Mona Patel of Gray Zones: “My goal is to have a personal impact on people so that they shift the way they think”

My goal is to have a personal impact on people so that they shift the way they think. After the sexual harassment show, one woman called me and told me she was dropping a lawsuit against a former colleague after realizing that what she felt happened may not have been what actually happened. The racism […]

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My goal is to have a personal impact on people so that they shift the way they think. After the sexual harassment show, one woman called me and told me she was dropping a lawsuit against a former colleague after realizing that what she felt happened may not have been what actually happened. The racism show helped many people finally understand why phrases like, “I don’t see color” can be hurtful. After our first showing of this current film, What We Want, a friend called me and said she now saw how her boyfriend sees her sometimes, as needy and demanding, and is working to listen more to his point of view.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mona Patel.

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 doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

Thank you for having me! My fascination with human behavior and psychology started in college. I scored an internship at NASA, where my job was to improve the amount of communication by changing the space design in the Hubble control room. But, when I asked the scientist what they found problematic, they said “nothing.” I ended up observing that they wasted hours each day sharing papers back and forth. So I created a digital shared projected board — a simple solution to a problem people didn’t know they had. That marked the first of hundreds of client engagements, ranging from financial services brands to pharma to retail, to help them see beyond their current perspective.

In 2009, I started a user experience research and design agency, Motivate Design, which focuses on delivering insights about how to surprise and delight customers. The way I approach research is a bit more brazen, practical, and faster (I don’t have a lot of patience!) than most traditional firms, and I think speaking honestly about what I felt needed to be done led me to 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.

We hit the Inc 5000 fastest-growing privately held companies three years in a row, which felt great. but also very empty. That phase marked a time of reflection for me in really figuring out what I’m here to do. I love to create and explore and inspire and provoke, yet my time was spent managing people and a P&L. I brought on an incredible business partner, and for the past few years, have shifted my focus back to being creative.

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. I was reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and it inspired me to put on a show. I had no background or knowledge whatsoever in putting on shows or writing plays, but I figured why not. Worst case, I would fail.

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 a Zoom call where harassment happens, and we spun our original story and 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.

Filmmaking brings together my love of storytelling and reframing people, all powered by research I know is compelling and interesting. 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.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

The pivot from planning to do an in-person show to a remote show was interesting and very fortuitous. I didn’t know how to run a show so I didn’t have much to unlearn. I did, however, know how to run an online focus group, so I used that as my base and used the play as the stimulus for the conversation I wanted to have. The logistics of doing a live play freaked me out, so I had to record it. Without knowing it, I became a filmmaker, creating films to spark the conversations, debates, and ultimately the increased empathy that I want to inspire.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Everyone is interesting, which is why I love studying humans so much. Anne Hamburger of En Garde Arts is an inspiration for where creativity can take a person’s career. Judson Jones from Theater East revealed how to open my heart by telling compelling stories. Bobby Marsden can see incredible camera angles in his dreams and showed me what pure talent looks like. Just being around Jennie Willink humbles me and reminds me of how the universe is watching out for me — we were actually introduced by my real estate agent when I was looking for live theater locations last winter and her mentorship has shaped so much of where we are and where we will go. Samantha wrote the original Office Hours, on which we based the sexual harassment play, and she teaches me so much about the power of one word each time we interact. And then there’s Jarrod Allan, formerly my executive assistant and now very much the person I listen to most. I still remember the day I called him up and said, “this is why you were brought into my life.” I pitched the idea of Gray Zones (then called Motivate Impact) and he’s been supportive of all the changes from in-person to online to seeing the power in the voting and live discussion before I did. He’s been the key to making these experiences happen. Gray Zones would have never been created without him.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

The current show is about attachment vs. attraction and what you see when you watch a story of two people who meet on a dating app unfold. I’m still helping people uncover biases and see the value in having other people’s points of view, but this time it’s a more personal conversation about healthy and unhealthy relationships and if we know how to differentiate them early. So far, it doesn’t seem like we do. This show has three parts — the first about attachment, the second about trauma, and the third about decisions. I don’t know the answer to the questions I ask the audience, which is why I find it so fascinating.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

The first person that comes to mind is Mother Teresa. Often thought of as the kindest person, Indians are often split about whether she was “good for India” and, as you may have picked up, I love a good debate. Since I studied them in the 4th grade, Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller are also inspirations; one reminds me to follow my heart and do what needs to be done and the other reminds me that if I don’t see something as an obstacle, it’s not one. B.F. Skinner taught me that humans are conditioned animals, and can be conditioned to have different responses to the same stimuli if the reward and punishment ratio and frequency are right.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

My goal is to have a personal impact on people so that they shift the way they think. After the sexual harassment show, one woman called me and told me she was dropping a lawsuit against a former colleague after realizing that what she felt happened may not have been what actually happened. The racism show helped many people finally understand why phrases like, “I don’t see color” can be hurtful. After our first showing of this current film, What We Want, a friend called me and said she now saw how her boyfriend sees her sometimes, as needy and demanding, and is working to listen more to his point of view.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

In October 2019, I got hypnotized by Narda Mohammed. I met her at a networking event and we instantly clicked. I hired her to help me see what I was here to do — where would I be most in service. I was sick of feeling confused and lost and had tried the journaling and coaching and workshops. I needed something different.

In the session, a lot of things unfolded, and one of them was a vision of being backstage during a performance and feeling this huge swell of pride for what had just happened. I was wearing my TEDx red dress, had a clipboard and an earpiece, so this time, I wasn’t the main character on stage presenting but rather the choreographer of the experience. As I peered into the live audience, I saw people crying and my heart swelled. The message was to focus on sharing stories and use my expertise in reframing to help people heal and feel less hatred, isolation, and loneliness. Only recently did I remember that there was a film playing on stage right before, with some sort of live performance happening in front of it.

The vision in the hypnosis felt so real that I just had to do it. I didn’t necessarily step up and take action; I was pulled into action through a powerful vision and focused on doing the things that felt fun, interesting, and easy. The words flowed through me and before I knew it, mainly due to the support of the team, we had our piece ready for viewing.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Probably the person impacted most is a person who sexually harassed me. A colleague of mine called me and apologized for crossing the line when I was in my 20s after hearing one of the things he said performed in the show. I had already forgiven him for it, but it was powerful for me to experience him seeing his actions from a different lens for the first time because of the work that we created.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Easier, simpler access to money is our number one need. We need money to pay for producing the stories we want to tell. Many would enter the filmmaking field with grants, loans, donations, and/or sponsorships, but like me, they may not have the time, know-how, or resources to apply for those. With that, I would be able to hire people and produce more experiences on a variety of topics, many of which can be co-created with the sponsors themselves.

If my connections as a “successful” entrepreneur aren’t enough, imagine people who don’t have that. I don’t have the right connections yet, and this field, like many, seems to operate based on who you know and what they can gain by helping you.

I’ll say it this way, if I had a $2M grant or sponsorship, I would employ 10 people on the spot and create a whole library of experiences for people to learn from. I know they exist; the system to access these funds could be designed better, with people like me in mind.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I started Gray Zones at the beginning of the pandemic, so there are many things I wish someone told me but we were all just figuring it out. I wanted to back these 5 points up with research, so I asked my kids what they noticed about where I struggled while I created Gray Zones. From the mouth of babes:

  1. “Chill out more.” (I’ll rephrase to “See resets as gifts.”) Apparently, I was a bit edgy in those early days and having moments to create plans, financial models, send emails, ask what others were doing — a lot of things were shifting at once and I needed to stay positive, clear, and trust that things were happening for a reason. I had my freakout moments, and in retrospect, those weren’t helpful. Things worked out better when I went with whatever I was dealt with rather than fighting it.
  2. “Less Guilt.” My kids mentioned that I kept asking them for quiet — both as a way to focus and also as a way to teach them about how to respectfully co-exist in small spaces. I asked and I felt guilty — I wish someone had told me that the creative process requires quiet and it’s fine to ask for it.
  3. “Lean on the team.” They saw how many people were needed to produce Gray Zones — producer, editor, actors, social media person to spread the word, journalists to write about you. I had to trust that people would show up and get this vision and want to help.
  4. “Don’t be so picky.” I took weeks to pick a logo, went through 32 iterations of the script, and threw out 2 whole show concepts after developing them. They think it’s too much, but as I look back now I think it’s all just right and a part of the process of learning and growing and knowing what I want out there representing me.
  5. “Just help people.” You made shows about sexual harassment and racism and are actually doing something to make that stop. They’ve heard my screams of excitement when things work out, see my tears of frustration when they don’t, and just hearing that they noticed the impact I’m trying to have makes all the hard work worth it. I knew it would be hard; I didn’t know it would be this hard. But I’m ok with it. This work fuels me. And when it doesn’t, I’ll stop.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We need unique perspectives and voices, often those like mine who haven’t typically been represented, in the field of films and media to share stories that inspire people to shift their behavior. We have one earth. We are all human. We are born kind. Let’s use our voices to remind people that when feeling frustrated or angry, there is a way to reframe it so that we can move forward together. So be weird and let your unique perspective come through.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

In the storytelling space, it’s Shonda Rhimes, hands down. Her ability to capture and engage an audience is such an inspiration.

Within Social Impact, I’d love to partner with a large suicide prevention organization to create a Gray Zones about this topic, specifically for younger people. I don’t think we all know the signs or what to do if we see them, and it’s even more important now — According to NIMH, “Since the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread rapidly in March 2020, over 178,000 people have reported frequent suicidal ideation.” The Gray Zones format could make the signs clearer in an approachable way.

I’d also love to create a piece to bring more awareness to signs of online human trafficking — it’s happening more and more now and we need to know how to protect our kids. Funding and marketing partners to help me bring this show to life would be such a great gift.

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

Most people don’t really want the truth. They just want constant reassurance that what they believe is the truth. — Raghav

My mission as a researcher turned entrepreneur turned creative is to help people see how their truth blinds them from the truth, and how other people’s truths are just as valid and worthy of respect as our truths. We draw so many lines between us and them, and this division will only continue to hurt us.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram has the latest updates: @monakpatel or @grayzones

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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