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Monika Kochhar is the CEO and Co-founder of SmartGift. She has launched, grew and led startups that transformed music, payments and commerce, and redefined customer experiences. Monika previously worked in finance in derivatives trading, selling and emerging markets for JP Morgan, BNP Paribas and Goldman Sachs. Monika attended Mount Holyoke College and the London School of Economics. In addition, she is an avid writer and speaker on payments, commerce, tech philosophy and women in entrepreneurship. She grew up in India and lives in NYC.
Where did the idea for SmartGift come from?
Several years ago, one of my closest friends was finishing her Ph.D. On the day she defended her thesis—after many sleepless nights and years of tireless effort researching and preparing for this moment—I was across the country. When she texted me letting me know that she was finally a doctor, I wanted to send her a gift right away—to share in her joy and celebrate with her at that moment. That’s when we looked at the market and saw that it was very stale. The on-demand gifting space needed a digital and customer experience transformation. It needed to get smarter—way smarter.
Gifting is one of the most time-honored human exchanges. It is a person-to-person bond, a relationship in the making or breaking. When the idea for SmartGift was born, there were deep and copious amounts of data insights waiting to be unearthed and put to good use to create meaning, happiness, better outcomes for all. To share the appropriate recognition at the right time for the right person has always been our mission.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I start my day around 6:15 a.m. and before I do anything else…before I pick up my phone or answer a single email, I meditate and have done so every day for the last year and a half. When the pandemic turned the world upside down, my safe harbor was in the stillness of meditation. It sets the stage for my entire day. When I’m ready to start my workday, I write lists to prioritize based on importance and impact what needs to get done and then get on with it. In the afternoon or early evening, I make sure to get fresh air and get outside or do power yoga for 30 min to re-energize and get back to optimal focus.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I find that if I sit and noodle on an idea long enough from every possible angle, it will eventually come to life. I believe that the best ideas already exist within us and when we give space to wonder and ponder what could be, they come out naturally. My daily meditation practice has helped me create space to generate new ideas.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Right now, I am keenly interested in the democratization of innovation. Historically in technology innovation, we think in terms of silos (fintech, crypto, e-commerce, etc). However, it has never been easier to participate in innovation today and to be at the leading edge of creating new experiences and technologies. The barriers to entry are much lower and there is more equal access to a lot of the tools needed for tech innovation. One just needs the desire and willingness to expand their thinking on a particular subject.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I have mastered the ability to take a micro nap anywhere and at any time. I can sleep for 10 minutes and wake up completely refreshed and recharged.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Oh, that’s a great question! I was an anxious kid always striving for perfectionism, determined to be successful—whatever that really means. I would tell my younger self don’t be anxious, believe in yourself and you’ll do great things! Don’t compare yourself, follow your journey and your passion. The rest will flow.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
That when we go to sleep at night, we are all collectively going into a vibrational state of the highest awareness, and from that, we are building new worlds, new consciousness, etc.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Read all kinds of books, from business to poetry. I read books from all genres, from sci-fi to historical fiction to nonfiction to scientific journals. I am a big sci-fi junkie and if I hadn’t become an entrepreneur, I would have liked to be a science fiction author. There are very few women in that genre, but I love Ursula K. Le Guin. Interdisciplinary thinking is critical to seeing and solving problems from multiple domains. Nothing operates in isolation.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Listening to our customers. We have built SmartGift and Hero from the ground up by solving our customers’ pain points and then making the solutions better and better. There is a tendency to build a platform and say, “here use this.” but the right approach is to listen, build, test, iterate, listen, and continue to innovate. We avoid thinking that our product is ever ‘done.’ Keep building more.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
After many years as an entrepreneur working diligently to see SmartGift succeed, I’ve decided that there is no such thing as failure, either you win or you learn.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I think it would be really cool to have an annual subscription box for 2nd generation immigrant kids on their native holidays etc. For example, Diwali. It’s hard for me to help my daughter understand the entirety of Diwali the way I knew it growing up in India. She was born and is being brought up here in the United States. Imagine a box for Diwali, Kwanzaa, Chinese New year, filled with stories of the festivals, mythologies, tiny arts and crafts to get them acquainted with these holidays. That would be great. I’d call it The Globe but it’s a box (no pun intended).
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
This is a true story: a man in his mid-50s walked up to me and asked for money. He had such great energy, he was smiling and pleasant. I normally don’t carry any cash and had just changed my handbag that afternoon. When I told him that I didn’t have change and I was late for a meeting, he didn’t get upset and asked, “Can you help me find some or get me lunch? I can walk with you in the same direction to the nearest cafe on the way.” I’m not sure what compelled me, but I opened my bag to see if I had any change. I found in the side pocket, a crisp $100 bill. I said to him, “I think this is yours.” and gave it to him. He looked shocked, in utter disbelief, and said, “You don’t know what you’ve done today.” That satisfaction—seeing the gratitude in his eyes—was simply beautiful.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Slack is a great productivity tool. We use it to connect with our team and clients in real-time. Each channel with its custom features allows the team to work efficiently especially in this new hybrid work world. It’s great.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Growth by Vaclav Smil. Smil takes readers from bacterial invasions through animal metabolisms to megacities and the global economy. Growth has been both an unspoken and an explicit aim of our individual and collective striving. And he puts it all into terrific perspective.
What is your favorite quote?
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known – Carl Sagan
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