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Jaya Rao of Molekule: “Laugh, laugh at yourself”

Laugh, laugh at yourself, and laugh at the situations you find yourself in. My grandparents were refugees in the 1947 partition of India. They had to leave behind their home and all of their possessions, but I never saw anyone in my life with as much joy and laughter as my grandmother. She never explicitly […]

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Laugh, laugh at yourself, and laugh at the situations you find yourself in. My grandparents were refugees in the 1947 partition of India. They had to leave behind their home and all of their possessions, but I never saw anyone in my life with as much joy and laughter as my grandmother. She never explicitly gave me advice, but growing up with her and watching her, I got the best advice of my life. Try to find laughter and joy in everything, especially the little things. Today in work and life, even when things get difficult, I try to laugh with our team members.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jaya Rao.

Jaya Rao is the co-founder and CEO of Molekule, where she has a passion for empowering today’s health-conscious consumer. Jaya co-founded Molekule alongside her brother and father to help bring clean air into everyone’s home — and beyond. Since inception, she has helped the company launch five products into a myriad of market verticals and countries, raised over 100 million dollars in venture capital, received FDA 510k Class II –clearance on the company’s medical-grade product, and donated hundreds of air purification products to those impacted by COVID-19 and the West Coast wildfires. In her spare time, she is a mentor to girls in STEM through a partnership with Black Girls CODE, and aids other minority founders through work with the Black and Brown Founders organization.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in Gainesville, Florida, at the heart of the University of Florida academic system. Being able to see cutting-edge science and research from a young age, laid the foundation for me to always believe in the power of innovation. It also helped me understand that challenging the status quo was OK and that through science, you can solve a lot of large-scale problems. That said, I was continually frustrated with the process in which academic innovation worked. I watched new technology be born every day, but it was rarely commercialized into a real world product. The university setting fosters research, but at times, can lack the ability to help bring products or concepts to fruition.

This exposure drove me to become a mechanical engineer by trade, but also got me asking questions of how to bring the innovation we see inside laboratories to life. During grad school at Stanford, I got my masters in both mechanical engineering and public policy. I was fascinated with the intersection of building innovation and the methods through which that could become a reality. While attending classes at the Stanford D School, I became accustomed to the concept of Human Centered Design and ensuring that what you’re building meets your customer on their own user journey. These experiences heavily influenced my decision to found Molekule and remain key principles in the organization today.

Since then, we’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with incredible partners who have helped us both fund the company and technology, and expand our reach. This includes work with the Florida High Tech Corridor Council’s Matching Grants Research Program, which connects high tech companies and university researchers to collaborate on applied research projects that can convert into U.S.-made technology and utility patents. It also includes our amazing venture partners including Crosslink Capital, RPS Ventures, Uncork Capital and Foundry Group, and international partners, like Sourcenext.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The air quality needs of today are challenging. Air is extremely complex and it requires a new type of technology to address it holistically. The original HEPA filter was invented in the 1940s to filter radioactive dust out of the air. Today, we are facing air quality challenges at an even more microscopic scale. This includes things like chemicals — or VOCs — viruses, bacteria, mold in the air. We fundamentally believe that these pollutants need to be broken down and destroyed in order to remove them from the air, which is what Molekule’s PECO technology does. We have made a fundamental shift in the way in which we look at cleaning the air, rather than just air filtration, we are looking at air purification with PECO technology.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was pregnant with my son while we were going through a lot of growing pains in the company and we were in the middle of a fundraising round. I ended up going into labor at a critical point in the process. While in the hospital in labor and once I had the epidural, I started making work phone calls to discuss things with my co-founder and brother about work. Everyone was shocked I was in labor and getting on the phone for work, but I didn’t feel a thing at that point and it was a good distraction. We laugh about it now and looking back it was part of the startup journey that is messy. You often don’t have enough resources and end up being the go-to on a lot of issues all while your personal life is also still happening. The biggest lesson learned in that process is to empower your team and don’t take everything on your own shoulders — ultimately that won’t allow for your business to scale anyways. Also remember that life happens and to enjoy things, as chaotic as they may be, in that moment. I still look back at the day my son was born and know that it was one of the most special days of my life, albeit a bit chaotic.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have had the honor of having some amazing teachers in my journey. One mentor who made a big impact on me was Banny Banerjee, my professor at Stanford, who I was first introduced to in his class on large scale systems transformation. As I was figuring out what I would do with my career, it was Banny who really got me to think outside the box and think more holistically about how to have a positive impact. When there is a deeply entrenched problem, recognize that the problem is often only the symptom of a much larger issue with the system creating the problem that needs to be changed. Your perspective really changes when you start to think like that. Instead of fighting against the current and seeing very little change happen, you look at how you can redirect the current in the right direction. This was part of the reason I ended up co-founding Molekule. It was to help show how you can take game-changing academic innovation and bring them into the world to create amazing products and services that can help solve large scale systemic issues.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

When industries and institutions become brittle to innovation and self-reflection, disruption is not just a positive, but often a necessity. Some industries, like the one we operate in, become so brittle that not only do they not innovate themselves, but they try to stifle anyone else from trying to innovate. HEPA filters were invented in the 1940s, but we have seen little innovation since then. We’ve seen this story play out time and time again, electric vehicles are a classic example. When innovation stops, we all lose. Technology can and should always evolve to become better.

Look at the environmental crises we are facing today. We need innovative technology to help solve the problems of our air, water and climate. The question really becomes, “Who is the industry protecting; its end-users or itself?”

Disruption in this context simply means allowing innovation to continue to build better solutions for all of us.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Laugh, laugh at yourself, and laugh at the situations you find yourself in. My grandparents were refugees in the 1947 partition of India. They had to leave behind their home and all of their possessions, but I never saw anyone in my life with as much joy and laughter as my grandmother. She never explicitly gave me advice, but growing up with her and watching her, I got the best advice of my life. Try to find laughter and joy in everything, especially the little things. Today in work and life, even when things get difficult, I try to laugh with our team members.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I think you will have to keep waiting and watching, as will I.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Team of Rivals by Dorris Kearns Goodwin. I read this book after watching the movie Lincoln and hearing that her book helped inspire the movie. If there ever was a great example of leadership, it would certainly be Abraham Lincoln. Reading the book, I was fascinated with how he made decisions, the mistakes he made and the way he evolved from those. There is so much of that book that has likely gotten into my subconscious and forms a lot how I think about hiring and bringing together the team of people I have at Molekule today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

‘This too shall pass’ — there are lots of ups and downs in life, but everything is transient. Rather than spend a lot of energy worrying about the future or lamenting the past, know that things will always evolve, and instead enjoy this time and moment.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Bet on women. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.

How can our readers follow you online?

@MolekuleAir on Twitter, IG and Facebook

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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