EARLIEST ENTREPRENEURIAL MEMORY: I started an event planning and promotion business my first year of college. SOMETHING THAT MAKES ME LAUGH: TikTok. SOMETHING I CANNOT DO WITHOUT: My husband.
Growing beyond merely playing the part
LIFELONG BUSINESSMAN. Carlo Cisco’s first word was “mine,” as he was told, and he grew up striving to lead. When there is something that can be done better, Carlo admits he can’t just sit there and not try to improve it... and revamping broken processes is the essence of SELECT, a next-generation black card and concierge company that Carlo founded.
Credit card companies have offered the same rewards systems for decades, all essentially featuring the same rewards that customers aren’t excited about, he says. Beyond some discounts, travel perks or cashback, banks’ credit card perks have become stale, and only recently have they begun to partner with start-ups that can offer new experiences tailored for customers, he notes. SELECT, which launched in 2014, jumped into disrupting industry offerings by connecting hotels, restaurants, nightlife venues and retail brands with a curated concierge experience, he explains.
Developing SELECT was an organic process of having worked with customer experiences and loyalty programs. Carlo helped develop Groupon’s operations in Japan, and then he co-founded FoodFan, an online restaurant search guide and resource. There was a demand for premium experiences, loyalty programs and membership models, but there was nothing out there that merged all three, he notes. Groupon Japan had a strong following but had trouble attracting premium brands, while FoodFan eventually got crowded out as Yelp and Zagat grew.
PLAYING THE PART AS A BUSINESSMAN. One of Carlo’s early ventures was an event management company he started at age 18, where he developed marketing strategies and hosted events for local companies. “However, I had to play a certain role in society in that job... Personal branding was so important in event management, and my name had gotten recognition where it would be associated with events,” Carlo says. “I thought that if I was outed, that whole thing might come crumbling down and everything would be over.”
Carlo remained closeted even at FoodFan, and only slowly began to be more open as he made the transition to founding SELECT. “Back then I felt like being myself would have destroyed everything I’d built, but it probably would have been OK,” he says ruefully. Living in New York City helped him find the strength to live life truthfully. “I just couldn’t do it anymore, living a lie. It was too much. I was in New York, meeting people under the radar, and I realized I would eventually explode if I had to keep living a double life.”
Keeping that secret had been the number one stressor in his life, despite all his business success. “You don’t get to be who you are, which is painful. You don’t get to date or even talk to people whom you are interested in.” Part of the reason he struggled to be an openly gay entrepreneur was the lack of visible role models. “There wasn’t really anyone I could look to who showed it was OK to run a business successfully and be gay too,” he muses. And deciding to come out with the founding of SELECT goes back to his values of fixing broken processes. “I’d like to show others who you choose to sleep with has nothing to do with what you can achieve as a businessperson,” he says.
The entrepreneurial world appreciates authenticity, and being authentic from day one is a business advantage, Carlo says. Today, being gay has helped create networks and support systems. It’s easier to find funding if you’re known to be a diverse company, and these LGBT networks can lead to great talent that would have been otherwise ignored, he notes. However, even as more of these groups develop, finding them can be hard for LGBT entrepreneurs just entering the scene. “When I first started, I found some by searching online, but knowing where to look can be daunting. I believe these organizations need to keep pushing to maintain a strong presence both on and offline,” he notes.