Mara Binudin-Lecocq is changing the game by inspiring young girls to kick ass through technology. Growing up outside of “normal” in the Philippines and France, Mara has found power and passion in the diversity of New York.
What brought you to New York?
My husband and I moved here from France because of my job. I always wanted to move, though.
I was born in the Philippines. My family moved to France when I was 14 because I’m half French, half Filipino. My husband and I left France after I had been there for 14 years—so I spent the exact number of years in both countries—and moved to Toronto. We both agreed to move to a country that that speaks English and looked like a fun place to live. We wanted to move to the United States, but I couldn’t at that time because of my visa. After two years in Toronto I started job hunting. I knew the job I wanted, though: to work at AKQA. It’s a digital agency that does really cool stuff for Nike, Starbucks, Chanel, Hermes… amazing clients. It’s always been my dream to work there; I didn’t care which branch. The opportunity I ended up finding was in their New York office. It was my dream come true. I wasn’t overly excited to move to New York at first; since I was from Paris, I had it in my mind that the cities would be quite similar. But as soon as I stepped off the plane, I was totally in love with this place. I love the diversity here—for the first time in my life I felt normal.
Did you never feel normal in France or the Philippines?
In the Philippines I was half French so I wasn’t considered a Filipino, and in France I behaved a bit like a foreigner, so I often felt not totally aligned with my French peers. Paris is a very judgmental culture, which is fun but also hard at times. I love the French, but they will be the first people to tell you what you should and shouldn't be doing, wearing, thinking. Honesty is such a great thing in relationships. But sometimes it can just bring down your energy.
Can we talk about growing up in the Philippines?
In the Philippines I went to a French school, so I lived with the expat community. I grew up surrounded by hyper-privileged kids, but my family wasn’t like that. All my friends lived in huge houses in gated communities, and had swimming pools. It sounds silly but I never dared invite anybody to my home because we didn’t have a swimming pool. Today I think that’s why I never celebrate my birthday. I don’t have any memories of celebrating my birthday with friends because I was embarrassed about where I lived.
I always felt different to them. I was from one of the only two only families with a white mother and an Asian father, which was huge. Also, my parents weren't religious. Every other kid had a very religious Catholic family, and I didn't. I was also often one of the only girls in class.
That’s must have been really tough.
I started in life never feeling normal, which I think has helped me now. I’ve never looked for normality. I think it also fed into my drive to always overachieve.
You wanted to prove yourself.
I think I had this unconscious inferiority complex. This was all in my head by the way, they have always been amazing friends. But perhaps having the best grades in class allowed me to compensate for that difference.
Was it different when you moved to France?
I was so excited to move to France. We visited a lot growing up, so it wasn’t a big culture shock. I went to an international school, which is for kids who speak a second language. Thirty percent of our classes were in another language.
You have a passion for both art and coding—did this start in school?
I was raised by a dad who was crazy about technology, who loved rock, heavy metal, classical music and electronic music. My mom was a feminist. She was a writer working in a marine-biology company. I absorbed all that…. I started oil painting when I was five years old and I was on computers at the same age. I think what I am doing today is the perfect mix of both. I have always been very much into the arts and computers. When I was a kid, I never thought I would be an artist. I didn’t even know there were places like art schools. For me it was a hobby. I really wanted to be a computer programmer. Do you remember Hackers? I was 13 or 12 when I watched it. That movie influenced me a lot, I think. My dad also gave me a book on coding that I loved. As I got older, things shifted and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. When I was just about to finish high school, I went to a counselor who suggested some art schools where I could do multimedia work. I wish I could go back and thank her.
The university system in France is different than here in the US. The best schools are free, but only five percent of people who apply get in. There are expensive private schools that are okay, but it is more prestigious to go to the public ones. My mom was like, “If you don’t get into a public school, I am not paying for your studies." I was like, “Holy shit, I have to get my shit together."
What qualifies you to get in?
It’s mainly your grades, and some painting and artworks. In high school, you choose a specialty like science, literature, or economics. Science is seen as the most prestigious because it is the hardest. I worked really hard, got my grades together and passed, which helped me get into one of the great public art schools. They love people with a science background, because their thinking is that if you are rigorous enough to get a science baccalaureate that means you will be rigorous enough to become a great artist.
In university, I studied visual communication, illustration, advertising, and all sorts of things. After that, I started interning at advertising agencies. My dad was a creative director in advertising and gave me great advice to intern at a large agency because it would give me the room to move up. I had being trying to decide between doing more design work at a smaller agency or interning at a larger one. It’s led to a lot of conflicted feelings. I never thought I would also become a creative director, but along the way I lost my sense of purpose a bit. When I first started, I loved my boss and the team I was working with, but I realized I didn’t really love the job when my boss left. The human relationship was more important to me.
Now I am a freelance creative director, which is really healthy for me because I am very all or nothing. Work can be a bit of an addiction for me. I have a hard time saying no, so freelancing gives me room to place boundaries.
So how did Secret Code come about?
I had the idea for Secret Code about two years ago. I didn’t have the courage at the time to start it. I was caving to societal pressure that drives you to succeed in your career, especially in the States. You succeed by moving up the ladder, getting a promotion and a raise. When I was an associate creative director people kept telling me, "You should be creative director, this is bullshit, they are taking advantage of you." I was actually fine, but I got sort of brainwashed and I got angry suddenly for not having a promotion. I was becoming very tired of it all, and then I read a book called The Crossroads of Should and Must. It talks about the pressure we get because we are doing things that we should do instead of doing things that we must do. The author says, "If you are still hesitating over whether this is a great path for you or not, then write your eulogy." I wrote my eulogy and it said: Mara moved up the corporate ladder at a big WPP holding company, made a ton of money, hardly saw her kids and family, retired and died. I was like, "Oh my God! I can’t." It was a Saturday. I resigned on Monday and my last day was Wednesday.
That’s amazing. I need to read this book.
But what is important to talk about is also what happened after that. There were new obstacles. I like to compare life to a videogame—at the end of each level there is the bad guy. My bad guy was the loving boss who wanted me back. I was just drifting in limbo. He wasn't my boss but he jumped in, made me feel special, wanted, gave me money, a promotion, a sabbatical, health insurance ... I was craving someone to be appreciative at that moment. I'm like a dog. I'm stupidly loyal and if you pat me on the back, I'm happy. (laughs)
It’s a compliment that shows how valued you were at the company, but that makes it so hard to move on.
It still worked out and I have no regrets. Because, you know, for anybody who wants to start something, it’s scary to take a plunge. To have that two months was a nice safety net. When I came back after the two months, it was a honeymoon again at the agency and I was like, "I love my job again." Like rekindling a relationship with an abusive boyfriend, it is awesome in the first month but then the same problems happen after another month. Long story short, I started working like crazy on like "the coolest brand in the world." Ten years ago if I had known that I would be creative director on THAT account at THAT agency in New York, I would have been like "Oh my god, you made it!" Then, family problems happened in the middle of mindless workaholism and a lack or purpose, and it made me rethink my priorities.
So, Secret Code is a project that gives you purpose?
I had the idea when I was trying to shop for a birthday present for a little girl. I went to a children's book store and I was appalled by the lack of options there for girls. I started complaining to the store owner, and she showed me some books that were really cool and empowering, but the girls in the books were all white. She showed me a book about a cool engineer girl who was blonde. I saw this other cool book about a skater princess, and she was a redhead. So I wanted to do something to open girls’ minds, to depict them in roles that they never see themselves in.
I had worked on a female empowerment campaign when I was at the agency, which started this passion for me—but I didn’t have the idea yet. I had also recently learned that 80 percent of jobs in the next decade will requires technology skills. These were the different components that merged together for me.
I love mentoring and inspiring girls. I began thinking about how women become leaders in their careers—you don’t magically become an empowered tech leader when you are 30. This drive and passion has to start young. There are studies now that say stereotypes sink in as early as age five.
I want to show girls that they don't need to fit in a box. They don't have to love Barbies to fit in, or hate Barbies to be cool. You can be whatever you want—you can be full of delightful contradictions, and that makes you richer inside. You don't have to be boxed in a certain stereotype. I think that's why I've never felt my gender held me back, because if you don't fit a certain stereotype then nobody has specific expectations for you, and you can be free.
So Secret Code came about as a way to showcase a female character who is a badass hero that could inspire children. Not a hero with superpowers or magic, but with tech knowledge. You can go online and choose the name of the main character and what she will look like before the book gets printed. You can add in personal touches that will make the little girl reading it feel like the book really speaks to her. Eventually, I want to partner with companies who do tech education for kids.
What's the biggest challenge you've come across while putting this together?
Working from home for myself has definitely been a challenge sometimes. When you are in an office, there are so many people looking at you and depending on you that it's easy to overachieve. If nobody is looking, then I’m in pajamas at 4pm. At the same time, that is also because I love waking up and going straight to work with no interruption. It's true, though, that I didn't have the discipline I thought I had. Sometimes, it makes me feel extremely guilty. I wanted to work out every day, take nice lunches … sometimes I end up working just two or three hours a day. "What? What am I becoming?" [Laughs]
It’s great to hear about the realities of self employment. I’m sure a lot of people who work from home will probably be reading this in PJs!
I think I found the trick, though: Tell people about your projects and ideas. I remember once I was starting to talk about a project with some friends at dinner. They brought up an article about how people feel like they’ve done something just by talking about it. Just by talking, it means you probably wouldn’t do it anymore. This fueled me; I wanted to prove them wrong. It gave me a kick in the butt because I found it quite hurtful. So it’s good to tell people about your projects, even if their feedback isn’t what you want.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
It’s kind of lame, but: work hard and be nice.
Being nice is undervalued.
It’s so important. Everything that you do, there is always somebody who helped you get there. Whether it's giving you advice or connecting you with people. We are dependent on other people.
On a career note, if you want to move up the ranks fast, make sure your mission is to make your boss’ and coworkers' jobs easy. There are so many mediocre people out there—so if you're the only one to make a painful project easy and carefree, people will get addicted to you. Why do we all prefer Uber over taxis? Because taking out your credit card from your wallet is annoying. Become the Uber of your office!
What does New York mean to you?
Diversity, open-mindedness, and energy.
Check out www.yoursecretcode.com.