Fast Company Executive Board Connects Val Vacante to the Innovative Business Community
By Fast Company Executive Board
There are some recurring themes that run through Val Vacante's career journey: she always seems to be a bit ahead of her time; and whether she’s working for others or for herself, she’s driven by a strong entrepreneurial mindset.
Vacante started her career in London in 2003 at what was then J. Walter Thompson. “I actually started the digital group there and it was when digital and technology were not cool, particularly in the agency world,” she recalls. That work gave her a great foundation in creating new tools, platforms, and technologies that empowered highly visible brands such as Mercedes, Vodafone, and Nestle.
A couple of years later, she landed in Austin, at one of the top 25 digital agencies in the world. It was pre-iPhone days, but Vacante saw the future in her candy bar-sized Nokia phone. “Hey, this mobile thing is going to be big, people,” she recalls telling her co-workers. “We really should be doing something in this space.” She was given the autonomy to build a new mobile practice for the company, and trained a cross-discipline team to come up with ways for brands to leverage mobile technology. “We got some great clients and some great attention and we had a little feature in The Economist,” Vacante says. “And then I thought, ‘all right, I’m going to do something else now.’”
That “something else” involved moving to a multicultural marketing firm. “We had to do a lot with a little at a time when people didn’t really see the value in multicultural marketing and inclusivity,” Vacante says. “So it was certainly a challenge.” She helped create new research methodologies and the programs that were rolled out won awards and were also adopted by other agencies.
“I’ve had some people say ‘Hey, I saw your [Fast Company Executive Board] article and we’d love to reconnect and talk about working on a project together.’”
In 2014, Vacante made the leap to the world of products at Mutual Mobile. Using customer insight and research, she worked with designers and engineers to bring innovative products to life in the IoT space. Sometimes the job got personal. “One of the products was a sleep number connected bed for kids,” Vacante says. “So my son spent about two years of his life testing that.”
It was through watching her son play with various types of toys that Vacante became fascinated with connected play experiences that fused the digital and physical worlds. She decided to start her own company, Collabsco, so that she could take advantage of opportunities she saw in that space and others. “I was very much an intrapreneur throughout my career but I had not been an entrepreneur, so I had to learn a whole different set of skills,” she says.
The idea behind Collabsco was for Vacante, along with a curated network of other professionals, to act as a kind of special ops team for brands looking to expand. She worked with Mattel and Hasbro to come up with connected play products and with tech icon Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, on an immersive gaming venture. “I brought an outside perspective to the mix,” she says. Often, she took a boots-on-the-ground approach, taking families and kids shopping, interviewing them on how they were experiencing different products, and getting them to sketch out ideas.
But the pandemic was rough for Vacante and Collabsco. “I had a bunch of phenomenal work and then the world closed,” she says. She made the tough decision to go back to agency work, but only on the condition that she’d have the autonomy to which she’d become accustomed. She found the perfect fit at Merkle, a customer experience management firm owned by dentsu, a global agency network. In just two years, she helped create an award-winning suite of products called ShopNXT™ to help retailers better connect with consumers in-store. And she co-invented three retail-related products — Scan & Know™, UnboxIt™ and a VIP checkout free contactless payment technology — which were featured at CES. Vacante also architected and launched NXT Intelligence™ an innovation platform designed to rapidly explore, evaluate and evolve business growth opportunities. As a result, she was promoted to VP, Solutions Innovation at dentsu. “My role is still creating new products and productized services, but I’m now able to work across this phenomenal global network to look for opportunities,” she says.
Vacante says she was attracted to Fast Company Executive Board because of the brand’s reputation for connecting the creative, innovation, and business communities. “I love the Expert Panels and I’ve connected with so many different people with different perspectives,” she says. “The topics are not always in my wheelhouse, so that helps me expand my thinking.” Vacante also writes long-form articles that she says have helped her amplify her personal brand, rekindle professional relationships, and validate her as a thought leader. A two-part series on innovation principles was particularly successful. “I’ve had some people say ‘Hey, I saw your article and we’d love to reconnect and talk about working on a project together,’” she says.