Earlier this month, Mona Bijoor visited Yale for a series of conversations with students, from a breakfast talk as part of the Yale Women Innovators Series to a fireside chat at the School of Management. Throughout the day, Bijoor shared insights on entrepreneurship that she’d gained firsthand: after several roles in consulting and the fashion industry, in 2010 she launched JOOR, an online marketplace for wholesale buying that directly connects brands and retailers. By 2016, she had grown the company to process over $10 billion in gross merchandise value, with 100 employees around the world and clients that included Neiman Marcus, Harrods, and Kate Spade.
Despite this rapid growth, the path there was far from linear. In her talks at Yale, Bijoor spoke openly about some of the setbacks and worries that she’d encountered while building the company. She’s come to see resilience as an essential element of successful entrepreneurship — in fact, she’s even written a book about it. In Startups and Downs: The Secrets of Resilient Entrepreneurs, she explores her own journey, along with stories from the dozens of entrepreneurs she interviewed for the project, to glean lessons on building and maintaining a resilient mindset. Here at Tsai CITY, fostering resilience among our students is a key goal, so we were eager to hear more from Bijoor. We caught up to talk about resilience, advice for current students, and more.
Laura Mitchell Tully: In your talk this morning, you shared a number of different lessons that you’ve learned as an entrepreneur. I’m curious if there’s one of those lessons that was particularly surprising for you in the moment.
Mona Bijoor: I think the most surprising lesson is how much your demeanor and your attitude can have an effect on the people around you. It’s really important, as a leader and as an entrepreneur, to make sure that your house is in order as you lead the team, because your team is taking cues from you all day long. You can definitely show passion — that’s necessary — but especially when things are going wrong, being even-keeled and level-headed is important. It takes training to get there, but making sure that you can stay calm in situations that require it is really important.
How do you go about building that mindset?
Internally, what I’ve found to be the answer is meditation and journaling. You need the meditation to separate you from your thoughts, and you need the journaling to get your thoughts all on paper. And then externally, I think it’s important to have a strong support system that can help you through challenges.
The other thing is taking massive action. You can’t shy away from action. A lot of times I find that very successful people don’t want to take a lot of action because they’re afraid to fail. I think it’s important to take a massive action, but then be patient with the results, while having a support system around you, along with mindfulness, to help you get through those obstacles and bounce back.
That’s good advice. At the organizational level, fostering resilience is one of Tsai CITY’s core commitments. Do you have advice for how a place like Tsai CITY can build programs or resources around that?
I think bringing like-minded people together to start talking about these issues is important. So is bringing people in to talk about challenges, because the press loves to glorify founders — we don’t talk enough about the setbacks founders have faced and how they’ve worked to get through those challenges. Hearing people’s stories about the tough times that they’ve had, and how they’ve persevered, is really important.
If you were a student at Yale and you were interested in entrepreneurship, what would you be doing right now?
I would be talking to professors who have started businesses or are teaching classes related to entrepreneurship. I would be looking for like-minded classmates who are looking to start businesses or have the entrepreneurial bug. I would be doing my own research: I’d probably pick an industry that I was super excited about and then start doing a lot of research and reading about it, trying to figure out what pain points needed to be solved.
And then I would use a center like Tsai CITY to come to lectures and talks where I could interact with other entrepreneurs. The skills that you need to have are the intangibles — like dealing with rejection, dealing with “no” — along with product-market fit and figuring out go-to market strategies. And so you want to be around entrepreneurs who have done that.
Looking back at your own time in school, is there anything that you didn’t think was going to translate to entrepreneurship at the time, but has proven to be valuable?
I took a lot of leadership roles where I had to interact with the entire student body, and I think that was super valuable. I didn’t know it at the time, but just having a good network in place with my classmates has proved to be very valuable, and that’s what I would be doing if I were on campus today. I would just try to meet as many people as I could from all different perspectives, because I think that’s where you get the energy and ideas you need.
The words “entrepreneur” or “innovator” can be kind of intimidating, and not everyone immediately sees themselves in those words. For someone who’s full of ideas and potential, but who doesn’t immediately think, “Oh, I can do that,” what would your advice be?
I think we’re all entrepreneurs at the end of the day. Entrepreneurs are just looking for opportunities in the market to capitalize on. And that’s how we should be going through life. Oftentimes I see students and I ask them, “What kind of return are you getting on your time at school?” And sometimes they say, “a 2X return,” or “a 3X return,” and I say, “You should be getting a 10X return on your time and your money.” So, if you’re spending $250,000 on school, how can you get a $3 million return on your investment? Most people think of that in terms of what job or salary they’re going to get, but that’s not what I mean. It’s, “How can you get as much out of this experience while you’re here?”
That means trying different things and getting out of your comfort zone. That’s what being an entrepreneur is. That’s my biggest recommendation. It’s, “How can I build a whole host of experiences that I can draw upon as I go and do something else, even if I’m not an entrepreneur?” Ultimately, you’re creating your own destiny. You’re writing your own story, and that’s entrepreneurship in so many ways: being very proactive, versus reactive, about the experiences you want to have.
I assume as you’ve been doing this book tour, you’re meeting a lot of student entrepreneurs. Have there been trends or patterns you’re seeing in those conversations?
I think that there are a lot of students who are just wondering how to get started. In the press we hear a lot about, “Oh, I had this idea and it just dawned on me,” but most people have to do the diligence and do the work to come up with the ideas. We don’t talk a lot about that. How do you research an industry? How do you identify pain points? There’s a methodology and there’s a rigor involved in that, and we don’t talk enough about it.
Then there are those people that I meet who have already started businesses, and I find that a lot of them are apologizing because they think they haven’t done enough. They’re very focused on the tactics, but they’re not necessarily focused on the strategy. It’s like they just feel like they have to do, do, do. And I think entrepreneurs often shortchange the strategy — that moment of thinking, “Okay, I need to be five or six steps ahead. How do I map that out?” That’s the strategy piece. That’s the vision piece.
Any last things you’d want to add or share with our students?
I think that there’s an amazing opportunity here at Yale to interact not just with your own school, but also across schools —there are so many great undergrad and graduate programs here. Being very interdisciplinary with the students that you meet and where you find inspiration from is key. I really appreciate that about the Yale community: you can get inspiration from the forestry school, the public health school, or the drama school. Just meet as many people as you can, because you never know where that inspiration is going to come from.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Want to explore more? Learn more about Tsai CITY and explore insights from the Yale Women Innovators Series.