Out of Office // Founder stories - Jonathan Ma

Out of Office // Founder stories - Jonathan Ma

I was born in SoCal “in the Valley”, and lived there until my 5th grade year. I lived the usual latch-key kid life with my brothers raising ourselves until our parents came home from work. I was an Asian parent’s dream. I went to school, achieved good grades, received awards, and never caused any waves. But I felt no different than any of the other kids at school. 

Then my parents became missionaries to the Philippines and I was uprooted from my typical SoCal life for 9 years until I graduated high school. We packed up and sold our house and moved just outside Metro Manila to Cainta, Rizal. My young mind coped with the monumental move by telling myself that this is just like moving to a new house...in another neighborhood in America... 

And a quiet voice inside of me told me, no matter where I live, I am Korean American. 

(And if you were wondering… No, unfortunately I don’t speak Tagalog, at least well. I never needed to learn beyond a few phrases to get around and feed myself. And No, we didn’t live in a hut or in the jungle. We actually lived in a house in the 'burbs’.)

I went to a small international K-12 school where my Mom took a teaching position. The school was like a 1950s American Protestant version of Mean Girls, where the majority of students fell into (or were pushed into) a variety of stereotypical cliques. 

We lived in a microcosm of small town America with a sprinkling of ‘diversity’… which also happened to be smack dab in the middle of Manilla. 

For some reason unbeknownst to me at the time, the school was predominantly either white or Korean (non-Korean American, but from South Korea). But this was the breakdown: 

The Americans - predominately white, from the midwest and south primarily, speaking only English, with the one or two odd balls that grew up in the “tribes” and spoke Tagalog or Bisayan or Cebuano or the one or two that grew up in another Asian country like Indonesia and were now in the Philippines.

The Koreans - from South Korea, (Side note: for some reason, they always had to distinguish themselves as from the south to other kids. Which was strange as if North Korea in their mind wasn’t a closed country). They grew up speaking Korean and learned English to attend the school, with a handful that also spoke Tagalog or Bisayan or Cebuano, but were not from the “tribes”. 

The Europeans - Mainly from England or Germany, a few from Sweden. Predominately white. 

The Business kids (ie. “The Rich Kids”) The school had a quota for the number of business kids that were allowed in. The majority were ethnically Chinese-Filipino and their parents were wealthy business people in the city (not missionaries).

The adopted kids (ie. white parents adopted them some “third world country”)

The Canadians - White (later on one Asian Canadian family), spoke English, a few spoke French, with a few that also spoke Tagalog or Bisayan or Cebuano, but were not from the “tribes”. 

There were also normal school identifiers that most schools have, jocks, thespians, outsiders, nerds, emo, drifters etc. But being a small school, kids did move around groups a bit, but for the most part were set in their friendship cliques. For the majority, the cliques were split by race or by what language you wanted to speak at lunch. Korean or English (European English or American English). (It was such a big deal back then, but it’s so trivial thinking about it now)

The school could tout diversity and multiculturalism on paper, but 90% of the teachers and administration were White, and there were no Black kids, no LatinX kids, and there were only a few mixed-race kids (predominantly half-Asian, a White dad and an Asian mom). 

All this to say, there was no concept of an “Asian American”. I wasn’t “Korean” enough to be Korean mainly because I only had an elementary-level understanding of Korean (thanks to Saturday and Sunday Korean school classes I was forced to attend for a few years in California). I wasn’t “American” enough, because I wasn’t White. My friends weren’t consciously racist, but their parents seemed to need to classify us as something, and they just couldn’t put their finger on it. We were an anomaly. 

A conversation might go like this:

“Where are you and your family from” 
Smiles. “we’re from California”
“No, where are you really from” 
“well… we’re ethnically Korean”
“From North or South Korea”
????? -___- ????? “South, but my grandparents are from the North”
“Oh! Your English is so good, you must have practiced a lot”
Quizzical look. “I grew up in California my entire life”
Puzzled expression. “…” (System failing. Error Error) “…That’s nice” 

A still small voice told me that this is wrong, they don’t get it. But the protest was stuck in my throat. All I could must was silence and smiles. “....” 

At first, I sought after those that looked like me. I tried to speak to them in our native tongues. I tried to laugh with them, but when I opened my mouth, I was laughed at, ridiculed for my American-accented Korean words, for my broken tongue, and my strange pronunciation. I tried to reach into the depths of my mind and wished I had perfect recall, like Mike Ross from Suits. 

Coming from America, I tried to belong to America, to California. I yearned for it and sought after it more than anything, but at that moment I just wanted to be accepted as a native Korean, by my peers.(they were supposed to be my people) I wanted them to claim me as their own. I wanted to be a “perfect” Korean. 

I secretly waited for my parents to magically appear and come to my defense, but I knew that it would never happen. But they were experiencing the same in parallel. All I knew was now I was at the mercies of adolescent kids.  

So I leaned into my “American-ness” as well as the Asian stereotype everyone thought I was, as to not “confuse them so much”. I fortunately? found a group that accepted me more than the others. I became a “white American”, I stopped trying to be accepted by native Koreans, I stopped trying to speak Korean, I stopped trying to explain that i was an Asian American from CA.  (what do you mean? You acted like a white American or they accepted you as a white American at heart?) and hung out with the white American kids, I studied for math and science and told everyone I was going to major in engineering (whatever that was), and I was happy with the “Asian Fs” aka Bs that were given to me for my English and History papers because looking the way I was, I couldn’t possibly produce an A paper (because one look and I knew they would never grade me an A. An Asian getting an A in English? Nope). No. No. No. that’s an anomaly and an error. It only happens once(in a dynasty). I didn’t put up a fight. I walked away when I was rejected from taking AP US history when I wanted to switch a week into the semester, because of course I couldn’t catch up on a week's worth of material if I looked Korean. I didn’t stand up for my stances on papers when the teacher disagreed with my stance. 

Even with that still small voice telling me no. That's wrong. That’s not you, Jonathan. I became what THAT society thought I should be

Then I left the Philippines and became the best version of that Asian American I could be. Graduated from UCR with a BS (’11) and MS (’13) in bioengineering with a concentration on biomedical imaging.

Like many of my classmates, I couldn't find a job in bioengineering, because every company doesn’t know what a bioengineer is or does, so how could there be any jobs for it? I ended up working for an inflight entertainment product company as an assistant PM for a short short stint. A very short stint, worked for a whopping 6 weeks. Then I chased the money and security of the gov’t doing some predictive analytics for the navy. Taught myself how to program, then proceeded to automate that job and sat around wondering what in the world I was doing with my life.

I tried to quench this emptiness by listening to entrepreneur books and volunteering for conferences and settled for dreaming about one day running my own company. That still smallvoice kept grounding me back, telling me this isn’t you. 

Finally in 2015, got fed up with the turtle speed, over prioritization on security and red tape bureaucracy and quit to embark on an “eat, pray and love” adventure. I just knew this job wasn’t for me (I was done with office life). So I went running Forrest Gump style, figuratively and literally. “Everyone who runs is running to something or away from something”. I was running away. Away from the reality that I was just a cog in the wheel. I wasn’t important. I could be replaced. I need to stay in my lane. “You can’t do that”.  

Starting off with something called the Mongol Rally, where some friends and I bought a tiny car on eBay (a VW Polo we named “Angela Merkel”) and drove (yes drove) from London to Mongolia. I got into videography and marketing during this trip, got sponsored and made some videos here(https://bit.ly/3huhTWT) and wrote a little about it here (https://medium.com/@keewonma). I learned a whole lot about being comfortable with being uncomfortable, surviving vs thriving, and finding what I actually believed in.  I had lived the nomadic life and minimal life (carrying everything I needed on my back). Over 14 months and a couple dozen countries, I learned that this nomad lifestyle, this also wasn’t me. 

Even when my college friends came to travel with me, they were vacationing, but I was trying to live out there on the move. I was in a weird funk. I was alone. I needed a community and not being able to experience all these amazing places with the people I love. I also knew I was missing important events like weddings and I was growing further and further away from my friends. That still small voice reminded my heart that traveling like this isn’t me, I found myself in the still quite moment of the night, filled with more regret than happiness from the day's adventures.  

So I moved back stateside and tried to find a job, sleeping on the gracious and overwhelming hospitable couches of friends (beats sleeping in the back of “Angela Merkel” by a long shot). And I regressed into survival mode, the money was running low and I couldn’t keep taking advantage of gracious hosts… 

After a few months, I landed in Denver, CO started working for the Colorado Rapids, a professional football (soccer). I was tasked to use analytics to recruit players and evaluate the team, the manager, and the players. 

If you ever watched the movie Moneyball with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. I was Jonah Hill except doing it in football (soccer) not baseball. In a nutshell, discovering discrete space creation networks. Initially I was one of two non-white people working for the team (besides the team). My boss introduced me as the smartest guy in the room. 

That still small voice told me that’s not right, that’s not me. 

I learned a whole lot about the sports industry, willing myself to believe I had my ideal job and I was living the Colorado dream. Hanging out with friends, going backpacking, going to games, sitting in the exclusive technical staff area, getting free tickets to Nuggets and Avalanche games, and traveling to preseason and away games. Sounds like a fun bachelor life, right? 

Well two things moved me out of the industry. One way more important than the other, still two worth mentioning both. 

 One. I met Jen …(imagine romantic k-dramas and multiply by a bazillion then insert here) Got married. Am the happiest I’ve ever been, being connected to such an amazing beautiful strong woman. Her still small voice has guided her whole life and it’s amazing to just witness and be part of her story. Her inner voice and sense of justice is so inspiring. She is my everything. 

Two. I became aware of the box that was being built up around me. I started to see the mold that was being pressed on to me, and my squishy being that was leaking out of the box. My mold was the docile, advanced degree, stick my head down and work, Asian, who was good at math, programming, and science. There’s no semblance of upward mobility, there’s no freedom. That bamboo ceiling is real, but I think it can also look like a box, we don’t talk about the walls that hold up that ceiling enough. 

That still small voice was so clear as I left and I acted knowing that wasn’t me. I quit and ended up moving back to CA, because let’s be honest, west coast is the best coast and I started searching.

I had always been interested in the specialty coffee industry, but calling it a passion just didn’t sit well. I didn’t want to associate myself with those white, bearded, beanie wearing hipster coffee snobs. But looking back my international travels and my journey in coffee, I became that guy who I said I didn’t want to be. I packed my own grinder to try local beans wherever I went. I went out of my way to find “specialty” coffee shops. I would criticize every brew, bean, pour and method.  That still small voice told me that wasn’t me either. That was another box that specialty coffee was placing on me. I knew at that moment, I needed to start exploring what it is that represents me, but couldn’t find any brands that fully grasped who I was. 

I had spent my adolescent years as a flounder shoving my everything into the sands of America, trying to blend in with my peers. I had come of age feeling that my belonging was something to prove. “I AM FROM CALIFORNIA”, I would declare. As if my belonging was in the hands of people to be given, but never my own to take. I could only decide which side I was on, whom I was allowed to align with. Yet, I could never be of any of the worlds from which I came (American, Korean, Filipino). I could be ONLY one or the other. I was filled with fear as if someone with greater claim than me. Someone full, someone whole, would appear and object. I would be ridiculed for my accent again, filled to the brim with embarrassment and shame.

So Out of Office was founded. 

We are here to pursue what it means to stand between multiple worlds. For others to hear our stories and stand with us. To provide hope so others will overcome their fears. Together, we can represent and inspire what it truly means to be Out of Office.  

We are those that follow that still small voice in order to journey towards our true passion. This passion is not something others have told us to pursue. This passion is true to ourselves. This passion is outside the box others have tried to place us in. 

We have tried out “the box” others have built up around us to contain us and we have rejected it. 

We are this tribe. We are Out of Office People.  

Back to blog