American Dreamers is a series of conversations with leading Asian American entrepreneurs and business leaders, where they reveal everything from their startup stories and company building to confronting racism and making it in America.
Tracy Young’s story begins like many children of immigrants: her parents left the turmoil in their homeland to come to America and struggle for years to build a life for themselves and their children. But Yang, the founder and CEO of not one but two companies, has found success beyond anything her parents imagined when they decided to leave Vietnam and settle in the Bay Area.
In the year After a stint at a general contracting company in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Young and four co-founders (one of whom is now her husband!) decided to build their first company, Plangrid. Yang eventually became CEO of the company, which completely disrupted the construction industry by allowing engineers and builders to track projects through an app instead of on paper.
Young and her husband sold the company to AutoDesk in late 2018. She stayed for a little over a year and then retired from AutoDesk in March 2020. “We thought we’d take my parents, the whole family, on vacation. And then I went to the locker room with my husband/founder,” she told me in our interview. “And what we’ve done instead is break down every minute of the ten years we’ve been running Plangrid. What that gives us is a long list of things we felt we did wrong, and a long list of things we thought we did right, and we’re going to apply it all to our new company.”
That new company, still in stealth mode, is called TigerEye, and like Plangrid, it’s focused on solving problems — this time with enterprise sales teams.
Tracy is so refreshing – she has a wonderful sense of humor, she’s straightforward and honest, and she doesn’t let anything get in her way. She is committed to sharing her success in encouraging more women to step into leadership positions, and has shown great passion and courage in this endeavor. Below is our fun and engaging conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What is your parents’ immigrant history? My mother and father are refugees from the Vietnam War. No matter where the line between being homeless and poverty is, they were not far from the homeless line. So it was very difficult for them to make things work, but they are extremely hardworking and responsible people. It was always about providing a better life for me, my brother and sister. Growing up, we didn’t have much, we didn’t know what vacation was, but we had a lot of love. What drives me, I see how hard my parents work, and I want to be the best version of myself that I can to honor their sacrifices.
You know, the most important decision in my life was not made by me. It was made by my parents, which allowed me to live the life that I have.
What was your childhood like? I am a first generation American. I was the first person born here in San Jose. I was very lucky. I grew up in a suburb in the Bay Area. It was very boring, but it was safe.
As a child, I remember my parents working two jobs, and I never saw them, but eventually they started their own warehouse business, which they ran for forty years. They buy goods in bulk, mark them up, and then distribute them to restaurants.
My mother was like a mafia, back in the day. No one misleads her.
What did your parents think about education? The conversations weren’t really about school. They’re more like, “Dinner’s in the fridge. Make sure your brother eats, and, “Don’t smoke pot. Come home before sunset because I’m going to be pissed. About “Why Don’t You Get Straight A’s?” It was not. I don’t think they even looked at my report card.
I was a kid who didn’t do well in school. I loved playing with blocks. I loved playing on the playground. I worked really hard – if I got an A it’s because I worked my ass off. I had friends who could roll out of bed and pass the test, no problem. That wasn’t me.
How did you settle into engineering? I went to a public school that wasn’t really well thought out. But it is one of the schools that accepted me, and I know that I want to be a builder. I thought I wanted to be an architect, but I’m actually not that good at natural artistic talent, I love it. I loved buildings and mathematics, and choosing civil engineering was very easy for me. I knew I could be a good engineer. That was obvious. I liked math well enough, but I didn’t want to be a mathematician, even though I married a theoretical mathematician who I worked with for both of my companies.
At some point, probably around sophomore year, I realized there were two paths for me. One was to be a structural engineer and sit behind a desk for the rest of my life, crunching numbers and making the math work, or being on site, actually being a part of the construction process and making it happen. That was more flexible and interesting for me, and I could be outside. I went that route and learned construction and engineering management.
How did you start your first company, Plangrid? I graduated at a very bad time to graduate with a construction degree, because construction had the highest unemployment rate, we were in the midst of a recession and a housing crisis. I had one thousand employees in the general contracting company, and in two or three years, we were down to three hundred people; I was one of them. It wasn’t because I was a super engineer. I was one of the lowest paid engineers because I was so young.
It was a very frustrating time in the industry, and I think it was an easy jump. I am very frugal; I was saving every penny I was making. I am a vegetarian, and beans and rice are very cheap. My parents wanted to let me live with them, and I could get rid of my apartment. So starting a company with five friends seemed more interesting than staying in an industry that was seeing massive layoffs.
Did you have any role models or aspirations at the time? When we founded Plangrid, it was just a fun project. This was a tool I wanted to use in the field. Another founder was a construction engineer; He wanted to use it in the field. It was clear to us that we were solving a very simple problem – to remove all these ten thousand papers and throw them on a mobile device.
In terms of turning it into a viable business, we’ve had a chance. We were in the right place at the right time, and it was a miracle. Two construction engineers were good friends with three incredibly talented software developers, and we built PlanGrid.
What did your parents think when you told them you were going to start a company? They were very happy. The five of us were very happy to start a company; They knew my friends. They knew my boyfriend, and they were just like, “That’s cool. go over!” And so were business owners. And they said, “Yes, you have to be your own boss.”
They also didn’t like that I worked in construction; They didn’t think it was safe. We used to work crazy hours at the construction site to get the job done, my parents didn’t like me going out to the job site late with a bunch of guys.
How did you become the CEO of Plangrid? At first we were all doing everything. Then at some point we realized that we cannot have five co-founders; You can’t run with the team in five different directions. If a team member comes to me, doesn’t like what I’m saying, then I can’t go to the other founders of the company to get a better answer. It was very clear that one of us needed to lead, and my collaborators asked me to do it. At the time, I was a reluctant CEO. I have these stories ingrained in me, saying, “You guys are better than me. You are smarter than me. You are more educated than me. They finally convinced me by reminding me, “You were doing it anyway. Go ahead, do it. Go ahead, do the work.”
What have been some of the most difficult aspects of being a CEO? What surprised you? I knew nothing about business. I knew more about HIV systems and reinforcement strength than I did about business.
I didn’t know what financial metrics were important. I didn’t know how to handle super big egos. I didn’t know how to lead people or how to lead people. I was in the biggest job I’ve ever had and felt completely out of place every day. But we were successful because we actually built a great product that people liked to use and we were able to sell it.
The most challenging days were always related to something internal in the work, whether there were team members who were still working and needed to be managed, or there were very good team members who felt that it was not the right place for them and wanted to leave.
The way I constantly held myself back was to surround myself with people who were more talented than me, who could help me, teach me, show me how to do good things.
Your husband is your co-founder. what does it look like If you have a choice, don’t. Don’t complicate your life this way. If you choose it, you should know that it works. When there are arguments in your personal life about parenting or what have you or the business, there should be clear paths to resolution.
My husband and I are constantly solving problems together. That’s why we know it works. At least on the business side, there is a clear line of responsibility. It is technical. i am not. I am a business man; He is a technical person. So the decisions are very simple. We don’t fight much about anything; Because if it’s a technical architecture thing, it’s driven by me, and I trust him to figure it out. In terms of anything strategic about the business, or how to spend money, it’s my fault.
Women and Asian American women aren’t that common on construction sites, are they? How did you deal with the challenges you faced there? I was a serious engineer. I used to go to work places where people would just stare, and I was so uncomfortable, and I didn’t know why they were staring. I’m thinking, “Go do your job.” Am I trying to do my job? So I had no idea I stuck out like a sore thumb. How did I catch it? I was just laser focused on the job.
In terms of putting women in leadership, that’s a different story. Intelligence, hard work, leadership. It is equally distributed by gender. It’s evenly distributed across race, ethnicity, age, all those factors. But when we look at leadership, and it seems to be mainly one way, there is a big problem here.
There are not enough women in leadership, and the first step to change is recognition. So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about VC funding. In the year In 2021, female founders received only two percent of venture capital dollars.
I’ve definitely been in classes where I give explanations, and all questions go to my male co-founder. I’m thinking, “Wow! Didn’t I just give you an overview of the business? You can’t even look me in the eye!” I think it’s a systemic problem. I think it starts in childhood; I think it’s part of our cultural history, the way we treat women and girls and the words we use.
If you are a hard-working, hard-working person who is not happy with the world, with the products, with how the workplaces work, get out there. Be the change you want to see. That’s what I do. And, hey, you can have a lot of fun while you do it. You can work with great people because now you get to choose who your team is.
You have started two successful companies; Perhaps you have fulfilled your own dreams and the dreams of your parents. What are your dreams now? I dream about being a good mother. I have three small children. Every day these kids find a way to challenge me on that front. So this is the number one dream: don’t spoil them and let them be creative little clean creatures. Number two is to set a good example for the next female leaders. If even one woman starts a company because of me, that’s all worth it.
What do you like about America? Well, see how you look! I am a petite Asian woman. I started working in construction. I have to lead people. I need to find a company. I have to build a company. I would build a second company, and I don’t think I would have had the opportunities I did anywhere else.