Women in Business Q&A: Christina Lessa, Founder, Creative Director, CEO : FLATT

Christina Lessa is a journalist, photographer and production and marketing specialist. Christina has been engaged in the arts and production market for the past 20 years.

Christina began her career in the Arts as a journalist and Fine Artist. A former production company owner, CD Productions, and as a four time published author, Christina's work has received international attention. America's Sports Illustrated chose her first book, Balancing Acts, as "Book of the Year" by Italian Elle as well as, "# 1 Read", the first female athlete concept book featured in Sports Illustrated to garner such a title. At the forefront of promoting equality for women in the media and job market place, Christina's second book, Women Who Win, was chosen as the "# 1 must read for women" by Conde Nast's Sports and Fitness and nominated for the prestigious American Library Associations Book of the Year Award. Her last published work for Rizzoli, Women to Women received acclaim from all areas of the media and was described on The Today show as, "inspirational", and "graphically elegant".

It was through self-promotional book launch events that Christina began to establish herself as a producer: putting together must-attend book launch parties and celebrity auctions for charity (with auctioned items such as Marilyn Monroe's record breaking Christies sale barbells, Drew Barrymore's Oscar gown, and a native rain forest mask hand delivered by Sting). She has written segments for and appeared on The Today Show, OH! Oxygen Network, as well as the center of narration for a documentary based program on "E" Entertainment. As a commercial photographer Christina has created work for clients such as Kosta Boda,Van Cleef and Arpels, and Sony Records as well as numerous European and American publications such as Vogue, Men's Health, Newsweek, Time, Vibe, and Rolling Stone. Founding FLATT in 2010, Christina has taken the concept of post market bubble translation into prioritizing creative entrepreneurship and philanthropy and put it to print and a new brand, FLATT. FLATT and its accompanying mission to promote arts philanthropy with its FLATT PRIZE, has received acclaim across the board from The Observer to The Wall St Journal. Christina's ongoing mission with FLATT to create quality cultural exchanges has developed into a partnership with the historical National Arts Club the result of which is a yearly artists residency of significant importance. In a continuation of her efforts to foster and promote women as leaders, FLATT's recent, and first major co- branding campaign with Cole Haan, highlights the "History Begins Here" campaign featuring three films written and creatively curated by Christina focusing on three unique women who are carving out their own destiny from Chef, to Politician to Artist. Christina believes that the arts, in all of their guises, are the scaffold for great change.

Christina has a BFA from The Cooper Union and an MA from The International Center of Photography / NYU program.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My family has been my strongest influence. My father was a mechanical engineer who risked everything to start his own business and was successful through his talent and creative entrepreneurship. After losing his steady job at the age of 47, he started one of the most successful small companies of its kind developing automated systems for UPS that revolutionized how they did business and managed logistics. My six older siblings are also remarkable people and I have learned from my siblings how it is possible to have a broad range of passions and interests. My siblings have achieved notoriety in fields ranging from Art Therapy to Paleontology. As the youngest child, I had the luxury of absorbing all of that and learning from my family's successes and failures. My background as a visual artist has also played an enormous role in growing my understanding of what it takes to succeed through sheer discipline and determination. As an artist, you are solely responsible for your work, answering not only to yourself but also to your highly critical audience. As a leader and mentor, I share my knowledge and experience with my team as part of our mutual pursuit of success. I am also the mother of two young artists, my son, a seventeen-year old concert cellist currently studying at Juilliard pre-college, and an eleven-year old daughter enrolled in the PPAS school in Manhattan (Professional Performing Arts) who is a song-writer and studies dance in the Jaqueline Kennedy Onasis program at ABT. Through their experiences I am made aware of what obstacles a 21st century artist encounters and what type of support is needed to achieve your goals in our new "creative class" economy. At FLATT, our mission has a two laser-focused purposes: to support the concept of what we call "The New Philanthropy", which encompasses not only our editorial promotion of individuals, but also our mentorship and financial support through the FLATT Prize. For several years as a child, I lived in the Virgin Islands with my Mother and experienced racism first hand as an individual as well as a spectator. This ingrained in me the desire for change. The vast and obvious racial divide in arts education, access to art, and professional job opportunities compels us to create a new metamorphosis. As a leader, these are the paradigms that I am interested in transforming,

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at FLATT?
I truly believe that all of my experiences, whether as a waiter, a struggling graduate student, a writer for Rizzoli Publishing, or as a commercial photographer have added up to produce FLATT. Humility, gratitude and hard work in all of these arenas are the core values that I've come away with and been fortunate enough to employ into my own company. Maintaining ethics and your original intention is probably one of the hardest things to do when you start a new brand. I truly believe that we have been able to do this at FLATT and that this type of inspired focus is what has given FLATT its edge. Inspiration through transformation is our motto and my team is comprised of individuals that honestly live this in everything that they do. I couldn't be more proud or thankful to have such an incredible group of people with which to create FLATT.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at FLATT?
Putting forth something new into the publishing world (in a time where printed matter is dissipating), coupled with a brand that focuses on maintaining integrity brings forth numerous challenges. The copy in FLATT is also based on a different concept that harkens back to days of "Life", "Look" and Andy Warhol's original "Interview". We write about people's opinions, looking to create a historical work that can be looked back on and educate or inspire others...doing this at a time when gossip is king is absolutely a challenge. The Printing issue is mainly a financial one. Printed publications, particularly ones such as ours (on heavy stock with close to 200 pages), have diminished in distribution and the costs to produce them have risen. At FLATT, we work very hard to cut corners and keep costs down without losing quality. The public response to this labor of love is incredible and I believe speaks to our integrity throughout the process and a hunger for curated media that appeals to the intellectual. We cannot keep our hands on the printed book and the new website is exploding. We've had people cry over the inspired content and have received endless commentary on its inspired nature. I believe that this happens because we are living in a virtual world that is fixated on the topical and sensationalized...the public is hungry for the "real".

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Being a female entrepreneur in any business presents it's own challenges. We hope, as women in publishing, positions of potential public visibility, to take that opportunity to create awareness. This awareness must be two-fold if we want to create change:
· Promote our own brands with as much integrity as possible
· Elevate and mentor other women to have the courage to do the same

We (women) have come a long way, but there is still a distance to go.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
There are several important lessons that are equal in measure. One is that honesty is always the best policy and that honest responses should be served without delay. This may create uncomfortable outcomes at times but in the long run will save time, and foster trust. Another lesson is that things take time. This may seem trite but understanding that there are no short cuts to maintaining quality is an incredibly valuable lesson. Finally, there is nothing more valuable to your business than a dedicated, and loyal team. I cannot stress this enough. A thriving, quality business is only the sum of its parts and every participating individual plays an equally important role.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This is a great question and as a mother of two, one that I am often asked. It takes a great deal of energy to raise a family and I devote as much time as possible to my children and addressing their interests and needs. I have been fortunate enough to have a very creative household so that support is immeasurable. My kids are always interested and patient with my 24/7 schedule and truly enjoy the outcome. It is a great joy to be able to show that hard work and maintaining ethical balance pays off. I am also very fortunate to be working at something that I am very passionate about; something that moves people in a very emotional way to participate in and ultimately make a difference in the lives of others. What could be better than that?

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I believe that the biggest issue is that straight out of the gate people think that you have a deficit. It's the old misconception that if you are strong and assertive, you are a Bitch (can I say that?), and if you are generous and accommodating you are weak. As women in business, particularly as business owners / leaders, we must be strong and maintain our intentions without false compromise and at the same time admit and learn from our mistakes ...this duality is an enormous challenge.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The best part of working at FLATT is being able to not only mentor emerging talent, but also to foster mid-career creative individuals, a space that is often overlooked and needs as much support as early career artists. We do this with our team as well as our contributing subjects. The FLATT Prize has been one of our greatest achievements and one of my proudest aspects of this job. We have been able to partner with quality arts institutions and patrons to give cash funds and offer residencies to several different artists in various genres of creativity.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many.. Let me start by naming a few:
We recently had the honor to work with Mayor Aja Brown of Compton on a co-branded effort with Cole Haan for their "History Begins Here" campaign. I had the pleasure to interview Cher who's indomitable spirit has paved the way for so many other women. I am privileged to know Livia Straus, Director of The Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art who has mentored and supported an endless roster of artists for over four decades. These women along with all of the beautiful and brave young musicians, dancers, scientists, etc are my heroes as they lead us into the future.

Everyday at FLATT I am fortunate enough to meet with and often hire, and promote some of the most incredible women that I have ever met. They never cease to amaze me with their tenacity, talent and kindness in the face of adversity.

What do you want FLATT to accomplish in the next year?
My greatest wish for FLATT is that I am able to work toward continues financial success in order to create and sustain jobs. Our "Made in America" tag line is very intentional and it is my most sincere desire to elevate and sustain my team by creating growth in our wonderful company through expansion of our team