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Women in Business Q&A: Cristina DeVito, CEO of Mudderella

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Hailing from the sunny shores of New Jersey, Cristina brings a diverse background to the Mudderella team. From her days studying mechanical engineering at Dartmouth College to her time as a management consultant with Bain & Company, Cristina has never shied away from a new opportunity or challenge. It is this drive, determination and desire to take on new challenges that Cristina inspires the Mudderella team with on a daily basis.

When an opportunity in her hometown with Tough Mudder, as the Chief Strategy Officer presented itself, Cristina knew she had no choice but to pack up and head back across the country. The entrepreneurial spirit and culture of Tough Mudder presented Cristina with an opportunity to create an obstacle challenge series for women. She and her team created Mudderella to empower women across the country to celebrate their strength and to have fun, and well as they say, the rest is history.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I am the only daughter of two Italian parents. And like many first generation children, I have seen first-hand how valuable hard work and determination can be in achieving seemingly impossible goals. My parents came from humble beginnings and didn't speak English when they arrived in the U.S.; they are each strong individuals who are not only confident and determined, but also know when to ask for help and when to give it.

I have been so fortunate to work with some incredibly strong, rising talent. The Mudderella team is smart, passionate and dedicated. They help each other, they believe in our product and they cheer for our customers. Importantly, they are not afraid to tell me when they think I'm wrong and provide alternative solutions. They make me a better leader because they are active members of the team, and find opportunities to coach me in their own ways.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Mudderella?
I am a strong believer that every experience prepares you for the next in life. I'm lucky to have worked in finance and management consulting prior to Mudderella, as it gave me a solid base of hard skills. It also taught me how to communicate across different groups of people, and ways to align these individuals around a common, greater goal.

At some point I realized that I had spent much of my career being an adviser, and there came a point where I said to myself "it's time that I'm the one that pushes the button instead of telling other people to push the button." I had always enjoyed working with small, growing companies and brands, so making the switch to starting a new brand from scratch was an incredible opportunity for me.

Mudderella is a brand that encourages women (and men) to define what being strong means to you and to own it - to believe that "can't" doesn't exist. I myself have run in many obstacle mud runs over the past few years and saw first-hand how motivating and inspirational it can be to set a goal and achieve something that you didn't think was possible. Having untimed events that you can do with friends (even if you just only met them on the course that day!), adds an element of fun to the challenge. My team and I wanted to create a true athletic challenge for women that was also a fun, full day experience.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Mudderella?
100% the highlight is seeing the women on course interacting with the experience and the event. Being at our NY/NJ event with 10,000 women around you and hearing their stories of strength and how Mudderella means something--often something different to each one of them--that is the highlight and why I founded the brand. It's also been amazing to see the event grow from our first test event in 2013 to eight events in 2014 (including our first event in the UK this summer!).

While our growth has been a major highlight, planning for the growth has been a challenge. It's amazing but sometimes unexpected, and planning for the unknown is always a challenge. As a team we have to be nimble and quickly in the moment. And importantly, when the event is all said and done it's also so important to take a step back and really evaluate how it went. We constantly make refinements to ensure we are giving the consumer the best experience possible.

Why do you think outdoor adventure fitness is so attractive for women?
It's hard to juggle everything and stay fit. Getting in shape can be a solitary event and a lot of women crave something that is more social. Mudderella marries the two - fitness and spending time with your girlfriends. Mudderella is more than an event, it's a full day experience that is centered around a way of thinking: Believing in your strength and wanting to celebrate that with the Mudderella community. Right now there is a broader movement and trend towards fitness activities that are fun and social. Mudderella answers this need, not only on event day but through the ongoing social and human connections it builds.

And the actual event brings you back to the basics and your roots -- like when you were a kid and got to spend days outdoors playing in the mud and climbing trees!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Trust me, it's something that I still struggle with and know I have to work at on a daily basis. For me prioritization is key, understanding what is most important and having the guts to deprioritize things you can't get to or won't do well because you can't give it enough focus. Having a great team around you is an incredible and critical asset. It is important to give them freedom to do their jobs and bring a shared vision to life.

You also have to make a conscious decision to spend time on yourself and do the things that make you strong and happy. And it helps to choose something you love to do; there is an inherent balance when that is the case.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issue for men and women in the workplace is not having the confidence to get the job done and forgetting how great and strong you really are. Not taking the risks to create something incredible that didn't exist before is a gender neutral issue. I've fallen into this trap myself and have to remind myself that I can achieve my goals and more. Not doing this prevents you from seeing opportunities and creating new ones for yourself to continue to grow and succeed.

Importantly, remember that it's OK to ask for help; build up a strong network of people (mentors, team members) that will support you through the tough times and bring some levity when it's needed!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been lucky to have some amazing mentors along the way who have coached me and provided counsel in challenging situations. They have been there to build me up and remind me of my strengths when I need a boost, and to give me honest feedback when they knew I could do better. One in particular was terrific at being completely honest and straightforward with me and providing feedback that was actionable. His biggest piece of advice was to beg for forgiveness instead of asking for permission. It is this bias to action that is most critical for my team and me in building a new brand and delivering on our promises.

Having such strong role models and cheerleaders in my corner has been hugely valuable as they have helped to build my confidence as well as my skill-set over time. Most importantly, they have showed me first-hand what it means to be a mentor as well as a manager.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I am a big admirer and fan of other women entrepreneurs. There are so many of them out there who are making an incredible difference in the world and offering people new products and experiences to make their lives better. A good friend of mine, Jen Lee Koss, and her business partner, Kena Taranjape are two of those women. They started Brika, a unique online shopping experience which offers curated pieces and importantly, celebrates the makers behind them - many of them incredible women entrepreneurs with both the creativity and the guts to create and offer unique products people want to buy.

And while I am one of many in Sheryl Sandberg's camp, I can't help but give her a shout out here as well. She is one lady who is not afraid to own her strong, and I hope someday I see her at a Mudderella event!

What do you want Mudderella to accomplish in the next year?
I plan to continue to grow the Mudderella brand and event series, doubling or tripling the number here in the U.S. as well as continuing to expand internationally.

With each event we want to see more Mudderellas on course -- experiencing the event and the community that grows along with it, and owning their strong. We want to continue to hear from our amazing participants how the brand is having a positive impact on their lives and inspiring them to own their strong. Ultimately, we want to give women a safe and fun platform to express and celebrate their strength.