And let’s be clear: The term “culture and employee engagement” doesn’t mean “Happy Hours” and “Pizza Parties:” Navigating Market Downturns and Other Startup Advice with Melanie Naranjo, Head of People at SaaS Startup Ethena

Hunter Walk
9 min readAug 31, 2023

“You both have context for this introduction, so I’ll let you two take it from here! I know you’ll really enjoy chatting.” That was the email one of Ethena’s founders sent to me and Melanie Naranjo on 8/21/21, a bit over two years ago. At the time Melania was in discussions with Ethena about joining the startup as VP People, happily employed at a larger company but knowing she wanted new challenges. I’d been an investor in Ethena since its first funding so had enough history on where they’d been — and where they were going — to help give Melanie more context. I’m glad she agreed it was the right role — both her responsibilities and the company (a leader in the compliance training space) have grown quickly in the time since. So here are Five Questions with Melanie Naranjo.

Hunter Walk: One of my favorite things to do for founders is speaking with people who are considering joining their startup. And I was fortunate enough to have this opportunity with you, in August 2021, as you were evaluating the opportunity at Ethena. What were the final things on your mind before joining, and how soon after you started did you feel like the decision was validated as being a good one?

Melanie Naranjo: For me, two of the most important things I need to feel excited about a job are: 1. Knowing that I’m working at a place where everyone is equally passionate about doing great work and helping the company succeed, and 2. Knowing that I don’t have to waste time trying to convince anyone about the value of the People function.

I remember when Ethena first reached out to me because I was immediately excited about the fact that they were in the HR tech space. The idea of working at a company whose entire business model revolves around catering to buyers in the HR space felt like such a breath of fresh air. Because the sad reality is: At most companies, the People function is still seen as a nice-to-have at best, and a nuisance at worst.

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Hunter Walk

You’ll find me @homebrew , Seed Stage Venture Fund w @satyap . Previously made products at YouTube, Google & SecondLife. Married to @cbarlerin .