Inside Successful Small Businesses: Jessica Banks, Founder of RockPaperRobot

American Express recently launched a new campaign that includes a fantastic new series of videos, all highlighting small business owners–including the folks behind Warby Parker, Om Aroma, Beauty and Hair, and others. Kind of like mini career features. We’re excited to share some of these videos with you (those that highlight female entrepreneurs), along with some of our favorite Everygirl interview questions!

Our first feature was on Reneé Rowe, owner of Atlanta’s The Wine Cellars, and today we are happy to be featuring Jessica Banks, founder of RockPaperRobot. Watch and read on to learn about Banks’s amazing journey to becoming an entrepreneur and her invaluable (and funny) advice to her 23-year-old self.

Name:  Jessica Banks
Company/Title: Founder of RockPaperRobot
Educational Background:  B.S. (General Physics), University of Michigan / Engineer’s Degree, M.S. (Roboticis), MIT

Did what you studied in school apply to your current job? If not, when and where did you acquire the necessary skills?
I am founder of RockPaperRobot, a company specializing in the design and fabrication of kinetic furniture, lighting, and installations. I have a B.S. in General Physics with a minor in creative writing from the University of Michigan and Master’s and Engineer’s degrees in robotics with a minor in biology from MIT. Basically I left school in the 27th grade….Since I am an engineer, I did gain a great deal of technical acumen in school that allows me to design and build my creations. But as an entrepreneur, every day (not an exaggeration) I learn new things that that apply to my job. This is because being an entrepreneur means I spend very little time actually doing what I was formerly trained to do.  Instead, I need to be an accountant, a strategist, a marketer, the HR department, a publicist, etc. Most of these skills I learn from necessity, but I also have a tremendous network of friends and colleagues in various stages of startups who advise me.

What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
Well, my plan was to join the Airforce when I graduated college because I had been on track to become an astronaut. Since I wanted to fly the shuttle I had to be a trained combat fighter, but it quickly became clear that I was not cut out for military life.  Unprepared for what was to be a terrestrial future, I sought out a job that I thought would allow me to cultivate my creative writing skills and appreciation for comedy.  

Through a bunch of pretty coincidental circumstances, I landed an entry level position in the Human Resources Department at Comedy Central.  It was a terribly boring job, but oddly enough it was the first of many connected steps that led me to back into academia. My grad school experience at MIT was a rebirth of wonder. I came up with the idea for my company there. I could have NEVER imagined growing up to be a kinetic furniture entrepreneur when I was trying to feather my Barbie’s hair as a young girl (grin) or when I was sitting at that office job at Comedy Central, but oddly enough it all ended up to be a very logical, albeit divergent, plot.

If you made a big career change, how old were you when you did it and what gave you the confidence to make the switch?
I quit my PhD at MIT when I was 34. I had been there for 8 years so I guess you could consider this a career change. I wasn’t confident about it at all, actually.  But I was no longer happy in school and felt it was the last threads of my demolished ego (MIT can do that to you*) that was keeping me hanging on: I kept associating my PhD with my self-worth.  I think it was more logic than confidence that allowed me to leave. The ego can be an insidious parasite sometimes. When I realized I was failing at being happy, then all thoughts negative connotations about quitting or feelings about failure, paled in comparison.  

*This is not a trivial statement and it is not at all bad. Any competency or intelligence that I believed myself to have and any capability that I thought defined me was shattered when I got to MIT and became immersed in such a new and brilliant environment. I was in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and I didn’t even know what an OS was!  In many ways I became a child again throughout my time there. I remain actively immersed in wonder, still.  It is maintaining this effort that is my biggest success.

What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
AM 23!!!!

(Just kidding.)  

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  • Wear SPF. All. The. Time.
  • You are going to need to be your own boss, so start to read about great leaders.
  • Buy more Google stock when it goes public.
  • Don’t fall in love with any man who used to be a devotee of a guru or who has a tattoo of an engine block on his right forearm. In fact, don’t even go out to dinner with them.
  • You’re going to waste a lot of money on green juice someday so buy a high-powered blender as soon as possible.
  • You’re never going to fit in where you are going because you’re actually trying to go places where you don’t fit in.
  • Don’t wear your favorite ring to the Phish concert.
  • Freeze your eggs before you’re 35.
  • It’s easier to admit you don’t know something than to pretend you do.
  • Make sure to have a very clear Operating Agreement if you ever take on a business partner.
  • Make family a priority. Nothing is as important.

The post was sponsored by American Express but all of the opinions herein are those of The Everygirl editorial board.