Lead(H)er: Maria Paula Saba, VP of Design at ALICE
Maria Paula Saba went to a traditional design school in Rio de Janeiro, where her classes focused on teaching subjects like book cover and furniture design. Then, a one-off project done in collaboration with a computer science class changed her life.
She and her classmates designed a multi-touch interface, which is commonly found on iPhones and similar devices today but was new technology at the time.
“That’s what sparked my interest,” Saba said. “I knew I wanted to work with technology, but that was very hard to do back in Brazil.”
Saba hadn’t realized how much she wanted a career in tech until she moved to the United States for that career in 2011. She entered a training program at Siemens, but the experience left much to be desired.
“I would design things, and the developers would tell me what I had designed wasn’t possible to make,” Saba said. “But then when I asked them why, they’d usually tell me they weren’t going to explain anything because I wouldn’t understand.”
When Saba was offered to apply for a full-time position at Siemens after her training program ended, she didn’t do it. Instead, she went to NYU to pursue a master’s degree in the university’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, which welcomed creatives and engineers alike. There, Saba learned how to connect design, coding and other technologies. She wanted to make sure no one would ever dismiss her with the phrase “you wouldn’t understand” again.
As part of her thesis project, Saba created a programmable bracelet that she hoped would help get girls more interested in coding. The thesis eventually became a company, called Jewelbots, which sold thousands of units. While she found the work fulfilling, Saba began to miss having a more consistent income.
She mentioned this to Dmitry Koltunov, Director of the Startup Leadership Program that she was attending and co-founder of ALICE. The company’s software functions as an operations platform for internal communication and task management for hotel front offices, concierges, housekeeping staff, and maintenance teams, while guests can send text messages or use an app or to access information and services. At the time Saba and Koltunov spoke, ALICE was hiring for its design team, and he offered her a role as a design lead.
Saba soon became ALICE’s Director of Design, and is now its Vice President of Design. In this role, she’s responsible for running the product design team and ensuring that their work creates a cohesive user experience throughout the platform.
“A lot of my job is talking to the users and validating the designs we put out before we even develop them to make sure we’re going down the right path before investing our resources,” Saba said.
Saba knows that her skills in design, coding, and technology are equally valued at ALICE, a refreshing change from some of her other roles, and credits the attitude to the startup’s reflection of her own values. The fast pace of startup life itself is also a welcome change.
“In a corporate environment where things are already established, it takes so much energy to change anything,” Saba said. “In a startup, you’re creating the environment that you want to work in.”
During the rest of her time at ALICE, Saba is focused on making an impact in as many ways as possible. She’s built a strong, talented team—including some remote members working from Brazil—and hopes to keep them as engaged and interested in the work as possible.
“After ALICE, I think it’s just about doing that again and again with different projects and problems,” she said.
Quick Q and A
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have a dog, and I love to spend time with her and teach her new tricks. She’s very well trained. I also do aerial silks, which is a kind of acrobatic dance. I started back in Brazil and then continued here. When I lived in New Jersey, there was no place to take classes, so sometimes I’d go to New York for it. Now I can practice once or twice a week. I also like to travel and want to go to as many places as possible.
How do you handle stress?
Silks is one way. I started that when I got a little bored with yoga, so exercise helps. Meditation and mindful meditation are also good. I use the Headspace app, which my sister introduced me to, and it’s been so helpful to have that guidance.
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
I actually drink tea. In Brazil, the tea culture is not big, so when I got here I learned more about tea. I usually have one black tea in the morning, and I like the ones with some kind of flavor. I found a new berry flavored tea that I’m obsessed with.
What’s one of your favorite places in the New York City area?
I live in Williamsburg, and there’s a new park by the waterfront that I love. It has a beautiful view of the city skyline and a dog park, so my dog also likes that. It’s built where the old sugar factory was and was designed by the same architects as the High Line, so it’s really beautiful.
What’s one of your proudest accomplishments so far?
I’m very proud of Jewelbots. I never knew I could do something that would get that big. It started as a school project, and now it’s reached so many girls. I think people were happy with the product and with what they were able to do.
How does where you are right now compare to where you saw yourself 10 years ago?
Ten years ago, I wasn’t planning to move to the U.S. I was starting to become interested in technology, but I didn’t know I would go so far to pursue my career. I met my husband in Rio, and I had told him I was moving and he could join or not, but I was going for my career. I had no idea I would do something like that and be so determined to make a move of that magnitude. I was so attached to my friends and family. Now, 80 percent of my team is based in Brazil, so I created the opportunities that didn’t exist for me 10 years ago. I couldn’t work in technology in Rio then, but I have interns from the school that I went to that are able to have that experience from where they are. I’m quite proud of that.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
I think the biggest lesson that I learned in my master’s program is, don’t be afraid to learn new things. In my program, my professors told me that they weren’t going to teach us technology, because technology was going to change. In five years, everything is going to be different. They wanted to teach us how to learn. If you can learn how to learn, you have so many opportunities ahead of you. You’ll commit yourself to learning if you really want that new job. It’s can be really tough because not everyone is a self-learner, but we have Google. Someone else has had your question, so if you don’t know how to do something, Google it. Look for references on web forums. To be able to do that gives you independence. Things are always changing, and there’s no reason to stop learning just because you got a job.