Mara Zepeda, Switchboard, Woman Entrepreneur

mara_zepedaAlways a bonus when someone who you trust tells you that you should talk to someone because she is determined, capable and the real deal.  Those are strong words.  I finally connected with Mara and within seconds of hearing her back story I felt compelled to have her start again so I could write about her.  I also became intrigued with what Mara had built, Switchboardhq.  Building community based classifieds for universities, municipalities and people interested in building a community where there is give and take.  All the signs of Mara’s career point to the building of this platform.

Mara grew up in Santa Fe.  Both of her parents are artists.  Her father had immigrated from Latin America and is a painter.  Her parents split ways when Mara was 13.  Her father had a variety of children from different women, a true bohemian, and when he left, he left.  He had taught her critical thinking and a love for beauty and feels zero resentment towards him dropping out of her life. That alone is amazing.  Her mother was the backbone.  A true opportunist and entrepreneur.  She started jazz festivals in Arizona and used their house like an Airbnb.   A woman before her time.  Mara and her mother moved into the studio on the property and rented out the rooms for cash.  She also was an art dealer.  She kept continuing out how to support their lives.  Her mother was always collaborating.  She brought in musicians from Africa and hosted them for a festival she put on.  Her mom even moved to Japan for a bit where she worked with kids in music.  Everything on a shoe string budget.  You can do that in non-urban areas particularly when you are entrepreneurial.  Currently she plays cello for the San Francisco chamber music orchestra and also works with an improvisational dance group that tours around the world.  An artist and an entrepreneur.   As Mara puts it (from her blog)  For most of my life I could count on one hand the number of people I knew with 9 to 5 jobs. I was surrounded by artists, musicians, Rolfers, montessori teachers, midwives, writers, blacksmiths, new age bookstore owners. Everyone was happy, the children ate carob, and very few of us had health insurance. 

Mara traveled all over the place as a kid.  Her father had a publishing company at one point for Spanish impressionist artists so they went to Latin America too.  When she graduated from High School she applied to only one school for an early decision and got in.  Mara went to Reed and was a Russian major.  When she told me Reed I laughed and said I could have guessed.  She thought about political science but she was looking for classes with human narratives and found that in an amazing Russian professor, Lena Lencek, who was also an artist.  This professor not only became her teacher but her friend and today Mara lives in her guest room.

Mara met her husband the first day at Reed.  He was to be a professor so the nomadic life continued for Mara.  When she graduated from college she went to work for the US State Department in Moscow interviewing potential Russian high school students who would come to the US to continue their education.  Her Russian was about high school level so it was the perfect match.  She stayed for 8 months before moving to Cambridge, MA.  There she worked at Harvard University as the Director of Fellowship Programs coordinating and consulting for the Harvard union.  They needed serious marketing help.  There were all these benefits for clerical and technical people at Harvard but they had zero idea that they existed.  She did the design and marketing materials for them and that is still being used today so people can access their benefits that range from free classes, help buying homes, car, etc.  They are still using that platform today.

Her husband was moving to Philly to get his Phd at UPenn so that was the next move.  In Philly Mara landed a job as the food writer for the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer.  She has a weekly column where she would invite herself over to strangers homes for dinner every week.  She went to immigrant homes, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, construction workers homes, etc.  The column was called the Supper Club.  This embarked her on a freelance writing career.

The Mutter Museum had received a grant to teach medical students about the humanities so that they could take that experience and use it in their practices.  They hired Mara to coordinate trips to poetry readings, exhibits on facial reconstruction, alzheimer’s conferences, etc.  She could essentially create what she thought would help these students understand the humanities.  The woman she worked for was a doctor and through her they got national attention for this pilot and they took it on the road.  It was insanely gratifying.  Mara stayed there for a little over a year.

Mara was ready for her next move.  Her desire to learn something new and absorb it like a sponge carries with her at every turn.  She decided that radio was her next passion.  Mara applied to Columbia graduate school of Journalism.  She could not really afford it and the woman she worked for at Mutter wrote her a personal check for $25K as a loan to cover the added expenses.  She was really the first person to believe in Mara as an investment in the future.  She went to Columbia and while she was there made money on the side as a calligrapher.  It was something she had learned at Reed.  It was an easy way to make cash.  She worked for Martha Stewart, Nike, etc. to post envelopes .  She ended up graduating with honors.  The woman that loaned her that money came to her graduation and out they went out for dinner afterward.  At dinner she told Mara that she was delighted what Mara had accomplished and that she was forgiving the loan.  Mara said she just sat there and sobbed.

Radio it was.  Mara became a reporter doing economic stories working for WHYY before going fully freelance and ending up on  All Things Considered, Planet Money and others.  She began to focus on the economic of healthcare.  Around that time student debt became a major focus in the press.  She had stayed connected with Reed as an alumni.  Students were graduating with $200K in debt.  The school tries to keep the alumni connected to each new group of graduates to help get them the jobs that they are seeking.   Mara had written notes to the President about how they needed to give the students better tools to succeed post-college.  Mara was on the campus one day and stopped by her old dorm room.  A young girl answered the door and asked Mara during their conversation if she knew of any internships that she could help her get.  Mara did and she said it was one of the most gratifying experiences being able to help this young woman.  That was the start of Switchboard.

Mara talked to 20 of her friends who were willing to help.  They announced to Reed that they pledge $40 for student or alumni who contacted them for help.  Over three years $20K was pledged.  The issue was that Reed did not have a marketplace for these transactions/asks to take place.  For two years Mara worked on this as a passion project.  She then met her co-founder over Twitter.  Sean had graduated 8 years after her at Reed.  He shared her frustration that after graduation the help to find a job fell into an abyss.  At the time Mara was living in Florence as her husband was doing a fellowship.  Her and Sean skyped and at the time he was living in SF.  They built the business this way launching Switchboard in 2012.  They finally got together face to face in February 2013 where they went to Reed and lived in an old professors house.  They applied to the Wieden+Kennedy’s Portland Incubator Experiment in Portland, Oregon that attracts non-traditional tech people.  They get access to branding, positioning and office space.

The company is still in private beta and they now have a team of 6.  Her husband is in South Carolina teaching right now so that is a tough one but as always Mara is making it work.  Switchboardhq so far has signed up cities, universities and maker communities to build on the platform.  They have built  gift communities that keep on giving.

Mara used an interesting metaphor when describing the building of a start-up.  It is like a dinner party.  Investors bring the wine, advisors are the party planners, the host is the entrepreneur and the cook is the tech person.  She considers Switchboard a dinner party online.  To me it is a type of meet-up online where community members can ask and receive from people on the platform in their Switchboard. Each experience Mara has had has allowed her to learn as much as possible, reiterate and move to the next.  An impressive woman.  I am also a fan of the model she has built.  I would be one of those people who also wrote a check to Mara.  I believe in her and her career is fascinating and am looking forward to be involved in this iteration.  Reading below is what really excites me.

Of course I like Mara’s explanation of Switchboard the best.  It’s an online gift economy for niche networks. It turns classifieds from transactional to transformative. Existing social media is a place to share about ourselvesthrough photos and status updates; Switchboard is a place to share of ourselves through asks, offers, and acts of generosity. “It is true that when a gift enhances our life, or even saves it, gratitude will bind us to the donor,” says Lewis Hyde in The Gift:  This is the foundation of Theme Three: kindness and gratitude bind us to one another.