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Jess Mah Was a High School Dropout—And an Entrepreneurial Genius



In middle school, when all her friends were raking leaves or shoveling snow for a few bucks, Jess Mah was starting her first company: a server-hosting business that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars—much more than her teachers were making. She never told her friends about her penchant for entrepreneurship at the time, but it wouldn’t be long before Mah, and her success, became undeniable.

Before entering the startup world, Mah dropped out of high school at age 15 and attended an early college program before studying computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was president of the computer science undergrad club. One of many speakers she brought to the club was “this pretty young kid who seemed really smart.” That kid turned out to be Sam Altman, long before he started ChatGPT creator OpenAI. Altman convinced Mah, as an aspiring entrepreneur, to apply to startup accelerator Y Combinator—and that ultimately jump-started her career. At age 19, she founded the business accounting and tax services company Indinero.

Imposter syndrome while navigating a successful business

Although Indinero would eventually see considerable success, Mah struggled with imposter syndrome while learning how to be a CEO and run a business at a young age. She received media attention, earning a spot on Forbes 30 Under 30 and landing the cover of Inc. magazine, while trying to make sure her company didn’t go bankrupt and fielding negative employee feedback.

“It took me 10 years of building that company, and now it’s great,” says Mah, who is now 33. “It’s profitable, and it makes millions of dollars. But I realized that I really hated being a CEO…. And the problem is, you get enough public and social validation that reinforces it, and it’s so unconscious. So, I just kind of woke up a few years ago and realized, ‘Wow, I just really absolutely don’t want to do this anymore.’ And so, now what I do today is [run] a firm called Mahway that I started with the proceeds I made from some of the other companies I’ve started. Now, I get to help start cool, bold companies and partner with other people who want to be a CEO, and it’s the best thing ever.”

Mahway: Jess Mah’s venture capital firm

With venture capital firm Mahway, Mah is able to stick to her entrepreneurial roots and help get companies off the ground, bringing in others who handle the day-to-day operations. She and her team of 12 partner with CEOs and help them with product prototypes, marketing and fundraising. Mah works with the CEOs on strategy and vision, and her team handles daily execution. Mahway now has 10 companies under its umbrella, and it’s just getting started.

“Creating a business is the ultimate way to manifest something really cool,” Mah says.

“Otherwise, I worry that I would just be a one-off artist, where I’m doing one thing by myself and then… it can’t exist without me. A business is a really effective mechanism to have something that blossoms and grows, even if you’re dead, right?”

Astonishing Labs

In addition to Indinero and Mahway, Jessica Mah has founded a stealth legal tech company as well as biotech venture creation vehicle Astonishing Labs that’s building bold biotech companies. One thing she’s learned since the early Indinero days is that the work has to be fun. “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong,” she says. “I think there’s a better way to do it and a less stressful way to do it. And the more you have good people around you, the less stressful it is.”

Having a close group of female founder friends has become an integral part of Mah’s life—and those relationships help to make the work fun. They also help inspire ways to stand out in a traditionally male-dominated field. As a female in business, Mah has always attempted to do things in unique ways, and she doesn’t shy away from making her presence known.

“I think a lot of women are super down-to-earth and humble, and they kind of knock themselves down more than they should…. Over the past two years, I just stopped giving a sh-t. I’ll drive my Lamborghini to an investor meeting. I’ll take my jet to go meet an investor for coffee,” says Mah, who is herself a pilot and personally flies her aircraft. “I’ll do ridiculous things like that just because I can. I don’t really care what anyone thinks. I think people are more likely to do deals with people who have that authenticity and… who are trying to have more fun along the way.”

Mah’s mission is to help women in business

Someone who modeled those qualities for Mah was her hero and friend, the late Tony Hsieh, Zappos founder. “Just the way he lived, he was always like, ‘How do we make work fun?’ That’s rule No. 1,” Mah says. “And then, how do we create higher-vibration feelings, which leads to more magic and serendipitous encounters happening. He always talked about serendipity and magic, and he created that through the culture of everything he did in work and personal life…. So, I picked up on that, and I do all that today.”

Mah aims to create magic in the AI and biotech spaces in particular over the next decade. She says that she and her Mahway team have an overwhelming number of ideas and are trying to stay focused on a few new companies per year. She doesn’t have a target number but foresees forming at least 20 new startups in the next 10 years. Her advice to women aspiring to do the same thing is simple: be yourself and ask questions.

“With women in business, I think the No. 1 thing is authenticity,” Mah says. “It is counterintuitive, but I think the more yourself you are, the easier it is to bring in great talents and attract capital. And, two, I was pretty unapologetic about calling random people for help and advice when I started…. Most people ignored me, but I’d say a third of the people replied,” including the co-founder of PayPal and the founders of Reddit.

Her secret? Find like-minded people

Now, Mah continues to seek out intelligent, successful people—but this time it’s to help her run her companies. She says in the world of entrepreneurship, it’s about who, not how.

“Who is the best person in the world to do this, and how would I reach those people first to get their advice?” she says. “The best people aren’t money motivated. The best people are mission and vision motivated, so you can inspire them with what you’re trying to create.”

Although Mah has already seen significant success in the business world, she has the desire to keep creating, over and over again, with like-minded people who support each other.

“I think the goalposts do move and that even people who you think have made it are still hunting because they love it,” Mah says. “So, this idea of ‘I’ll have made it’ may or may not ever come—and I have comfort with that. And I think having great women communities is important…. It’s really important to build that sisterhood early. I don’t know where I’d be without that.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of Jess Mah.

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