Freshly admitted to Stanford Graduate School of Business, Nicole Alvino was at a major crossroads in her life. Two of the three people who wrote her recommendation letters had been indicted for financial fraud at Enron.
“I was disheartened to learn that the people I trusted were criminals,” Alvino says. Her experience made her question whether she wanted a career in business, so she grabbed a backpack and spent five months traveling in the South Pacific, while considering writing a book. But meanwhile, she drafted business plans and kept tabs on what was happening back in the business world.
Ultimately, she decided that continuing on to grad school was the right choice. “I realized that I needed to build a business where I could influence culture and ethics, so that what happened at Enron doesn’t happen again,” Alvino says.
Alvino’s experience at Enron had led her to another important conclusion: She needed to feel a strong commitment to whatever career she pursued. “I wanted to do something that I really cared about, where I could challenge the status quo and have a real impact. So I was initially drawn to things for which I have a personal passion, like travel and spa experiences.”
Seeking a Professional Reset
With those goals in mind, Alvino arrived at Stanford GSB. In addition to independently researching the spa and travel industry between classes, she began to build networks, meeting as many classmates, alumni entrepreneurs, investors, and spa industry contacts as possible. She filled her plate with entrepreneurship courses, including an early incarnation of Startup Garage, a two-quarter class in which teams of students from across the university create their own businesses.
Venture Garage taught Alvino about fundraising and writing business plans, and introduced her to more people in the Bay Area’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.
After graduating in 2004, Alvino kept her eyes open for the right opportunity. She came across a Stanford GSB Job Board posting in early 2005 that got her attention: A Bay Area entrepreneur was looking for someone to help turn around his day spa, Nourish.
The two established a partnership, but Alvino soon saw that the existing business had limited growth potential. The pair relaunched later that year as Dermalounge, based on Alvino’s vision of taking skin treatments out of the doctor’s office and offering them in upscale “medical spas.”
But there was a problem. After opening two locations, Alvino realized that what she most enjoyed was creating the vision for the company, building the brand, engaging with clients, and motivating employees; she really didn’t like managing retail operations. “I loved being CEO and hated being COO,” she explains, “but at a retail company that size, it’s always both. I did learn a lot by being everything from the receptionist to the janitor.”
After hiring managers for each spa, she took a step back and began a new round of fundraising for what she envisioned as a bigger lifestyle brand. However, funds for retail businesses dried up in 2008, and Alvino could not finance the large expansion she wanted for her company. It was time to move on, she decided.
Alvino had stayed close to the entrepreneurs she had met at Stanford, especially alumnus Greg Shove, MS ’93, an experienced entrepreneur who had volunteered to advise her Venture Garage team and became Alvino’s mentor. Shove had sold his own company to AOL, had built its digital media presence as a vice president there, and was considering what to do next.
While at Dermalounge, Alvino had honed a set of social-media marketing practices to build the client base and the talent pool. She joined forces with Shove in 2008 to launch San Francisco-based SocialChorus, a software-as-a-service platform that transforms the way that organizations and employees connect. Shove is executive chairman of the company, and Alvino is right where she wants to be: overseeing the strategic direction and the growth of the customer base as chief strategy officer. SocialChorus now serves 10 of the Fortune 50.
As her business grows, Alvino continues to turn to her Stanford GSB classmates for support and advice. “Our class was a really tight cohort,” she says. “Early on, I leaned on Randy Hetrick [MBA ’03, founder of TRX Training] for advice ranging from tactical execution to strategic opportunities. I still get together regularly with three other classmates — entrepreneurs who are going through similar challenges.”
She also draws on lessons learned in her coursework. Inspired by H. Irving Grousbeck, the MBA Class of 1980 Adjunct Professor of Management, and his Managing Growing Enterprises class, Alvino says: “Direct communication and managing talent in and out of your organization are critical to running a successful business. I am proud to be able to do my small part to inspire these leadership principles globally.”
— Dana Mauriello