Our CEO’s Toughest Interview Yet Was With a Group of 8th Graders

Write a book? Check. TEDx Talk? Check. Inc. Fastest Growing Company Honoree? Check. Twice. Throughout her career, Founder & CEO, Mona Patel, has braved some pretty tough audiences answering challenging questions. However, when Head of School at Atlanta Girls’ School set up a Skype Q&A Session with a group of 8–12th grade students, Mona had no idea what she was getting into. These amazing girls asked questions about everything from networking to entrepreneurship. Here are our favorites:

How did you get to where you are today?

I started an amazing company called Motivate Design.We do research and design, and help people get jobs in those fields. I went to college at Tufts University and wanted to be a doctor. But, I wasn’t loving it. I thought about what I really wanted to do and got really lucky. I looked for other things I could study and found Engineering Psychology, and that sounded fancy.

Think about an iPhone, door knob, textbook — these are all things people don’t typically get to think about with design. I got to think about it and it was really fun. I started working at a consulting company that did this. I worked on products like cameras, hospitals, then web took off. I’m kind of dating myself, but the Internet was new! People were asking me how to design a website.

My ability to communicate is what got me to sell and more into account management than technical work. Once I proved that to myself, I started my own company.

Can you tell us a little about your book?

I wanted to write a book for about five years but my inner-critic wouldn’t let me. What if people hate it? What if it doesn’t help anybody? What if I have nothing to say? Then, I realized that what I’ve done with my career is pretty cool and how I solve problems is also pretty cool. As soon as I realized that I see problems as opportunities, I had a lot to say. I started writing it and Reframe was on Amazon in 9 months! It has a lot in it: the story of how I started my company, the mistakes I’ve made and what I’ve learned. It was a passion project and it was a lot of fun.

You mentioned you felt vulnerable at times. Why that is important? How has it helped you?

It helped me help other people. If I say “I was nervous. I was scared. I didn’t know…” then someone is more inclined to open up and have an open, better, meaningful conversation where we both learn. If you’re too busy fronting, you’re never going to learn anything from anyone else.

What do you to teach at Parsons? How did you start?

I met this guy Michael. I was working at another company and I was interviewing him. I loved him (and still do!). I tried to hire him but we just didn’t have the budget. He insisted on keeping in touch and later asked me to come into the Senior Thesis class he taught at Parsons. I was blown away with the work that I saw. People were designing new fonts, crazy ideas and I was hooked. He asked me, “why don’t you teach?” and out came the excuses: “I would love to but I don’t have a PHD”, “I have no teaching experience”, “I’m a consultant, not a teacher”. And then he asked me two questions, (1) “do you think you can teach them something? and (2) Do you think you would be a good teacher? So, I started teaching a research class for three years and then taught that same class I observed in.

Is there a good way to build self confidence?

I think my thing has always been micro-moments. I count the small things, the little wins, being a mom. Can I do something small to get the feeling I want to get? That’s when I have the best wins. During the holiday week I was feeling like I was using my logical brain too much so I dragged my husband to a painting class to gain creative confidence. I don’t know how to paint and I came out of that class with a painting and it’s pretty good!

How do you balance your company, teaching and your family?

I’ve always been an “I’ll-do-it-myself” kind of person. But when I started my first company I got pregnant after two months — AHH! When I left, I had to trust everyone in my company to the things I was used to doing. That was hard for me! When i came back… nothing bad happened! I learned I didn’t have to be in the center of everything. My first child taught me that. It happened again three years later with my second child and then I wrote a book. It’s hard to say “I’ll spend four hours here, and four hours there” — that doesn’t work. Am I giving as much as I can to every area of my life? I only focus on the present. That helps me feel balanced.

Would you consider yourself an engineer?

I like to build things. In a geeky way, I love specifications: the details of what is going to make up a big product. I’m not doing it as much because there are other people who are better, but I do consider myself a builder and a driver.

What have you learned about mentors?

By nature, I’m shy (believe it or not). I’ve worked really hard to get over it, but it made me approach mentorship a little differently. I had to break it down to little moments — the big word mentor is kind of scary. But it’s easy to say ‘can I pick your brain on these three topics? and in return I can give you xyz’. Anyone in my life can be a mentor and I do this for a lot of people, so people tend to pick up the phone when I call.

How do you suggest staying in close contact with people you meet while networking without being too annoying?

I choose social media. Though I’m not the biggest social media fan, I use it to let the people I meet know I support them and we share the same end goal. But, if I’m going to meet with people in person I always have an agenda.

Why do you think there aren’t more women entrepreneurs?

I think by the time you guys graduate college there will be more female entrepreneurs than male. I think a lot of women think starting a company would take more time and create a tough work life balance. That is absolutely false. You are in control of your future and your life. I hope that women like me talking to girls like you encourages women to do that.

Learn more about Mona’s story and her creative process in Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate and Think. Available now: