Mona Patel of Gray Zones: “Lean on others”

Lean on others. “Build a strong support system because someone has likely gone through what you’re going through before.” Both my sisters-in-law are ophthalmologists with their own private practices, which is not as common these days, especially for women. They are exceptional at their crafts and believe in themselves. They both started right before COVID, […]

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Lean on others. “Build a strong support system because someone has likely gone through what you’re going through before.” Both my sisters-in-law are ophthalmologists with their own private practices, which is not as common these days, especially for women. They are exceptional at their crafts and believe in themselves. They both started right before COVID, so of course, they have some lows like most of us do, but they continue to plan and pivot and do what they can with the cards they are dealt.

Mona Patel is a creative glitter bomb — a pioneer in customer experience and design thinking and an expert with two books written about reframing the way you think. Companies like First Republic Bank, Nike, and PayPal hire her when they need to understand what their customers want. Her fascination with shifting perspectives led her to start Gray Zones, a social experiment + theater format that over 1000 people have joined, to inspire more generous listening and empathy of other people’s perspectives.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

In 2009, I started my first company, Motivate Design, which focuses on delivering insights about how to surprise and delight customers. I started it mainly because I had this skill, user experience research, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. There was no business plan — I registered the LLC as a mechanism to support some freelance projects while I searched for the perfect job. As I met with leaders of other organizations, I was humbled by how impressed they were with me, and it made me wonder why I didn’t share that same view of my potential. I saw entrepreneurship as a way to get over this limiting belief and put myself out there. Worst case, I would fail.

Fast forward 12 years and we’ve had some intense highs and lows. I changed my Linkedin status to freelancer and got my first few projects. I didn’t enjoy the details (still don’t!) and so I began hiring junior staff to support me. We have the honor of supporting brands such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, Merck, First Republic Bank, Capital One, Refinery29, PayPal in understanding what their customers need. Along the way, I trademarked three proprietary qualitative research techniques to help others see the value in my way of approaching research — spark a conversation, ask scary questions, and see what happens. This approach led to fast growth, and after a few years, we hit the Inc 5000 three years in a row. That time was a high for PR and what others saw, and a low for me, as I didn’t find much happiness during those years in running the company. We streamlined to a contractor-based model from a full-service agency after COVID, and the reduced cost structure relieved a ton of stress. Now, I’m having some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

Like Motivate, Gray Zones just … happened. I was passionate about some research findings we had about why women don’t report harassment and wanted to create a way to have people feel what it feels like to not know what to do next. We decided to launch our first show in March of 2020. You can probably guess how that turned out. We put the project on ice, and then I joined a Zoom call where a guy asked how I looked that good working from home. That interaction sparked the idea to create a play about harassment on Zoom. We launched our first virtual show in May. In the show, you watch the play and vote on whether you think harassment happened. Then you watch the same words performed by the same actors in a totally different tone and vote again. While we were putting on the show about sexual harassment, George Floyd was murdered. We felt compelled to create a second experience about racism. And then there was so much hate and division around the 2020 election, we created four more pieces about the complexities of love — polyamory, gaslighting, forgiveness, and compromise. The idea is to have an impact on people — to inspire them to reflect on where they might have an opportunity for more empathy and to be open to learning about a point of view very different from the one they had before the show.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I was reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and one of my explorations was to write a play. I had never written one before, and it felt interesting and fun. Once it was written (well, co-written, I brought in some expert help) it inspired me to put on a show. I had no background or knowledge in putting on shows or writing plays, but I figured why not. (Worst case, I would fail.) Again, I brought in help and it started to feel like a company. The Aha moment was more about doing things I find interesting and seeing if others enjoy it. I enjoy research — when presented in a compelling way, it shifts perspectives and broadens our understanding of important topics, topics that some are very angry about these days.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

There are so many types of entrepreneurs. I was not born an operations-driven entrepreneur, meaning one who knows how to scale and grow companies. I’ve had to learn those skills, and honestly, I don’t enjoy it and am not good at it. I was born, perhaps, with a strong ability to empathize, lead, and inspire. I find those things easy and have gotten feedback that leads me to believe I am good at it. I’ve gotten better at these by reading, practicing, messing up, and picking myself up again, so again, I would say at most 49% natural ability and inclination, but most would be working hard to learn how to do it well.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

In my book, Reframe, I tell the story about how my younger brother, Chirag, encouraged me to start my first business. (He is a natural-born entrepreneur — it’s all he’s done and he seems wired for it.) My husband, another entrepreneur, also was a catalyst. He told me he would own my business, pay me a salary, and keep the profits. Again, I saw that all these people believed I could do it, so why wouldn’t I at least try? That’s how the journey began — not with a brilliant idea or a great product, but rather a desire to see what I was made of in a field I’m very passionate about.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

For Motivate Design, the way we approach research is a bit more bold, practical, and efficient than most traditional firms, and I think speaking honestly about what needs to be done leads us to have the clients we have. One of the first projects was for a financial institution that created an app to help people stress test their stock portfolios with different scenarios. It was confusing, laid out poorly, and overdesigned with features. We told them that, just like that. They had been circling for weeks, and having someone come in and definitively state what was not good based on past research and then sit with them for hours to whiteboard what could be better was exactly what they needed. When they brought it to other agencies, they were pitched month-long engagements. We had the problem solved in that same week. Other times, it’s a scenario where research is exactly what they need. For one project, they had been working with an agency that came up with a campaign to encourage gun owners to put their guns away at home to help solve the number of deaths that happen in homes with guns. It was not resonating. Our research showed why it wasn’t working: gun owners trust their kids, who they trained personally, to not touch a gun. So telling them to put it away a) made no sense to them and b) implied their kids weren’t trustworthy. Our recommendation was to do a campaign focused on how kids are naturally curious and rebellious and how to talk to them about danger, as sometimes the danger is enticing. Moving the focus from their kids to all kids is the kind of insight that makes us stand out.

For Gray Zones, no one has done a “focus group meets theater” experience, so we stand out because our offering is unique.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Storytelling — the ability to communicate with equal parts directness and empathy is something I feel I do well. People usually feel seen, heard, and understood, and that helps me maintain rapport and leave a positive impression. People trust me to advise them on a solution that will actually help them. Most of my “sales” presentations are conversations where I give 100% of the ideas I have and trust that if they appreciate it, they will invite us to do more work with them. That strategy has closed millions in revenue at Motivate.

Driven — When I feel strongly about something, I’m unstoppable. Usually, that’s a good thing. For Gray Zones, we felt a need to create an experience about racism after George Floyd was murdered. Once the idea was in my head, I just had to do it. We simplified the concept, used our network to find actors, and launched it within a week. This, “I will find a way” energy has served me well, but the trick for me has been to be wise about when I kick it into gear, or I burn out.

Ideation — In my book, Reframe, I outline the strategy I used to build my ideation muscle, which is essentially to do 3 rounds of asking “What If?” for 3 minutes each. Having done this for years, I feel confident in situations where I don’t have all the answers because I know we can always come up with one that is a good next step (even if all we do is learn why that wasn’t the right step later.) People say there are a million ideas, but I’ve been in a lot of rooms where that hasn’t been the case, and having an idea and presenting it well, has been the key in moving a project forward.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

“Things will work themselves out.”

Indecision is like a drug at times. Entrepreneurship during tougher times requires tough decisions. Decisions that mean an employee may not get a promotion they deserve or keep their job at all because you can’t afford it. Decisions that mean a great idea doesn’t get funded, or an idea that held so much promise has to be killed. It requires focusing on things we don’t like or aren’t good at. It’s the annoying and ugly part of this work, and so not doing something feels pretty good.

In a way, things do work out however they are going to work out, but I’ve learned that I have to be an active, willing, and engaged partner to that fate-based thinking. I make sure I’m not avoiding the decisions that are hard to make so that I can keep things moving forward.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

For us, this often comes down to tracking hours, making sure people have a variety of projects and get both works they know how to do and work that encourages them to stretch and grow. Checking in with staff and having honest, direct conversations are also key.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

We have to put ourselves out there. Pick a social media platform you enjoy — podcasts or Clubhouse for audio enthusiasts, TikTok or Instagram or Facebook for others — and show people what you know by helping them. Solving problems, giving advice, being real, sharing mistakes, revealing the details of stories that are embarrassing — they all help different types of people at different times.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

There’s a conversion path to sales, and trust almost always is a critical factor along that path. If people don’t trust you, they probably won’t buy from you (or won’t buy from you once they have competition). Focusing on a relationship where your customers feel respected and taken care of has always been important in my line of work.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

They don’t have a plan (See above.) — In retrospect, I got lucky and wouldn’t try that strategy again. Think through how to make money consistently and have people shoot holes in your logic and assumptions early.

They think things will go per their plan — they rarely do. Plans are guidelines, and knowing when to follow the plan and when to deviate is a skill we need to develop as early as we can.

They trust people completely. — Some employees and/or partners are great, others will make you want to quit and move to Bali. Hiring slowly and firing quickly is a lesson I learned the hard way.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

I can only compare my experience in both roles. When I had a job, if things didn’t go well, I could blame a lot of things — my boss, the red tape, the politics. Some of it was true, and some was an excuse. In this role, if there’s a fault to assign, it falls on me. That felt overwhelming at first until I realized that there’s really nothing I can do about that — taking responsibility for the outcome comes with the job description.

One thought I have with this question is thinking about how we define High and Low. Winning a project, having cash in the bank — all of these are great highs. But if I do this job for the highs, I’ll just spend all my time chasing those highs and expecting that will make me happy. Same for the lows — what is a low? When things don’t go my way or my life is hard? Well, that will happen. And with things like pandemics and racism all around us, they are happening a lot. We will always have moments, but this interview is helping me realize that maybe not labeling them as a dramatic high or low might help me stay more clear-minded about what needs to be done to solve for the low or celebrate the high and then get back to work.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Gray Zones has me feeling very high recently. Some days I can’t sleep because I’m so excited about a new concept or lines from a play start coming to me. Feeling fully in that creative flow, where I feel like I’m doing something that will raise awareness and empathy and/or provide people with a new way of learning is so fun for me. I feel fulfilled, motivated, inspired and like sparks are flying. I feel high on my work, and that is a great feeling that I am chasing more of right now.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

I was sued by a troll — someone who makes money by trapping people and then uses loopholes in the legal system to win. I’m legally not allowed to disclose details but it was frustrating, hurtful, and left me with a scar that reminds me that although I wish everyone was good, some aren’t.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

I got a lesson in attitude — it’s easy to have a positive attitude when things are going well. But when they weren’t, it was interesting how quick I was to choose anger or blame or even a bit of shame in being so stupid versus just let it be. It happened, it sucked, and I could choose to focus on all the reasons why it wasn’t fair or move on. Choosing to see the crappy situation as a crappy situation and pick myself up and move on anyway on is how I bounced back.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Given my background in research, I couldn’t help but crowdsource these answers from my family, where almost everyone is an entrepreneur who has had many highs and lows over the past years. There were some overlaps and themes, so here’s a summary of what I heard:

  1. Mindset. Almost everyone had advice around this — staying calm, staying focused, and reminding ourselves that we can do it. It was beautiful to discuss actually, because even the strongest of us have felt weak at times, and sharing helped us remember how important it is to share when we are down.
  2. Lean on others. “Build a strong support system because someone has likely gone through what you’re going through before.” Both my sisters-in-law are ophthalmologists with their own private practices, which is not as common these days, especially for women. They are exceptional at their crafts and believe in themselves. They both started right before COVID, so of course, they have some lows like most of us do, but they continue to plan and pivot and do what they can with the cards they are dealt.
  3. “Control your emotions.” This one comes from my father, who came to the United States with the infamous 8 dollars and built a name for himself as a surgeon in the DC area. He’s had his own practice for over 40 years and opened a sleep apnea center with my brother, who runs it with him. Family businesses have more emotion than most, so being able to sense when you’re being driven by logic versus emotions is key — whether it’s pride or being too focused on winning during the highs, or self-doubt, depression, and anxiety in the lows. Funny enough, my brother had a similar answer, “don’t let emotions, either positive or negative, guide your decisions. Like a pendulum swinging, make decisions once you are back to neutral.”
  4. My husband and his father also started a business together, and their answers were the same too, despite being in a business where they haven’t quite gotten any highs (or they were short-lived if they happened). They had such a hard time out of the gate, and it took years for them to make their first dollar. Years. We kept putting money into the business with no return. Most would have quit. They kept at it, and their advice is to trust everything was happening for a reason, especially when things were low. Now they see that all that experience gives them a bit of an invincible cloak now. There’s nothing they haven’t dealt with. They are resolute, determined and focused, and have data to prove they can get through anything. They are the definition of resilient.
  5. I alluded to my low already — I spent years building something that I didn’t want to build, and only realized it after I built it. I was focused on other people’s definition of success — revenue, number of employees, types of clients, number of awards…and I didn’t notice how silly that was until I got there. The low was one of self-doubt and frustration. I didn’t know what to do next. I felt lost, trapped, and alone. Employees could quit, but I had to stay because it was my company. It was at this time that I met my business partner, Peter. What a gift he turned out to be. He helped me assess, reset, focus, try, try again, try a third time, and all with the support and expertise I needed to have to feel like we could do it. He believed in me, and similar to how Motivate started, was able to help me build it up again. He also freed me up to create Gray Zones. So my lesson in all of this is to remember that highs are subjective and to be sure that I know what I want and why I want it so that when I have it, I can enjoy the high. Similarly, lows are temporary, so as quickly as I can, turn on the logic side of my mind and start trying new things.

I’m a part of a peer group (Entrepreneur’s Organization) and my forum had some practical answers as well:

  1. Cash. You can buy your way out of a low sometimes if you have the funds to do so.
  2. Cannabis or a great glass of wine — nothing in excess but many get help in taking the edge off when things feel overwhelming
  3. Exercise of any sort, especially in the morning.
  4. Meditation and a gratitude practice.
  5. A stable family life that helps remind you of why you do what you do.
  6. Clarity and conviction around a vision, strategy, and plan.
  7. Books and resources to dive into and learn more.
  8. A peer group to bounce ideas off of and be honest with so they can help support you through the transition

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

The ability to bounce back quickly. Everyone has a bad day. One bad day can’t go into the next one though. Sulk, scream, cry, yell, and then wake up ready to change things or move on.

Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Some days are not easy. Some years are not easy. But when I take giving up off the table, the rest is about how I navigate the discomfort (perhaps reflecting on why I’m uncomfortable in the first place) and then deciding to trudge through the metaphorical mud and achieve what I set out to achieve builds my resilience.

Speak my truth — I don’t do well when I bottle up my feelings, so being able to identify and articulate them makes them less scary, especially when the feelings are anger, frustration, resentment, shame, or guilt. The quicker I can do this, the more resilient I feel because I remember that I’ve had these feelings before, and these feelings pass.

My business partner, Peter, and I talk about one more — things won’t always go the way we want them to. We are lucky, privileged actually, to be where we are, and sometimes hard work and luck work out for us, and sometimes they don’t. Not being tied to the outcome and focusing on doing what we can, when we can, and knowing why it matters all help. It feels awful when things don’t work out. But maybe they weren’t supposed to work out that way and there’s a reason we can’t see quite yet. Believing that helps us stay resilient as a team.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

I remember the first time I lost a dance competition. I was close to hyperventilating I was so upset. I was also 6, but still, I took the loss so hard. I tied all my self-worth to someone else’s opinion of how I performed something I loved to perform. It would take another three decades for me to process it completely, and now reminding myself that literally, nothing changed in my life as a result of that loss other than the meaning I decided to apply to it has helped me understand what resilience means. Things will not always work out, I can pout and sulk, or I can…not. The latter is resilience.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

I am usually positive, but sometimes that can be problematic too because again, we have to look at the reality of what’s happening. My business partner, Peter, refers to it as optimistic — lead with optimism but also be sure there’s some basis for that optimism — trends, data, or a really good guess paired with a plan for frequent review and iteration.

Meditation helps me keep calm during difficult situations, and not labeling them as difficult also helps.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Positive energy is inspiring, and negative energy is draining. Positive people also attract more positive people, and that’s more enjoyable. I am fascinated with Abraham Hicks and the law of attraction and truly believe that being aligned to a goal that is in service of a greater good and feeling positive about achieving that goal attracts the client and teams I’ve led. I’ve had clients share that they choose us because of our attitude and energy, even though our price point was higher. And with Gray Zones, I’m selling an idea, so my ability to convince someone that I have enough experience to guide this to completion having never done it before is all about my attitude.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

Given the topic of this interview, the first one that comes to mind is by the amazing Maya Angelou: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

How can our readers further follow you online?

@monakpatel on Instagram or

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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