Being The CEO of Your Company and Having Kevin O’Leary on Your Team

by admin | May 25, 2017 10:50 am

Surprise Ride[1] designs activity kits and toys aimed at keeping elementary school aged kids entertained away from screens. The company was founded in 2013 by sisters Donna and Rosy Khalife. The women wanted to find a way to give moms a break but also keep kids away from screen time. Their idea was inspired by the DIY activities their dad would make for them as kids. Surprise Ride was featured on Season 5 Episode 9 of Shark Tank where the Khalife sisters turned down offers from the Sharks but later accepted a surprise offer from Kevin O’Leary on an episode of Beyond The Tank. I recently caught up with Donna Khalife, the Co-Founder and CEO of Surprise Ride. She talked to me about what her day-to-day currently looks like at the company, how to deal with burnout, and her work-crush on Sheryl Sandberg, among other things.


Jay: So what’s it like at your position now with Surprise Ride what is it like on a daily basis for you?

Donna: Right now it’s really about reaching more people and reaching more families.  I spend a lot of my time on growth, dreaming up partnerships that could be mutually beneficial and also thinking about what type of hires we need to make to be able to support our growth.
Jay: What role does Kevin O’Leary play at Surprise Ride? Is he pretty hands-off as an investor or does he play a more active advisor role?

Donna: There are two things we love about having Kevin on our team. First, he is a brilliant entrepreneur. It’s wonderful — pun intended — to work with an investor who is not just financially minded but also has experience with operations. I was on a call with him yesterday and I had a very real operational question and I knew that there would be no one that could answer it better than Kevin. Because he’s been there and he can speak from his personal experience. The second thing is, he is just a good person. He really embodies the values of Shark Tank, encouraging and empowering people to be entrepreneurs, to create jobs, to create products that consumers can love and enjoy.

Jay:  There’s a tremendous value that investors like Kevin bring, as you mentioned, but there’s so much work that you guys do that he trusts you to execute. So, how do you find that balance between what’s on your shoulders and what you can ask of him?

Donna: It’s a balance for sure, but the bulk of it is on our shoulders, it’s really not half-and-half. It’s more like  95-to-5 or 98-to-2. Having mentors like Mr. Wonderful is really all about helping you fill in the gaps and get guidance more than anything but you have to ask the right questions for it to be fruitful. That relationship can not carry you: you really have to carry yourself.

Jay: What’s been the happiest or most awesome piece of feedback that you’ve ever gotten from your customers?

Donna: One thing that really stuck with me was a question from a little girl named Sophie. she asked  us, “from the thousands of questions that you could be covering in your Surprise Ride kits, how do you choose the themes?” This was an amazing question because adults often ask us things like, “don’t you think you’ll run out of topics to cover? Is this sustainable?” Children really see the world in this very curious way and they’re trying to absorb as much learning as possible. And they’ve got that thirst for learning. Sophie’s question reminded me why we do what we do: to feed children’s curiosities, to get them off of screens and get them fascinated with the real world.

Jay:  If you got stuck in a window seat on a three-hour flight and you could choose anyone in the world to sit next to and pick their brain who would that person be and what would you ask them?

Donna: If I could go back in time I’d probably pick Albert Einstein. Learning to see the world with that childlike wonder is something that I think more and more adults need to do and that’s one of the things that we try to foster through our activity kits for kids,  just nurturing that curiosity. I think that’s something that Albert Einstein really embodied. Today, if I had the honor to sit next to someone, I would probably pick Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook. She’s an amazing human being and woman in the workplace, (where are all my #LeanIn ladies?).  There’s so much I could learn just chatting with her both on a professional and a personal level.

Jay: What advice can you offer to budding entrepreneurs?

Donna: Don’t forget to have fun! I wish I had more fun when we first started the company. When we first came up with the concept I had a blast but once we launched it things just got stressful. As the owner of a business it’s easy find yourself lost in the weeds worrying about every detail can be very stressful and really keep you up at night, which is an easy way to burn out and I think I got close to that at one point and when you get close to burnout it really doesn’t serve anyone, it doesn’t serve your company it doesn’t serve your customers, your employees or yourself. So I think I would just remind anyone who  is launching a company to take breaks, have fun, celebrate the victories don’t feel like this is the end all be all, give it the best shot and see where the journey takes you.


Donna Khalife isDonna the Co-Captain & CEO of Surprise Ride. Donna’s experience has spanned both the business and creative fields. After leaving a career on Wall Street, Donna became fascinated with social enterprises and the collaboration between the business and non-profit worlds. She completed her MBA at Harvard Business School, where she published a case study on Social Entrepreneurship currently taught in classes. Instead of accepting lucrative job offers, Donna vowed to build an organization that would make a positive impact on the world.

Over the years, her career has taken her from the high rises of New York to the theaters of Hollywood. She has witnessed first-hand the immense potential of individuals who exercise both their reasoning skills as well as their imagination. Through Surprise Ride, Donna hopes to help kids play and explore the world creatively, and make the lives of parents a tad easier along the way.

Endnotes:
  1. Surprise Ride: https://www.surpriseride.com/

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