Women in Business: Monika Kochhar, Founder and CEO of SmartGift
Monika is responsible for corporate leadership, product and advancing the company’s mission of becoming the standard in gifting for brands and retailers. Prior to SmartGift, Monika advised winning e-commerce start-ups into strong exits and spent over a decade on Wall Street trading and structuring investment opportunities. She regularly speaks at events and conferences on e-commerce, technology, and woman entrepreneurship. Monika graduated magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke College and London School of Economics.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in India during the 80s and 90s, where daily life revolved around making do with available resources. My environment constantly pushed me to innovate and improvise while bringing out my natural creative and competitive spirit. Leadership is largely about adaptability, and I learned from an early age that change, while often uncomfortable, is a necessary force that fosters personal and professional growth.
My parents worked for the Indian government, and every couple of years, we would pick up and temporarily settle in a new country. Becoming accustomed to new cultures on a regular basis taught me how to adapt and embrace change. What seemed disruptive and annoying as a child ended up becoming the biggest blessing. Learning to be flexible and how to collaborate with others to overcome obstacles was instrumental in shaping my philosophy for leadership and life.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at SmartGift?
I spent nearly a decade on Wall Street structuring investment opportunities in emerging markets. The trading floor is a fast paced environment where people make serious split second decisions. I quickly learned how to extrapolate information, sift through noise, ask smart questions and seize opportunities. Working in emerging markets was a solid prelude for entrepreneurship, as there are many parallels when it comes to opportunities and risks.
Before founding SmartGift, I was also a part of a successful music ecommerce company that was acquired in 2011. This gave me a front row seat to the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship. Gaining a solid grasp of all the moving parts required to start and build a flourishing business helped tremendously when I decided to make SmartGift a reality.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SmartGift?
SmartGift has grown rapidly over the last 18 months since we launched the business. One of the biggest highlights for us has been the overwhelmingly positive reception of our product and business from our clients, partners, the media and everyone we introduce SmartGift to. It is an exciting time to be in ecommerce right now, and we have been fortunate to become part of many smaller tightly knit communities in the space, while also gaining respect as a speaker and industry expert on gifting.
Every business has its challenges, and ours is no exception. Because ecommerce is such a fast moving industry, we must always stay on our toes to keep up with the new technologies and ecommerce platforms, all while working to manage the daily requirements of running a business.
What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Be focused and persevere. To succeed, one must be attuned to opportunities and not afraid to take bold risks. Never rest on your laurels. Even when things are stellar, you should always seek to know why things are going great and never taking anything for granted. It is important to understand the value of every dollar spent and analyze every data point to better understand your customer’s needs and wants.
Being your own boss requires a tremendous amount of discipline. The ability to multitask runs thick in every entrepreneur’s blood, given how much we juggle every day. When you work for someone else, a slow day can be refreshing, but when you work on your own business, a slow day is the worst thing. It often means you are not working hard enough. That said, you must also enjoy what you do. If you are constantly miserable, you should evaluate the reasons you decided to become an entrepreneur, as well as the type of business you started.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
Building the right team and surrounding yourself with positive people is paramount to success in any business. Even as a leader, being part of a team means listening, taking advice and collaborating to achieve goals and navigate obstacles. The overall attitude of those around you can make or break a business. Positivity doesn’t mean being naive or looking the other way when things go wrong or get tough. It means working together to find the best solution to a problem and always moving forward with the confidence that success can be achieved by leveraging the diverse strengths of everyone on the team.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Maintaining a good work life balance takes on a whole new meaning when your cofounder is your husband! We discuss work at any time of the day or night, and the best ideas often spring forth from these spontaneous conversations. It is hard to stop engaging in something that you are so passionate about and vested in.
Entrepreneurs do often end up ‘married’ to their co-founder or business partner, given how much time is spent working together. So, I am just really glad and fortunate that I’m actually married to mine! Work life balance is really a personal thing, and my priorities are spending evenings with our daughter. I can always go back to work when she is in bed, and having that flexibility is nice. We also make sure to set aside plenty of time for family and friends during the weekends.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I have the good fortune of knowing some extremely talented and brilliant women. A common thread that has come up about our early careers was having confidence to speak out and ask questions. Studies show that when a woman has the same amount of knowledge on a subject as a man, she is still less likely to speak up. My career environments of finance and technology have traditionally been male dominated. In the early days, I had to constantly push myself to raise my hand, sit at the board table and assert my opinions. It took time for this to become a natural reflex.
I did my undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, which is an all women’s school. Having attended all-girls schools for most of my life, I must say that they are exceptional in bringing the best out of women, and the relationships women foster with each other last a lifetime!
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentors are fantastic sounding boards and advisors who provide outside perspective when you are in the thick of it all. Good mentors have the uncanny ability to cut to the bone of a matter and serve it back to you in edible form—even when it is hard to swallow. I believe anyone can be a mentor. I meet exceptional people all the time who provide help and guidance for many facets of my life. I have mentors among my old professors, bosses, colleagues, fellow industry experts, family and friends. I can always tap into their various and unique strengths depending on the issue.
On the flipside, it has been particularly fulfilling to be a mentor myself to women in technology and business. Mentoring others is a great way to give back and pass along a lot of the wisdom and advice so many have shared with me over the years.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
My admiration of female leaders really begins with my mother. She earned her doctorate in biochemistry in 1970s India, a very male dominated field—especially back then. Thereafter, she led a fulfilling international career with 50+ patents under her name. My mother always pushed me to think outside of traditional gender roles and took me to her lab when I was very young.
Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal of Mathematics has always inspired me. She took down the last male bastion with that accomplishment and describes the language of mathematics as full of beauty and elegance. Another female leader that amazes me with all she does is Sheryl Sandberg. Her credentials and far-flung influence in the business world speak for themselves. Multitasking is a pure understatement with all of the boards she sits on, all while being an accomplished executive, author, speaker, mother and role model.
Malala Yousofzai’s complete audacity for promoting education for girls in Swat Valley under life threatening conditions at the tender age of 12 and her relentless work since is truly inspiring.
What do you want SmartGift to accomplish in the next year?
The current shifting landscape of gifting in ecommerce presents us with ample opportunities over the coming months. While during the past year, we have added a nice number of clients; our main objective for 2015 will be to connect more brands and retailers to our gifting platform, including some big household names that are well known ecommerce innovators. We thrive off of setting ambitious goals and by this time next year, we want SmartGift to be synonymous with e-gifting!
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