SPRING ISSUE 2009
Grace Kono-Wells, a petite dynamo who comes across as a do-gooder and a vegetarian who would rather save the life of the mosquito who bit her, and with a Wal-mart greeter’s persona, would be the last person one would think could hold the reins on Vernon, one of the baddest bad guys in Hollywood. Remember his iconic roles of “Wez” in the film “Road Warrior” and “Bennett” in “Commando?.” And the list goes on.
Kougar Magazine had the pleasure of joining the Wells’ in their home overlooking the Pacific one afternoon where Vernon and Grace plop down on their oversized, squishy sofa to get comfortable while Molly, their new Basset Hound rescue, settles at their feet. A family portrait! We start off by telling Vernon that this is Grace’s interview and he’s not allowed to be a ham (because he is!) Grace joins in by giving him a stern look and he reluctantly agrees to be good.
Grace’s success today stems from a past of learning things the hard way. Having grown up in the inner city of Gardena, California, life wasn’t always easy. Though there was gang violence, shootings, and the occasional riot, life wasn’t that bad—not compared to some of the surrounding areas. The community was supportive and the schools were good. But Grace lacked the self-esteem and confidence to overcome much of the roadblocks to her ultimate success. Looking at her now, lack of self-confidence would be the last thing that would come to mind.
GRACE GETS HER START
KM: Grace! You’ve obviously caught our eye as being a most fascinating woman. You’ve managed to single-handedly build a mini empire in the transcription/translation business - would you consider school your first stepping stone to bigger and better things?
GRACE: To tell you the truth, I hated school. I wouldn’t say I was unpopular—just non-existent. Looking back, my hatred for anything scholastic was probably due to my low self-esteem. Because I was stereotyped “Japanese”--which meant you were a goody-two-shoes and did well in school, especially in math—my instincts were to rebel. My best friend and I would do anything and everything that was against the stereotype. We would ditch school and rebel as much as possible.
KM: Including failing in math?
GRACE: (laughs) I didn’t even have to try to fail in math. Let’s just say I did a lot of bad things a nice girl wouldn’t do. But I have to say that though I had no self-esteem, I had perseverance and was a quick thinker. I relied on that to get me out of hot water plenty of times. I think I was bored and was trying to find myself. Like most kids, I didn’t know what I wanted, didn’t have an identity, and just didn’t care about a lot of things. In high school, we had an “Open Club Day” where clubs invited students to join them. Most of the clubs rejected me because of my poor grades, and maybe because I didn’t fit their “model.” Then I joined “The Motown Get-It-Together Club!” I walked in and, of course, everyone was black so I asked, "Do you have to be black to join?” And they said, “No Girl! Come on in!” I ended up becoming Secretary/Treasurer of the club! It was the first time I had so many friends. Everyone was really cool, and well, it turned out to be a Community-Service Club! We did great things for the community, the elderly, and the school itself. It was a really good club to be in. I loved it.
GRACE: Yeah, in the fact that it brought my self-esteem up. I still didn’t go to my Senior Prom…but I DID graduate!
KM: When you graduated, what were your ideals? Where did you see yourself down the road?
GRACE: You know, I thought life would end at 30 – ‘cause I had no ambition at all! My mom suggested that I take some secretarial courses. She said, “Look, if you’re not going to be a doctor or a lawyer, at least you’ll be able to type!” So I did – and still, I didn’t do THAT well…
VERNON: Now they call her “Ferrari Fingers”!
GRACE: …but my teacher told me one day that a group of girls were going to be taking a test at the Los Angeles Air Force Base and I should go with them. I hemmed and hawed but finally she convinced me to go. So I took the test…and it was easy! Lo and behold, the next day I got a call from them wanting to interview me. Me! I was 17! I bought a teen magazine to see how I should wear my hair, what I should wear…I typed up a resume, I was really nervous! Miss Has-been, Washed-up, Unpopular Grace. I was hired and, looking back, it was the best job I’ve ever had - and I love my business now, but I was being asked out for the first time by these adorable 1st and 2nd lieutenants (Vernon yawns), and the office staff was really nice! They were all like, “Aw, Little Gracie…” and they nurtured, inspired, encouraged, and mentored me. It really felt like family, everyone helping each other. Betty, the Senior Secretary, took me under her wing and taught me the ropes and built my self-esteem. I went from feeling like a “no-body” in school to having Generals and Colonels come directly to me and ask me to do special jobs for them. I had barely gotten by in school so I had to rely on my street-smarts, and they trusted and respected me!
KM: So then your self-esteem must have been through the roof! Is that when you decided to start your own business?
GRACE: Yes and no. That’s when I first started thinking that I could go into business for myself. I moved on to private sector – TWA, and got to work for the first space shuttle mission. That was cool. Then I moved outside of government work, determined to move up the ladder. I started picking up work from an outside secretarial service. I watched how the woman ran her business and learned what not to do. When I was 24, after the devastating experience of being laid off, I decided to start my own business, Keystrokes BSC (Business Support Center). The problem was, I didn’t know where to begin! I didn’t know about business licenses or marketing or any of that! But I started with small steps. I first started soliciting clients by writing to the new businesses published in the newspaper. I would congratulate them and offer my services and, little by little, people started calling me. It was a very slow start but I hung in there and eventually I got very busy! To think I started working out of my apartment with only a typewriter!
KM: When was your first transcription job?
GRACE: It wasn’t long after I started. It was for an interview with Mel Gibson for GQ Magazine. When they called and asked if I could do it, I said, “Sure I can do it!” I had no idea how to transcribe so I called friends of mine who were in the legal business and they told me what to do. Same thing with legal stuff - “Can you do a deposition?”, “Can you do a briefing?” I didn’t even know what those words meant but again, I was like, “Sure! No problem!” and I’d call my legal secretary friends and they’d guide me through. And that’s how I learned -- on the fly because I didn’t want to say no to any job! My reputation spread, more businesses came to me. Then I started needing help, so I hired a couple people and that’s when I really started learning management skills.
KM: What’s your business philosophy? How are you able to make Keystrokes such a success?
GRACE: I realized early on that I had an innate ability to manage people well. Treating people like people is the core concept. If you think about where you came from, your roots, and how your boss treated you – if it was good or bad, you remember that, so when you are in their shoes, you’ll treat people the way you wanted to be treated. If you treat your employees as colleagues, I think the environment is healthier. Things work out much better when everyone is happy, working together as a team, with the goal being to make the customer happy. With that philosophy, we started getting busier until I had to let go of all of my non-transcription clients and begin focusing solely on transcription/translation – and there I found my niche. Because I was able to narrow my focus and improve the quality of my work, the business took the high road.
VERNON: And WHO convinced you to do this?
GRACE: I convinced myself to do this.
VERNON: WHO convinced you to do this?
GRACE: (giggling) You did some of the convincing…
VERNON WINS GRACE’S HEART
KM: Speaking of! When did the two of you meet?
GRACE: Oh! Well…Oh, ok. You can tell this part.
VERNON: Sheesh! “Oh, I’m too shy to be interviewed!” Good lord woman, you can talk! (He grabs her knee and she giggles) I was looking for someone to do my resume and some other work. I rang up quite a few places and Grace was one of them and I liked her voice. EVEN though she was the most expensive, I decided I would go with her. So I took my stuff over to her office. I walked in the door, I looked at Grace, and it was one of those “love at first site” things. I wanted to impress her, so I would do all of the manly things like…be very…manly. I stood against the door talking to her, not realizing that the door wasn’t closed, and I landed on my ass…of course, you know, I MEANT to do that! And she had no idea who I was and we were going through my resume and I was asking her if she’d seen any of my films and she’d say no. Finally we get to the end and, I think it was I asked if she’d seen “Road Warrior” and she said, “Oh, I think I did but it‘s been so long.” And I thought, “Liar.”
GRACE: I never saw that movie!
VERNON: She’d never seen any of them! When I left her office, apparently the two women who worked with her said, “Do you know who that was?” Well, I kept coming in for changes, like every day, I would arrive at the office to have something, even if it was a word – and it DIDN’T need to be changed – and she was charging me every time…
GRACE: Oh yeah! Business is business!
VERNON: Then, I had a very severe car accident where I went thru the windshield, so I owed her $30.00, but that was kind-of like the last thing on my mind! A few weeks later, Grace rings me up and she said, “Yes, um, Mr. Wells? You owe me money. Are you going to pay it?” And I was like, “Oh!”…I explain but…(Grace giggles) But I had her on the phone so I just kept talking to her…and talking, and talking, and talking…and then finally she said, “Are you trying to ask me out?” And I went, “UHHHH!...Yeah!” And I heard, and this is the honest-to-God truth! I heard paper, like pages being turned – Flip! Flip! Flip! And she went, “OK. Which night? I’ve got Monday and Wednesday. Which one do you want?” And I was like, “What?! Oh! Uh – Wednesday!”
“Alright. What do I wear? Where are we going?” And I’m thinking, “This isn’t a business transaction Lady!” (Grace laughs hysterically) “I’m trying to get a date here!” So! FINALLY! We get this whole thing worked out. On the day, Grace drives up. I was so broke after the accident that I couldn’t afford to take her anywhere, so I had cooked everything – BBQ Orange Chicken, and all of this stuff to try and impress her. We were going to go up the beach and I had borrowed my flat mate’s car to take her. So as Grace comes up, she sees my wreaked car in the driveway with a big hole through the front wind screen where my head had gone and she says, “You actually did have a car accident!” So, off we went. We had our first date on the beach in a 50 mile an hour gale, everything went cold, the coffee got little ice cubes in it, the candles kept blowing out, and at 10 o’clock when everything was just STARTING to get normal, they threw us off the beach! Sooo, it was the GREATEST disaster since God created first dates! (Vernon shakes his head as Grace laughs) It was truly…well, we decided we’d see each other again…
GRACE: Because I felt sorry for him! And I wanted to give him a second chance.
VERNON: (Raising his eyebrows) SO the SECOND date, if I don’t tell this – GRACE will, so I might as well say it so that it all comes out! The second date, we were going to go play miniature golf and we go to the ATM and of course, I don’t have enough money in the ATM to pay for it so Grace said, “Here, I’ll lend you $50.00, so I said, “Ok” and we went to play miniature golf with her fifty dollars and we had hamburgers or whatever…
GRACE: (interjecting) And we played a couple of games… for like twelve bucks.
VERNON: So the whole thing cost like twenty-five dollars or so. And I didn’t even think, you know, to give her the change.
GRACE: I didn’t get my change back! That was the second date.
VERNON: FOURTEEN YEARS LATER – I have not lived down the fact that she didn’t get her fourteen dollars.
GRACE: It was more than fourteen dollars – but that’s ok.
Vernon looks at her smugly.
DEFEATING THE ODDS
KM: It’s pretty amazing. Over the years you’ve been faced with some extreme health issues but through it all, found the strength to continue building your company.
GRACE: I’ve suffered three Grand Mal Seizures, injured my back to the point where my legs were paralyzed, and worked through a dislocated shoulder which involved re-attaching the tendons.
VERNON: It took twelve months for Grace to recover from the first two seizures which were within an hour of each other. I took a year off from my career to drive her, do everything with her ‘cause there was a lot she wasn’t allowed to do but she wouldn’t stop working.
KM: What do they think is the cause of them?
VERNON: The doctor’s have a suspicion that it was caused by a fall off a horse where Grace opted to hit the ground head first instead of using her hands, because of her business!
GRACE: I just remember thinking as I was falling, “Nooo! Not my hands!”
KM: Sounds like a workaholic.
GRACE: Yes and I can’t sit still! I still went to the gym when my shoulder was healing and walked on the treadmill! I could move my legs! With the back injury, which lasted several years, it really required a lot of treatment as well as relearning proper body mechanics and proper form during exercise, but the minute I was out of pain, I would have to exercise, even if lightly.
VERNON: It’s like I live with an exercise machine!
KM: How about the other injuries. How did you get through those?
GRACE: The exercise keeps me from being stressed out. I’m not nearly as stressed out as I used to be. I like going to the gym! I take hip hop classes, I’ll take ANY work-out class, or just work out on my own, indoors, outdoors, whatever. I change it up because I’ll get bored. I do it to take care of myself but mostly because the movement relaxes me.
VERNON: The woman’s obsessed. When I met Grace, she worked from 6 in the morning to 6 at night. Then she’d go straight to the gym for a couple of hours! Now after 15 years, she’s finally gotten to the point where she realizes she can actually run the company without BEING the company and she manages her time better. It’s so funny to have watched her grow into that because she’s always been so hands on.
SO BACK TO BUSINESS
KM: Is it true that you were the very first transcriptor to use the internet?
GRACE: No, I certainly wasn’t the first. I’ve just always tried to stay ahead of the curve because there are systems and programs out there that are always making life easier. I can hire someone in any country now and they can work for me with no problem.
KM: How many employees do you have now?
GRACE: 42 worldwide.
KM: Part of what makes you such an amazing business woman is your forward thinking. What are you doing now to keep your company on the cutting edge?
GRACE: I’m doing several things. First, I’m starting to help my employees start their own businesses. Not only am I helping to empower my employees and helping them become entrepreneurs themselves, but it actually helps me too. I’d rather hire 6 people and help them build their businesses wherever they are and have them hire and train their own employees than hire and train everyone myself. That way they can provide local jobs in their own community and it saves me time, which is great. To bring my company to the next level, I’m working on doing more government contracts. I’m trying to be innovative and work with my competitors. I’m saying, “Hey! You want to come in on this with me?” and explain that it’s such a big job that none of us could do it on our own but if we combine all of our skills and all of the experience and people we have, we could really create something here. Some people just don’t get it, and that’s fine. It’s finding the right people—and they’re out there. Just a matter of doing some detective work. I also believe, to keep the company moving forward, it’s important to go straight to the people in the “trenches” who are working hands-on and ask them what we can do to make the company more efficient. Finally, the most recent project that I’m working on right now is creating a company forum online where staff can go to meet and exchange ideas. There are people who have worked for me for years and I don’t even know what they look like. Isn’t that funny? With the forum, we can feel connected even though we’re all over the world.
KM: I hear you’ve also got your hands full of other projects outside of Keystrokes.
GRACE: Ah, yes. Life is too short to sit around when there’s so much to do! I’m rewriting some children’s stories I’ve started many years ago and stumbled upon them recently. They’re not bad. A little spit and polish and I think I can get them published. I’m working on a sustainable, recyclable, organic, attitude adjustment T-shirt line...a mouthful, huh? And later will work on yoga pants and jackets in the same vein. I’ve got a nod from a few celebrities on this, and most of the proceeds will go to different charities. If you’re gonna take, you gotta give back too.
KM: You both have always donated time to charities that mean something to you. You’re latest being Molly…
VERNON: My wife’s my charity!
GRACE: (moving on) Well I started working with this charity back in my early twenties, long before I met Vern. It’s called “Plan USA” where you sponsor a needy child usually in a third world country. I’m sponsoring my fourth child right now and plan to visit her in Vietnam next year. There’s another one we do every Christmas called “Operation Santa” in Pasadena where we deliver toys to the lower income neighborhoods on Christmas Eve.
VERNON: And I play Santa Claus.
GRACE: He has to dress up as Santa and all of the Santas have to practice their “Ho! Ho! Ho!” and he has to practice his “Feliz Navidad.”
VERNON: (mumbling) “Feliz Navidad”…”Ho! Ho! Ho!”…
GRACE: And I usually dress up as an elf. I could be Mrs. Clause but I decided I was too little. There’s another organization we work with called “About Face” which is an organization that raises funds for kids with facial deformities. Though many of the doctors will donate their time, the money pays for airfare, hospital stays, medicines, etc. It’s such a beautiful thing they do. It really brings a tear to your eyes when you see the transformation and the happiness in that child’s eyes.
VERNON: Yes, and last but not least, we work with a very good friend of mine’s organization “Starpaws” here in LA which is an animal rescue. She introduced us several months back to Molly, a basset/beagle mix.
VERNON: When she arrived she was just a mess… yeah, so, we’ve got old Molly. She’s about 14 years old and absolutely gorgeous! She’s deaf. She’s part blind, she farts, she snores, she eats anything that stands still for more than 12 seconds…
GRACE: We love her. (They both shake their heads and laugh.)
KM: And finally, what is it like being married being married to this guy right here?!
Vernon sits up straight and smiles at her. Grace rolls her eyes.
GRACE: Well, (she starts to tease him but stops to answer the question truthfully) Vernon is my best friend. So! I love him dearly and (taking his hand) we have the best time and he IS my best friend. I think that’s the foundation of any good relationship. We joke, we argue, then blow it off a few minutes later. I can tease him and he usually takes it well. Depends if the Lakers are winning or losing.
KM: But he’s such a diva!
VERNON: I know!
GRACE: I know too, but that’s ok. He can be the diva because I don’t crave the spotlight. When we go to screenings or premieres all the fans wanna come talk to Vern and I don’t mind at all.
KM: But you are his toughest critic, right?
VERNON: Oh yeah! Make sure you underline the word toughest.
GRACE: Well because I’m “Joe Audience”. I’m not in the business so I can watch from an audience perspective and be honest. “What was that!? Who says that? Who TALKS like that?! Really Vern? Really?!” And he’ll say, “Well the director told me to say…” and I’ll say, “Really Vern? The director told you to say “I love you” like “I LOVE YOUUUU!!!” (she imitates Vernon with her best “bad guy” voice).
VERNON: (dripping with sarcasm) She’s so sweet. And the problem is if ever I have an audition, my wife decides she wants to do the learning process with me…(he shakes his head) it’s like, she wants to direct me and I’m like, “Oh dear God. No, Grace. Just let me do this myself ‘cause if I fail, I can kick myself. But if I fail and it’s your fault I’m going to come home and kick you! So just let me…screw up on my own.”
GRACE: But I wanna help you with your lines but you won’t let me read them.
VERNON: I know! I’m smart! She also wants to direct me.
GRACE: Well, I think you have potential I can bring out!
VERNON: (chuckles) Potential! WOW!
GRACE: So I have these ideas that I want to try…
VERNON: Ah yes, I know, and I love you for it sweetie! (he grabs her and plants a big kiss on her) You’re my Kougar!
GRACE: Yeah, I know!