Margaret Yao is a California surfer who is also the general manager of Bing/Jacobs surfboards. Her attitude in the water and in life is to make every moment count. We recently spoke with Margaret to find out more.
What was your life like growing up?
I grew up in Southern California, but nowhere near the ocean. I was raised in Arcadia, a small suburb near Pasadena. My parents immigrated from Taiwan, so naturally education was a priority. I also took to competitive swimming around age 11 and learned to love sports.
When did you get your first surfboard?
During my sophomore year at UCLA, my best friend and I decided we would get a couple surfboards and learn to surf. So at age 20, I started surfing. We checked out a couple surf shops in the area and finally settled on a 9’0” Wave Tools for her and a 9’0” bright yellow, late 80’s Infinity for me. The board was probably 3 ½” thick; it was a monster.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
My friend and I were teammates on the UCLA water polo team, so when we started to learn surfing, the paddling part was a cinch. Unfortunately, the standing up part wasn’t so pretty. I think on our first go-out, we paddled for the same wave and ended up crashing into one another. So, within a matter of seconds, we had experienced our first wave, our first crash and our first surfboard dings! It was disappointing, but I wasn’t discouraged and eventually I got the hang of it. And I definitely learned the “one person to a wave” rule really quickly!
Who did you look up to and admire when you were younger?
Definitely my parents for all the challenges they faced building a new life in a foreign country. My teachers and professors for the inspiration they instilled in me to enrich my own mind and continue to learn throughout life. My coaches for pushing me when I wanted to quit. And Hap Jacobs, not only for his kindness and wisdom, but for introducing me to a love of surfboards.
How did you get involved in the surfboard business?
I’d been surfing for a few years when Hap Jacobs invited me to be on his team. It was such an honor. One day, when I dropped by to talk about my next board, he told me he was retiring and introduced me to the guy who would be taking over his business and factory. His name was Matt Calvani. I instantly remembered his face because I had surfed the same peak at El Porto with him just days earlier and he didn’t once glance my way or give me the time of day! I was pretty sure this wasn’t a good thing, having to order my boards from this rude fella. Matt would prove me wrong over the next couple months and eventually he asked me out. Those were some of the happiest days of my life.
But sadly, those days came to abrupt end when my dad passed away in a fatal car accident. I was 25 and my little brother, Wes, was only 14. My life felt like it had unraveled. I decided to take a leave of absence (from my job) and move home to live with my mom and little brother. Meanwhile, Matt always checked in to see how I was doing. Matt’s support was probably the most critical part of my recovery and ultimately led to my biggest life change.
He had moved into Hap’s factory and was building surfboards for the Bing, Jacobs, Lance Carson and Rick Surfboards labels. Board orders were flooding in, but he was slowly drowning from the administrative side of the business. I had been a business consultant for four years, so getting a little startup surfboard business organized and running efficiently was definitely within my abilities. So, I agreed to help him out for four to six months while I prepared for my exam and filled out applications (for business school).
My first order of business was to purchase a computer and set up a small office in the factory. Before we knew it, it had been six months and it was time to take my exam and start my graduate school applications. But something had dramatically changed. It was a no-brainer; I threw out my applications and embraced the foam dust!
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
The first big surf trip Matt coaxed me into taking with him was to Tavarua, Fiji. At the time, I was strictly longboarding and was nowhere near ready to surf the kind of waves they had there. Matt shaped me my first shortboard—a 6’4” that was airbrushed pink with a flower on the deck. This was Matt’s sixth trip to Tavarua, so he gave me the rundown on how things operated. Keep in mind that I could barely paddle a shortboard into a wave and get to my feet.
So, the first day on the island, I’m standing with a group of all guys with my pink shortboard under my arm, waiting for the boat to pull up. We’re the last ones to get in and, after Matt gets in, the broad-shouldered Fijian driving the boat cracks a huge grin, showing two missing teeth, and says with surprise, “Hey lady, you gonna surf Cloud Break???” I could’ve burst into tears if I hadn’t been so mortified by embarrassment. With what little shred of pride I had left, I reluctantly sulked into the boat and awaited my doom.
We pulled up just outside of where the wave broke just to see a set wave crash onto the reef and send six feet of feathering spray into the air. I WAS TERRIFIED. Everyone hopped out of the boat frothing to get into the lineup. A few more dreadful minutes of silence passed while I watched everyone catch amazing glassy left-hand peelers that looked so fun. Then, Mr. Smiley Face finally broke the silence, “Well, lady, are you going to surf?” I don’t know what came over me at that instant, but I grabbed my board and leash, and hopped into the water and paddled over to the lineup.
I went for a few small ones at first and got pretty battered by the lip of the wave; it just came so fast and so powerfully I barely had time to react. I probably sat for a good hour outside trying to work up the nerve to go for a bigger wave. Then, the whistle for everyone to paddle in sounded and the lineup was starting to empty. I had run out of time and was starting to feel pretty defeated when suddenly this wave started coming right for me. Maybe it was beginner’s luck, but somehow I had managed to paddle in, get to my feet and then the wave opened up perfectly and it was pure euphoria. Everyone in the boat cheered when I kicked out and paddled back to the boat. I’ll never forget that day at Cloud Break.
Who or what inspires you?
The strength of my family in overcoming the challenges we’ve faced. People who pursue their passions despite the obstacles that lie before them.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Making every moment count. Some have accused me of being a “busy body,” but I just can’t bear the thought of a wasted moment.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
I could say that I regret not discovering surfing earlier in my life, but I feel too blessed to have even found it at all and to be able to build my life, love and career around it. So, no regrets.
What are you most proud of?
Making the then difficult decision to leave the corporate world and pursue a different career path in an uncertain surf industry. A lot of people tried to talk me out of it; they said that my job was stable and so was the paycheck, that if things didn’t work out in the surf industry, it would be super hard to come back. But if ever there was a calling, this was it.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing started out as a hobby, but along the way, it evolved into a lifestyle and then a saving grace during a rough time in my life. Now, it’s become my livelihood and life’s passion.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
The comfort of knowing that my family is safe and happy, that my world is in balance and that I’m making the most out of the precious time I have on this Earth.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
There are too many, but I’ll just name a few that come to mind. I know I’m biased, but of course Matt Calvani, who has such a deep dedication and love for the craft of board-building and despite his 20 years in the business, surprises me with his enthusiasm for new designs and constant refinement of existing designs.
And surfers like Chris Del Moro, who is so talented in so many different facets and has made a name for himself in the professional surfing arena without having to compromise on the kinds of boards he rides or the ideals he stands for. Also, filmmakers Tiffany Campbell and Andria Lessler for creating a beautiful film (Dear and Yonder) that brings awareness to the history, power and beauty of women’s surfing.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
It’s like asking a girl what her favorite pair of shoes are. My “go to” longboard that I bring with me on practically every surf trip is my single fin, rounded pintail Jacobs Traditional Noserider. It works in just about every “longboardable” type of wave. But lately, I’ve been obsessed with quad fishes.
What’s your favorite meal?
What are you most grateful for?
Being able to love what I do, make a living at it, travel the world and all the while sharing every moment of it with my best friend.
What’s next for Margaret Yao?
Gearing up for another busy summer, squeezing in a quick surf trip and then Matt and I have finally made the time to tie the knot this Fall. We figured if we could work, surf and live together all these years, it’s definitely meant to be.
Find out more about Margaret Yao here.