Global Girlboss And Proudly Filipino Michelle Mendiola Dares You To Dream Big And Make A Difference
“I am a Filipino.”
They’re the first four words Michelle Mendiola uses to introduce herself, the foundation she wants to lay down, clearly and firmly, before she lets you in.
It’s a door you want to enter, frankly, for hers is a story both simple and remarkable, that could change how a nation and generation of women might dream.
It’s a story about a girl from the Philippines that has just enough cushion from family to break her falls, that she finds the confidence to climb a little higher each time. So high, in fact, that she’s now, literally helping people touch the sky.
Elementary school, Poveda. University, Ateneo de Manila University. Childhood spent on her stepfather's shoulders circling Star City and Boom na Boom. She hated dresses, and spoke only Tagalog, because her ferocity-wielding mother, who birthed Mich in San Francisco, decided English could wait until kindergarten.
“I was what you would label at that age as, 'bossy.'
I like to think I displayed leadership skills at a young age,“ Michelle laughs.
Her parents divorced when Mich was still a baby, which in some ways formed the beginnings of a life of shuttling back and forth, of dynamic relationship structures, and of assertiveness and a powerful sense of self. As much as things may have ebbed and flowed, one thing remained constant: Ate Monica, Mich’s perennial role model and older sister.
A few weeks after graduating from Ateneo with a communications degree, Mich found herself in New York City, with a gleam in her eye and a somewhat doorless room in Monica’s apartment. The room was small, she remembers, but her dreams were big.
The earliest opportunity Mich got to launch herself into self-sufficiency was at a fancy restaurant in Midtown called The Lambs Club, where a fellow Filipino got her a hostessing gig, based entirely on the fact that they had a shared a motherland. Michelle had no experience in hospitality, but with an attitude that would prove to serve her well, she showed up with a massive smile on her face and gave it her best.
“I did it, and I did it WELL."
"I remember when I got my first paycheck. I cashed it in and went to the grocery to buy a few things—I needed some milk and toilet paper. I remember watching the cashier ring them up and I was thinking, ‘This is MY milk. This is MY toilet paper. I’m literally wiping my own ass!’"
Armed with her smile, candor, and now a-little-more-than-zero experience, that hostessing gig at The Lamb began to open doors for the naturally endearing young woman. First, at a hotel, where she moved into a marketing role. Then at Virgin.
“My job requires me to be curious about SO many things. From criminal justice reform
to ocean preservation to space. Virgin and Richard are involved in many fascinating things
that a Filipino-raised Communications major wouldn’t know much of!
So I spend a lot of time learning and trying to keep up.”
Soon she found herself working alongside Richard Branson himself, learning things that she would not have fathomed from her little slice of a life in Manila. “I currently work on the Corporate Communications team for Virgin. I look after comms for Virgin and Richard Branson specifically in the US and relating to our US companies. We have a number of amazing companies in the states that are starting up—Virgin Voyages (our cruise line), Virgin Trains, Virgin Galactic (commercial spaceflight) and Virgin Orbit (small satellites), Virgin Hotels, and many more. I feel so proud to be a small part of all of those.”
Mich moved to New York with plans to go into advertising,
but a side gig to make some extra cash turned into an opportunity
to score her current job with Richard Branson at Virgin.
Michelle currently lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—another little facet of life she manifested into existence. “I remember visiting the neighborhood about a decade ago and told myself that I was going to live in Brooklyn someday. And I did it! I’ve lived in New York for exactly seven years now and am still so giddy about it—feels like I’ve just moved here. I spend a lot of time exploring New York; it just keeps revealing itself to me!
What do you spend your most productive hours doing?
If I’m not traveling, my productive hours on a “normal” work day are spent working on whatever I was procrastinating on the day before.
What would you do with a spare 30 minutes during your day?
I’d walk slower. I’m always zipping around, I worry I miss out on some amazing things.
Michelle Mendiola, proof that simple things like a big smile, thorough work, and the openness
to lean on your network, can lead to truly groundbreaking opportunities.
Why do you do what you do?
I learn something new every single day and I get to work with the most incredible people. Working for Virgin is exciting, challenging, and I truly feel like we are making a difference in so many ways. All that, and because it's pretty darn cool.
What are some routines, systems, or habits that keep you performing at your best—physically, mentally, spiritually?
For a couple of years, I was seeing a therapist once a week. Those sessions really helped me navigate my thoughts and feelings, especially while living a life where it felt like I had no time or space to do so. I recently put this on pause because my therapist moved her practice upstate. I’m trying to fare without her, and doing well so far. After all those years of weekly sessions, I’ve learned to be authentic and not be bound by the notion of “normal” but to allow myself to be, well, me. (Note: This is still very much a work in progress.) I also do a lot of dancing and air-guitaring to The Strokes in my bedroom. That’s extremely vital to my mental health.
What are a few moments in your career that made you want to pinch yourself?
This happens almost every day in my current job. There are the bigger moments like being in Mojave to witness our spaceship fly to space for the first time. That was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. Then there are also the less monumental moments when I’m sitting with Richard and briefing him on the day’s events and messages and then he goes out and knocks it out of the park. That always feels so incredibly fulfilling and always makes me stop and think of how on earth I managed to get here.
What is a quote that brings you strength or solace?
Not necessarily one that gives me strength or solace but one that guides me: Don’t be an a**hole.
When are you at your most confident?
After a nice refresh. Whether it’s taking time off on holiday (Virgin has unlimited paid holiday, and they really mean it) or a mid-afternoon walk outside. I always come back feeling excited about what’s next. Disco music helps, too!
“I know I lucked out by meeting the right people at the right time, but I’m very confident
in the fact that it was my openness and curiosity about people that carried me through.”
Did you have anyone that looked like you to look up to in the career that you wanted to pursue?
Yes. When I first started at Virgin, the person I directly reported to was a fellow Asian woman named Christine who was SVP of Communications. Strong and incredibly intelligent but never boastful, she was my mentor and a champion for women in our company. She’s no longer at Virgin but I try every day to use what she’s equipped me with.
And someone I look up to when it comes to life in general? I do have someone who looks like me—exactly like me actually. My big sister, Monica. She completely shifted gears a few years ago to pursue a passion project and founded a successful healthy snack company called Take Root. I am in constant awe of how brilliant she is and how much she wants to make a difference as an entrepreneur.
If there's anything you want people to take away from your journey, what would that be?
Never underestimate the power of a good network—in my case, a Filipino network. And tell your story to everyone and anyone willing to listen, because you will find some amazing humans who are happy to help lift you up. And play to your strengths! Mine is clearly talking with people. :)
Before you go, could you put us onto something you love? (Be it a life hack, a product, a podcast, poem, idea, person, etc.)
I’m a bit of a lazy news junkie, so I’ve subscribed to a number of news round-ups that get sent to my inbox daily. The Quartz Daily Brief is my favorite. It must sound lame to list down an e-mail news roundup as something I love, but I really do get very excited [about it] every morning! This week I learned that octopuses are incredibly intelligent and that they are the animal that has evolved the most but is the least similar to humans so they are the closest thing we have to aliens on Earth!