After one conversation with tri-city native (New York, Seattle, Tel Aviv) Dafna Kaplan, one is struck by her futuristic thinking, deep curiosity, and fearlessness to execute on existential-level ideas, such as solving homelessness in perpetuity. Though Dafna’s career trajectory began in technology marketing, she has always been drawn to the design process and to how product fabrication methods inform (or should inform) design. Whether by coincidence or premonition, Kaplan’s first product campaign at the ripe age of 22 was for consumer software that allowed homeowners to try their hand with digital architectural layout tools. Following her heart a decade later, Kaplan plunged from technology into the progressive Southern California architecture and construction sector, where her non-traditional career trajectory and view on the world convinced Kaplan to launch Cassette, a product-focused housing business with a mission to address commercial housing affordability and homelessness in a single business model. Upon forming Cassette, Kaplan was recognized in 2020 for her decade-long impact on the design community with a distinguished Presidential Award from the Architectural Institute of America (AIA), Los Angeles.
One of the few female voices of authority in the world of building, Kaplan is a sought-after speaker sharing her heady musings on subjects that range from prefabrication best practices to using behavioral economics to promote innovation in a resistant ecosystem. No matter one’s point of view, it’s impossible not to come away inspired by her plans for the future of industrialized construction. And, when she explains the mathematical basis and strategy behind decreasing construction costs by 30% in 3 years, it seems as plausible as it is astonishing.
When asked about a bucket list, many wax on about Porsches and trips to the Galapagos, but Kaplan quickly retorts with a vision she has for the future of Los Angeles, the city where she’s now spent most of her adult life: “I want to see housing…well-designed housing… available to every Angeleno as a human right.”
This means beautiful architecture is made affordable to the masses through scaled production. “We have understood these principles for a long time as a society,” she explains. “Target illuminated these principles when they engaged world-class designers like Michael Graves to design household items for the masses. The same delight and quality is absolutely achievable in reasonably-priced housing, albeit within a far more complicated delivery system. This is where Cassette wants to break new ground.”
Kaplan is a Renaissance Woman; one minute, she’s having a heartfelt conversation over a cocktail with colleagues at a product trade conference, and the next, she’s cutting a deal with the third largest steel company in the world for her newest venture, Cassette.
Some of Kaplan’s circumstantial fluidity comes from a two-decade journey across B2B, B2C, product and service companies – from branding plastic laptop accessories to articulately discussing the nuances of art museum construction. “Life–at least my life–is not a straight line,” she pragmatically says. “I’ve always leaned into my heart and professional instincts, but life’s changing priorities, and circumstances presented so many opportunities to meander down unexpected paths. Just when I was beginning to wonder where it was all taking me…it all started to make sense. Cassette is the shape of my answer.”
As a leader, Kaplan deeply resonates with business masters like Simon Sinek and Seth Godin but also draws inspiration from great businesses, colleagues, and mentors she has worked with at every chapter in her career, from her Art Center-trained bosses’ who taught her in the 1990s that “good design doesn’t have to be expensive,” to Paul Matt, founder of MATT Construction, who’s favorite quote hung on the wall of that company: “There is no end to what we can achieve if nobody cares who gets the credit.” An evening with Kaplan will draw out more than half a dozen more quotations like this, guiding mantras that have illuminated her path and inspired her unusual brand of business innovation. Educated in both Social Work (BA, University of Oregon) and Business (MBA, Summa Cum Laude, UCLA Anderson School), Kaplan is energized by brilliant ideas in any realm and sees her own talents as tools with which she can co-create a better world.
Her unique ability to forge alliances and get things done has not gone unnoticed. Over the last 15 years, Kaplan served on the Executive Committee at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Los Angeles Chapter, where she chaired the social impact dealmaking program, Urban Marketplace, and on boards for the AIA Los Angeles chapter and the Architecture + Design Museum. During her time in the consumer product sector, Kaplan served on the Consumer Electronics Association (now CTA) Accessories Board, chairing its promotions committee, and on the exhibitor advisory team for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), one of the largest trade shows in the world. Today, she is most excited about her mentorship role in a fledgling DEI committee called REACH, launched within the Urban Land Institute by a group of mid-career BIPOC real estate professionals. “These brilliant young people are putting their emerging careers on the line and carving out significant time to be the change that they want to see in the world,” Kaplan explains. “They didn’t wait for the right program to come around to fix the inequities in the system; they put their heads down and created it – a good lesson for all of us who want to make a difference.”
Sadly for her former employers, but a mitzvah to the world, Kaplan is now an entrepreneur. Her goal, now at the helm of Los Angeles-based Cassette since 2019, is to change how we think about building homes, a practice that predates homo sapiens. She is pushing the boundaries of multi-family modular apartment construction by pulling from the operational genius of many great brands and industry transformations; she explains:
“In fragmented and complex industries, some of the greatest transformations have come out of companies courageous enough to focus on doing just one thing differently and doing that exceptionally well. Southwest Airlines committed to be the best at the simple, short-haul flight, and it allowed them to focus everything in their operations on a single plane type (Boeing 737). This helped them keep costs down, simplified training, and reduced downtime by stockpiling just one kit of parts. When Ray Croc bought McDonald’s from the founding brothers in 1961, he literally measured the space and time that it took to assemble every recipe from a VERY short menu – and based his entire enterprise on this level of control and discipline. The result was that customers could expect the product to be the same everywhere, every time, no matter what.”
In a similar fashion, Kaplan believes that unparalleled discipline and focus will be required to lead the fragmented construction industry out of its current process and set it upon a new path. By focusing Cassette at launch on a single pre-constructed pod product (i.e., limited menu), she believes she can train the broader industry to purchase construction differently to achieve the cost-savings and efficiency gains that manufacturing has enjoyed for almost 100 years. In Cassette’s future, the old linear construction processes are replaced by parallelling site prep tasks while prefabricated pods are manufactured elsewhere and delivered to stack and connect. “While parallel pathing activities might sound incredibly simple to the outside world, in real estate and construction, any process change affects dozens of stakeholder companies, organizations, and even regulatory agencies that have been doing things the same way for a hundred years. This is more than a product – it is a method that has to answer to and work for everyone in the ecosystem,” Kaplan explains. And like its 1962 namesake, “Cassette” is not about the box itself. It exists to deliver the magical experience inside.
“This is the future of housing,” Dafna smiles.
For those who know Kaplan, her sagacity isn’t a surprise; she was surrounded by great minds and creative thinkers. Her family circle includes an impressive roster of musicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, political activists, artists, writers, and spiritual seekers. She credits much of her curiosity to the people that made up her early world and says their examples produced in her a fearlessness about trying new things and an understanding that anything is possible.
Anything indeed. Dafna Kaplan is one to watch.