Mona Patel, the CEO and founder of Motivate Design, barely had the confidence to call herself a designer in the beginning of her career. Early on, Patel worked in the fields of engineering and psychology, then became the VP of Human Factors International, the world’s largest company specializing in user experience (UX) design. But while she was doing research and translating those insights into innovative solutions using concept sketches, it took her some time to truly identify herself as a designer. “I think design has been branded as a really scary field,” she says. “You know you’re born “creative” or you’re born artistic. But for me, we were taught if you’re not singing you’re not going to be a singer, or if you’re not painting you’re not going to be a painter. Oh, and by the way if you can’t do those things, you’re not creative.”
As Patel continued to unpack what design meant, she called it problem solving creatively. She found results through her sketches that attracted clients, thus increasing her confidence. She had a knack for mentorship and started teaching at Parsons School of Design to show young creatives how to truly understand business and design problems, and to think outside the box to develop effective solutions. She realized if she was going to be teaching at a design school, she had to be a designer. Then she thought, “Well, if I’m a designer, why don’t I design a company?”
Motivate Design was founded in 2009 as a user experience research design company. Two years later, Patel introduced UX Hires, Motivate’s staffing shop. Patel has led her team to work with clients such as MTV, Capital One, Carter’s, and Citi Bank. She has also written Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate, and Think, an Amazon best-selling book.
We sat down with Patel to discuss how she made the leap from designer entrepreneur to CEO, transitioned from designing products to designing teams, and how she deals with people in the industry mistaking her success for her husband’s.
You were VP at Human Factors International and Research Scientist at American Institutes for Research before founding Motivate Design in 2009. How and when did you know you wanted to build your own company?
When I had a prospective. A great company is one where you’ve identified the problem and are committed to coming up with a solution. A lot of times people look at it like: I have the solution, let me find the problem. I think when you see the problem and you decide, “I want to commit my work to doing that,” you’re starting a company.
How did you make the leap from designer entrepreneur to CEO?
I left my position at HFI and then I started freelancing as a designer and user experience strategist. I added a few more strategists to my team and then I was pregnant. A lot of people have this misconception that after you have children it’s going to be harder for you to work. I found that it was hard in the day-to-day, but also valuable. I had 2-3 hours of work during the day due to nursing, so I had to get as much of what I needed to get done, done.
I stopped designing interfaces. I had to come in and give feedback and lead on different projects and then I had to go be with my kid. So I started designing jobs. I started designing structure. And I started sketching. However, I realized I wasn’t designing for clients anymore; I was designing for my team. Then I thought to myself, I think I’m designing a company.
That was my easy way to do it. I don’t think I could have ever applied for a CEO job because I didn’t have the confidence. But I took my strengths, which is being really good at motivating people, and making people feel heard. I’m very trustworthy, and I believe it is my responsibility to help as many people as I can. These are things I do really well, so I just started using it for anything that I could.
What kind of mindset should a designer have in order to know it’s time to shift to CEO?
It took a couple of years for me to learn, if a client calls and says I need Mona and I do the job, I’m designing, not running the business. One thing you’ll have to do is step away from doing the design work and step into the business development – operations, HR, and begin to create the structure for someone to buy the visual design work from your brand.
The mindset shift is: I am the designer and there are people here that work for me. I am the four-wheel horse power engine that creates a brand that people will work at so other people will hire the brand to deliver a higher level of quality that they can’t get anywhere else. Your job is to create that environment and that system. So you switch from being a product designer to a system designer, if you will.
What are some of the common excuses that you’ve heard from designers that have held them back?
Designers think that they know everything already and sometimes they miss the innocence of diving in and doing the research to learn more. The idea of “Oh no, we don’t need to do research, I already know how to design the website.”
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced while leading your company?
In general, there are not many female CEOs, which sucks. When I went to both Inc. 5000 ceremonies actually, people would go directly to my husband like “Congratulations!” and he would have to point to me like no, her. You’re dismissed sometimes and sometimes you’re punished for not flirting back, in the sense where you won’t get put on a project or invited to the next networking function.
But there are some really great things as well: I feel like as a woman I can have a deeper connection with people, from employees to clients. From being a mom I’m able to multitask at a higher level as well.
You’ve said in a Ted X New Bedford talk that in Indian culture women are to fall in line and never cross that line because women are beneath men. Yet, you’ve disrupted that way of thinking. How?
In my culture, people were confused about what’s going on with me. I think I’ve earned it now, but earlier on, I was looked down upon and people would ask what was I doing or say things like “Shouldn’t you be home with the kids?” It’s your people who turn on you.
I’ve had women make undermining comments that have made me second-guess and at times cry. I’ve thought to myself Am I a bad mom because I work and sometimes travel for work? It’s the judging that can lead to the discrimination and it’s less about being a woman or minority. It’s just as a person, don’t judge me. I get it the most from Indians and women; very rarely will a white male say anything to me.
To combat it, I’ve been working hard to deflect. When I hear something negative, I try to think it’s on you, not on me. People will have their own insecurities and try to push them on to you, but you have to swat them away like tennis. And if the comments do get to you, which some of them will, you just have to recognize that it’s not you, and don’t believe it. You use it for fire to prove them wrong. Then, you start your own company.