Amazing Grace

By Doris Dumlao-Abadilla @Philbizwatche

March 13, 2022

She has always liked numbers even as a child. Her left brain tends to be more dominant, making her very detail-oriented and allowing her to analyze and process information quickly.

Maria Grace Yao Uy thus chose a field that deals with a lot of numbers and placed 16th in the 1989 certified public accountant licensure exams.

"I have always been a believer that finance serves as the heart of a business – once I read and analyze financial statements and historical data, I instinctively understand how a business is doing and what would be the best strategy moving forward," the president and co-founder of leading fiber internet provider Converge ICT Solutions says in an email interview with Inquirer.

After Converge's successful initial public offering in October 2020, this once low-profile woman could no longer avoid the spotlight. Last year, she and husband, Dennis Uy (of Pampanga, often confused with the businessman with the same name from Davao) debuted into Forbes' list of richest people in the Philippines, ranking sixth with an estimated net worth of $2.8 billion. She also landed on Forbes' 2021 "Asia's Power Businesswomen" list of 20 "influential" female business leaders in the region. This year, she made it to Forbes' 50 over 50 list, joining a powerhouse cast of women who were "shattering age and gender norms all over the globe."

Power couple

The daughter of immigrants from China who had come to Manila to find a better future, Uy is the youngest and the only girl in a brood of three. Her father worked for a plastic manufacturing company while her mother was an entrepreneur. She also admits to being the "most mischievous" and "ambitious" among the siblings.

"My mom was the most pivotal person in shaping me into who I have become today. She raised me to be hardworking, driven, goal-oriented and conscientious," she says. "She was also a large believer in the power of education. She always said that education is a precious gift that she can give us, and abiding by its disciplines will carve who we are and what we will create for our future," she says.

These are the same lessons she is now imparting to their three daughters.

After studying in De La Salle University and becoming a CPA, she worked for seven years at IBM Philippines. She met Dennis through common friends. At first, she thought he was much older because of his maturity and view on life. Dennis, who migrated to Pampanga from Fujian at the age of 11, was an outlier among the guys in her circles.

"He was very persistent and as I got to know him more, I started to see and admire his humorous and selfless traits," she recalls.

"We both grew up very fast and lost our childhood to life's responsibilities, but that hardship in our early years is the commonality that drew us together."

This year, the power couple will be celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

"I always felt that we were on the same wavelength: had the same dreams and values for the future, complemented and understood each other very well. They say if you are meant for each other, things will naturally fall into place."

She moved to Pampanga after their wedding and helped with the family's early businesses: ACCTN (a cable TV business), Savers Group (the mall, department store and appliance business) and ComClark (involved in systems integration, distribution of Sun Microsystems, Ruckus and Maipu products, and internet services). By 1996, the Uys started laying down fiber optic infrastructure for broadband. By 2007, Converge was born.

Building Converge

"Knowing we have a product that is powerful and that we will be able to uplift the digital lives of more Filipinos, is the foremost reason why we took on the challenge in growing Converge. We were David, and the competitors were Goliath," she says.

But getting into a capital-intensive business was not a walk in the park. Brick by brick they built the business, trusting their instincts and reinvesting earnings. From their bailiwick in Pampanga, they started expanding to nearby cities, provinces and municipalities and continued to grow their coverage year after year.

"Another major challenge was being unrecognized in the market. Since we would reinvest to grow our network reach instead of spending for advertising, it wasn't easy to get people to try Converge. But, thankfully, the good experience of our customers has helped in growing our subscriber base. The power of word of mouth is a true and proven marketing tool for us," she says.

To address operational constraints in building the network infrastructure, they created Metroworks, their in-house network construction arm. By bringing in top-of -the-line equipment and technology, they were able to build out faster and more efficiently because they controlled the whole process. By 2017, Converge has perfected its rollout operations.

"Once we reached a certain scale, we knew then that bringing in a partner will help accelerate our goal of reaching and serving the entire nation," she says.

US-based private equity fund Warburg Pincus came in as a strategic partner in 2019 with $250 million in fresh equity. Converge's $522-million IPO in 2020 and its entry into the main-share Philippine Stock Exchange index catapulted the couple to tycoon status.

To date, Converge is the country's fastest-growing high-speed fixed broadband operator, with residential subscriber base growing from just 530,000 in early 2020 to almost 1.58 million as of end-September 2021. For the second year in a row, Converge is among Inquirer and Statista's "Philippine growth champions."

"My management style is very democratic. I empower my leaders to feel the satisfaction of being responsible and accountable for their decisions. I think it is important to get everyone intrinsically motivated and excited, aligned with Converge's vision of becoming a world-class ICT provider that empowers people, business and the nation to be their best," she says.

She also values collaboration and participation and strives to foster an environment of teamwork and free flowing communication to ensure that each idea is comfortably voiced and heard. She gets excited to be in a room full of diverse people brainstorming.

"I truly believe that the more diverse perspectives held in decision-making, the more bulletproof the outcome," she says.

In sharing responsibilities, the Uys complement each other and ensure they are in complete alignment and understanding, especially when tackling multifaceted and complicated problems. They leverage on each other's strengths and cover each other's weaknesses across all decisions.

Ultimately, the Uys envision that Converge will help bring the Philippines at par with the best in the world when it comes to connectivity. To date, only 30 percent of households have internet connections and only about 20 percent have fiber connections.

Working woman

"One of my biggest struggles as a working woman and a mother is balancing family and work. I won't say it's easy — but it's definitely doable. Through prioritization and extreme organization, we do the best we can," she says.

Family still always comes first. But after over a decade of hard work and dedication, they feel that Converge and all the people in it have become their family too.

A typical day starts with a morning walk with the hubby and having breakfast together. After their daily grind, the two of them wind down, catch up, relax and have a drink before dinner.

Uy, who is turning 54 this April, also turns to yoga and pilates for exercise and relaxation.

"Raising three independent girls and being president and CRO (chief resources officer) at Converge, among my goals now is to empower my children and other women to speak out for themselves and make sure their voices are heard. I understand that not everyone has the platform to do so, thus, it is important to help others," she says.

She recognizes that her daughters -- who are now all young adults aged 18, 22 and 23 --- have their own path to take and it may not necessarily be in IT.

But she says they are definitely honing the next generation of leaders in Converge. "Our executive team all have their own strengths and weaknesses but we allow and trust them to be hands-on when tackling challenges in their departments," she says.

Her key advice to women in business? "Never be afraid of voicing out your story and opinions. Many women realize the ability to stand up for themselves to late—whether it be due to nurture or the Asian culture." INQ