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Weekend Interview: Cambridge Innovation Center COO Melissa Ablett-Jordaan

This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.

As an operator of "innovation campuses" full of coworking, private offices and lab space, Cambridge Innovation Center was faced with a daunting challenge in 2020 as the pandemic pushed people away from in-person work and into their homes.

CIC Chief Operating Officer Melissa Ablett-Jordaan said the pandemic forced the company to quickly adjust its product to meet the changing needs of users. Part of its adjustment was the August 2020 launch of CIC Health, a new branch of the company that set up and operated at least 180 Covid-19 testing sites, mostly in New England. 

"We talked about CIC’s offering in one way before Covid-19, and now are learning about all the new ways that coworking, shared office and lab space, that’s high-service and community-focused, can support the new styles of work emerging for all different sizes of businesses," Ablett-Jordaan said. 

Ablett-Jordaan was promoted in January to the C-suite role at CIC after previously serving as head of its European and Asian centers. She also previously launched CIC's first international location in 2015 in the Netherlands port city of Rotterdam.

Founded in 1999 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, CIC now operates 1M SF of coworking, office and lab space across the world. 

Cambridge Innovation Center's Melissa Ablett-Jordaan speaking at the Upstream Festival in Rotterdam.

With locations in Boston, Cambridge, Miami, Philadelphia, Providence, Rotterdam, St. Louis, Warsaw and Tokyo, CIC's campuses cater to growing startup companies. The startup scene has exploded in Boston and around the world in recent years, with tens of billions of dollars in venture capital investment helping startups grow to become major occupiers of commercial real estate. 

Prior to joining CIC, Ablett-Jordaan worked at the MassTech Collaborative's Innovation Institute, developing public-private initiatives to spur the state's tech sector, and she served as general manager of BostInno, a digital media company focused on news and events for entrepreneurs. 

Ablett-Jordaan said she sees startup companies as placing a particularly strong emphasis on in-person work, which could help drive the overall return-to-office efforts as space usage still remains well below its pre-pandemic levels. 

"For many earlier-stage companies, I’ve seen the tendency to still want to be physically together, which speaks to the fact that agile work is still done best in person," she said. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity. 

Bisnow: Tell us about your leadership philosophy and what experiences, words of advice or mentors shaped it along the way.

Ablett-Jordaan: Ever since I was very young, I can only remember wanting to be the leader in any group situation. I’ve been drawn to the feeling of being someone who can calmly help a group of people through a challenging situation, of making a tough decision and the subsequent feeling of peace when the team is rallied around it, and of acting as a shield for others against volatility and uncertainty. Today, I oversee a couple hundred employees and lead the company to keep growing around the world. I am fortunate that I love my job and get to exercise these passions each day.

For most of my early career, I was surrounded by mostly male role models and recognized quickly that my own style of leadership relied heavily on empathy and building deep connections with my team and partners. I was blessed to have a really incredible boss and adviser when I moved to the Netherlands to open CIC’s Rotterdam location. He coached me on this. I remember comparing my sales style of slower, but genuine relationship-building to a colleague’s style of shooting for big, fast, outrageous deals. He told me, “It’s OK to be a leader who builds things brick by brick. Ultimately, those will be the more stable structures.”

That has stuck with me and empowered me to embrace that my relationship-focused leadership was just as valuable as other styles around me.

Bisnow: How has the role of CEO/business leader changed over time — especially when considering the early days of your career to now?

Ablett-Jordaan: Having been attuned to leadership throughout my career, I’d say the biggest shift I see is the onus on leaders to respond to much more than just what happens with their employees from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. The second-biggest shift is the need to be incredibly agile in understanding how your product fits in a rapidly changing market.

Today’s generations who are quickly making up most of the workforce want to feel inspired. They want to feel like their work has meaning, and that the company they are a part of has a heart and soul that’s focused on the right things, including global issues like climate change and creating a more diverse and inclusive working world. It can be challenging to combine the business goals of the day-to-day (such as revenue and efficiency) with the bigger, abstract picture of what the company’s values are, and the change we want to make in the world. As a leader, this can be demoralizing, costly and stressful when you get it wrong, but euphoric and impactful when you get it right.

The pandemic led us all to witness how quickly we as leaders need to be able to adjust our product to a changing market. We talked about CIC’s offering in one way before Covid-19, and now are learning about all the new ways that coworking, shared office and lab space that’s high-service and community-focused can support the new styles of work emerging for all different sizes of businesses. I’d also be remiss not to mention that during the pandemic, our founder and CEO Tim Rowe saw an opportunity to apply what we’ve learned about hospitality and service to support the immense Covid-19 testing and vaccination needs. He co-founded CIC Health, which has been an incredible success and is a real embodiment of the power of agility when reacting to your market being turned upside down.

Bisnow: What will the role of CEO/business leader look like in 10 years?

Ablett-Jordaan: Beyond phrases like “can you see my screen?” or “Tom, you’re on mute,” becoming something of the past as coworking spaces and offices integrate into our daily lives once again, I see executives needing to become better and better at building systems to collect data, and using that data intelligently for insightful business decisions. We’re reaching horizons where everything is measurable; it only comes down to understanding what’s actually important to measure, how to capture it and how to build those insights back into your work effectively.

Also, it will be a requirement, not a “nice-to-have” that leaders are highly culturally sensitive and able to navigate really complex issues around diversity.

And Gen Z coming in strong to the workforce will push us away from email, and onto … who knows, maybe TikTok?

Bisnow: Was leading a company always a goal for you? If so, why?

Ablett-Jordaan: My entire life, I’ve had this intense drive to keep getting better, to keep climbing. I don’t know where it comes from, frankly, and sometimes it can be really annoying for me and those who love me.

I have never had a three-, five- or 10-year plan, and when asked, I will struggle to tell you even today where I want to be in a handful of years. Through a combination of skill and being in the right place at the right time, I’ve had interesting opportunities present themselves to me at each step of the journey. My default mode has been to say “yes” and figure it out later, with the goal to always keep pushing and growing.  

Cambridge Innovation Center Chief Operating Officer Melissa Ablett-Jordaan

Bisnow: What has been your biggest mistake as a leader?

Ablett-Jordaan: Not trusting myself and my capabilities early enough in my career. While I present as someone who’s very self-confident, well-spoken and sure of herself, I’ve had times in my career where I was consumed by self-doubt and a nagging belief that I wasn’t good enough.

I can remember specific examples of not speaking up, or not sharing an insight because I was afraid it was wrong, only to have someone else say my thoughts to great reception. I’ve had a number of experiences of picking up on subtle signals during negotiations, but convincing myself they were silly when my colleagues didn’t seem to recognize them, only to find myself proven right later.  

I reflect on if I had spoken up, if I had trusted myself and my intellect more, where would I be today? The best I can do is catch myself when I’m doing it now, remind myself of this and work to change.  

Lastly, I try to really embrace the adage that discomfort is growth. It’s hell to go through, but avoiding discomfort in work is one of the biggest mistakes I and others can make.  

Bisnow: Has your thinking changed about the workplace between 2019 and today? How? What will your office strategy be moving forward?

Ablett-Jordaan: As a business whose raison d’etre is to bring people together in physical spaces to create an impact, the pandemic has been nothing short of an odyssey. When I reflect on our thinking two years ago to now, it underlines how dynamic and fast-changing our understanding of life during different points of such a monumental event can be.

What I’ve witnessed is that the need to be physically together persists for our most important interactions. I see this across all the countries we operate in as we look at the number of people still seeking to host in-person events, despite sometimes substantial additional headaches. For many earlier-stage companies, I’ve seen the tendency to still want to be physically together, which speaks to the fact that agile work is still done best in person. You’re seeing later-stage companies wrestle with this too, and looking for spaces (like CIC) where they can support a flexible work style, but convene their teams when they need to reconnect. When I’ve seen clients react to seeing our center operations and on-site teams again after time working from home, I see excitement and the benefits of in-person connection.  

At the same time, we’ve learned the power of remote, and I hope that enabling it wisely will open some new doors. I had the challenge of leading the opening of our center in Tokyo, when I physically could not fly into the country. During the pandemic, we hired a team of 10-plus people, trained them, oversaw the end of construction and did our best to transfer CIC’s DNA not just in one of the most challenging countries to integrate into as a Western business, but fully remotely. The center and the team are thriving today. Had you asked me in 2018 if such a thing were possible, I would have thought you were insane. But today, I think about the impact this can have on leaders whose lives were previously dominated by travel. Reducing this a bit and trusting our ability to do work from afar can have significant positive benefits on our climate, and on our mental well-being.  

There’s a democratizing power to remote engagement. I participated in some interviews with the International Advisory Board in Rotterdam to discuss the future of global events, given the entrance of hybrid and fully remote models. In our own data, from our sister nonprofit organization Venture Cafe, we saw that hybrid and remote events allowed for a more diverse group of people to attend and participate in their Thursday gatherings. Whether this is from the reduced stigma of not having to walk into a physical space full of people, or the reduced economic barriers to entry, it’s an avenue worth exploring to think about how we can continue to open up the innovation ecosystem to everyone.

CIC’s global network lives this every day as it helps international businesses launch in the U.S. through programs like Japan Desk, and as it continues to serve as a vital connector between the world’s most innovative thinkers and startups. It’s so fulfilling when, at CIC, we are able to connect our clients to a network that expands exponentially across the world. In Tokyo specifically, CIC provides opportunities to connect with leaders in the space such as the Minister of Environment Mr. Shinjiro Koizumi through its Environmental Startup Program.  

Bisnow: There is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?

Ablett-Jordaan: I’m honored to be the co-chair of CIC’s Advisory Committee for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, which we launched about eight months ago. The time and effort we are committing to making meaningful change as a company makes me really proud. We have ambitious goals set out for the next three to five years, and a lot of work ahead of us.

One of the most important things companies can do in this area is ensure that they are hiring a diverse group of people in the earliest stages of their careers and then building systems internally to allow them to climb. This means unflinchingly assessing your organization and your employees for their unconscious biases, in interviewing, but also in how they evaluate a teammate’s ongoing performance. A member of our recruiting team recently shared a great HBR article about interrupting bias. It bears multiple and regular readings, and I see this as one of the single most important things we can all do to enable more diverse representation at the tops of companies.  

Bisnow: What do you think about the recent focus on sustainability and climate change? Is it overblown? Insufficient? Is your company tackling climate change in any way or taking it under consideration in your planning?

Ablett-Jordaan: Completely insufficient. I recently watched the incredible movie Don’t Look Up, and sat quietly for 30 minutes after with a sense of existential dread.

Generationally, I see older millennials and up stuck in a stage where most of us are still grappling with what types of professional and personal sacrifices we are willing to make to enact a meaningful change. And in younger generations, I feel a sense of exasperation and helplessness.  

There is definitely more we can and should be doing, and at CIC, I see this as needing to be a core focus in our future. The biggest way we support climate change currently is by supporting the startups and entrepreneurs who are on the front lines tackling this problem, whether it’s disrupting the meat industry, making extremely accurate predictions of rainfall and urban water flows for better planning, or providing the spaces and networks these companies need with the space to cluster and make meaningful change. At CIC’s centers across the world, we’ve been witnessing some remarkable clustering trends, especially when it comes to clean energy and offshore wind companies. Our Providence, Rhode Island, location at 225 Dyer St., for example, is home to north of a dozen offshore wind companies that are revolutionizing the field including Crowley Maritime, Boston Energy and Glosten.  

The real estate industry, in general, still does a lot of greenwashing. As a group, we need to keep pushing beyond glory metrics and building ratings, to what is actually having impact.  

CIC's Melissa Ablett-Jordaan (right) and Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands (left) speaking at the 2021 Upstream Festival in Rotterdam.

Bisnow: What is something commercial real estate gets wrong in your eyes?

Ablett-Jordaan: I call it “spreadsheet-first decision-making,” meaning that the calculations of ROI drive far too many decisions. One of the things I love most at CIC is that we’ve made some really “market irrational” calls over the years, and sometimes, they’ve turned out to be our best decisions. It can be incredibly challenging to work with partners who only focus on the immediate economic metrics of a project without understanding that investing in certain elements that may at first seem dispensable or superfluous is what ultimately makes physical spaces magical.

Bisnow: What asset class or location will perform best over the next five years? Why?

Ablett-Jordaan: I’m very excited to see how our center in Tokyo performs. The startup and innovation ecosystem there is at a fascinating inflection point — there’s never been a greater focus on entrepreneurship and adapting the culture and business climate to support new ventures and risk-taking. Combining this with the incredible established powerhouses of innovation that already exist in large Japanese corporations, and their world-class universities, will be exciting to watch. Recently, we even had the opportunity to welcome Prime Minister Kishida for a tour of the site.

From a real estate perspective, it’s also fascinating to observe how coworking was genuinely ahead of its time when it launched years ago.  

We’ve also worked incredibly hard to thoughtfully transfer enough of our CIC Kendall Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, culture to each location. When regular travel to Japan reopens, I’m excited to see how this enables Western companies, which would typically struggle to set up easily in Japan, establish a foothold and start in a community that feels like home.  

Bisnow: What book, article or TedTalk meant the most to you? Why?

Ablett-Jordaan: I’m a fiction addict. A book that I read recently which I find myself repeatedly thinking back on is called She Who Became the Sun [by Shelley Parker-Chan]. The story focuses on a young woman who assumes her dead brother’s identity to live a life without limits in 14th century China. The purity of the portrayal of ambition in the protagonist was so refreshing and unlike anything I had ever read. If and when I have a daughter, I would give her this book.

Bisnow: What is your all-time favorite TV show? Why?

Ablett-Jordaan: I’m currently rewatching Succession. I delight in how horrific all the characters are, and the pace and quality of the writing is stunning. No matter how bad your day was, it cannot compare with an average day at Waystar Royco.

Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?

Ablett-Jordaan: Europe really gets weekends right, in my opinion, and the focus is almost always on enjoying taking things slow. My husband and I often walk with our miniature dachshund, Nena, to a market of local producers about 10 minutes away from our home in central Rotterdam. We’ll stop in a favorite café on the way back to enjoy some specialty coffee, which my husband, as a coffee roaster himself, is an expert on. We both love to try ambitious recipes, so the evenings frequently include cooking for friends and making sure our wine rack doesn’t stay too full for too long.