“Someone who does things to influence others for the better embodies the kind of person I want to be.”
Minneapolis, MN — For Sezzle’s Vice President of Product and Co-Founder, Mia Bernad-Peroff, being a catalyst for positive change is what drives her. Her life and career have been inextricably rooted in compassion. It is this focus, her great empathy for others, that has become her signature, with her creativity, enthusiasm and achievements colored by her desire to infuse meaning and purpose into everything.
She recently celebrated her 5th anniversary at Sezzle. In this time, she has delighted in watching the company grow, and celebrates its commitment to a mission-driven approach: from financial empowerment to becoming an industry trailblazer as both a Certified B Corp and Public Benefit Corporation. Championing its purpose-driven commitment to employees, customers, the community, and the environment as it pursues a double bottom line: one for profit and one for the greater social good.
In many ways, her work at Sezzle has become a way for her to “fight for equity for those that are underestimated and forgotten.” This attitude was instilled in her early on by her family. Hailing from Ozamiz, Philippines, their descent is Spanish, and they were one of the oldest families in town, owning land and property.
“We were never rich. Most of our properties have been donated to the church and communities in need. My inclination to help others stems from my family’s roots in being leaders in my hometown. There’s this adage that says that a politician is truly good if he/she got to the end of his term poorer than when he/she started it, meaning one ought to lead with generosity and heart. My parents embody this generosity and I am always striving to make them proud in this area.”
Throughout her life, Mia has been actively involved in volunteering and pro-bono work for churches, nonprofits and even served as a rescue scuba diver for humanitarian relief. In 2018, she led a fundraising campaign for $20K to get a two-year old boy with biliary atresia the liver transplant he needed. “I continue to help the community wherever I can, and an endeavor of mine is to provide better housing for people in my country who are routinely hit by typhoons.”
In 1996, Mia’s parents opened a restaurant named after her – Carmela’s Home Favorites – which has since expanded to over 7 franchises throughout the Philippines. Her family’s strong work ethic, as well as a passion for baking and entrepreneurship rubbed off on young Mia, who often helped out in the kitchen. In recent years she founded her own café, Café Carmela, as a way to reach people in her generation who have grown up with her family’s restaurant chain, providing them with a place to do online work (fast internet is far and few between in her town), or simply to hang out with their friends on the weekends. The café was the only one of her family’s chain that remained open throughout the pandemic, providing the community with nourishing comfort during difficult times.
During Mia’s time at Xavier University in the Philippines, she found herself on a design crowdsourcing website. It was there that she met none other than Charlie Youakim, the future CEO of Sezzle. At the time, his first company, Passport, was still in the process of getting established, and he selected her to begin doing freelance design for him shortly thereafter.
After graduating with a Bachelor’s in Business Management, she moved to the United States and pursued three career paths. First, she established a freelance design business, “a one-stop shop for marketing and product/UI/UX needs.” Next, she held various customer service roles at Target, Dish Network, Sprint and Apple. Lastly, she attempted and successfully passed all four parts of the CPA exams in the hopes of getting a more traditional job as an accountant. These collective work experiences further fueled her desire to be a thought-leader in the field of product design while promoting an emphasis on customer experience.
“Through the various design challenges I’ve tackled, I’ve come to know that what’s more valuable than mastery at any skill is an openness to learning new things.”
Her strengths in product design came from her keen eye, natural instincts and from spending a lot of time working in a marketing capacity. “The inner workings of product design are a combination of psychology and marketing, which manifests itself in the screen. But before it comes to that, you have to think, if I show this to someone, will they understand what it does? Things like that are so interesting to me. You see these refrigerators that have the ice machines; my sister has one. And every time someone gets water it spills all over them because it’s not designed well. I want to prevent the company’s products from becoming like this refrigerator!” She’d often ponder questions like, “Why would one choose an android over an iOS device?” She deduced that it had everything to do with user and customer experience.
She had already accomplished so much; knew exactly what she wanted to do, except for one major barrier: a lack of belief in herself.
Mia longed to pursue work she was passionate about, and derive a greater sense of meaning and purpose.
“I was juggling accounting, customer support at Apple, and freelance design – all part-time. When I was doing that, I realized that I needed to pick a single career path and go all in. And the reason I didn’t go for product design or marketing full-time was because I didn’t have enough confidence that I could do it. All of my siblings are either nurses or doctors. The people around me had more or less traditional jobs. They didn’t understand what I was trying to do with my career. Everyone carries a mindset of: you go to a job, work, get paid, come home.”
“I was struggling because I didn’t find accounting that interesting. People were always encouraging me, ‘Oh, just get a job at a hospital as a clerk or whatever.’ I tried to do it. It’s not that other industries don’t have meaning, they are all meaningful, but for me I knew I needed something more.” Mia longed to take her passion for design and marketing to the next level, and do work that was a better complement to her entrepreneurial spirit.
At that point, she hadn’t been in touch with her client, Charlie, in about four years. She’d observed that his startup, Passport, had grown its staff to about 30 people. The idea dawned on her to inquire if they had a design position available – but she felt hesitant to put herself out there and put voice to what she really wanted. Self doubt had reared its ugly head yet again. What she was so successful at sparking in others – motivating and inspiring them to dream bigger dreams for themselves, she struggled in doing so for herself. But her husband [then boyfriend], Bryan, would not have it! He was relentless in encouraging her to follow her heart:
“It took a lot of pushing from my husband who was like, ‘You should just go and network! You know all these people! They are your past clients!’” His encouragement broke the spell of hesitancy. She dove in, messaged Charlie, who was delighted to welcome her onboard as Passport’s Product Design Specialist. In two week’s time, she would begin what she described as “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
She looks back fondly on this pivotal moment in her life, and Bryan’s unwavering support. “I love to share my story and put my husband in the middle of it because I wouldn’t have had the courage to reach out to Charlie if he didn’t push me and I wouldn’t have been able to go to El Paso, get my stuff. I wouldn’t have been able to afford moving my stuff.”
She’d been living with her aunt and uncle in Staten Island at the time, and Bryan helped her move. All of her things were still in El Paso, so the two hopped a flight to Texas. “I had a small Nissan Versa, a stick shift. It was the crappiest car you could ever find!” She and Bryan loaded up the car for the final leg of the journey, from El Paso to Charlotte, North Carolina. Everything had fallen into place:
“I remember the Sunday night we drove by the office, just so I’d know where it is for my first day on Monday. I was taking pictures of the door at Passport and I was thinking, “Oh my gosh. I can’t believe I’m actually working here! I’m going to be working in a job that is not accounting, it’s not customer support, it’s something that I want to do long term! It was such a memorable moment for me.
“I made $30,000, lived in a shoddy neighborhood and slept on a mattress on the floor for the first year. There was a hornet’s nest right outside my back door, and the landlord ignored my requests to get it taken care of. A few times, I would come home and have to wait a few minutes to get in because a family of raccoons were blocking my front door. I had people come over and feel bad for me, but I didn’t feel bad for myself because I knew I had embarked on a path to fulfill something bigger than me. I’d gotten my dream job. To me it was all fair because I wanted to prove myself, and it took me on a path to something better and better and better!”
Then in 2016, she joined Sezzle as employee #2, co-founding the company and helping to draft key presentations for their seed fundraising. She took on the role of Vice President of Marketing, owning the website, marketing, social media, and writing engaging blog content – and didn’t stop there. Her role extended to Product and Merchant Success functions of the company, as well. In 2017, she led the product development of Sezzle’s first product and tested the BNPL solution that gave confidence to the company to pivot to BNPL. Then in 2019, Mia shifted her primary focus to help with leading the strategic direction of the company. Identifying the need for a Product team, she established one and moved into the role of Sezzle’s Vice President of Product. Mia went on to draft the key presentations used for Sezzle’s IPO roadshow.
Mia had the profile of a Sezzle customer before Sezzle existed.
As VP of Product at Sezzle, Mia seeks to understand how young people approach spending and how critical the role of credit is in their everyday lives. “I am dedicated to building products that better serve the lives of young people who are wary of the pitfalls of traditional financial products. My personal background and my roles at Sezzle have given me a unique perspective on how credit plays such a pivotal role in a person’s life.”
“Twelve years ago, I was an immigrant with $75 in my pocket. Like other Americans, I needed the purchasing power and credibility to seek job and housing opportunities. However, without a credit file, I couldn’t get a credit card, yet the only way to start building credit was by getting a credit card. My one option was to pay $49 to Capital One – the most forward-thinking credit provider at the time – to obtain a $200 credit limit. That $49 quantified and clarified the cost of inequality for me.
“My purchasing power was limited to what I had in cash, and I had a need to buy a $1,200 computer to continue operating my freelance design business. With the help of my brother, who had a few years more credit history than I did, I was able to get a computer on his Best Buy credit card. I had applied for the same card a week prior and got declined. I was able to get the computer and build my business. It was a struggle, and so it was a proud moment for me when I was able to help the same brother financially to finish his degree in Medicine a few years later.”
Mia remains passionately engaged in her VP role within Sezzle’s Product division. In 2020, she led a 10-person team to handle product and operational issues, championing the launch for key innovative projects such as Sezzle Up, Accessibility and Shopper/Merchant NPS systems.
In the end, it was the passion for design that ultimately propelled Mia to design the career and the life of her dreams. In addition to Sezzle, Mia attends the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota where she expects to graduate in 2022. With all that she has accomplished, Mia approaches each and every day with an open embrace of all the new opportunities and experiences that are available once you learn to believe in yourself.
What’s your leadership style?
“Leading people means resonating with hearts, not just minds. Genuine relationships are key to being a leader. Encouragement is the ultimate force to mobilize people because everyone has the same need to be valued in a team. You can’t make people do what they don’t want to do (not in the long-term anyway). I hate it when people call other people “resources” or treat them like they’re just cogs in a machine. Everyone deserves respect, regardless of skin color, upbringing, background, status, etc.”
You have been very candid in sharing your journey to developing confidence. What advice can you pass along to others seeking to cultivate a strong belief in themselves?
“I have a therapist, a coach and my husband. It helps to have this community of support behind me, and I would say that that’s the one thing that I would tell people is to have a support system. Seek it out – it’s not going to come automatically but it’s having a community around you that creates the magic! Learning to voice my struggles with others was so difficult for me, but having the people around me understand how I feel is invaluable. Also, there is this thing my husband is always saying to me: “When someone compliments you on anything, like what a good job you’re doing, just say ‘Thank you!’” Even focusing on a simple thing like saying thank you, this helps put you in the right mindset to appreciate and believe in yourself.”
What are your thoughts on inequality?
“Hard work doesn’t always pay off because inequality is so pervasive in our society. Let’s stop blaming the marginalized for being marginalized. Some compassion for those who are not so privileged goes a long way. Further, privileged people like us should work harder for our community. We live in an unfair capitalistic society where it’s not conducive for people like me, an Asian female leader, to succeed. “Pahiubos lang pirmi” or “Always be humble” is something my mom always told me to do, no matter the situation. Humility is one of our most remarkable traits as a Filipino people. Still, our version of humility has made it challenging for me to succeed in a white male-dominated industry where assertiveness and confidence are the key determinants of success. It’s still a struggle for me today to accept credit for my accomplishments, and as a result, I’m often not considered as a founder of a company that I have been working hard to build since 2016. I was complicit every time I didn’t call people out when they disregarded my work. I have a part to play in the inequality we can observe now.”