Biomedical and Chemical Engineering Department Chair Julie Hasenwinkel Awarded Meredith Professorship
Great ideas often disappear into a chasm that exists between inception and execution. To help bridge that gap, Grace Lanni ’88 has an innate ability to communicate with an array of stakeholders, help entrepreneurs find clarity in their ideas, and turn them into solutions that help people. Her fluency in a diverse set of subjects and ability to adapt was apparent from the start of her time as a student at Syracuse University.
Lanni entered college on a full Airforce ROTC scholarship and chose electrical engineering and biomedical engineering as part of a dual degree, along with a minor in music. Lanni found Syracuse University provided her with opportunities and resources to pursue her differing interests.
“The professors were very entrepreneurial, and I leaned into that. I was able to work with a physician at Upstate Medical Center as a lab assistant and I had other internship activities so I could apply the stuff I was learning,” said Lanni. “I also got to join the jazz band and be part of a community of musicians.”
After graduating, Lanni accepted a position where she quickly learned she was uniquely effective at communicating between two key departments.
“I would sit with the engineers in the morning and then spend the afternoon with the marketing people to explain what it was the engineers were building, and how to sell and implement the products,” said Lanni.
Lanni admits she had more fun spending time with the marketing team, and it opened her eyes to a side of business she had never experienced. This was the first of several significant shifts Lanni used to chart her career. In her next job, Lanni got a taste for selling. Then she moved to California where she took a position at a small networking hardware company and helped them grow to 35 employees within a year. The next move was to Austin, Texas and into software sales at a startup, but suddenly her momentum was stopped. After two months of being in the role, Lanni arrived at the office to find the doors chained shut. The company had gone out of business. Lanni had moved to Austin with her kids, she didn’t know many people, and did not have a job. After briefly considering retreating back to California, Lanni made some calls to colleagues and started looking for projects. Six months later she had her own company.
At the time, companies were just beginning to move servers off site to colocation centers, but the software they needed to manage the new server set up didn’t exist. Recognizing a sound opportunity, Lanni drafted a proposal and became one of only two women to score million-dollar money from a tier one venture capital firm that year. This was Lanni’s first time working with a venture group, and she says although it came with new challenges, the experience made her want to help women entrepreneurs.
“I really didn’t have any experience in the venture community. I had some support, some mentorship, but nothing like today,” said Lanni. “One of the things I love to do is support other women who want to go into the venture community and that is why. I didn’t have the support. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to manage the money. Those are skills I learned.”
Lanni broke away to work on a new startup in collaboration with Dell engineers to develop and sell an early version of the tablet PC. Lanni booked the first order, signed up the first partner and the first distributor, and after seven years she decided it was time for another move. Healthtech allowed Lanni to enjoy bioengineering and entrepreneurship, but by 2016, she went all-in on digital marketing. Lanni went to her team and asked what they thought she should focus on, and they said, “you’re a personal branding expert.” In response, Lanni launched a new business called All About That Brand to focus on helping entrepreneurs tell their stories to attract their ideal customers.
Lanni is a pioneer in the branding influencer space. All About That Brand helped bring personal brand influence into the spotlight and it took off. The platform includes an award-winning podcast, an award-winning book, and it positioned Lanni as an influencer in marketing, personal branding, and customer experience. In February of 2020, Lanni was searching for a new opportunity to innovate, and her reputation led to an invitation to appear on the cyberbullying episode of “4 Days to Save the World,” a reality show that challenges groups of entrepreneurs to develop solutions for global social problems.
The eruption of COVID-19 nearly derailed any further participation with the show because Lanni needed to focus on managing disruption facing All About That Brand. When she notified the showrunners that she wanted to step away, they countered by asking Lanni to stay on board in a new role, associate producer. It may sound like a strange role for an engineer, but both engineering and producing require a similar way of thinking.
“You have a problem in front of you almost every hour of every day. It is 24 hours of problem solving to the emergency room level,” said Lanni.
Her engineering mindset made Lanni a natural fit and within six months she became the executive producer in charge of 4 teams responsible for recruiting show-ready entrepreneurs, sponsorships, and financing to bring the show to set.
“With all my business expertise, I was able to weigh in and work directly with the studio owner and creator. It was a wonderful, wild experience for 18 months,” said Lanni. “It was like going back to college. I loved college. I learned so many new things.”
While talking with entrepreneurs around the world for the show, Lanni would often hear about the causes that mattered most to them and why. Those conversations got her thinking about how to stand out in the increasingly crowded brand space and blend her complimentary roles as a branding influencer and executive producer with her passion for helping entrepreneurs.
“When you’re talking with really smart entrepreneurs about how to save the world, it’s pretty fun. I decided I wanted to be in the conversations about cause. I wanted to help my clients identify and lean into their cause,” said Lanni.
Cause branding became Lanni’s new lane, and her latest enterprise is called Giving Out Loud. It is a media program that focuses on helping entrepreneurs select a cause that aligns with their brand and helping them demonstrate care for that cause.
“If you’re in business and you want to interact with younger generations, figure out what matters to you and talk about it,” said Lanni. “Be in that conversation because that is where things are headed.”
In the simplest terms, Lanni is an entrepreneur who wants to help other entrepreneurs at every level. Including aspiring entrepreneurs at Syracuse University.
“I am a fan of the entrepreneurship focus at Syracuse University. I love being a judge for Invent@SU and being a mentor,” said Lanni. “Have a great time and realize it is a journey. What you’re studying today is more about the people in the room than what is on the page. Really celebrate those relationships.”