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Movers & Shakers: Yoky Matsuoka creates Yohana to help busy families thrive

Could you ever use an extra set of hands? Seattle-based Yohana is described as "the first-ever personal assistant service for busy parents," leveraging technology to help you conquer that to-do list. It was developed by Yoky Matsuoka, a powerhouse in the fields of engineering and computer science — and herself a busy working mom.

Matsuoka built the world’s first modern robotic hand. She is a 2007 MacArthur Fellow who taught at the University of Washington and held executive roles at Apple, Google and Twitter. She helped inspire a STEM Barbie. Matsuoka navigated this barrier-breaking career while raising four children.

It's that incredibly impressive balancing act that motivated Matsuoka to help lighten the load for other working mothers. In a world where women hold just 27% of all tech jobs — and that number shrinks up the ladder— Matsuoka is challenging this status quo in Seattle.

From the beginning, Yohana has focused on improving the well-being of families by using technology to help the modern family thrive.

Matsuoka was born and raised in Japan and moved to America when she was 16, "I initially came to the U.S. to focus on tennis, which was my passion growing up. But was forced to sideline my hopes of playing professionally due to an injury."

Despite this setback, Matsuoka says she was fortunate to discover a new passion in science and technology. She earned her B.S. from the University of California, Berkeley, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT.

Currently based in the Bay Area, Matsuoka calls Seattle a second home, "I had three out of my four children while I was a professor at the University of Washington, and have many friends and happy memories there. I had always dreamed of having a big family with many children, but to balance my career and family, I stopped at four."

Matsuoka formally studied electrical engineering and computer science, but she also studied neuroscience, business and medicine. Her career began in academia as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Washington.

"During my tenure at UW, I founded and directed the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering and the Neurobotics Laboratory to create devices to restore the human body's capabilities for sensation and movement," Matsuoka explains.

She made the leap to Silicon Valley and held such impressive roles as CTO of Google Nest, Vice President at Google’s Healthcare organization, co-founder of Google X, a senior executive at Apple and CEO of Quanttus, a wearable health technology startup.

"Regardless of my role, I’ve always been motivated by a desire to create cutting-edge technology and solutions that empower people to be the best versions of themselves," Matsuoka says. "With this next chapter as Founder and CEO of Yohana, all the pieces have come together — from my background in A.I. to building consumer products, and even being a working mom."

Yohana emerged in a culture where we are all constantly told to "push, push, push," and many families have pushed beyond their limits.

"As a mother of four, I knew families were in crisis and were too busy to even type a to-do list on their smartphones," Matsuoka explains. "And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and amplified the problem. Now two years into it, parents have reached their breaking point. The pandemic brought issues to the forefront that were always there, but amplified pain points. From lack of childcare, to lack of connection, and a general feeling of being super stressed, overwhelmed and at the brink, the well-being of our families has been compromised."

Gone are the days when people had a built-in support system from extended family living nearby or close-knit communities to rely on. Getting support or asking for help, even with 'the little things,' can often feel out of reach.

"We need solutions and innovation that helps support real, everyday issues that all families are facing, so that they can get those moments that truly matter back," says Matsuoka.

"I created Yohana because I wanted to help other parents like me who were being crushed by the pressure and unrealistic standards of balancing career and family. These problems have existed for a long time, but the pandemic made them unbearable. I wanted to create something that would finally help solve a problem that nearly every family faces by being there for them holistically."

Yo Assistants aims to do just that. The monthly membership is designed to support families by giving them the extra help to take on whatever the modern world throws at them and help them get more time back. Families get matched with their own dedicated personal assistant — a real person and professional problem solver — to help complete everyday needs. Only available in Seattle, theYohana Membership is the first tech-enabled personal assistant service created specifically for parents.

"We get to know you, we become a part of your village," Matsuoka says. "And in turn, our support cultivates well-being for your family. Whether you need help scheduling an appointment, help buying a special gift, ordering a bouquet or a great idea for date night, or when you’re in that moment of juggling and not sure if you can get it all done, we offer some ideas to restore your well-being so you can get your head above water again."

As a technologist, Matsuoka saw the opportunity to help families in a meaningful way using AI and machines. But she identified a disconnect between technology and complex daily life activities.

"For example, AI smart assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant are good for setting a timer, getting news and weather, and maybe making a dinner reservation, but it cannot help you plan your daughter's birthday party and allow you to enjoy that day with her," she says.

While juggling it all, Matsuoka focuses on mindfulness and living in the moment, "I know I only have one life to live and I’ve made the commitment to myself to do my best to live every day to the fullest and take it one day at a time."

Matsuoka continues, "I had four children because being a mom has always been my favorite job. I pursued my career in Silicon Valley because I wanted to build solutions to empower people to live the life of their dreams and be the best versions of themselves. It is important to me that my contributions to society and to tech are unique and meaningful. As a mother, I saw my everyday struggle as an opportunity to help people and bring solutions for very real pain points that women and families are facing."

Matsuoka encourages busy families to give it a try, “Become a Yohana member, and give us feedback and help us make our service truly work for as many modern families as possible. What we are building is something everyone should have so they can pursue what they want."

"Also, use the extra time gained to pursue STEM! Women feel more comfortable pursuing STEM when they see other women in similar roles. So by pursuing STEM yourself, you are helping others pursue it as well. Then build something amazing for the society and show off how your skills in STEM can truly help others and change the world for future generations."

When it comes to the future, Matsuoka admits she is still working on being the best version of herself, "I try every day to be a good mother and I want to create those moments with them that I feel I am contributing to their lives in a positive way. I try every day to be a good daughter of aging and ailing parents, and a good spouse for my partner, but I am not doing anywhere nearly as good of a job as I would like to, and I need a bit more help to become the best version of myself here."

She concludes, "I try every day to be a good leader, a good friend and a good citizen for society, and my future plan is to continue to grow Yohana and build products and services that allow myself and others to be able to live fully and joyfully.”

Corinne Whiting is a freelance writer for Seattle Refined. Follow her work and adventures here.

Movers & Shakers is a series about people in the PNW who are making moves, doing big things, and who are just, in general, being amazing. Seattle is full of multi-talented and multi-faceted people, many at the intersection of technology and the arts. How do they find the time? What's their secret? Well, friends, we're here to find out. Meet Movers & Shakers: a window into the lives of impressive locals. If you have a recommendation for us, email hello@seattlerefined.com.

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