It’s no secret that GFA values the identities, perspectives, and experiences of all its members, while also developing lifelong learners who take ownership of their education. For Melissa Spencer Barnes ’02, GFA did both of these and more.
She describes GFA as not only an institution that stoked her love of learning, but a safe haven, where she felt like the faculty, staff, and coaches truly cared for and nurtured her.
“These two parts came together to not only give me a world class education but also to help me grow into a confident, independent woman,” she said, reflecting on her journey towards entrepreneurship. “The middle school motto, ‘Dare to be yourself, dare to be different’ still echoes in my mind and serves as a guidepost in my life.”
After graduating from GFA in 2002, Barnes attended Middlebury College, studying Art History with a minor in Spanish. Following graduation, she landed in advertising, where she was able to travel the world and create ads for iconic brands, like FedEx, Starbucks, and Pepsi. Then, she got an opportunity to transition to a role at the fashion rental startup, Rent the Runway, eventually becoming its first Head of Brand.
From there, the love of learning that GFA first instilled seemed to circle back, giving Barnes the opportunity to learn about several new specialties including engineering, product development, and e-commerce, as well as an entrepreneurial mindset in her next role. “Eventually, I moved on to Trade, a coffee subscription company, as its Chief Marketing Officer. That was right before the pandemic hit, so as you can imagine, we saw a big spike in orders through lockdown and beyond.”
Barnes said she then felt prepared and inspired to take the next step in starting her own business, Sense of Spencer, an online platform that offers resources to help people style and decorate their home, personally and effortlessly. More than just offering inspiration, Sense of Spencer provides an edit of homewares from independent brands and craftspeople, contextualizing them with design ideas, curated looks, and visual references of stylish, personal homes.
“Like so many, I became more focused on my home during the pandemic. In my experience, it was a lot harder to find homewares I loved and put them together than I’d imagined,” said Barnes. “I had a realization that many millennial professionals weren’t raised with the same focus on the domestic sphere as past generations. While they may have forged a personal style in terms of how they presented themselves at work and events, they had not developed the same when it came to their home.”
With homogeneity in the mass homeware market, Barnes said it was hard for people to find their unique home style when so much of what you can buy looks the same. With the goal to give people a personal, collected home, Barnes is always searching for new homeware finds and inspiring home-styling references. Sense of Spencer brings it together in on-site content that is creative, inspiring, accessible, and convenient.
As a small business owner, Barnes wears many hats, including web developer, creative director, designer, accountant, writer, and photographer. Still very new, the brand just launched last October, Barnes looks forward to launching the next chapter, providing personalized home styling services and curated product edits"..
“The biggest lesson I learned from my startup days that applies now that I’m an entrepreneur myself is that you always have to be listening and learning, and adapting accordingly. You can’t be too precious about anything,” she said. “At the same time you have to have a lot of belief in your idea and the consumer insight behind it. The ‘why’ of your business needs to be crystal clear and should act as the north star; ‘how’ you accomplish it might change over time based on necessity.”
Enjoy Barnes’ unique sense of style and eye for design on the Sense of Spencer website.