From Corporate Darling to Fearless Entrepreneur and Elementary School Business Coach
By Luz Plaza
When I think about what the poster child of graceful achievement looks like, Grace Mase comes to mind. Super smart, super driven, and kind beyond words. She was my boss’ boss many moons ago and I’ve always looked up to her. I recently caught up with her, and I’m happy to report she’s upped her bad-assness to the next level. Here she explains how she — a trained architect — went full dot.com corporate darling, then launched a tech start-up (complete with movie-worthy drama of having all of the code stolen) and enlisted her 8-year-old daughter in business classes.
How does a trained architect end up leading digital departments?
Like many professions, architecture is about solving people's problems, but with an eye on aesthetics, functionality and feasibility. When I was in the graduate program, I was relatively tech savvy and developed a fly-through 3D model animation for my project. My professors saw this and offered me a part-time job to develop a website for the school. The job sounded interesting and the pay was higher than many jobs on campus at the time ($7.75/hr). I took the job :-) The funny part was that I didn't know how to code in HTML, so I walked down to the bookstore and picked up a book called "How to Code HTML in 10 Minutes." For many nights, I stayed up late and studied the book in the computer lab till I learned how to code. That was the beginning of my digital development journey.
After graduate school, I moved back to the Bay Area and was surround by the "dot-commers." It was easy to be influenced by this exciting new environment. I realized that tech is just a different medium to solve people problems,and that with my design background I could bring an appreciation for aesthetics, functionality and feasibility to the digital table. I like to iterate fast and digital design provided that opportunity, so it was an easy transition for me from architecture to the digital design/development space.
You've recently launched a startup. How long did it take for you from the first moment you thought about it until it became a reality?
As a working mother, I always felt the need to work extra hard and put in extra hours to stay competitive in the corporate environment. I didn't realize it at the time, but as a result, I often prioritized work over my family. I didn't know how to live a balanced life. About two years ago, I challenged an integrity issue related to gender in the organization and shortly after the incident, I was pushed out. It shook me to my core, and was a real wake-up call for me.
I took time to reflect, and de-constructed myself to figure out what I could improve. It took a while, but with a positive attitude and support from my family and friends, I envisioned the new self that I wanted to be and could be proud of. During this process, I did a lot of research on common consumer problems. I was looking for areas that I could help to solve and that I would be passionate about solving. When I typed "top consumer complaints" on Google, I found "Home Improvement" has been one of the top three consumer complains nationwide for the past couple of decades. With further research, I learned that 80% of home improvement projects are initiated and/or managed by women. I conducted qualitative and quantitative research and the feedback I received was astounding: Many homeowners have been taken advantage of by people who are not qualified to do the job. When they described their home improvement experiences to me, I saw visible sadness, fear, embarrassment, and anger on their faces.
It quickly became clear to me that this is my calling. I want to solve that problem and empower people to achieve a better life through a better home. I made the decision, started to work through the core problems, and then developed the solution that's now known as "Beyrep."
For the first time in my life, I live a balanced and purposeful life. I am more present when I am with my family. I feel a sense of accomplishment — I help real people solve real-life problems. And I am making a significant contribution to the home-improvement industry.
Have there been any unexpected hurdles along the way? How did you overcome them?
Once I developed my solution, I patented the processes and innovations. I hired an offshore development team and a group of summer interns to build it. One of the summer interns asked to join the team when he finished school. He was hard-working and seemed to be committed to help others. He was ambitious and eager for increased responsibilities, including taking over the coding from the offshore team. Everything started well; we built the site, launched the application and received a lot of positive feedback. Our users liked it, and were already referring others to use Beyrep.
Just as we were getting going, he disappeared abruptly. What I soon found out was that he had phished my login credentials to gain access to all of the third-party tools that we used, and he also had all the code. Although I tried to communicate with him, his only response was to demand the ownership of my patents. When I didn't comply, he shut down the site; our existing customers could no longer access their projects, and I no longer had access to the Beyrep application.
It was incredibly frustrating and infuriating to see the thing that I worked so hard to achieve vanish right before my eyes. I reached out to my network of legal expertise and they helped me to understand that pursuing a criminal case against him would be extremely costly and time consuming, with no guarantee of success. As frustrating as this was, I refused to be blackmailed by him.
Rather than chase after him, I decided to refocus my energy on my mission to empower people to achieve a better life through a better home. I hired an offshore team to rebuild the application from scratch. The happy ending is that we have rebuilt the application from the ground up and relaunched it. We now have even more customers using the application to help achieve their dream home.
I learned a great deal about firewalls and cyber-security after that event. I'm now much more aware and better prepared to protect the application and my devices.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known 10 or 15 years ago?
I would tell my younger self... to go after what you're passionate about and never give up. Don't be afraid to fail. Failures are opportunities to learn. Learn to help others and focus on greater good. Always be true to yourself, be grateful, be respectful, be strong, be kind, and be resourceful. Most importantly, love yourself unconditionally.
When we last talked, you shared with me that your 8 year old was in an entrepreneurship class -- which I personally find super badass! What do you hope she'll get out of it?
After two decades in the corporate world and launching my startup, I realized that there are many entrepreneurial traits that I could share with my daughter. And it is rewarding to think that sharing what I have learned with the next generation of leaders could help make the world a better place.
When an after-school program was offered at my daughter's school, I jumped on the opportunity to help. In the first session, my daughter was in a group project with five boys (age range 8-12 years old). I overheard three of the boys tell my daughter not to touch anything and to go last. It was a good learning opportunity about unconscious gender bias. So I asked the group “Why should she go last? Why can't she touch the Lego set?” It helped the boys become conscious of their behavior, and it was an example for my daughter of how to use her voice to question the status quo, when everyone accepts unfairness as the norm. I hope she will learn to stand up for herself, handle adversity, and never give up.
I believe that the next generation of leaders can make an incredibly positive impact. It's up to us to set good example, and guide them through their journey. We can show them the value of making a positive impact on others and in giving back.