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Melissa Wharton

We first met Melissa when she started her company that did some IT work for CUBM. Since then, we have stayed in touch and watched her grow along with her business. Today, she is a successful business woman in every sense of the word, and it was a pleasure getting caught up during to interview to hear where she has been, where she is and where she is going.

JS: Tell us a little bit about your business and give us an update on how the business is going and what you are learning.

MW: I have a business called The Church Online. I am actually partners with Rev. Dr. William H. Curtis, who is the senior pastor over at Mt. Ararat Baptist Church, not too far from CUBM. I really enjoy what I do. It’s not what I set out to do when I was growing up and through my childhood and through school. Through all of my, I guess you could say, life experiences, that’s where it all pointed me to. And so, at The Church Online, we work with churches all over the country and some organizations internationally as well.

Our goal in what we do is to work with churches and nonprofits as well and help them with outreach strategies to grow their memberships and help them take advantage of technology so they understand that we are truly a visual society. We need to utilize all of the tools at our disposal to present our messages in a cohesive and professional way. And so, we do that through the development of websites, providing design services, and live and on‐demand video streaming services, video production services, which is actually newer for us. We have also written several books for pastors all over the country by ghost writing. So, we keep ourselves busy with what we do every day.

JS: I should say you do. How is business?

MW: It’s been going very well. We’ve been steadily growing over the last 13 years. And it’s funny because one of the things I know to be true is that a lot of people don’t really think about too much is there are more than 600,000 churches and obviously hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of nonprofits all over the world. And so we’re in a very good niche, providing services that all of those organizations need and use on a daily basis. We’ve continued to grow and enjoy that. I know we have worked with CUBM in the past and were very excited to have the opportunity to do that. It’s been a great experience for us and we’ve continued to grow over the years.

KB: Tell us a little bit about your background.

MW: I have lived in Pittsburgh for most of my life. I have a twin sister, which a lot of people don’t know. I was raised both by my mother and maternal grandmother, who passed away in 2007. Growing up, I spent a great deal of time focusing on sports and music. I played volleyball and played the piano and sang. I honestly had two goals. The first one was to be in the Olympics. The second was to become a Christian recording artist. So, I went off to college to Bucknell University to play volleyball and earn a bachelor’s degree with a focus on voice and piano, which most people don’t know.

When I graduated from Bucknell, I moved to Illinois for a short time and joined the US Dream Team for volleyball. And I learned a very valuable life lesson during that experience – we all have dreams and things we want to accomplish, but you have to be willing, number one, and able to really do what it takes to achieve those things. Did I want to go on one day to be an Olympian? Yes. Did I enjoy being in a gym eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week? I hated that. After about six months of that, I returned home to Pittsburgh and never looked back to the goal of being an Olympian. At that point, I got a job at a transportation company that was working to bring high speed levitation trains to Pittsburgh. And I started working in their communications department, while at the same time, working as a minister of music at a local church. And it was really doing both of those experiences that I really discovered my passion for technology.

It’s funny because a lot of people don’t know, being the founder and the owner and president and CEO of what is basically a technology company, growing up and going through college, that I was afraid of technology. It’s funny because when I was in college, for the longest time, I tried to avoid the computer lab like the plague, just because I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. What I didn’t realize was that sometimes your greatest fear when you take a hold of it head on can become one of your greatest strengths. And I think that’s one of the things that happened with me, because it was during the time when I was working for the transportation company in communications and the director of music at this church, that I discovered my passion for technology and creativity, wanting to work with churches and nonprofits to help them improve everything they did to try to reach people. Because what I saw was that those two segments particularly had a tendency to put anything out because they didn’t really have the knowledge or understanding, as well as the resources, of what to do. So that’s something I really wanted to change and do. Fast forward fifteen years ago from that and I have grown a lot and really learned to position myself in the business in a place where we surround ourselves with the people who are experts in their field. So here I am today.

KB: That is quite a story.

JS: Yes, it’s quite a journey. Do you still play volleyball?

MW: No, I have not touched a volleyball since I left Illinois.

JS: Was church always a part of your world and life?

MW: It was. It’s interesting, I was always in church from when I was a baby. My mother and grandmother were very involved in activities in church, so we were always there. However, I was a person who always kept to myself. I was never involved in any major leadership activities at church, or any of those types of things that were going on. I decided at some point that I wanted in some way to be involved in working with churches, but I didn’t understand what that fully entailed, until I actually started to work at a church once I graduated from college and came back from Illinois as well. I had always been a part of church and was saved when I was very young, probably when I was six or seven years old and have never truly left the church, so to speak, since then.

KB: Tell me about your high school education.

MW: I attended Penn Hills Senior High School, which was a good experience. You know it’s something because we’re doing the show, I guess, you’re honoring people, so to speak, through this Urban Heroes initiative. But one thing I realized to be true through high school and even earlier, as educators, you never really know how you can influence the lives of your students. And I had a few teachers who really influenced my original path through school. I kind of kept to myself and focused on academics, music, and sports throughout my high school years.

JS: Any challenges being a woman, having founded a company in an IT world that tends to be populated by men. Any challenges in that realm or lessons you have learned or things you have had to learn to overcome?

MW: It’s interesting because I think there have been a couple different challenges as far as that is concerned. Challenges it seems I experience are because of the mindsets of other people. And then there are challenges I have experienced because of a mindset I put on myself. As a woman, and as an African American, in technology, this particular area is dominated by males. So, a lot of times people just don’t take me seriously, or they may believe I don’t have much to offer. There have been cases when I was in a meeting somewhere, and I would be there with an employee who’s male. If the people we’re meeting with aren’t familiar with our company and who we are, they just automatically assume that I work for my employee, not vice versa.

People form an opinion of me and the business before they really know what we are about, solely because of those two things: that I’m a woman and African American. But, that’s the way our world works. It’s something that doesn’t really bother me, at this point. Now, when I would put certain criteria on myself it was funny, because when I first started the company, I thought being a woman and being an African American would be a hindrance to me. Even working with other organizations that were predominantly African American or women‐owned. For years I didn’t want anyone to know that I was actually African American because I had the mindset that, if they knew that, they would just keep going and not want to give us the time of day. I’ve realized that in many cases it’s completely the opposite, and that’s something I have worked through. To be honest, I now see it as a benefit because I am in a space doing something as a woman and an African American that most people aren’t used to seeing. So, I’ve had a wakeup call, you could say, in understanding it’s a benefit to me and no longer something that is a hindrance.

JS: So several times you mentioned paradigm shifts. A paradigm is just our world view or how we see things working and your shift when you decided you didn’t want to make volleyball your whole life and how you see yourself in business. Have you found that your thinking is your greatest ally or greatest hindrance as you do business and relate to people? What have you learned in the area about the thought process and your thinking as an entrepreneur and a business woman.

MW: As time has gone on, it has become my greatest asset. Over time, you’re consistently and constantly learning, and learning to trust your judgment. I can’t tell you all of the times I have had certain thought processes, second guessed myself, and then wished I hadn’t done that later. But I’ve gotten to the point now where certain thought processes that I go through, and especially as an entrepreneur, I feel that it’s very important that I have the ability to trust my judgment and those thought processes and be able to make those decisions I need to be able to make on a daily basis. That’s something I do believe is very important in the day‐to‐day of what I do.

KB: As an older African American woman who heads CUBM, I understand exactly what you are saying. I remember John and I had a visit from a banker once, and this person wouldn’t talk to me. And John kept saying that I was the director, but the male refused to look at me. He looked at John the entire time. So I understand exactly what you are talking about. That’s the blessing of knowing God. Because He can help us overcome anything we encounter. As we look at this, is there anyone you have patterned yourself after or a mentor you would like to share with us?

MW: I wouldn’t say I have any one specific mentor. But I will mention a few people. I’m just going to go back to athletics just for a moment. I feel that a lot of times some of those experiences you have in team sports and athletics can help to mold your thought process of how to work and achieve different things in life and not giving up on those things. Mr. Dan Brown, who was my junior high and high school volleyball coach, and a lot more than that in so many ways. He did a lot to help and mold certain areas of my life. He spent a lot of additional time working and helping me athletically and personally. So, he’s someone I communicate with even still to this day.

And then, also Dr. Curtis who is my partner, who took a chance on partnering with and working with a young woman. When I approached him about The Church Online several years ago and had the wherewithal, God spoke to him and we’ve been working together ever since. He has a very good mind as it relates to what we do. A lot of people don’t know, but he actually has a degree in programming. He used to be a programmer and a lot of people don’t know that and he is very much into technology.

I would say also, my grandmother, who I mentioned passed away in 2007, helped raise me along with my mom. She was someone who had a profound impact on my life. A lot of people didn’t know she was the victim of domestic violence for a number of years while she was raising my mother and her sister. She actually ended up in jail for a time, because she shot one of her husbands who was abusing her. But through all of that, her children and grandchildren were always the most important to her.

It’s so funny when you think of a grandmother’s love. There would be times when I was in college and any other situation afterwards where there would be, or could be certain things going on with me. You know how it is when you’re in college, you’re poor and broke when you’re in school a lot of times and you wouldn’t know what you are going to do. She would literally call me and say, “Melissa, what are you eating? Do you have any money?” She would send me little gifts and always making sure I was okay. Just being able to see the strength of her and being able to see the strength of my mom as a single mother raising two twin girls at the same time, on a low income, doing everything she could possibly do to make sure we had all the advantages we could have – piano lessons, dance lessons, and all the other types of activities we were involved in that she was working hard to pay for. But just seeing the sacrifices she made, which a lot of people see with their mothers and what they both went through is something that really helped to structure the person I am today, where I basically, and especially in business, always have a desire to keep moving, growing, and understanding that giving up, so to speak, is never an option. So I would say those are people who really had a profound impact on my life.

JS: What do you do outside of work? Are you mentoring or training anyone? Are you still involved in music? What do you do to stay fresh? Hobbies? Talk to us about the Melissa in addition to the businesswoman and entrepreneur.

MW: I have to be honest and say that I spend a lot of time with the business, really focusing on the success of that. It’s not only what I do during the day, but it has, in a sense, also become my hobby because it’s something I am consistently doing. One of the things that has become a passion of mine is working to help women, and people in general, understand that when they have a passion for something, if they want to start a business or ministry, that they can do it. That they don’t have to have all the tools they need to do those things. They just have to be able to, number one, have a passion and skill set for the main thrust of it, but also understanding the importance of surrounding themselves with the tools, resources, and people that they need to get going. And to just really provide that support structure. That’s something I have had a passion for over the years as well.

At the moment I don’t do anything in an official capacity at a church or elsewhere as it relates to music. But personally it is something I do in my spare time. I do still play the piano and sing. I do give some piano lessons to a few people that just have a desire to want to move forward in music. I am staying involved in those ways as well. I enjoy spending time with my family and just being able to have a little bit of time here and there to relax and enjoy my home and just life in general.

KB: Where are your offices?

MW: We are located in Forest Hills on Ardmore Blvd. There is an office complex up on a hill that is a group of red buildings. We are preparing within the next few weeks to take over an entire building in that complex.

JS: Congratulations. Do you have a website and any contact information for us?

MW: The name of the company is The Church Online, LLC and the website is www.thechurchonline.com. If there is anyone interested in website development, graphic design services, live streaming video on‐demand, video production, or book publishing services, they can contact us at that website and give us a call at 412.349.0049. And we also have a toll free number which is 1.866.794.9797. Through either phone or contacting us through our website, and even email at sales@thechurchonline.com, people can reach out to us just to let us know what they need, if they have questions about what their desires are, we will do what we can to assist.

KB: If you would, talk to people who are afraid of technology and the importance of being able to communicate with a younger generation and how this will enhance their professional and church life and just their life in general.

MW: You know, there are two important things people need to realize. One, I think it can be a way out or easy to be afraid of something, because you have a fear of failing if you try to understand it. But you just have to take that step to try and understand those things. And it’s very important now from a communication standpoint; if you look at probably the age group of between 18 to about 35, the way they communicate is completely different from the way people communicated just five or 10 years ago. And so it’s of critical importance to be able to communicate with people in that age group in the ways they know how to communicate. We have more options and ways we communicate from social media to the Internet. And also, even in what we do with providing live video streaming and video services, a lot of people now are utilizing technologies like Roku devices, Netflix, Chromecast. Gone are the days of video tapes and cassettes.

It’s funny because we’ll get a lot of churches that tell us their CD and DVD sales are going down and they don’t understand why. We ask how many of them actually own a CD player and no one owns one. You have to reach people where they are instead of trying to get people to purchase CDs and DVDs. They should be able to get online and watch or listen to a video. They should be able to download MP3s. They should be able to have access to different resources through iTunes. The proliferation of mobile devices, because of smart phones, is amazing. More traffic is generated through video and mobile devices than all other traffic on the internet. And that’s because we have our smartphones and cellphones in our hands, literally, at all hours of the day. So we really need to be able to focus on utilizing technology, and especially with mobile devices to reach people. So if you’re a nonprofit, if you’re a church, and you don’t have a website that is mobile friendly, if you don’t have a mobile app, then right from the beginning you don’t have an opportunity to reach more than half of the people that are online at any given time.

So that is another service we provide in building mobile apps. So that’s something that’s really key in being able to reach people where they really are. And if you don’t really understand how to go about it in being able to partner with an organization or people or do is critical to anyone’s success in being able to communicate in a way that’s really going to reach the majority of people.

JS: Unfortunately, as I had a pastor friend say, error is half way around the world before truth gets off the mark. And the church has been very slow to respond to technology. Do you find some have entrenched themselves and resisting and sort of proud of it? Do you find that attitude?

MW: We do, but when we see that the churches are managed by people who are older who don’t utilize the technology themselves and feel there is no value in it. And what you see happening with those churches is a certain demographic of people in their congregations and they are not growing. And they have a mindset of wanting to be able to do the same things in the same ways they always have done them, not understanding the value of trying to communicate in a different way.

On the flip side of that, we see churches that are managed by a younger demographic or who have younger people involved in their communications ministries who have been allowed to have more of a voice and role in the decisions of how things are done and how they try to reach out to people. And in almost every case that I have seen, those are the churches that are experiencing growth at a fast pace because they understand the importance of technology and some of these new ways to communicate.

A lot of people will look at the Internet and think, “Oh, that’s the tool of the devil. Look at all these things that can happen with people using the Internet. That may be true, but there are also so many positive things that have happened from that. Just the possibility of being able to have a global reach, without needing to have a massive budget to be able to accomplish that, allows these churches and organizations to enlarge their territories in ways they would have never been able to do so before.

JS: If they’re interested in that. Because some aren’t that interested. “It’s us four and no more. And we’re not that interested in reaching across the country.” I’m intrigued; tell us about what kinds of books you have produced to help pastors?

MW: We have a book publishing division at The Church Online and we provide ghost writing services. People would be surprised that a lot of pastors who write books have their area of expertise, which may not necessarily be writing a full length book with any type of professional literary excellence – without the knowledge they need to get to the finish line with their book. So many pastors are busy managing their churches, writing sermons, counseling, and those types of things, that they don’t really have the time to focus on trying to produce a product that is marketable. We have a lot of pastors who come to us, either with a manuscript they have written and need it edited or that they started. They may come to us with sermon transcripts, a dissertation, or notes, and in some cases nothing at all and just with an idea, and they talk to us about what they want to accomplish. We put together a plan and our team actually puts together a full‐bodied book for the pastor.

They are always a very integral part of the content development process because it’s always our goal to make sure the pastor’s thoughts, ideas, and points they are wanting to get across are always made in their voice. But we produce those books for them. This year, we have released seven books for pastors all over the country, and we have others that are in process now as we speak.

KB: It’s so exciting to see where you are now from when we were last working together. And what I would like for you to speak to now are young people or people who would like to start their own business. What did you find was really instrumental in keeping you focused and just as a little cheat sheet, if you could share with people that this is what you did and they can do it too?

MW: If I am speaking to young people, I think there are some key things they need to understand and grab a hold of. One is that education is important. You have to care about and focus on learning, no matter what that may be, and understanding the importance of that. Education is something that no one can ever take away from you. The other thing is that a lot of people, when they want to accomplish things, want to see an amazing end result immediately. It is important to understand that nothing happens overnight. Things take time and you need to understand that you have to be committed to whatever your goal is. If you’re looking at yourself now and thinking, “Well, this is where I want to be next year,” you need to be looking at what are things going to look like ten years from now, and actually understand that you have to put yourself in a position where you can accomplish those things.

I know a lot of people who have wanted to accomplish things, but they have a family with responsibilities and things they have to handle. When you have those types of responsibilities, it can be a little bit more difficult to manage the growth and struggle that comes with trying to get to a certain place. They must really take advantage of the time when they are younger when they don’t have the same type of responsibilities to really work towards building a career or getting an education or building a business.

Then understanding the value of surrounding yourself with the right people who are going to not only understand your vision, but be able to provide you with valuable feedback and support along the way. Those things are critical, because even though you may have a desire or dream to do something, every one of us needs that support structure in place to be able to keep going. Some of the most successful people in business understand that failure is a part of success. If you feel as though you’ve failed with something, but it’s a goal and a dream you’ve had and truly want to see it through, understand that if you fail, you need to get back up and keep going. What is it you can do differently? What were the mistakes that were made? How can you move forward to do what you need to do? Understand that failing multiple times is a part of success.

JS: Without giving away any proprietary secrets, what’s on the bucket list? What are some of the next steps in the natural progression and growth of The Church Online?

MW: We have actually worked with more than 2,000 churches and ministry leaders. We have completed more than 10,000 projects since we have been doing what we have been doing. One of the things we realize and have struggled with as a company is a lot of that work has been done for larger churches and organizations with budgets where they are able to take on and actually afford the expense of doing certain things. One of our goals that we do have in the pipeline is we want to be able to reach the smaller ministries, like churches with 75 members or people who have personal ministries that are trying to get started. Our goal is to allow those organizations to utilize our services. We have gotten so many phone calls and requests from smaller organizations in the past and they want to do things. Then when they understand the financial commitment involved, they’re not able to move forward. We’re currently in the process of putting together some systems that will allow us to be able to help them.

That’s something that is exciting to us. And also to really understand the power of partnership with other denominations and organizations to allow them to be able to help the churches that are a part of their organizations with outreach by working with The Church Online. And so those are some of the major things that we have going in the pipeline also. And always, as a technology company, we are working to make sure we are staying in line with and at the forefront of technology, wanting to be able to ensure our customers and churches understand the importance of all those things and wanting to make them available to them as well.

KB: It’s really been a pleasure to talk to you and reconnect with you.

MW: Thank you for allowing me to share. It’s not every day that you have a chance to sit down and not only share, but just reflect personally yourself, on what you’ve come from and where you have gone to and where some of your goals have been. I do appreciate your giving me the opportunity to do that.

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