ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was while eating lunch alone in a London restaurant that Mark Chavez had what he calls his awakening.
A South Valley kid who was in the middle of Silicon Valley’s tech boom and was living in London developing new markets for his employer, Salesforce.com, Chavez suddenly realized how completely hooked he was on constantly pulling out his phone to check his email, his Facebook page, his other social media accounts.
“I just thought, when was the last time I had an hour and was just present, and it hit me,” Chavez recalled. “That’s not possible anymore. We’ve raised a whole generation that only understands validation from what other people are telling them (online) about themselves – how many likes, how many comments.”
Chavez says he knew “as part of my job on the inside, how Silicon Valley strived to attract more users to spend ever more time on their platforms and harvest their data” with methods he likens to cigarette companies seeking to keep people hooked on tobacco.
With that realization, he decided to abandon his career and delete his entire online presence.
“I sold everything,” he said. “I burned everything to the ground and went back to the beginning.”
He also abandoned aspects of his personal life, including the name he had adopted when he first left New Mexico for college in Texas – Trae Chancellor – and an accompanying persona meant to “completely run away from who I was.”
“I played a whole different character, totally played it,” he said. “I thought I was completely inadequate, inferior and I couldn’t be that Hispanic kid from the South Valley. And there’s a more personal side. I’m gay. So I learned how to mask things at the earliest age.”
He returned to New Mexico last January, changed his name back to Mark Chavez and launched his new company, Lens, which aims to help people do what he did: disconnect from Facebook and other platforms to reclaim their own data.
Lens will offer a cloud-free device through which customers can share information with people of their choosing, he said. Users will have control over their personal data, and companies that want to see it will have to pay the individual for access.
Chavez said Lens is meant to counteract “these monopolies that get all our data and basically send it out to market to be sold for hundreds of billions of dollars, and we get nothing.”
It’s also meant to help people get away from what he sees as the destructive nature of getting hooked on spending so much time online.
“My personal journey is sort of the story of Lens,” he said. “It’s really to bring sort of the same experience that I’ve had coming to terms with finding internal validation as opposed to looking for it out there.”
For someone who was so immersed in the world of big tech, isn’t it ironic that your new product aims to help people avoid the cloud?
Right. But the conflict I had when I was at Salesforce was to really see the methods that were being applied to create what we considered to be a 360-degree view of the customer. We needed to know every interaction of our customer to understand how we could sell and market to them. It’s scary to understand how much information we could find on an individual. And we bought companies … to fill out this entire profile of the customer. If you want to look at the monetization, just look at the valuation of these companies. It’s incredible how much data is worth in this market that the individual isn’t even participating in.
What were you like as a kid?
First of all, I grew up in the South Valley on a ranch. My childhood was surrounded by ranch life. Getting up early, going to sleep early, but really, really … incredible values that are still with me. I was absolutely fascinated with science and technology, and that’s what really drove me toward nuclear engineering.
You went to Rio Grande High?
Yes, although I actually didn’t fit in anywhere. Obviously, I liked riding h orses. I was a cowboy. I did play sports, but I didn’t fit in any one group. When I look back now, I always lived completely independent of systems. I think that really comes out today, and that’s my starting point. That’s why I can disconnect from pop culture and the other things and really question what’s happening underneath this and why is it there. And really being independent of all that.
After working in Silicon Valley and in London, did you ever think you’d be back in New Mexico?
No. I didn’t think I would have the opportunity to be back because my career was taking me to different places, but there are no coincidences, I believe, in life, and I think I do have a special set of circumstances in my own professional, spiritual and personal journey that can be applied in today’s world, and one is to build Lens.
Was it difficult when you disconnected three years ago?
Oh, yeah. What I clearly understand … is it’s not easy to get out of social media. It’s confronting addiction, pure and simple. You feel like you’ve left the structure that has become so life critical to you. All of a sudden, especially friends of mine, of course, they know I’m kind of independent. But they’re like,”we can’t find you anywhere, this is ridiculous.” But what happened is today I actually have stronger relationships with my friends because they’ll send me personal things. It’s not what do I read about them on Facebook or social media; they actually send me something specific with a personal note. I kind of like that.
What do you do in your free time?
My free time now is really about spending time with my family. To be here near my mom is a very special gift to me. It feeds the soul.
My newest hobby, being back in New Mexico, is travel in the state. There are so many points of interest that I can learn from and be inspired by. I picked up golf. So we as a (work) team, I thought it would be a humbling sport for all of us.
What are some of your favorite places?
Chaco Canyon ranks as No. 1 for me. I was really moved by being there. For whatever reason, I’m fascinated with former Soviet-era bloc countries – Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia. The richness in that history is quite interesting. London has been a real interesting focal point for me because of the diversity. When you go to dinner, you’re having conversations with people from around the world, and I thrive and starve for that diversity. New Mexico embodies a lot of that, too, but London takes that to another level.
What are your favorite foods?
New Mexican. Barelas (Coffee House) is my favorite restaurant here. I know the whole staff. It’s just a fantastic place to feel like you’re in the community and local.
Any hidden talents?
Writing. I take that from my mom. It’s non-fiction, but I like to put myself two years from now. So right now, I like to write that I’m living in 2020 and how’s my experience. What does the world look like?
What are your splurges?
Netflix is a splurge for me, and I am going to disconnect from that, I decided. I think the reason for that is I just want to know I can. Of course, there’s beautiful, great content, but at what cost (when) you think about the amount of time that’s (involved). And that’s what I try to evaluate now.
Do you have any role models?
My dad and mom, obviously were two important role models for me. The other natural choice is Elon Musk. I mean, where did this guy come from? His investment model is he understands there’s a threat to humanity, so what can he do? Well, he’s going to invest in solar and battery. He’s going to build cars to take carbon dioxide out and, last resort, rockets to get us to another planet if all else fails. I think that’s amazing.
If you’d asked me that a year ago, I would have had a ton of regrets, but today I don’t. Now that I look at the experiences that I’ve had and how they fit clearly into this role, I have no regrets.