Frequence Life

Tech, Muay Thai, and The Art of Doing Hard Things

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t immediately see a connection between tech and the martial art of Muay Thai (known to many - incorrectly, as the team at Frequence would soon learn - as “Thai kickboxing”). In a program co-sponsored by the Women at Frequence and Fitness at Frequence Employee Resource Groups, Frequence recently welcomed tech professionals Erin Clayton and Jeannie Nguyen - who happen to be two highly skilled Muay Thai competitors. Erin and Jeannie spoke with Frequence team members about balancing the challenge of building careers in data and software while simultaneously rising to the elite level of international Muay Thai competition as members of the US National Muay Thai Team

Kate Tucker, head of Frequence’s People Team, invited Erin and Jeannie to speak to Frequence. To Kate, the idea made perfect sense. “Across the Frequence team, we have a lot of athletes. I played volleyball at Villanova on an athletic scholarship; we have a lot of team members who also were college athletes, and more who continue to be active in sports just for fun and fitness. So the chance to spend time with two highly skilled women who have been able to carve out successful careers in tech - a path that’s historically been a challenge for women - while being able to compete at the highest level of their sport was really compelling to our team.” 

For both Erin Clayton and Jeannie Nguyen, a career in tech seemed to always be in the cards. “I grew up in Carpinteria, California”, Erin told the group, “and like most engineering and tech people, I always liked math and science.” Jeannie’s path to a career in technology was a bit different. Born and raised in Orange County, California, Jeannie’s family came to the US during the Vietnam War. For immigrant families, Jeannie observed, “stability is king. It’s all you’re really working for. So growing up, everything is focused around school…I was really into STEM and science.” Although they didn’t know it at the time, both Erin and Jeannie’s high school efforts would land them at UCLA; Jeannie would go on to earn a degree in computer science, while Erin would earn hers in material engineering. 

Erin Clayton (L) takes on a challenger.

Their careers would take them on slightly different trajectories. Erin’s first job out of college was teaching computer science at a school for girls. She ultimately decided to “take the dive into tech”; soon after landing a tech support role with a Santa Barbara technology startup, her talents with data were quickly recognized, and thus began her career in data analysis and engineering. Jeannie would spend 6 years in software engineering roles, ultimately moving into an engineering management position.

What wasn’t pre-ordained for either Jeannie or Erin: becoming two of America’s best Muay Thai fighters.

“I was most definitely not an athlete,” recalled Jeannie. “I had never done any sport competitively, up through college.” But growing up, Jeannie said that she “was obsessed with old-school kung fu and martial arts movies.” As a kid, her desire to take martial arts lessons was stymied. “My mom was like, that’s not a thing that polite girls do.” After settling into her first post-college job, Jeannie felt a bit unfulfilled. One of her friends lived next to the Thai Boxing Institute in Los Angeles; her friend was also curious about the sport, and asked Jeannie if she wanted to give Muay Thai a try. As Jeannie put it: “One day we walked in, and we never really left.” 

Erin, on the other hand, had plenty of athletic experience; she had played soccer and volleyball and had been a competitive horseback rider. “My husband - boyfriend at the time - had been doing Muay Thai for about six months and told me ‘you like kicking stuff in soccer, maybe you’ll like kicking people,” she jokingly recalled. But in reality, the thought of actually fighting someone didn’t sit well with her, at least at first. She was interested in taking Muay Thai classes for fun, with “no intention of fighting. I had a fear of it.” After a year of taking Muay Thai classes while still a student at UCLA, Erin began training at the Thai Boxing Institute - and a little over a year later, got into the ring for her first fight. It would be the first of many.

Jeannie Nguyen

For both Erin and Jeannie, the next few years would challenge them physically, mentally and emotionally. Balancing successful careers in tech while putting in hours of training at the gym - not to mention the national and eventual international travel required when competing at a high level - was quite a lot to handle. “I was training in the morning before I went in to work,” Jeannie said. “Then I’d leave immediately and go to the gym, two, three hours of training, then a quick sleep, then do it again.” Both women ultimately realized that their Muay Thai was paying off - winning fights earned them spots on the U.S national Muay Thai team - and that a change might be necessary. For Erin, that meant stepping away from full-time employment and moving into a consulting role, scheduling her work around her Muay Thai schedule. For Jeannie, it meant stepping away from her tech career and moving into the world of Muay Thai full-time, as both an international competitor and a coach at the Thai Boxing Institute. 

Their experiences and stories resonated with the Frequence audience. In speaking about their time as both tech professionals and dedicated martial artists, both Erin and Jeannie drew parallels between the two. Jeannie spoke about how problems can, in a way, be gifts. “Sometimes new hires come in and they’re certain about what their team and the company are going to look like,” Jeannie observed, “and the moment they start seeing problems, they’re disillusioned. What I tell them is, hey, you see a problem, maybe that's why you were hired. You were brought in to fix something to add value, and maybe, it's your particular perspective that lets you see the thing that's broken.”  Erin spoke about how her training has helped her deal with imposter syndrome. “Whether it’s my data job, or the job of getting in the ring, something brought me here - I happen to be the person for the job that day,” Erin said. “I’ve just got to show up and give my best.” 

Both women emphasized the connection between confidence in the ring and confidence in the workplace. Jeannie recalled that as a young girl, she often felt that “the idea of growing up was always to make yourself quieter and smaller.” As a fighter, she quickly learned the importance of making and holding space - both as a martial artist and as a woman working in the tech sector. “When I started competing and fighting it became very clear that that doesn't work. You have to be comfortable taking up space; you shouldn't be apologetic about existing. Your existence can, in many ways, make things better, not just for yourself, but for the people around you. And so, it was learning to physically take up space in the ring, to stand there, and hold my ground. ‘I am gonna be here. I deserve this.’ That translated into being able to hold my space in the workforce, to understand that I was qualified enough to be speaking at meetings, to be leading teams, to have the right solution.” 

Erin and Jeannie left no doubt in the Frequence team’s mind that they are both great role models, in and out of the ring. “There’s a really strong connection between sports and business,” notes Kate Tucker.  “You need to learn to work with others, and you need to learn resilience - whether it’s working to beat a rival, working to overcome an injury, or working to solve a particular technology challenge.”

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