If Melissa Fishman’s career path could be described in one word, it would likely be atypical. Her journey, like so many others, started in a high school guidance office. Without a clear career goal in mind, she was handed a quiz. After a series of questions designed to determine skills, values, and interests, her future was revealed: chemical and biochemical engineering.
With her career calling in sight, Melissa went on to study at Western University where she earned a BE in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering. But the industry wasn’t quite ready for grads like her.
“I had the intention of doing water treatment or environmental services, but university was ahead of the game in offering programs that didn’t match jobs in the workforce.” So post-graduation, Melissa found herself in a mechanical engineering job designing boilers—and it became clear this was not for her.
“To be successful, you need to be able to look beyond what you are doing every day, and when I was an Engineer in Training I did not. I sat in my cubby, did what I needed to do for the day, and went home. I disliked my role because I couldn’t see a future beyond it.”
Fast forward four years and Melissa was pressing pause on engineering to start a family in Alberta. Unhindered by the many demands of being a new mom, she was eager to try something new. “I’m an antsy person,” she said. “I wanted to do something on the side, so I started a business with a family member distributing handbags.” With her entrepreneurial spirit and expert organizational skills, her business, meant to be a small side gig, expanded to include franchises in Calgary and Ontario.
With her second baby on the way, Melissa and her husband decided to move back to Ontario to be closer to family. At this time, her business had grown beyond what she’d originally expected, so she made the decision to sell the business she’d grown in Alberta, leaving the portion in Ontario with her relative.
But things changed again, and in 2010, Melissa and her family moved back to Waterloo Region. By this time, her children had started school and she was ready for her next adventure.
“I started to dab around in volunteering, and ended up becoming Vice President of the Lions Club. Then I started a community association because of a potential construction project in my neighbourhood for a new accessible park for the kids.” It was through her community engagements that she discovered her innate ability to manage people and projects. She spearheaded the Amazing Race St. Jacobs, a 5 km race in partnership with local businesses to raise funds for the accessible park. A highly anticipated event in the St. Jacobs community, the race draws over 50 teams, 35 businesses, and has generated over $18,000 in the past 4 years.
Melissa built her first LinkedIn account in 2017 as she toyed with the idea of going back to work. It was only a matter of days before she was contacted by a former colleague, Kevin Henry, who was a former employee at WalterFedy. He suggested she visit the company to see if it would be a good fit. “I hadn’t really considered going back into engineering—I had a couple of other ideas at the time—but I came in and loved the environment.”
After 12 years of being an active volunteer, self-made business woman, and mother, the transition back to work was not a small decision. “Home was a huge obstacle, although it’s terrible to look at it that way. It took about a year to find the balance between work and home. It’s a little bit of tug and war.” Not one to step down from a challenge, Melissa flourished in her role, despite her initial misgivings. The skills she developed as a community leader and entrepreneur shine through her work as a project manager and team leader. Together, her team develops lighting solutions for high-profile public institutions and commercial developments like Humber College and 460 Columbia.
Her advice for other aspiring project managers is simple: Learn to lead and still be part of a team.
“It can be difficult sometimes because you essentially are being bossy when you need to be bossy, and holding deadlines when you have to hold deadlines. But, if you can manage to find a way to create a team where you are integrated enough that they feel you are sitting with them through those deadlines instead of over them, that goes a long way.”
Reflecting on her career journey, Melissa believes the intentional, linear career path we strive for is a fallacy. “Your path is always changing. It evolves through your first job, and again with your second job. You will zig zag all the way through your career until you discover where you want to go.” This zig zag momentum is nothing to be feared. “That’s how you get the best careers” Melissa explained. “That’s how you find out what actually makes you happy rather than coming out of school and doing what you’ve been told.”