A new graduate from Syracuse University, Marielle Brunelle is a co-founder of Rilla and recently moved to New York City to work at a PR Agency. Marielle talks to us about start-up culture, being a co-founder, and what it was like to work for the Council of Europe as an intern.
Harper: What is your job title and what does that work encompass?
Marielle: My official job title is Co-Founder and Chief Communications Officer of Rilla.io. I studied public relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Media and Communication at Syracuse University as one of my undergraduate degrees, so I leveraged my communications skills to convince my three co-founders to welcome me onto the team. From day one, however, I have been working on general business strategies like growth road mapping, ideating revenue streams, user discovery, and pitching. Regarding communications, I create and maintain our brand by managing our social platforms, drafting and proofreading all external relations, and even dipping my toes into a fair amount of graphic design and UI work. Additionally, I help transform educational content from our university-based clients into our custom Rilla Guides, which simplify long entrepreneurship lessons into brief, visual overviews.
Harper: What is it like co-founding a startup so young?
Marielle: Being a young founder is equal parts frightening and freeing. Your youth and inexperience can be both an asset and a liability. I’ve learned to find the balance between speaking like I know exactly what I am talking about and overpromising in areas that I still need to learn.
The beauty of youth is that no one expects you to have all the answers or have it all figured out. People expect you to have millions of questions, and even to make mistakes, so you are given space to do both. This perception also allows you to blow people away when you do know what you’re talking about.
Once you begin speaking about your ideas and gaining interest, there is pressure to follow through and turn them into a reality. You can choose to let this overwhelm you and control your life, or you can choose to remind yourself that it is okay to take it slow.
Being a young founder also corrupted my sense of a normal job before I even had the chance to formally enter the workforce. I admittedly struggle to feel fulfilled working as a small part of a large company now that I’ve had the opportunity to build my schedule, lead others, and spend my day creating something I am endlessly passionate about.
Harper: What is the story or beginning steps of creating Rilla?
Marielle: Three of my friends got together one Saturday morning at college and decided that they “wanted to create an app,” in their spare time. Michael was a talented software engineer, and Joe and Ciaran were interested in business, so they began toying around with a few ideas for about a month before realizing that starting a business on your own is unnecessarily difficult. They felt overwhelmed with the amount of educational content their local entrepreneurship center had handed them. Instead of getting discouraged, they started researching. What are the leading causes of startup failure? What about the existing guidance is xso confusing and daunting?
Then, with these answers, they began to build a software solution that would increase startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem success. I became involved a few months in when I realized that this idea had the potential to make a large impact and break down the traditional Silicon Valley, “unicorn,” startup culture. Rilla started as an educational content curation platform and has since pivoted to empower entrepreneurs and ecosystem managers with essential tools, resources, networks and data, all on one hub.
Harper: Now a post-grad, how are you starting to build your new community?
Marielle: Network, network, network! You never know who you are sitting next to, and who they know. Talk to the person next to you in the coffee shop. Ask more questions than the ones you answer. Be kind, don’t judge any books by their SparkNotes, and be open to making friends.
I just moved to NYC to work on the corporate strategy team at a PR agency. I have an entirely new department of people to get to know who have similar interests and educational backgrounds, and they all have friend groups in the city. I live with two new amazing roommates who both have boyfriends, friends, family, and company networks of their own. It is alarming how quickly a city can begin to shrink once you befriend three new people.
Harper: What does a normal working-day look like for you?
Marielle: I start any given workday around 7 am with a large cup of green tea and a 35-minute commute downtown. I like to spend this time getting into a productive mindset by listening to music and thinking about the tasks that I need to accomplish for the day. Once I arrive at work, I spend the entire day bouncing around from working on media lists, pitches and research at my desk, to brainstorming and collaborating in client meetings. At the end of my formal workday, I usually pack in an hour or two of Rilla work before heading out around 7:30 pm. Sometimes I’ll have a call scheduled, or sometimes I’ll just have content and emails to send. I always end my day with a personal activity; I either squeeze in a workout, meet my friends for dinner or drinks, or call my grandmother while I cook or grocery shop.
Harper: Do you have a five year plan/goal for Rilla? If so, what is it?
Marielle: For the past two years, Rilla has more or less been run by just the four of us. We have reached the point where we can only grow as fast as we can work, so we are currently working on building out our teams and bringing on new talent so we can service more clients. Over the next five years, we want to add new clients and expand our user base, but we also want to build out our content library of educational materials. Our goal is to lower the barrier of entry into entrepreneurship and increase accessibility to educational tools, so we hope to partner with more community-based incubators and accelerators. Within the next five years, we also plan to explore how we can meet our users where they are in their entrepreneurial journey and adapt our software and content to fit their needs.
Harper: What was it like to work in international relations for the Council of Europe as an undergrad?
Marielle: Working at the Council of Europe was truly a dream. Multiple days a week after class, I would take the scenic ride along the river to the Council on my little purple bike and attend whatever speaker or event was happening that day. One of my favorites was the World Forum for Democracy, where I heard intersectional feminist warriors like Farrah Khan speak about gender equality on the local and global scale. I had the privilege of working under a wise British man named Alun Drake, who often spent hours in my office chatting about European cultural differences and international politics. I also had the opportunity to produce a few research reports, as well as write and present a social media training course for a small group of Council employees. The most memorable day at the Council, however, was when I used my security clearance to sneak into (literally– I used my badge to get through the doors and then hid it in my jacket as I silently walked in with a pre-approved group of professors) a closed European Council plenary session to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak to hundreds of Eurocrats about her vision for one united Europe. As you might imagine, my international relations nerd-self was in heaven.
Harper: What do you like about working in the human rights and sustainability fields?What brought about your interest in working in these fields?
Marielle: I grew up volunteering, reading, watching Ted Talks and documentaries, and playing outside. My parents instilled a deep respect for the environment and a keen awareness of my privileges in me throughout my childhood, but I really solidified this knowledge in college. Courses like migration flows, women and gender studies, European human rights, and sustainability policy introduced me to the environmental and human rights abuses throughout the private sector value chain, while my PR courses introduced me to the growing corporate responsibility industry. I am now building a career that will enable me to make top to bottom operational change within corporations and influence sustainable business creation.
I am endlessly fascinated by these topics because they are intrinsically interconnected. You cannot talk about human rights without talking about environmental sustainability, and vice versa. These fields allow me to think analytically on a big-picture scale, while also encouraging my critical and problem-solving skills.
Harper: What is your daily go-to workwear?
Marielle: I am a huge fan of high-waisted, belted, soft material pant. In the winter, I pair this with a sweater or turtleneck, a blanket scarf, and a structured trench or wool coat. In the summer, I’ll pair this with a tank top, or I’ll just opt for a dress. My current go-to workwear coat is not only missing functioning pockets, but it is missing pockets, period. This annoys me to no end, as I am often juggling my metro card, keys, AirPods, phone, and a yoga mat.
Thanks Marielle for chatting with us!