A prominent young, next-gen woman who is safeguarding her family’s wealth while carving her own niche as the head of an impact investment company, Melissa Sesana Grajales is undoubtedly one to watch.
It wouldn't be untrue to say that Melissa Sesana Grajales' family fortune was predicated on a wild leap of faith.
"After the Second World War, Northern Italy was pretty decimated and my grandfather, Arturo Sesana, realised there weren't really opportunities for growth," says Melissa. "He was always an entrepreneurial person, so he just hopped on a boat in 1952 and ended up in Colombia where he took a chance in starting a pasta factory.
"When my grandmother got to Colombia, she was shocked, it was far from anything she had seen in Italy. She was like 'I don't speak the language, I don't know the culture, but I hope they like pasta!'"
As fate would have it, Colombians, who by and large had not eaten pasta before, lapped it up.
"Pastas Doria became one of the emblematic Colombian brands," says Melissa. "My grandfather was awarded the title of Cavaliere del Lavoro for his success in industry and agriculture and for promoting Italian culture abroad. From pasta, the business naturally grew into grain milling and processing. Then agriculture and cattle farming, followed by aviation and real estate. My grandfather had an extremely curious and disciplined mind, so does my father."
'What do you want to be when you grow up?' I said, 'The CEO of Pastas Doria!'
Having also been blessed with an enquiring mind, Melissa had assumed a career in academia beckoned – a BA from the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, an MA in Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London and Additional Impact Investment studies from Oxford University and The Harvard Kennedy School are testament to her studious nature. But from a young age, she had a great interest in how the family business was run.
"I was always really curious about what they were doing, how they were doing it," she says. "When they asked at kindergarten, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' I said, ‘I want to be the CEO of Pastas Doria!'"
Born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1988, Melissa's early life was at times turbulent, so she moved to Miami at 13 years old. Around the same time, many of the family assets were sold off with the family office restructured as an investment vehicle.
Despite having a historically difficult relationship with her home country, Melissa: "Knew from an early age that I wanted to do something where I could actually see that I was generating some sort of positive change in people’s lives."
As it turned out, Melissa's inherent talent for business and nurtured respect for people made her the perfect person to take over the reins of her family office, Inversiones Brembo.
"[Growing up] I think my dad wanted to be very generous in the sense that, 'You pursue whatever you want and you're not beholden to this legacy'," says Melissa. "But for me, it has always been like, 'No, this is what I want!'
"My dad is still chairman and I'm principal [of the family office]. It's interesting when you work with family because roles can change constantly, but ultimately we are guided by sense of duty and respect.
"For me, being principal is more about having more discretion over decisions," she says of her family’s diverse asset holdings. "But I still firmly think that this is my grandfather's and my father's legacy and I'm here to contribute."
I'm sure there's a feminist commentary - but it didn't take a lot to feel credible!
What is undeniably part of Melissa's own legacy is how she handles her status as a young, next-gen female principal – a standing that is still in rather short supply in the world of family offices.
"I'm sure there's a feminist commentary here, but it didn't take a lot of work for me to feel credible," says the refreshingly forthright Melissa. "I'm aware of when I'm the only woman and the youngest on a board and there are moments when I think, 'Oh, should I have spoken up more? Do I need to be more forceful?', but to be honest, questioning how I contribute is bit counter to my character.
"So I lead by example. Family offices are in the world of legacy and tradition, it's much easier to move forward in the corporate world, there are a lot more social pressures for advancement. Family Offices are steeped in tradition, so they don't have to change their own microcosm, they don't have to change unless someone in there is actually generating change internally."
As it turns out, generating change is something that chimes with the legacy of her grandfather's original Colombian leap of faith and Melissa's own desire to make life better for the underprivileged in her home country. In addition to managing the family wealth, Melissa is also the co-Founder of Asiri, a Colombia-based company set up to identify and promote profitable investment opportunities that generate a positive social and environmental impact. Moonshots, it seems, are a family trait.
"Asiri came about when I saw this pay-as-you-go renewable energy project in Guatemala. We wanted to do it in Colombia but, rather than do it through the family office, I wanted to present the opportunity myself.
"After that successful first investment, we realized how much we enjoyed it and how much additionality we could bring as investors. So we started a bigger holding company called TValley, which is a company accelerator model where we now have 13 Colombian social enterprises ranging from green utilities, water, sanitation, education, healthcare, ecommerce… and it's amazing.
"Since it has been successful, I've used it to prove the concept of impact investing to my family office. So now I have discretion over assets and can direct a bit more towards that type of investments."
The effect of impact investment allows TValley, which houses companies in the fields of fintech, green energy and utilities, software, education, transportation, and health services, all with an underlying impact objective, to ensure profitability and effect through detailed reporting.
"We know through metrics and benchmarks that it is generating a positive impact," says Melissa. "But this isn't a philanthropy vehicle, this is a financial investment vehicle where we want to make exponentially profitable investments."
My grandfather really instilled in us values of generosity, empathy and respect.
It's this combination of social responsibility and business savvy that led to Melissa being selected to join the founding cohort of UNICEF's NextGen Global Principals representing Colombia. It's a platform that allows members to use their poly-capital (expertise, influence, networks, and resources) in ways that create valuable support for UNICEF at a high level, it's a great opportunity for Melissa to highlight the work that still needs to be done in Colombia while potentially helping to solve similar problems around the globe.
"My grandfather really instilled in us values generosity, empathy and respect," says Melissa. "Along with duty, discipline and being curious and innovative. I do think those are the values that guide me and my family."
For Melissa, impact investment is very much in her future: "Theres still a lot to do," she says. "I think metrics and accountability and verifiability are really important to making it a more trustworthy industry. I'm hoping that this is the direction that things are moving in.
"My vision is for my family's office and for Asiri to be a reference of how financially and impactfully positive this can be. I hope we can contribute to social enterprises, to developed innovative vehicles, and channel resources toward sustainable initiatives. I still have a lot to learn, and I hope there are many more opportunities for me to create positive impact for years to come."
For more information on Asiri, click here.
For more information on TValley, click here.