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Meet Trailblazer Melissa Santell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Melissa Santell.

Melissa, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
My story truly begins with falling in love with food as a child. One of my first food memories is sitting on the kitchen counter watching my mom make gigantic pots of tomato sauce. I remember the scent of garlic floating through the entire house, sizzling in a hot bath of olive oil. As I grew older, writing became my second love, and from there the rest is history.

I studied Communications and Journalism at the University of Tampa, where I became the campus newspaper’s first food critic. After graduation, like every other college kid, I had no idea what to do or where to start. Serendipity led me to Big Brothers Big Sisters and shortly after I was named one of Tampa Bay Business Journal’s 30 under 30 business professionals. The following two years of my life were spent in Manhattan, marketing a luxury catering & events company called Neuman’s Kitchen. That experience allowed me to hone my food knowledge, direct high-end photoshoots alongside the Executive Chef and further my passion for the industry. And trust me, what they say is true, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.

Since that time, I’ve really focused on doing what makes my heart happy. I never want to feel like I’m working, I want to feel like I’m creating with purpose. And I think I’ve been able to accomplish that. My stint in New York City brought me right back to Tampa where I began working with The Marketing Posse, an agency focused on food and beverage. I got a taste of collaborating with big corporate brands like PepsiCo, Welch’s and Impossible Foods… I even got to work with Joffrey’s Coffee and Tea Company, the specialty coffee partner of Disney World. But I craved independence and the opportunity to work with local culinary brands I really believed in. So, I started a food blog at and launched my business.

Today, I’m a food photographer and marketing consultant, working for myself and creating magic for restaurants I love. The business has been thriving for a year and a half, and I’m so incredibly thankful!

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Psssh… Smooth road? Does that even exist in entrepreneurship? When you have the freedom to do and be what you want, it sounds like total bliss, but in reality, it can be really confusing. When I first started working for myself, I knew I wanted to focus on the food and beverage industry. But there were so many question marks after that. People from different industries would approach me asking for help, and at times I felt pressured to say yes because I was determined to meet my monthly financial goals. Sometimes, I was forced to say yes to a client who wasn’t ideal for me and no to the freedom to choose who to work with. And that’s just a minor sacrifice when your business is in its infancy.

Learning how to write a contract or send a proposal with pricing was a whole new beast. Everything from setting up a business bank account to collecting money and setting a percentage aside for taxes was all new to me. These are the things I never learned in college but wish I had. But there’s beauty in looking back and knowing that I figured it all out, and you’ll reward yourself too with that feeling during your personal journey.

If I could share one major piece of advice to women interested in starting their own business it would be this: have a plan, find a mentor and don’t be everything to everyone. It sounds obvious, but it’s so critical to have an action plan, understand what you want out of your business (including boundaries that outline what you DON’T want) and why people should work with you. There’s no better way to work through this “hard thinking” than with someone who’s already done it before. Try to find a successful mentor to be your sounding board along the way. You don’t have to make the leap alone!

Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
I’m a food photographer and marketing consultant, which means I work with restaurants to create beautiful content, in addition to helping them up their brand game. All at the same time.

I think that’s what sets me apart most from others in the industry. I take beautiful pictures of food and advise restaurants about how each photo can be leveraged in their marketing strategy, for example, in email marketing or social media. If they don’t a marketing strategy, I can create one for them. Being able to offer a suite of services that complement each other has been an effective approach for me.

So much of the media coverage is focused on the challenges facing women today, but what about the opportunities? Do you feel there are any opportunities that women are particularly well positioned for?
Personally, I choose to look at these challenges from a different perspective… a positive one. Because we all share the same professional roadblocks, women are supporting other women more than ever before. AND IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL. There are an incredible amount of women-focused networking groups, female entrepreneurs and girl bosses empowering women in the workplace. It’s been an amazing movement to be part of.

Women are well positioned for anything they’re passionate about pursuing. I truly don’t believe in putting boundaries or boxes around what we can and can’t accomplish.

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