One thing that has made me extremely grateful during the COVID pandemic, is the strength of the community. This cannot be replaced. I have seen and experienced more human acts of kindness than I can count.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jaya Rao.
Jaya Rao, Co-Founder, and Co-CEO of Molekule, is an innovator with a passion for empowering today’s health-conscious consumers. After suffering from migraines and personally benefiting from Molekule’s technology, she co-founded Molekule alongside her brother and father to help bring clean air into everyone’s homes — and beyond.
Jaya previously worked as the public sector innovation lead with Stanford ChangeLabs, an initiative based out of the Stanford D-School. She received her M.S. in both Mechanical Engineering and Public Policy from Stanford University, and holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Florida, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude.
Thank you for joining us! Can you share your backstory and what brought you to your specific career path?
As cliche as it may sound, since childhood, I have loved to live in my imagination and explore the unexplored. That is what led me to study engineering in college and simultaneously public policy. It was how I felt my childhood ‘dreaming’ could be combined with a passion to make a positive impact. Of course, as I learned none of that came easily, the road to get here was full of setbacks. I still remember my high school teacher telling me that I didn’t “have an engineering mind”. For a long time I accepted that as a fact, but one day decided to take a small step into opening a physics book and giving it a shot. I joke with friends that it was that one comment from a teacher (who probably doesn’t even remember he said that) that got me to go all the way to Stanford to get a Master’s degree in engineering.
At the same time, I grew up in a house chalked full of science. My father is a renowned solar scientist and my mother is a chemist. I watched them invent and reinvent technology my entire life, including Molekule’s PECO technology, which my father developed over 20 years to help my brother. I saw the patient, frustrating, and at times, brilliant rigor of science, and learned early on that passion, while powerful, was no substitute for persistence, creativity and hard work.
As a young girl, I felt empowered to change the world. That is what science taught me at an early age. But I felt fundamentally that policy change was going to be my weapon. Female politicians were becoming more visible and I identified with their focus on public good — be it in health, education, transportation, or the environment.
Stanford and Silicon Valley were like rocket fuel for this ambition. The company you keep can definitely stretch your horizons and allow your dream to grow that much bigger. I saw the impact that science and business could have and dived headlong into the start-up world. This is not an area that is known to be female friendly, and like most female founders, I have seen and experienced things that remind me how much more progress is needed. But strong science, backed by a human-centric product and beautiful design is a force to be reckoned with, and despite many challenges and setbacks, we are now beginning to see real impact.
In my time running Molekule, I have been so impressed with what the team has achieved. We’ve planned, and re-planned, that’s the beauty of being a start-up- you’re nimble- but I’m proud to say we’ve raised nearly $100M in capital to build this organization. We have brought four products to market in three years. We have employed over 100 people globally. And most importantly we have served thousands upon thousands of customers, to work to bring them clean air. And we’re just getting started.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.
This book helped me a lot. Air purification is an area that desperately needs innovation, but many of the big companies are too rigid to innovate, so they just try and dominate instead. We actually had a competitor take a billboard out in front of our old office. They’ll try to crush you rather than compete with you. That’s their flaw and that’s how we will beat them. By being more agile, more determined, more innovative and simply making our products better in every way from innovation to design. We have what they have forgotten- hunger. A hunger to solve & crack the nut of truly clean air. I heard recently as a result of the pandemic that companies should ‘think like a start-up’. It’s so true. Don’t ever stop thinking like one, and don’t get so big that you can’t act like one.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Science has really come to the forefront of the news. For the past few years, there has been a lack of trust in science. Just look at the global warming debate. If anything has prevailed during this pandemic, it’s belief in science again. That’s encouraging.
- New technologies will prevail to move us forward. Pandemics have been called “evolutionary accelerators”. The research in every area from vaccine development, testing, contact tracing, remote working, etc. will propel many developments that could otherwise have taken years.
- We will Prioritize. I think the lockdown will help people prioritize what is important. Do I really need this? Do I have to go there? This will affect how we consume and hopefully cut significant waste.
- The community is stronger than ever. One thing that has made me extremely grateful during the COVID pandemic, is the strength of the community. This cannot be replaced. I have seen and experienced more human acts of kindness than I can count.
- We are adaptive. As Darwin said, the strong don’t survive, those who adapt do. And humans are the most adaptive of all. We will find a way to live with this and we will create a new normal as we have always done.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
- Get off the internet. News is tailored to you based on your search results, search history, buying patterns, and more. You can get saturated, over saturated even, with too much information. Take a break at least once a day. Or take a day a week where you put your phone away.
- Get on the internet. Contrary to the above, the internet can also bring great joy and stories. I recently got lost on an Instagram star’s handle @iamtabithabrown. It reminded me that there are people with an infectious spirit and joy ready to bring a smile to people’s faces. Other individuals really inspire me, like Eckhart Tolle. His YouTube videos constantly remind me of what really matters in life.
- This moment is all we have. We get caught up in either worrying about the future or the past. All of that is a story we tell ourselves, this moment is where life happens — this fact has made it easier to solve what I can now and let the other things go. (Harder said than done, but practice makes it more permanent).
- No judgment. There will be ups and downs, don’t forget to forgive yourself. You’re likely your toughest critic. We are also constantly judging others as well, our whole society stands to gain from us doing less of this right now — you never know who might be going through an extremely difficult time. Judging less will make us all happier and it will make you feel lighter too.
- Let some things go. A good friend shared this with me — a glass that is always full won’t have room for something new. Change is hard, but in my experience, it has also brought new life experiences that are all valuable — letting some things go will bring something new also.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” — Eleanor Roosevelt. I came across this quote in high school. While it stuck with me, I didn’t fully understand it until many years later. There is often a story that people tell themselves that someone smarter is probably right and their ideas don’t have a place in the conversation. I grew up with undiagnosed dyslexia, which often led me to thinking that my ideas weren’t good enough. The truth was that I just thought differently (as we all do). After enough times of seeing that everyone’s ideas can be equally fallible, I started voicing my thoughts more. I was the one who was holding myself back from speaking, my consent in the process allowed it to be so.
As a leader within Molekule, this has meant that I like to hear from all the voices around the table. People bringing their knowledge to the table is hugely powerful, you want to hear from them!
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’ve always said that if we at Molekule could solve global air pollution, we’d then move on to tackle water pollution. Our goal is to never stop innovating, not stop researching, and importantly, never stop bringing new, innovative, and novel ideas to that table. And solving these problems will help unleash human potential as we’ve never seen before.