The best marksman is sometimes an Asian mom

3-minute read

Beaze: Meet the Team is a series on the respective individuals building out Beaze, a vendor procurement marketplace that replaces traditional advertising. Today, we’re chatting with Joanna Hamai, our Chief Operating Officer (COO), on navigating the business landscape as a military veteran, mother and visible minority.

Joanna Hamai, COO of Beaze | Photo Credit: Beaze

So, why Beaze?

Historically, I’ve always sought out projects that have both a creative and practical side. I also love the idea of helping the business community at large and meeting new business owners. It’s important to find new and interesting ways to stop wasting time and money, especially when it comes to vendor procurement.

How did you break into tech?

Way back in high school, I took an animation course. At the time, that class’ professor had a mysterious way of disappearing into his office for long periods of time; no one knew what he was up to in there. I also had an annoying lab partner, Kyle. To keep things interesting, I decided to focus the plot of my animation sequence on what the teacher was possibly doing in his office. In my mind, he was sunbathing; then, when Kyle came to him looking for help, alien visitors captured him for their own research purposes. The professor adored the fact that Kyle got kidnapped in the kit. Kyle decided his animation would be of me getting run over by a lawnmower. You win some, you lose some.

What is it about technology that inspires you?

Simple technology, done well, can save lives.

While deployed in Iraq, the front vehicle in our convoy had broken down while under fire. Our super-high tech MTS (movement tracking system satellite technology) was on that vehicle but we had to keep the convoy moving towards the nearest marine base while minimizing additional civilian casualties. We had a choice of trying to save our MTS and risk the lives of those civilians or blow up the truck with the MTS and stick with old-school communication, i.e. the walkie-talkies. We decided in favor of the latter and were able to make it safely out of that town. It was the right call because without the walkie-talkies we wouldn’t have been able to coordinate across the convoy.

What’s your philosophy?

1. Work your hardest even when no one is looking. That way, you can live your life with no regrets.

2. Be prepared for anything. If your ducks aren’t in a row, you don’t have the capacity to help others.

My dad raised my sister and I as a single-parent who then turned to my grandmother for additional support.  It was very hard growing up in a strict household of an immigrant family. I was expected to get straight A’s, cook and clean at home and translate everything for my grandmother.  Serving in the US Army also drilled into me the importance of integrity, honor and again, hard work.

Wait, does that mean you speak another language?

Yes, I’m fluent in Korean. I was also a translator in Fort Lewis.

What does success look like to you?

I like when things go smoothly and to completion. It’s important to prepare for any possible detour. I wear many hats that require different skill sets and it can be hard to focus if I’m thinking about other tasks. So, every morning, I go through the laundry list of things we need to tackle. I ruthlessly cut out the ones that aren’t urgent or impactful. Then, I get to work. Luckily, I also have a great team with me to help me work through problems and tackle them from different angles. Sometimes when I get blocked, I just context-switch for a while, let my subconscious do some of the heavy lifting and come back to the problem with fresh eyes. I also like a good plan B comprised of smart, competent consultants for those occasional peak demand times. Good vendor partnerships are hard to come by; I work every day to build out more.

What words of wisdom can you share?

1. Dream big. Every great accomplishment started as a seemingly impossible dream.

2. Persevere. Everything can and will go wrong. Life is not fair and that’s ok. Two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward. 

3. Prove them wrong. The best payback is to live an amazing life.

What’s most important to you?

Compassion towards others. 

Other people, often complete strangers, helped me get to where I am today. When I had first left Hawaii after joining the military, I was switching to Ohio to attend Kent State University in the dead of winter. I was grossly unprepared for this, there was 3 feet of snow on the ground and I was basically wearing flip-flops and shorts. This military recruiter graciously picked me up at the airport and took me shopping for a hooded parka and boots so I wouldn’t die of frostbite. Then, while I was living at the school campus, my unit was actually 2 hours away by driving and I had no transportation. This major who happened to live near my company, drove me to and from campus almost every month for a year out of his own generosity. During this time, he also invited me to his home with his 2 kids and his wife to stay for the weekend. It was like having an adoptive family.

I want to pay it forward to small business owners everywhere so they can have some shelter in the storm.

What’s it like being a minority-visible minority woman with a career?

It’s been really humbling. I had to work twice as hard as the men in my military intelligence battalion to be accepted.  I always volunteered to do extra duty or training or another certification which is why I’m certified to drive all kinds of vehicles, including buses, 18-wheelers, humvees, 2-tons – basically, everything short of a tank. As a sergeant, I gave safety briefings on weapons and taught marksmanship. Like when you’re holding a rocket launcher, it’s important to say “Back blast area all clear!”, which is also a nice euphemism for flatulence (in addition to just fitting in with the crowd).

It empowers me to know that at that time I could change the perception of women in the military for a few people. People are often surprised that an Asian woman like me could’ve possibly served. I relish when their jaws drop upon hearing about my experience.

Seems like being in the military changed you.

There is comradery with being a veteran that doesn’t translate with civilians. 

Being a veteran, there are values that everyone upholds and experiences that everyone went through. For example, the portrayal of drill sergeants in basic training comes off as ridiculous, aggressive and stereotypical for the benefit of their own amusement at the belittlement of a trainee; in reality, however, it teaches new recruits real-life survival skills. I saw a new recruit being yelled at to not jump but he jumped anyway. He then unluckily acquired the exclusive attention of 3 drill sergeants who were yelling at him so ferociously, spit was flying in all directions. Most of us couldn’t help but laugh (and then wound up doing hundreds of pushups as well).

Also, since my tour in Iraq, I still check my shoes for giant camel spiders.

Camel spiders. Photo Credit: US Military

What’s it like being a working parent?

Being a mom has actually made me stronger. Without my son, I wouldn’t have taken a risk in changing careers. He’s helped me put into perspective what’s important.  He motivates me to do better so that I can be a role model for him in the future. I want him to see the value of hard work and to be smart and thoughtful about it.  

Tell us about how you give back and why that’s so important?

I work with a wildlife animal shelter named PAWS located in Lynnwood, WA.  I rehabilitate injured/sick animals (including triage, vaccination, giving fluids) and educate new foster parents. Inexperienced foster parents often don’t know how to deal with traumatized animals in their homes, especially when the animals have already acclimated to the shelter. I help answer any questions that might come up and provide additional medical attention whenever necessary.

When all is said and done, what do you hope for Beaze to achieve?

I just want the underdog businesses to prevail.