
Do you have any hobbies?
Yoga. Cooking. Eating. Travel. Art. Photography. Plants.
What makes you smile?
Feeling relaxed. The beach. Great food. My cats.
What are you never without?
My thirst for knowledge.
What scares you?
Having no purpose.
What’s your favorite vacation spot?
I loved Cuba. Morocco. Southern Italy. Japan. Too many to have a favorite.
List any other work, published articles, interviews or accomplishments:
My films: https://eyeingtheworld.com
My Medium: https://melaniearonson.medium.com