CEO puts the ‘care’ in brand power

Sheila Lirio Marcelo, founder and CEO of, opened her keynote address at Northeastern’s CEO Breakfast Forum on Wednesday morning by describing a frantic phone call she received when her parents were visiting Boston from the Philippines and babysitting her son: Her father had fallen down the stairs while carrying the child.

Her story is but one of billions of family care stories, she said, noting that her child and father emerged from the harrowing ordeal in good health. “The global care crisis is staggering,” Marcelo explained, pointing to the growing number of births worldwide and the average household’s annual childcare costs. allows families to connect with millions of caregivers to manage the challenges they face, including childcare, pet care, and care for seniors. Those resources also include housekeeping, tutoring, and even taxes. Marcelo founded the company in 2006, and it is now the largest online care destination in the world with 7 million members in 16 countries.

She was the latest speaker at Northeastern’s series of CEO Breakfast Forums. President Joseph E. Aoun hosts the events, where leading CEOs share their expertise to audiences of other CEOs and senior executives from the Greater Boston area.

Throughout her keynote, Marcelo touched on what she considers critical components of building a successful brand: authenticity, hiring and developing strong teams of employees, a long-term business outlook, and providing an exceptional consumer experience. But ultimately brands are about people, she said, and the stories behind those people.

“Who builds products? Who delivers services? People do,” Marcelo said. “We get so busy with things like spreadsheets and profitability, but at the core of building brands is our employees, our culture, and our values.”

Marcelo used several powerful examples to highlight strategies that result in effective brand building. To emphasize the importance of team building, she recalled a scene in Gladiator, one of her favorite movies, when slaves are forced to defend themselves in the Roman Colosseum. The slaves’ leader, Maximus, says they only way they’ll survive is by sticking together.

“That image is etched in my head,” said Marcelo, who joked that her two sons might describe her as “a little intense.”

She also described her view of how strives for excellence. “We’re not a company that requires perfection; it’s about high standards,” she said. “It’s about testing, iterating, evolving, and learning. In our field, six months is a long time, so you have to be able to pivot quickly.”

Marcelo has received considerable recognition and many awards for her work. In 2012, she was named one of the “10 Most Powerful Women in Boston Tech” by The Boston Globe’s “Innovation Economy”; a “Tech Luminary Innovation All-Star” by the Boston Business Journal; and one of the “100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs” for the Goldman Sachs’ Builders and Innovators Summit.

In his opening remarks, President Aoun called Marcelo a “great entrepreneur” and praised her efforts to launch He noted that Northeastern’s entrepreneurial spirit is flourishing on campus, pointing to IDEA, the student-run venture accelerator, and Northeastern’s experiential education programs for students that include study abroad, co-op, and research on all seven continents and in 92 countries—a 130 percent increase since 2006.

“We want our entrepreneurs to succeed but also learn from their mistakes,” Aoun said.

Following the talk, Marcelo fielded questions on a range of topics. One question related to ways in which older executives could effectively manage “millennial” hires from Generation Y. Marcelo responded by explaining that the workforce’s newest generation is enthusiastic and mobile, which serve as strong traits but can sometimes lead to impatience. As a result, she said it’s important to not only provide mentoring and support to create teachable moments, but also encourage them to explore their professional goals and passions.

The final question came from Aoun, who noted’s global presence and then asked Marcelo how the company adapts to the cultural differences in the countries where it does business. In response, Marcelo highlighted the importance of quickly identifying the natural needs of each market. For instance, interest in pet care and housekeeping services are booming in the U.K. and in other areas of Europe, she said.

“It varies by industry, but it’s universal,” Marcelo said. “Care has to be provided beyond boundaries. We’re such a mobile culture now.”