Saujin Yi (’07) Shares Success in Business and the Classroom

An Entrepreneur Shares Success in Business and the Classroom

Saujin Yi (’07) launched her first company at UCLA Anderson and now teaches MBAs

  • UCLA Anderson alumna Saujin Yi is the founder of startups Liquid, FlexTeam and 79 Studios
  • She founded her first company while she was an MBA student and now champions other female founders
  • As a lecturer, she brings her expertise to the classroom to teach business plan development

Enter Saujin Yi’s (’07) UCLA Anderson classroom, and the topic for which the lecturer is rolling her wisdom is entrepreneurship. Because she’s the founder and CEO of startups Liquid, FlexTeam and 79 Studios, this makes perfect sense.

Yi’s family emigrated from Korea to Los Angeles when she was 9 years old. A former employee of Korea’s airline industry, Yi’s father had designs on starting a travel business in the U.S. “He wanted to be his own boss and chase the American dream,” Yi says. “It wasn’t as dreamy as you’d imagine.”

To support the family, her father took a night shift at a 7-Eleven. “We hung out, growing up on Archie comics and Slurpees.” A positive force during that time was the Korean community. “People who’d been down similar paths were willing to pay it forward and help us figure things out.”

By the time Yi’s father launched a travel agency, the economy had changed, and the online travel industry was replacing traditional travel agencies. “While he continued to dabble, my mom started a second career to support our family, earning her credentials to become a high school math teacher.”

Yi chose to major in engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), inspired by a family friend who was a student there. “If you’d asked me then how I envisioned my life, I honestly wouldn’t have known,” she says. “I just didn’t see enough different examples in my life.” What she did see in her Koreatown community were people like her parents, entrepreneurs and teachers — roles she cherished.

Contemplating where her skills and passions intersected, Yi specialized in mechanical engineering at MIT. While considering career opportunities, she was approached by recruiters from the banking and consulting worlds. “They said they’d teach us everything about business over the next two years,” she recalls. “I chose a company that would give me general training and let me come home to L.A.”

Choosing this route, she says, speaks to her entrepreneurial spirit of willing to learn and try new things by taking the opportunities the front of her. “The immigrant community looks for what they need to survive — the idea of being super resourceful with all the things around you.” In many ways, she was starting to envision her future. “Even though I didn’t really know what the word meant, I always knew I’d end up being an entrepreneur.”

This led Yi to UCLA Anderson’s MBA program. While she was in school, former colleagues from the banking world started contacting her for help on projects. Wisely, she outsourced this work to classmates whose skills matched the projects. It became an ongoing side hustle that would ultimately change her destiny.

After graduation, she joined GameFly, doing the gaming company’s financial planning in exchange for learning the ropes of being a CEO at a VC-backed startup. “I’d gotten a taste of being my own boss in business school and knew I wanted to be a startup founder and investor.” Her life design was evolving. “A goal: to make lots of money and retire so I could give back.” So Yi co-founded 79 Studios, an angel investment company that focuses on female founders. Her co-founder is former MIT classmate and fellow Anderson alumna Tamra Johnson (’12).

Male-female dynamics in the workforce took on new perspective for Yi through 79 Studios. Though she’d never had issues working alongside or competing with men in the past, being a potential angel investor for female entrepreneurs revealed another reality. “Barriers became glaringly obvious in pitch meetings with women founders,” she says. “It made us feel much stronger about wanting to support them with capital, community and care.” She detested the idea of boosting their confidence through discussion panels and general encouragement. “Forget the talks,” Yi remembers saying. “They need actual work and money.”

In search of cash flow, Yi and Johnson used Yi’s side hustle and turned it into a full-blown company — FlexTeam — in 2015. As a micro-consulting firm specializing in on-demand business projects, FlexTeam enlists consultants who use their expertise for market research, competitive analysis and business strategy. The duo set out to reimagine the world of work.

Building an expert pool of independent consultants was easy. “Many of our friends were at home with their kids, feeling like their brains were rotting.” FlexTeam brought them on board, building up a roster of 400 consultants working on micro-projects. “It was a win-win,” Yi says. “Clients were getting an amazing work product for less money, and these smart, powerful women were excited by staying engaged.”

Still, they noticed a hesitancy among clients. Getting clients to rethink corporate structure became a necessity. They saw that retaining consultants on a project-by-project basis rather than hiring full-time employees was an administrative burden; namely, managing the constant paperwork and payments required for contract employees. Delving into the problem, Yi’s team created Liquid, an onboarding and payment platform that employers could use for contractors, partners and vendors alike. “Liquid streamlines the workflow, and the ROI of working with a flexible team is there,” Yi says. Suddenly, with Liquid, they had a new software startup.

All the while, Anderson was taking note of Yi’s success. When the Price Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation was looking at diversifying voices on its advisory board, it reached out to Yi. “During business school, everything I did centered on programs related to the Price Center,” she says of accepting the role she’s held for the past five years. “The board is an interesting group — a lot of different people who have different types of experience. I believe it’s continually making Price stronger.”

At Anderson’s 2022 Alumni Conference, Yi took to the lectern as one of three presenters. Her talk was titled “The Future of Work Is Liquid: How Modern Businesses and Talent Thrive in a Decentralized Work-Life World.” Prior to the conference, in late 2021, Anderson came calling about an instructor position. “I always thought that would be something I’d do when I was older,” Yi says. “But Price executive director Elaine Hagan (’91) asked me if I’d be interested in teaching a business plan development class, and I said, ‘Why not?’”

When structuring her business plan development class, Yi drew on her own knowledge. “The class focuses on everything I wished I’d learned when I was in my students’ shoes,” she says. “Some of what I teach I learned as recently as a year ago and has completely changed the way I think.”

Encompassed in the syllabus: building a company, being clear on core purpose, differentiating philosophy, recruiting team members and motivating them. “Things I might have dismissed before as being touchy-feely, I now realize are imperative, and there’s a framework for teaching them, which is academic and practical at the same time.” In her classes, Yi stresses the importance of self-awareness before embarking upon a business. “Being clear about your skills, opportunities and passions is critical,” she says. “You want to work with partners and team members who align in vision, culture and values, and who also have skills that are complementary.”

As for those questioning whether they have an “inner entrepreneur,” Yi says, “Some people have certain innate qualities that make them want to change the world or how things are done. They’re full of ideas and have the empowerment to just go.” In the end, though, “You aren’t born with those genes; you just do it because you can’t not do it.” To prove her point that there are entrepreneurs of all kinds in the world, a class assignment involves interviewing an entrepreneur. “Students ask, ‘What if I don’t know any?’” Her comeback: “You do. You definitely do.”

She also schools students on navigating the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. Here’s one consideration: “Someone asked me, when I was thinking about an idea, ‘Is this the thing you want to wake up every day and think about?’ If the answer is no, don’t do it, because it’s going to be all-consuming.” For those that dive in, Yi says that being able to find balance and to pivot is key. “The destination’s the same, but you can take a lot of different roads to get there.”

As for balance, she says, “Don’t let the high of highs get you too excited or the low of lows get you too down. Just know they’re part of the journey.” While performing this balancing act, Yi advises, “Be okay with not solving everything at once. There’s always a smaller piece to do now. Be regimented about focusing on one thing at a time. Do enough testing and trust your gut.” The ability to pivot, she says, is different. Yi views it as a multi-variable equation, in a world of chaos, that a startup is attempting to solve in the fastest way possible. “You’re trying to put a framework around what isn’t working and asking, ‘What if I change it? How do I learn this as fast as possible?’” she says. “This requires quick iterations, learning from the market, being fast to adopt.” In terms of the constants to have in place, she recommends “the purpose, vision and knowledge about what you’re really trying to build. Everything else is open to a variable.”