This article was originally published as a part of Maggie Greene Style’s Women In Business showcase.
Some of her closest friends call her “elegant yet foul” and she loves it. The phrase captures two truths about her personality: she presents well and can command a room. She’s also got a well-developed bullshit detector and isn’t easily offended.
She lives with a principle of learning by doing and she’s not afraid to quit (a job, a relationship, anything) if it’s not serving her well. She is a force.
Her name is Coonoor. In 2014, Coonoor founded Mindhatch, a company that specializes in helping organizations get business results from innovation and creativity by using Design Thinking, improvisation, and facilitation.
The business combines many things she loves – creativity and critical thinking – with innovation at the heart. She saw entrepreneurship as a way to bring her whole self to work and build a system based on merit. In this feature, Coonoor shares how she got there.
What Academia Doesn’t Tell You About Work
“The first time I ever had to contend or wrestle with the fact that I’m a woman is when I entered the workforce, when I got my first full-time job. Up until that point, junior high and high school, college, graduate school, in those academic environments, I was encouraged to be a leader. Rewarded for speaking up. Motivated to be smart.
“Two of the three valedictorians at my high school were women… I saw them being rewarded for taking on major goals and joining things and being a go-getter, being ambitious, and being outspoken. And I was as well.
“I got into the working world and it was like BOOM, nope, we don’t want that from you. It was a real mindfuck.”
“They wanted me to just fall in line. I felt it acutely at certain moments because I was a woman. Like the expectation that because I was a woman, and a brown woman, that I would be passive and submissive. I am NOT THAT.
“It felt like I was being wasted. I wasn’t being used in a productive way. That put an even finer point on the fact that I’m different and I’m going to be treated differently.
“I wanted autonomy so badly, to work like an adult and focus on the work instead of all the other stuff that pops up when you work for other people that doesn’t help you do good work. I wanted to see if I could support myself while ridding my life of the structures and artifice of the office: politics, bureaucracy, all those things that weren’t ‘my thing.’
“But I didn’t start a business to work alone. Collaboration is so important. So there’s this really interesting tension between wanting autonomy and having it, but then needing to find my own routes to collaboration. Thankfully, a lot of the methodologies that Mindhatch uses are inherently collaborative.
“The one word that describes why I left so many jobs and careers that I did is authenticity. They didn’t really want you to be yourself at work. They didn’t want you to bring all you could offer. They wanted automatons who just obey and do.
“I don’t know how to not be myself. It never seems like an option I should consider. I also really value justice and fairness. When I’m not treated that way, or I see others not being treated that way, it makes my blood boil.
“Honestly, I value change as well. I’m a big fan of productive, intentional change and was talking with someone on LinkedIn recently and said, “I never want to hear the words ‘This is the way we’ve always done it’ again ever in my life. That’s no excuse, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. My approach is more like, if it sucks fix it. People have a lot more agency and control in changing things than they give themselves credit for.”
Seeing the Impact: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Mindhatch recently launched a Diversity & Inclusion improv show called “White Privilege, Black Power.” Coonoor says she is proud of that because “we’re showing the power that improv can have and using that to equip organizations with the skills they need to drive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. Like adaptability, vulnerability, and humility, how you choose to react in moments of discomfort.” The show wasn’t her idea, which is something she says she’s also really proud of. “Two friends of mine, Greg and Eva, brought it to me and said they wanted to do it through Mindhatch exclusively. That was a kind of feather in my cap, it felt really good that they were entrusting me with something that they created.”
The moments in her career where she’s felt valued and respected are mostly small ones. She did some work with the Pentagon and describes seeing 4-star generals pick up the Koosh ball she’d put on the table during a facilitated session. A group of men in fatigues jumping around and laughing during an improv activity.
“Those moments when I’ve been delightfully surprised, when people have shown themselves to not deserve the assumptions I or anyone might have of them, those have been really proud moments,” Coonoor said.
Coonoor is excited about partnering with “traditional” Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultants and trainers. She says it enables her to start bigger conversations with clients around DEI. “I always tell them applying improv techniques or bringing in the White Privilege, Black Power show is a great kick start or supplement or complement to a more holistic intentional program around diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she said. The show has enabled her to act as a business development conduit for DEI professionals – “especially those of color, women of color who are doing great things in that space” as well.
Justice and fairness are key motivators for Coonoor in her work.
“I’m very much driven by my own experiences as a woman of color in the workplace and I just think, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’ So much of the work we do at Mindhatch helps companies to stop creating more me’s – talented, motivated, energetic people – who don’t want to be at your company. How can you keep people like me at your company?” Coonoor explained.
Other womxn of color Coonoor aspires to partner with
A Circuitous Journey
“The word I often use to describe my career trajectory is circuitous. It’s been nonlinear but in very good ways. From the time I was 3 years old until age 21, I thought I wanted to work in the entertainment industry as a producer, writer, primarily on the business side of entertainment. Through my college career I did internships in the entertainment field.
“Senior year of college came around and I realized I did not want to live in Los Angeles, like, ever. I didn’t want to own a car or have to own a car, and didn’t want to live in a single-industry town. That kick-started my first big career pivot. I ended up going to graduate school for what I considered my second passion, politics.
“I got a degree in international affairs and kept thinking I would work at nonprofits or NGOs for the rest of my life. I really thought I’d be a social do-gooder forever.”
“After graduate school, I got a job at an NGO in Washington DC, and it sucked. I realized there were a lot of cultural things going on that didn’t match up with my values and it didn’t really feel like I was truly having an impact.
“So then I went into the private sector, very intentionally. I wanted to get experience before I got pigeonholed in the nonprofit world. I went into management consulting at Deloitte. I wanted to learn and do innovation and learn and do the business side of things in the private sector. My ultimate goal was bringing those skills back to the social sector.
While at Deloitte working in innovation, Coonoor was doing improv after-hours. Deloitte started asking her to do improv workshops for client teams. She then became an internal facilitator for training sessions. Those were more tangential opportunities, though, and Coonoor realized she wanted to focus exclusively on those areas as her “bread and butter.”
She says a well-traveled “cosmopolitan” upbringing helped shape her interests in creativity and innovation.
“My mom grew up in New Delhi, my dad grew up in Nairobi, so from a very early age we were traveling over oceans to go visit family in those two places. I give a lot of credit to my dad for the non-family driven international trips: over Christmas break in 5th grade I remember we took a trip to Egypt. Travel was always a part of our lives. I always had the most interesting responses to ‘What did you do over the summer?’!”
“We were all born in different countries as well: my mom was born in India, my dad was born in Kenya, my brother was born in Canada, and I was born in America. Before my parents naturalized, I remember when we were traveling internationally and we always got these funny looks from customs agents. Four different people, four different passports.”
So much travel meant exposure to different cultures and diverse perspectives, which gave Coonoor a wide-open worldview. She loved exploring new things, and these experiences helped shape her fascination with creativity and different ways of being and working. “Looking back at my ‘unintentional biography,’ it all seems to make sense that I ended up where I am,” she said.
Coonoor reflects on how her work continues with clients even when they’re on their own. She described a recent client who reached out for her advice on building a more human-centered experience at an upcoming retreat event. This was after they’d done some design thinking work together the previous year.
“What I was able to teach them stuck. It made me feel that my role as an evangelist for what I do works. It wasn’t just a check-the-box kind of thing; they’re really being intentional about taking opportunities to use what they learned.
“Having the humility to reach out and say, ‘Hey, we need some help,” is also important – especially in doing Design Thinking work.”
“A lot of the work we do at Mindhatch is all about encouraging, helping, and giving people the tools to be authentic and be valued for it. To bring their whole selves to their work and be rewarded for it,” Coonoor said.
She also did some similar Design Thinking work with the YWCA.
“I was really proud of that because they’re a great organization. They have a pro-women sentiment, but also a really strong anti-racism sentiment to the work they do. It felt really good to serve a mission-oriented organization and how my expertise could help make their work better,” Coonoor said.
What the Future Holds
While she does not have children – she is childless by choice – Coonoor said she hopes it’s easier for people to have families in the future. “Children are literally investments for the country,” she said, and the challenge of managing family and work disproportionately impacts women, at least historically.
“I’d like to see more women in positions of influence and power, but I think it’s also about CHOICE. I not only hope they reach those positions of power, but that they realize once they’re there that they are unicorns – that they got there in spite of the system not because of the system, and that they remember that and try to change the system for others.”
Coonoor is preparing to think through what the future looks like for her business. When she’s ready, she will take a cue from her clients and ask for help. “I’m still skirting around it, trying to decide who I need to help – whether it’s one person or a team of people – guiding me through that process and the various decisions to make along the way,” she said.
She’s also in the process of writing a book. The working title is “I Quit! The Life-affirming Joy of Giving Up” and it’s rooted in her own experiences of quitting friendships, jobs and careers, and how they’ve always been positive for her.
“[The times I quit] have always been signs of progress toward what I wanted my life to be. They weren’t failures. They were productive and they represented to a great degree my own values and belief systems, what I was and wasn’t willing to put up with,” she said. “They symbolized the things I learned about myself. Those acts of quitting allowed me to find what I wanted so much faster than if I’d been the ‘stick it out to stick it out’ type.”
“When I started Mindhatch, I had a lot of A-list coffee chats with people in DC. It was common to share your career journey and basically recite your resume. When people would say “I left and then started at…” wanting to focus on what they’re doing now, and I found myself asking them to back up and tell me why they left. It was a great way to connect with people and learn about them. I liked hearing people’s quitting stories.
“My hope with the book is to destigmatize quitting but also to give people the confidence to make active choices. If that choice is to quit something or leave something behind, it’s still an active choice for progress.
When asked what advice or words of wisdom she might offer to someone in a shitty 9-5 that may be ready to take the leap into entrepreneurship, Coonoor said:
“It’s a risk if you do and it’s a risk if you don’t. Society has tricked us into thinking doing the thing, like quitting for example, is inherently riskier than not. But it isn’t. You can reframe it: if I stay at this shitty job that I hate, that’s also risky.
“Who’s to say it’s less risky than taking a chance?”