THE BLOG

Women in Business: Kina De Santis, Co-Founder, MotorMood

05/09/2015 09:35 am ET | Updated May 09, 2016

Kina De Santis is the co-founder of MotorMood, a consumer electronic startup which seeks to make modern living more human. Their first product, MotorMood, is an automotive accessory, which allows drivers to say thanks to other drivers in a safe, fun, and easy to use way. Their mission is to make the road a happier place, given that at least 1,500 people are injured or killed in road rage incidents each year.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm a female minority. I'm 19 years old. I'm in the hardware tech space of the automotive industry. I don't exactly blend in.

But, that's okay. It's more than okay. It's fantastic. Being different gives you an edge. It makes people remember you. It pushed me to grow confidence in my leadership ability and myself. This confidence drives me to go for what is necessary to grow MotorMood.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at MotorMood?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs, mostly in the restaurant business. My father started a few restaurant chains when I was younger. I was able to follow him around and learn about the business by visiting stores, serving customers and sitting in on meetings. When I was 14, I started working as a server and cashier at our restaurant. I trained new employees. A few summers later, I began doing summary write-ups about the restaurant and how to improve it. This encouraged analytical thinking. I was 17 years old and a high school student. Instead of questioning my judgment because of my age, my father treated my as an equal and listened to my ideas. Because of this, I never was made to think that my age was a disadvantage or a reason not to voice my opinion.

When I was a senior in high school, I was hired to work for Chapman University's Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship. I worked for the whole program, but spent most of my time focused on the student incubator for startups. I spent countless hours absorbing massive amounts of information. I was able to work with the program's Entrepreneurs in Residence and student startup teams. Being a high school senior and working with all of these entrepreneurs was the biggest learning experience of my life to date. I learned how different companies started out, dealt with mistakes, set themselves up for success and grew their team. I applied all the lessons I had learned to MotorMood.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at MotorMood?
Highlights

Validation. Even before we finished making our final product, we were featured on a number of blogs and news sites. When we started, we started with just an idea. Then we began getting press from websites from many different countries. All of a sudden, we were reading about MotorMood in Chinese, Arabic and Portuguese. The publications provided validation for MotorMood. It was hugely important for us to see that others loved our product and could understand the need for a MotorMood.

The final moment. The satisfaction and joy of seeing a physical product is another major moment. We created this product from start to finish. We were fanatical about every single detail from the exact pantone of each MotorMood face to the curvature of the remote button. We brought a vision to reality and were able to actually hold our product.

Support. I have built a mighty strong support system. I have two parents who encourage my entrepreneurial mindset, who have raised me to be confident and make independent decisions. I have a mom who is always willing to buy me lunch and listen to everything that's eating at my mind. I have friends who are behind me every step of the way, cheering for MotorMood. I have cofounders who enable me to perform tasks that I never thought I could carry out. They are a seriously amazing team of focused, product-driven people who elevate me to a higher level of work.

Challenges

Technology. We have looked at all different types of technology for our initial product. Being that this is our first time doing a physical hardware product, we spent extra time searching for all possible technologies to use. With each new iteration of technology, we were required to order more parts from all over the place.

Marc Andreessen noted, "Hardware is hard." He was right. Creating a physical product that consumers can touch, feel and use requires a lot of thinking, testing and prototyping.

We learned about 3D printing, circuit boards, forms of lighting and different display technologies. We figured out how to integrate each component into our final product. We had to find the right balance between functionality, cost and manufacturability. The process takes a lot of time, effort and capital. It requires you to build patience and perseverance.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Be a honeybadger. Don't let anything get in your way. Don't accept "no" as an answer. People will tell you that you won't be able to start your company. They will say that you don't know what you're doing--that you don't have the resources. Don't be hesitant. Proceed with full force and do what you are passionate about.

Understanding how to utilize your resources is the most important function for you when starting out. A large part of obtaining those resources requires you to ask for help. Sometimes the answer will be no, but you will never get where you need to be if you stop every time you hear "no."

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
At the moment, I am a 19-year-old student balancing my company, college, family and friends. And usually in that order.

I want to have the college experience and build friendships. I want to spend time with my family and show them I care. I want to build Chapman University's Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship and help grow a startup ecosystem at my university. I want to see my friends every once in a while. But, more than anything, I want to create a beautifully designed product that impacts the masses. I want to make the road a happier place. I want to build MotorMood.

Do I maintain a work/life/education balance?
My friends would answer that question with a strong no.

I maintain a lifestyle that works for me. MotorMood does not necessarily fit into my "work" category. That's the key. MotorMood is not a job. It is an opportunity for me to build something I believe in and work with the greatest, most hardworking people I have ever met. It's something I get to do.

For me, maintaining a balance is doing my online Spanish homework at the airport waiting to fly to Chicago for a pitch competition. It's answering emails while I walk to and from class - and occasionally during class. It's working all weekend at the startup incubator and taking a break to play ping-pong with friends from other companies.

If I was not able to work on all of these aspects of my life, I would not be sane. My personality requires me to be working or doing something all the time. Too much relaxing makes me uncomfortable. My teacher/mentor/friend pointed something out to me this year. She said, "you're only happy when your learning curve looks like a hockey stick." I had never thought about it that way before. But it is 100% accurate. That's why I love startups. I am always learning something new that enriches my life in ways beyond MotorMood.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Not enough women are encouraged to take entrepreneurial risks as alternatives to working in the traditional workplace. Because of this, there are fewer women starting their own companies, being their own boss and taking the opportunity to build something amazing from the start.

The beauty of entrepreneurship is that it is what you make it. You have freedom to be your own boss, to define who you are and to make the decisions. It's an opportunity to build something from nothing. The risks associated with starting your own company often stop women from making the leap.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has helped shaped me into the person I am today. In November 2014, I competed in the Entrepreneurs' Organization's Global Student Entrepreneur Awards. Throughout the competition, I was able to meet with different members of EO for mentorship.

Initially, I thought that the greatest aspect of the competition was being able to get help with my pitch. However, I realized that I had received exponentially more. The members offered insight, advice, contacts, resources and a place for me to talk about my personal and professional problems. I talked with entrepreneurs who had similar problems as myself. Working with EO was an eye opening experience in the world of entrepreneurship.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Sophia Amoruso. I admire her for her strong willed attitude. She is a strong female leader and entrepreneur who built a strong company from the ground up. She won't let anyone tell her what to do and is true to herself. Her amazing story shows her perseverance. This year she has accomplished more than ever by releasing a book and opening a brick and mortar store. She is a force to be reckoned with and a role model for the female millennial.

Jessica Livingston. She is tremendously intelligent, yet extremely humble. She is a founding partner of Y Combinator, the #1 startup accelerator in the world where they invest in and help launch amazing companies. She recently tweeted about the number of female founders in their most recent batch of startups. I was lucky enough to attend Y Combinator's Startup School, which she organized and spoke at in October 2014.

Kat Manalac. She is another partner at Y Combinator who has had a direct impact on my life. This summer I had one goal: to attend Y Combinator's Startup School Europe. I missed the deadline. I tweeted the issue to Kat. She didn't have to go out of her way to get me a ticket to an event where hundreds of people applied to attend. But she did. That made a huge difference to me, the 19 year-old who just wanted to learn about startups and talk to like-minded people.

What do you want MotorMood to accomplish in the next year?
Our core mission at MotorMood is to make the road a happier place. That's exactly what we will do!

In the next year we will launch our initial product with a Kickstarter campaign. We will leverage the money raised on Kickstarter and seek a seed round of funding before creating retail partnerships and launching our own eCommerce site.

Additionally, we will expand our current product line and create new product lines that offer new technology and features. We will end with a safe, ubiquitous messaging system in cars that allow for a more connected, safe and social experience on the road. We're transforming the way that people communicate on the road.