Women in Business Q&A: Mona Patel, CEO, Motivate Design

Mona Patel is CEO of Motivate Design, a user experience and design agency, and UX Hires, a user experience recruiting firm. In addition to managing two small businesses, judging contestants on The Amazing Startup, and teaching design research and strategy at Parsons The New School for Design, Mona is an accomplished speaker and writer on many things including user experience strategies, design thinking principles, business management, and breaking patterns to achieve a work/life balance. She holds a M.S. in Marketing Communications from Boston University and a B.S. in Engineering Psychology from Tufts University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was the sister who staged our room like a classroom. Chalkboard, homework, bulletin board, stickers: I found it really rewarding to play Ms. Mona and teach something to somebody, focusing on how to help them understand something they didn't before. I thought it was cool and magical. Of course, I also loved the power of being the one up front, which I am sure is part of why I'm a CEO today. Leading gives me a chance to teach, mentor and align people or things so that we can dive toward our goals, making things and ourselves betters as we go. When I'm not sure, I've tended to follow while I gather the knowledge and confidence necessary to lead again. I spent 10 years learning my industry before starting my own agency. When I know why, I find it easier to lead. Yet, sometimes it's just trusting my gut and working step by step.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Motivate Design?
I feel like I got a dry run at my previous companies because I essentially managed people and clients, learning what worked (and what didn't) on the job. I wrote my first proposal, closed my first deal, walked away from my first deal, and learned how to make money on consulting before I started Motivate Design. I left Human Factors International after spending almost seven years there. As a UX researcher, I've gathered insights through contextual inquiries, ethnographic research, usability testing, qualitative market research, etc. Then, as a UX designer, I translated insights into innovative solutions using concept sketches and wireframes. My tenure as a UX project director gave me experience scoping projects, setting budgets, and nurturing client relationships for projects ranging from small to large. After 10 years of working in the UX industry, I knew (and had a pretty good idea that I had) the skill, responsibility, and mindset needed to design and staff a different kind of user experience and design agency.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Motivate Design?
It's scary to make the jump and start a company. Now, imagine you make the jump and the client you were supposed to work with for the next year delays. The next month you find out you're pregnant. Then, the month after that all three clients you were previously courting want to start. For the past five years, most of the highlights and challenges have been intertwined. Success means growth, which is a great thing, but then finding the right office space so that my teams can produce their best work turns out to be an unexpected challenge. As we grow, I'm trying to preserve the same tight-knit, imaginative and supportive team dynamic that our clients love even though some of our clients and employees are located elsewhere. I'm proud of what we're doing around user experience and design innovation in industries such as finance and pharmaceuticals, yet I'm always working on keeping our client portfolio balanced - just the right amount of legacy clients, new clients, and pet projects.

Why did you want to start your own business?
I almost went to law school because I was bored with usability. At some point I began to feel that the UX industry was following the wrong rules. Usability testing was about speed and ease around what can people do on a website, platform, product, etc., and I wanted to know more about how to create innovative experiences, interactions with these things. Interactions that people would not necessarily be able to do easily at first, but that they would want to do again and again. Also, I had a vision of how to design a company, and it felt like that was the next step.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
Turn off the voice in your head that says you can't do it. For some reason, we're innately so hard on ourselves. Sure, maybe you can't, but you probably can if you just start already. This quote from Ayn Rand never leaves me: "The question isn't who is going to let me, it's who is going to stop me."

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think macro not micro for the big picture. It's not about getting home at 5 p.m. each day; rather, it's about each week. I ask myself, "Did I get enough of both?" So, right now, in this hour, I switch and think micro not macro: "Is this what I want to be doing? Is this where I want to be? Am I feeling better about myself and my contribution to the world based on what I'm doing this very second?" If yes, I keep doing it. If not, I stop, change, reconsider, etc., which usually involves a change of scenery. My best ideas have come just walking around on the New York City streets outside our offices.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I don't think issues can be generalized to a gender, but communication, assertiveness and willingness to fail and try again come to mind as challenges that I've tried hard to overcome in the workplace. I see a lot of legacy patterns in the workplace, and I'm dedicated to disrupting, breaking or innovating them.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have mentorships layers/circles for others and myself. Within the most inner circle are the people I call my Board of Confidants. For work/life challenges, bad day meltdowns, parenting successes, etc., these people are my team of trusted, constant disruptors who challenge and support me, giving me confidence to talk about what I am thinking while helping me to work through blockages. The middle circle is more about the business side of things. I recently joined Savor the Success, a premium business network for women entrepreneurs, because I realized I needed straight up answers to business questions as my agency grows. I think of these talented, successful women as the Tell Me Circle. They aren't in this to make me feel good or fuel my ego. I pay to be a part of this group that has a wealth of experiences. They're here to give me straight talk or do-it-this-way answers on everything from office space to health insurance based on their experiences. The outer circle represents my role as a mentor in the startup, design thinking, and user experience communities. From being a judge on The Amazing Startup to teaching the next generation at Parsons The New School for Design to leading session for General Assembly, I try to be the coach and mentor for others that I would always like to have in my life. Mentorship is crucial to success and about collaboration, but it also has a give-and-take component, which is a good thing and definitely has been a difference-maker in my life.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Here's my short list for today:
1) Arianna Huffington for her focus on driving and balance, including the importance of taking care of yourself. I see her advice as the softer side of business school, focusing on meditation, naps, help, family, and friends. Her work helps me focus on the right language and balance I want to maintain in the workplace and at home.
2) Chelsea Clinton, even though she's younger than me, I admire her business quality and grace. She seems to spend her time wisely, taking projects that have a real impact, while maintaining a grounded, autonomous life from her parents.
3) Alexa von Tobel of LearnVest is my CEO crush. I love her speeches and vision, especially how disruptive she is and her mission to support those who wouldn't otherwise have the means to figure out how to make smarter financial decisions. I heard her speak at Fast Company and was an instant admirer. I admire her aspiration and approachableness, which only seem to become more awesome each year.

What do you want Motivate Design to accomplish in the next year?
Smart growth. Motivate Design is in the top 20% of the 2014 Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private companies in America (984/5000), which is a very good thing. Yet, I can't help but wonder what that really signifies for the future. I've noticed that people are very impressed by the size of an agency. When you hit 20 employees, people start to say, "Wow!" So, I'm thinking about what I consider success. I've always been suspicious of the status quo. I tend to ask, "What if?" a lot, and then challenge myself and others to think again. Success is about more than size, so I'm looking at many things: the quality of projects, insights/solutions attained, happy clients and customers, reasonable hours and expectations, and solid financial growth.