Growing up with an Indian grandmother who held firm traditional beliefs that a woman’s place was inside the home serving her husband, Mona Patel’s ambition was in essence rebellion. When she applied to college, her grandmother could not understand wasting money on education when she thought Mona should be off getting married.
That wasn’t the path Mona saw for herself. She doesn’t blame her grandmother for her perspective. The woman grew up in a different time after all, but when it came to her own life, Mona wanted more. She earned her bachelor of science in engineering psychology degree from Tufts University, and a master’s degree in mass communication specializing in marketing from Boston University. Her unique skill set made her highly coveted. She rose to a level in her career where she was offered a mid-six-figure salary — and then she turned it down, instead launching her own user experience (UX) agency, Motivate Design.
At first, she had some serious doubts. “My brother still jokes that he should own a percentage of my company because he’s the one who helped me have the confidence to do it,” Mona said. “I was pretty damn sure that I could not run a company. That’s surprising, because I ran a P&L [profit and loss] for a division of an agency, so I had enough knowledge and understanding of what it took. I just didn’t have the confidence. And I see it so often, unfortunately, a lot in women, where we second-guess ourselves or we just don’t have the confidence to try.”
The job was “an insane amount of money,” and Mona thought she should take it. Despite resisting her grandmother’s traditional mindset, family is imperative to Mona. She consulted her brother on how to proceed. He helped her see that if someone was going to pay her that much money to build their book of business, why not do it herself?
“It was sad to me that somebody else believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Mona said. “This permeates our culture still today. It’s really about unlocking the potential in people and in companies. Design is a tool to do that. It’s understanding what it is that prevents somebody from completing a task and then removing that barrier.”
When it came to launching her own business, her lack of confidence was the barrier she had to overcome. When it comes to the businesses she works with, the barriers to their design problems are constantly different, so much so that she now has three businesses operating under the Motivate banner. In addition to the agency, there’s UX Hires, a staffing arm that helps other businesses strategically recruit UX professionals, and also Insider Insight, a spin on user research that puts “investigators” in real situations to find out how consumers are talking about products in their everyday lives.
UX isn’t an arm of design — it’s the blood
Part of what makes Mona’s expertise in UX stand out is that she sees UX not just as design, but as a philosophy. She recognizes the practice of design, and the practice of research, but she knows there’s more to it than that.
“I think that this field, we treat it like an arm, it’s a thing you can do to the UX team internally, but it should be the blood. Or the heart. To me, everyone should be thinking this way. UX is a philosophy much more than a practice,” Mona said.
These observations inspired her to write the Amazon bestseller “Reframe: Shift the Way you Work, Innovate, and Think.” It includes her tips and techniques for helping organizations get unstuck, and is based off the successes she’s had leading Motivate Design since its inception in 2009. She credits the success of her agency to taking almost the opposite approach to UX as other agencies. Rather than figuring out a brand’s problems for them, Mona likes to work to unlock the potential in internal teams, helping them to identify what they know, what they have, and what the real problems are.
“Reframe” was written after the birth of one of her two sons, during a time when the company was running smoothly and she could afford to devote time to writing it. It wouldn’t have been possible before, as Mona does not hesitate to speak honestly about the challenges of running a business and being a new mom in America. She’s worked hard to make Motivate a welcoming place for mothers and fathers alike, offering flexible scheduling, remote working opportunities, breastfeeding rooms, and even opportunities to bring your babies to work. She views a positive work mentality parallel to a positive parenting mentality.
“There’s a lot that you teach your child about your work ethic, about your values, about what it means to have balance in your life, what it means to offer contribution, and have meaning and purpose,” Mona said. “There’s all these lessons that you teach your child when you do something you love, and you dedicate your life and professional career to doing that.”
This fall, the book will be released as a simpler children’s version called “The Thing About Swings.” It’s about an elephant who goes to a playground. She sees this swing and she’s so excited, but when she sits on the swing it breaks. Elephants aren’t supposed to be on swings, so she gets sad. Then she decides she’s going to design a better swing. She reframes the problem to come up with a solution that works for her with the help of some friends, including a skeptical skunk and a get-to-work orangutan.
“I wrote the story three years ago and then added the orangutan in at a more meaningful level because the orangutan stops talking, and is just like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna do it. And if it fails, it fails, and if it doesn’t fail, it doesn’t fail.’ It’s a story that I told my kids when they asked me what ‘Reframe’ was about, so I did it kind of for me, and then all proceeds go to E-School for Girls, so I’m doing it for them.”
Inspiring the next generation of design thinkers
E-School for Girls is a charity that Mona has been involved with for many years. The “E” stands for entrepreneurship. It’s a two-week immersive summer program for underserved, low-income young women that takes place at NYU. Founded by Allison Wright, the program is designed to empower girls to believe in themselves and understand they can play a role in solving today’s problems. Mona and her team help the girls develop design and design thinking skills, while Allison and other members of the organization teach them social media, iteration, business finance, and more.
“Day one is when they come in and they don’t have a lot of hope or vision for what their life can be. They are so far from seeing any potential in themselves. By day 14, it’s so rewarding to watch them have ideas and want to become entrepreneurs. The thing I notice every time is they’re looking almost for me to give them the idea. It’s like, ‘No babe, you’ve got to come up with your own idea.’ What are you here to do?” Mona said.
“Many have gone through abuse and have been homeless. It’s a very real group that needs the support. But some of them are going to come out, I’d say most, in my experience, really believing in themselves. It’s such a beautiful thing that Allison does. We all need to learn from these girls.”
Last year the program’s project was to redesign the New York subway. The girls had all these ideas about making the doors larger so they’d be more accessible, adding rails so people don’t jump in front of trains, and others stemming from their diverse experiences. When Mona mentioned E-School to a man at an agency, and she told him about the problem they were trying to tackle, he said, “This is such an easy problem to solve. Just make a first-class car so we don’t have to deal with all the riffraff.”
“It made me so sick to hear that,” Mona said. “We need these girls in the business world.”
On limiting beliefs and not apologizing
Limiting beliefs just might be the bane of Mona’s existence. Between her grandmother’s traditional mindset and noticing her son’s natural inclination to say things like, “I can’t do that. I can’t go on a roller coaster,” she now hates the phrase “I can’t.” She is determined to get rid of these limiting beliefs, and it is part of what makes her so inspiring.
“I just had an offsite [meeting] with my team and I noticed that almost all the women would start with, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know if you agree, but…’ and it drove me bonkers,” Mona said. “Why are we starting that way? When you start, just start with your opinion. I keep seeing examples of it not happening, especially with women, especially with minorities. They’re not the only ones, I’m just pointing out in my experience, and I’ve seen a lot. I just don’t find that acceptable.”
Mona has her team say something to her if they notice she apologizes for something. It’s part of a greater trend of women becoming less afraid to take up and own their space, to have their voices heard.
“I tire myself out sometimes proving my worth, so I’ve been working on that. We’re all a work in progress. That’s why I like humans, all of us have our things that we work on. Now it’s just about accepting who I am and not needing to say sorry for anything other than if I truly am apologetic. If you can fix it internally, it stops happening externally. It’s good work to do.”
What’s next for Mona
Recently, Motivate had the trademark approved for Y.O.U.X. Mona is now in the process of figuring out what that means and how it can incorporate UX as a philosophy not just for design, but for life. She wants to offer services around this and it sounds like they might incorporate some level of coaching or personal development.
“That’s really what I’m all about. You design things that work for you. To me it’s not user experience, it’s really about the design of experiences that match to people,” Mona said.
“With design, we learn about right and wrong, black and white, and binary choices. A lot of my philosophy is around identifying when you’re thinking that way, and giving yourself a practice around finding something in the middle that takes the best of what you like — and gets rid of the stuff that you don’t. I really believe that the main barrier to that is fear. Whenever you feel like you’re getting a feeling, or you’re stuck, or you’re coming up against a decision, or a part of your life that you’re not happy with, just really try to design around it.”