This interview first appeared on CEO Blog Nation on February 16, 2015
A Love for Insight and Innovation Leads One Entrepreneur to Build a Business
Insight and innovation are two things an entrepreneur almost has to have in his or her arsenal. Having the ability to look deeper and understand problems and your organization is a key component to everything from fully supporting your team to understanding your customers. For Coonoor Behal, founder of Mindhatch, learning the value of insight and innovation gave her the leg up when it came to building her business. We were able to sit down with Coonoor and learn more about her varied background, why she started her business, and what makes DMV such a great place for entrepreneurs.
What is your background and what led you to start your business?
My background is pretty diverse. Some might say “all over the place,” but I’ve always relished variety and pursuing skills that can be used in inter-disciplinary fields. I find overspecialization in a career to be risky. I was a journalism major as an undergrad but worked a lot in film and television entertainment during that time. When I was deciding between graduate programs in international relations I purposely chose one that would allow me to take classes at any of the graduate departments. After graduate school, I moved to DC and started working in nonprofit international development, primarily on civil society capacity-building programs in South and Southeast Asia. During that time, I became enamored with the field of social entrepreneurship and observed that a lot of the people who were creating incredible social change happen had a business backgrounds. I decided that I needed to get some business acumen if I was also going to be in a change-minded field. That led me to become a consultant at Deloitte, which was a full-circle move because the reason it’s so hard to define what a consultant does is that every project, and perhaps even every day, is different. It was a great fit for my innate curiosity and thirst for variety. My passion for social innovation broadened in to a passion for corporate innovation as well and I was fortunate to do some great strategy and innovation work at Deloitte. It was while I was at Deloitte that I found my three passions that are now my business,Mindhatch: design thinking, organizational improv, and innovation facilitation. Looking back on it now, it makes total sense that I ultimately found my way to design thinking. Without knowing it, I was applying a design thinking approach to my career all along: getting as many varied experiences as I could so I could keep refining what it was I wanted. Each job was both research and a prototype.
Why did you start your business?
I wanted to do design thinking, organizational improv, and ideation-focused facilitation as my full-time job. There were great opportunities to practice these things at Deloitte – particularly during my time as a GovLab Innovation Fellow – but in the end it was going to be difficult to make it my 9-to-5 there. In the end, I started my business because I wanted to do those three things full-time and also decided that working with people instead of for people was going to make me happier in the long run. And let’s call a spade a spade: having autonomy over your schedule is fantastic!
How does improv play a role in business?
Wow, this is hard to answer succinctly because there is SO much in improv since it’s really about the human condition to put it in the most grandiose terms possible. Improvisers train to be good at a lot of skills that we might dismissively call “soft skills” in the business world: listening, empathy, collaboration, creativity, ideation, etc…A lot of it is training in emotional intelligence and adaptability so that you can co-create with others and create magic out of nothing. These skills are so appropriate to business because – and recent studies support this – it’s the soft skills that make for a great, valuable employee and yet we spend too many resources in organizations emphasizing “hard” skills. Studies are showing that you can take someone with great soft skills and, because they have those qualities, teach them nearly anything. But someone that comes with only the hard skills? It’s much harder to train them up in the soft skills once they are on your payroll. Hard skills are cheap; it’s the intangibles that create real, lasting value. Improv is also a great method to learn other professional skills like leadership or customer service because it is inherently experiential and therefore more memorable. So often in business, we get bogged down in constraints. Improv is about creating possibility and being alert enough to recognize golden opportunities when they come.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners?
Say yes to every coffee or lunch invitation you get. Don’t even think about it, just say yes and go. There’s a saying in some improv circles that “the answer is in your scene partner.” When you are just starting out, just chatting up people and sharing experiences and ideas can be so valuable to gaining knowledge and confidence – there are a lot of answers and inspiration in the people sitting across from you.
Why is the DMV a good place to be an entrepreneur?
You can’t throw a brick in the DMV without hitting someone incredibly smart and experienced. It’s a fantastic place to learn from others and there is so much opportunity to expand your own knowledge as well as your network every single day. People here are very serious about their work, which often means they have incredibly interesting and surprising side hobbies to let loose. It’s often those side interests from which you can learn the most (mine was improv comedy performance for years before I realized its value to business!). The DMV is also a great place to be an entrepreneur because the sectors represented here are getting more and more diversified; it’s becoming much more than a government town.
Coonoor Behal is Founder of Mindhatch, a business and customer insights firm. “Insightful Experiences. Inspired Results.” At Mindhatch, we believe insights drive results and the best insights come from people – your team and your customers. Through design thinking, improv, and facilitation, we discover the capacity for creativity, collaboration, and innovation that exists in everyone for actionable results that bring value to your organization.