In this interview for our Women in Tech series, we had a great chat with Maja Paleka, the co-founder and director of melo. With over 20 years of leadership experience in various areas, Maja left the corporate world in 2015 to work on re-imagining and redesigning the future of work.
She’s now leading the charge at melo, a platform that’s helping families reduce the mental load of running a household while challenging unhelpful gendered roles. Maja tells us about her own personal experience of struggling with the invisible burden of mental load and how that inspired her to create melo.
We talk about the app’s unique method of working together as a team to support each other, and Maja walks us through the five principles of the melo method. We also chat about the future of melo and how AI will be integrated to help families in a more tailored way.
As a woman in the tech industry, Maja has faced some challenges, including implicit and explicit bias and navigating toxic cultures. She shares with us a particular experience and how she managed to navigate it. But she’s also seen some positive changes in the industry in terms of gender diversity and inclusion, and she tells us what she thinks is behind those changes.
Finally, Maja offers some advice to young women who are interested in pursuing careers in tech or STEM. She encourages them to stay curious and see how STEM careers can truly change the world and make it a better, more caring place.
Hi Maja, thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us about your background as an electrical engineer and your experience in leadership roles across different areas? How did this lead you to co-found melo?
I was always a curious kid and loved maths and sciences. I grew up with a dad who is an engineer ( seems to be a bit of a common theme with a lot of female engineers) who really nurtured that curiosity and love of understanding the world around us.
So the uni path was super easy to pick. I did not spend a lot of time doing the technical side of things – it became apparent to my employers I think that I loved working with people, and so I made my way into leadership roles within technical industries. I think curiosity never really went away so when opportunities came to try out different things – sales, operations, etc.
I was keen to give them a go. melo is my third venture into entrepreneurship and every single one came from a personal experience of an issue. Ultimately, my engineering degree gave me confidence and reinforced my love for problem solving, so that massively helped.
We now, as a team, are ultimately problem solving the mental load of families. We see that the way we do things within our families (which are in essence systems) is just not working for us anymore, and the melo team is working to help reimagine and redesign that system.
Melo is on a mission to fundamentally change how modern families work and help reduce the mental load of running a family. Can you talk more about the inspiration behind melo and how it challenges unhelpful gendered roles?
My co-founders and I are lucky. We all have wonderful relationships and have pretty much shared the household labour equitably with our partners. What became apparent over time is that there was still an area that we just could not seem to crack working as a team on.
It was the planning, the anticipating, the organising – the invisible stuff that happens in our heads. And how we were managing it, one person carrying the lion share, was causing frustration and stress in our relationships.
We later learned that it was called mental load. We had just spent 5 years prior partnering with organisations on re-imagining and redesigning work, and we could see that we could use some of the same approaches and skills in this area.
What seemed apparent to us is that just like at work, where we were stuck working in the same patterns since the industrial revolution, within our families we were stuck in the same 1950s autopilot. And it was not serving us any more.
So melo aims to not only help families simmer down their mental load by getting a bit more organised, but it also challenges the deeply gendered roles by opening up conversations on how we ended up here, suggesting new habits that may serve us better, and will longer term, through AI and ML, nudge families to stay true to whatever they decide is a better way for them.
In addition to the app, melo also has a method for working together as a team to increase visibility, simmer down stress, and support each other. Can you walk us through the melo method and how it supports families?
We sometimes say that the app is like a post it note. It is an amazing tool that became even more powerful when used with Agile methodologies like Scrum or Kanban. The melo method is kind of like that methodology. It has 5 principles.
First is ‘Get it out of your head’ the idea here being that cognitive capacity is limited and should not be used on logistics but should sit somewhere else that is easily accessible any time. Also, this prevents one person being the owner of the load ( and the tacit knowledge that comes with it) but is shared.
Second is ‘Huddle Up’ – all great teams need regular time, and not on the run, to sit down and connect, plan, align and decide how to support each other. The family huddle is a life changing habit.
Third principle is ‘Let melo guide you’ – the idea here is to stop relying on making decisions on the fly. As James Clear said – “We do not raise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.” So, let’s stop depending on ourselves to make great decisions on what to do, but build a system into melo that we can just rely on, relieving our brains of incredible load.
Step 4 is critical ‘Ask for help’ – melo is designed with first the idea that a family is a team, but also one that has its own village. We need to operate that way – and ask for help when stuck and melo it easy.
And the last principle is ‘Review and Adjust’ – nothing in this world is static, and this is definitely true of family lives. If we are going to change things in this complex world, we need to regularly be checking in with each other to see how we are going, to support each other when needed, and stay intentional.
Longer term, melo plans to use AI to help each family in a tailored way. Can you share some of the ideas or plans for how AI will be integrated into the melo app and the impact it could have on families?
ML and overall AI will be such a critical part of melo. Why rely on remembering to plan for birthdays and holidays when AI can remember for us and nudge actions ahead of time. Why try to remember a present when you are at the mall next time, when AI can, based on geolocation and your to-do list , suggest it to you.
Why always rely on yourself to manage conflicts of schedule when AI can do that for you. Why try to come up with meal plans when AI can learn your normal patterns and what you usually schedule and shop for and suggest it for you, and while it is at it, do your shop and organise to have it delivered.
Based on the pet you have, AI can suggest insurance, vet visits, and care plans. And the list goes on and on. No matter how spontaneous we are, families operate in patterns and AI can easily learn and do the predictive planning, suggesting and organising for us, and as the world gets more automated will be able to actually get stuff done.
As a woman in the tech industry, have you encountered any unique challenges that have shaped your career journey? If so, could you share a particular experience and how you navigated it?
From the time I entered my university degree it was very clear I was going to be in the minority. My degree had only 10% women, and the industry itself is not that far off. Often that meant being treated differently.
I am not going to lie, sometimes standing out as a female was an advantage, and mostly because people were surprised that I was even in certain places. Those moments were far outweighed by the moments of implicit and explicit bias.
From being assumed to be the admin person, and not the engineer on the account because I had lipstick on, to feeling deeply uncomfortable as I was stared down in wastewater treatment plants in my hard hand and steel toe shoes, to many many others.
The toughest experience was working in a leadership team that there is just no better way to describe than being a ‘boys club’, and realising that I am between a rock and a hard place in terms of perception. Women who did not engage in the social events and tried to ‘keep up with the boys’ never got anywhere, and were perceived to be not interested in their careers, and those that engaged were considered ‘party girls’ and were not taken seriously.
There really was no real way to win. I am not sure that I have the right answer here, as ultimately those types of cultures just should not exist and I should not be giving advice to other women and girls on how to navigate them, as it should not be on them to manage their behaviour to fit a toxic culture.
Because ultimately that was what I had to do – always being aware of how I was coming across, and just trying to stay as true to myself as I could. I also was very lucky that my parents raised me to be pretty resilient in these situations and that helped tremendously.
Overall it made me better at seeing the difference between a truly toxic culture and then staying clear of it, and a culture of leadership that tries its best but just may not get it right all of the time that I could influence and be a part of.
Have you seen any positive changes in the tech industry in terms of gender diversity and inclusion, and if so, what do you attribute those changes to?
I do see a lot of very committed people working really hard on this issue. I think we have definitely landed on the awareness of the issue across the board, as well as are starting to see the difference between performative D&I initiatives and those that truly want to make a difference.
I attribute this to the tireless work of people in the industry who are willing to put themselves on the line to make a change. I also attribute it to changes demanded by the younger generations of men of what is asked of them.
Their fight for the right for parental leave, involvement in care, etc. The pandemic has pushed that even further. We still have a long way to go – from the basic perception of what STEM careers even mean, and what it will take to be in a STEM role to fundamental changes in structural and policy barriers.
I also think an incredible amount of potential lies in how we talk about STEM to kids as I think the whole industry is deeply misperceived by the general population and because of that girls opt out early.
What advice would you offer to young women who are interested in pursuing careers in tech or STEM? Are there any specific skills or experiences that you believe are particularly valuable for success in this industry?
I would just encourage them to stay curious. I would encourage them to see how STEM careers can truly be about changing the world, and making it a better, more caring place. I know that this is something we never talk about but it is true.
From alleviation of poverty, to better healthcare, to ensuring we are building ethical and humane AI there is an incredible space to make a world a better place through tech. And you do not need an engineering degree to be a part of it – technology will deeply depend on humanities over the next few decades and it is at that intersection that some of the best and most interesting work will happen.
Before you go…
If you’d like to sponsor or advertise with Balance the Grind, let’s talk here