[BUSINESS] Sabrina Kay / L.A. Mayor Transition Team
- Sabrina Kay
Fremont Private Investments, Inc.
The Sabrina Kay Charitable Foundation
Part of Villaraigosa transition team in 2005
Ms. Sabrina Kay is the Chairman and CEO of Fremont Private
Investments, Inc (FPI) and the founder of California Design College
(CDC). FPI is a parent corporation for Fashion Umbrella, LLC, which
mainly performs private investments and joint venture projects for
the apparel industry. Its goal is to function as a business partner
to many creative and upcoming young designers by making equity
investments and sharing business strategies and best practices.
For 12 years, from 1991 to 2003, she served as CEO and President of
California Design College, an accredited degree-granting college in
Los Angeles. California Design College (CDC), which Ms, Kay founded
in her bedroom, was the first specialized computer fashion design
college in California and successfully prepared its graduates to
various careers in the fashion industry. Her vision in apparel
technology has influenced the fashion industry in many different
ways. Due to its tremendous triumph as a reputable computer fashion
design college as well as a sound business entity, CDC was
strategically acquired by a public corporation, Education Management
Corporation (EDMC) and the deal was closed in January 2003.
After the sale of her company, Ms. Kay continued with various
community, philanthropic and political projects she was involved
with. She started The Sabrina Kay Charitable Foundation in 2003 to
continue her life mission - educating and empowering others to
achieve their fullest potential. Currently, The Sabrina Kay
Charitable Foundation has three projects building a homeless
shelter and educational programs for women and children in Los
Angeles skid row through Weingart Center; developing mentorship and
internship programs for children and young adults who are interested
in fashion, entertainment and sports industries through LA Sports
and Entertainment Commission; and conducting "Camp LAPL", summer
camp programs for inner city and homeless children to learn music,
art, and how to use the Los Angeles Public Library.
In addition, she currently serves on several board positions: Los
Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission, Weingart Center, Golden
State ScholarShare Investment Board, Young Presidents' Organization,
CCA President's Advisory Council, City Club and Korean American
Coalition. She has also received numerous awards for her services:
Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young in 1999, the Woman of
the Year by the State of California Legislature in 1997, and as a
Rising Asian Woman from the World Affairs Council in 1997.
Ms. Kay has impacted the community through her media appearance on
various talk shows and news reports. She led her weekly radio
fashion commentary talk show for 8 years in Los Angeles and appeared
in various TV shows such as KTLA, KTE, FOX, and KSCI. Her one-year
TV show program, Integrating into the culture with Sabrina Kay, at
KTE television (Channel 18) included segments such as citizens'
responsibilities after the LA riot, covering the stories on the UCLA
student rally. The program was noted positively by many media
critics. Ms. Kay also has had several fashion columns for various
newspapers and magazines and produced a range of fashion shows
promoting inner-city children's art and design education,
intercultural relationship, as well as funding for the entertainment
Ms. Kay has served as a chairwoman for ICEPAC (Independent Council
of Educators Political Action Committee) in 1997 and 1998, the
President for CAPPS (California Association for Private
Postsecondary Schools), and a Board member for Career College
Association, Fashion Group International, Korean-American Chamber of
Commerce and Korean American Coalition.
Currently, she is involved with the following projects:
Education: Scholarshare Investment Board, Arnold's All Stars After
School Program, Teach for America, Fulfillment Fund, House of Blues
Community: Weingart Center, Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment
Performing Arts: Geffen Playhouse, Mark Taper Performance Center,
Ahmanson Theater, Center Theater Group, Los Angeles Opera, Actors'
Fine Arts: MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Arts), LACMA (Los Angeles
County Museum of Arts)
Music: Hollywood Bowl, LA Philharmonic
Private Clubs: Jonathan Club, Wilshire Country Club, City Club,
Church: Bel Air Presbyterian
Changing the face of Fashion
The Sabrina Kay Story
by Jamie Borromeo
Progress through technology has been affecting almost every aspect
of our daily lives over the past decade. The fashion industry was
left behind for many years by these rapid changes, until
approximately ten years ago when a young entrepreneur named Sabrina
Kay decided to pursue her fashion industry dreams by redesigning her
family's apparel manufacturing company and founding the California
Design College (CDC) in 1991.
Ms. Kay took what was considered a radical measure at the time by
introducing high-tech to the fashion industry, and introducing
software tools such as CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and
manufacturing) for courses at the school.
When Sabrina Kay moved from her native Korea to the United States as
a child, she could not speak English. Today, she is called upon by
leading newspapers and magazines for expert opinions on fashion and
its marketing. The California Design College is a nationally
accredited, award-winning college that graduates the fashion
industry's finest professionals each year, and is recognized
worldwide as the leader in Fashion Technology. Named one of the "Big
Four" Design Colleges in Southern California by the Apparel News-the
fashion industry's principle publication-CDC is a pioneer in fashion
fusing with technology.
Since Ms. Kay founded the California Design College, fashion
students now almost solely rely on the computer-in lieu of the
sewing machine, sketchpad, scissors and tape-as their main fashion
implement, as it measures, cuts, pastes and even prints patterns on
simulated "cloth," saving students hours in design time. Although
all aspects of fashion design are taught through CDC courses, it is
the advanced computer technology and fashion software that has made
the school into the world leader in fashion technology it is today.
In fact, CDC's stellar reputation continues to bring in seasoned
fashion industry professionals to brush up on the latest technology
Ms. Kay's devotion to education extends well beyond California
Design College. She has been actively involved with the California
Association of Private Post secondary Schools where she has served
as its President, Convention Chairman, and a member of the Executive
Committee. Her hard work earned her Member of the Year honors in
On the national level, Sabrina Kay has been very active in the
Career College Association and on its Board of Directors.
Ms. Kay continues to served on numerous review teams that examine
educational institutions on behalf of the State of California by
serving as a commissioner /board member for the California's Golden
State Scholarshare Investment Board, which oversees the investment
of billions of dollars earmarked for the payment of tuition for
True to her Korean heritage, she is also a board member of the
Korean American Coalition, Korean American Chamber of Commerce, and
the Advisory Council on Democratic and Peaceful Unification of Korea.
To date, CDC has produced thousands of graduates who have been
placed as professionals in the exclusive fashion industry. Kay
prides herself on CDC's job placement rate, which are over 90
percent, compared with the industry average. Kay's favorite
statistic is the student loan default rate, which stands at 0
percent, which reflects the college's success in preparing students
in practical and necessary ways for a meaningful career.
AE: Please give us a description of your business' background and
the amount of time you've been in business.
SK :I grew up in the fashion industry and started working with my
parents. My parents owned La Paloma Fashions and put me to work. I
worked in all types of positions within the company and learned many
aspects of the fashion industry.
While studying Industrial Design at California State University at
Long Beach, I fell in love with the American College system. At SULB
I worked as a student advisor and decided that I would make
education my life's work. After college, I combined my knowledge of
fashion with my love of education and went to work for a fashion
school. Working with students every day was a great experience, but
I felt I had more to offer.In 1991, I decided I wanted the challenge
of operating my own college of fashion design so I founded
California Design College (CDC).
AE: How did you become an entrepreneur? Did you start in the
corporate or public sector? How did you know this path was right for
SK : I think I was born an entrepreneur. From my first job to my
position today as President and Chief Executive Officer of CDC, I
have always been creative, pushing the envelope and thinking outside
of the box. Even when I was in the public sector at Cal State Long
Beach, I still followed my own instincts to advise the students and
connected them in a different way than other staff members did.
I knew that the entrepreneurial path was right for me because of my
firm belief that a person should be rewarded for the decisions and
risks he or she makes and takes. As the owner of CDC, I make tough
decisions and have to live with the consequences. Fortunately, most
of my decisions have been good ones, and CDC has grown to be-come
one of the premier co-lleges of computer-aided fashion design in the
I am not a gambler, but I do believe that rewards should go to those
who bet on themselves. When I founded CDC, I risked everything I
had. Fortunately, I have been rewarded with financial success and
also the emotional satisfaction one receives from helping thousands
of students achieve their dream of being a leader in the fashion
AE: Were there any significant barriers that caused resistance in
your goal? How did you surpass them?
SK : Anyone who aims high must overcome significant barriers. When I
came to the United States from Korea, I did not speak a word of
English. I had to work hard, but I became fluent in English while
retaining my native language. The secrets to overcoming barriers are
a positive attitude, hard work, and focus. My attitude is that
barriers are merely stepping stones to my success. Every barrier I
overcome is another step closer to my goal.
Since my goal was to successfully launch CDC in 1991, I had to
become familiar with the environment for regulating colleges which
was extremely harsh and difficult. Congresswoman Maxine Waters'
Waters Reform Act of 1989 took effect in October of 1991 and as a
result, many schools closed in California. The Reform Act included
numerous new student protections and regulatory languages which were
ominous to school operators. I found it necessary to become well
versed in the regulations previous to 1989 as well as the Waters
Reform Act in order for me to receive legal state approval and
successfully open the college.
Another barrier to overcome was attracting students to the college
once it was opened. Since a private college's livelihood depends on
students, the initial enrollment was a formidable task. Besides
referrals from students and employers, I became focused on
establishing the College's reputation and credibility through
attaining approvals from national and state agencies which would
lead to accreditation for the college.
Almost everything that I have achieved has come because of hard
work. Success is hard. If it was easy, everyone would be successful.
I can't begin to count the thousands of late nights I have spent at
Those late nights and sometimes all-nighters were stepping stones to
Finally, it's important to stay focused on the ultimate goal of
success. Often, people get so caught up in trying to overcome the
barrier that they lose sight of their goals. No matter what is put
in front of a person, he or she must look beyond it and stay focused
on the goal.
AE: What's the growth and development pattern of your business?
SK : CDC had a very humble beginning but we have maintained steady
and sometimes dynamic growth ever since. Our first class had only
six students in two small classrooms. Many people said CDC would
never survive. I knew that we would survive, teaching the future of
fashion education, not the past that everyone else was teaching. I
was convinced that a computer-aided education would attract people
from all over the world. And it has. Anyone and virtually everyone
who wants to work in the fashion industry can benefit from our state-
of the-industry computerized approach to education.
It wasn't my goal to be the biggest college around, simply the best.
Because of that focus, college has grown so much and it is on its
way to be one of the biggest. What I have come to realize is that
being the best is a challenge that must be addressed every day.
Being the best, means being the best every day. My staff and I
relish this challenge on a daily basis.
AE: What has contributed to the success in your business?
SK : The success of CDC has been built on planning, people, focus
and perseverance. When I started CDC, I had a 15-year plan. During
the first five years, I focused on developing the foundation of a
great school. I developed a great curriculum, using the latest
technology that no one had used before. I assembled a great staff,
and I put the facility and equipment in place.
Once the foundation was laid, we started our second five-year phase
of growth and development. During years 6-10, CDC added faculty,
recruited more students, and grew its staff. Each year during this
phase, CDC became bigger and better. By year 10, CDC was a dynamic
institution ready to move into its expansion phase. In years 11-15,
I will be focused on expanding virtually everything about CDC. We
have put new programs in place. We have added new technology. We
have also added new facilities, and this is just the beginning. We
have plans to build our state-of-the-art campus and add Culinary
Arts, Graphic Design, Multi-Media, and Animation Design programs.
CDC would not be the success it is without its great faculty and
staff. I have been very fortunate to be able to recruit some of the
best professionals in the business. They work hard every day to make
CDC the best.
Despite a great plan and superior people, nothing would have
happened without persistence. CDC has survived fires, floods, and
riots. We have persevered through every challenge and are a
magnificent school because of it.
AE: How have you involved yourself in the community and how has it
made you a good business citizen?
Being a community leader is an obligation I take very seriously. I
in several Korean-American organizations and enjoy my role in the
community. I also serve on the Golden State Scholarshare Investment
Board. When both man-made and natural disasters have hit Los
Angeles, I have used the cross-cultural language of fashion to heal
the community. CDC has staged numerous fashion shows for the public
which brings people from all backgrounds together. CDC has been
called a model corporate citizen by several prominent political
My everyday life has been involved with community work, whether it
has been political fundraisers, or philanthropic events benefiting
children's education, arts, design or entertainment. I serve as a
board member for several organizations such as Young Presidents'
Organization, Career College Association, California Association for
Private Postsecondary Schools, Fashion Group International, and
Korean American Coalition.
AE: Are there any more details or information that you would like
our readers to know?
CDC's mission is to be the leader in design technology education. We
live that mission every day. I am proud of what I have been able to
create. I am even prouder of the thousands of students who have
passed through CDC and are now leaders in the fashion industry. The
excitement of daily labor never ends because of the inspiration our
students and graduates bring to all of us at CDC.
Fortune Magazine: Second Act
The Student/Philanthropist: Sabrina Kay
Ever wonder what you'd do if you sold your business?
By Anne Fisher
Ever wonder what it would be like to sell your business to a
much larger company and then stay on as a fat-cat executive? Be
warned: If Sabrina Kay's experience is any guide, you won't like it.
In January 2003 she sold her fashion-design school, California
Design College, to Pittsburgh's Education Management for an amount
that was enough to set her up nicely for life. Part of what made the
deal appealing to Kay was that EDMC would give her the chance, she
thought, to develop new educational ventures. She spent a year
working for EDMC, with the title CEO of Special Projects. It was not
a good year. "Working in a billion-dollar corporation, there are a
lot of politics and bureaucracy. When systems matter more than
individual input, we entrepreneurs get flattened," she says. "I
spent the last six months there twiddling my thumbs. So we parted
Kay came to the U.S. with her parents as a 19-year-old who "didn't
speak enough English to order lunch at McDonald's." She wanted to be
a fashionista, and figured out how to apply CAD/CAM to designing at
a time when few American designers even used computers. Her school
started in 1991 with six students in her bedroom, and grew into the
biggest nationally accredited school of its kind in the country,
with a student body of about 800.
The business didn't leave time for Kay's own education. She's now a
full-time student in the University of Southern California's
executive MBA program. "It's challenging, because everyone else here
has had far more business training," she says. "My background was
really in the arts, and I just picked up the business stuff on the
fly, so I have to work hard to keep up. But I love the intellectual
At the same time, Kay has launched the Sabrina Kay Charitable
Foundation, which has two main projects: building a homeless
shelter, with educational programs, for women and children, and
developing mentoring and internship programs for young people who
want to enter fashion. "Right now Los Angeles has beds in shelters
for 800 men but none for women. We have to fix that," she says. "And
the mentoring programs are great. It's fun for me to help kids see
Will she start another company someday? Seems likely: Kay has
already set up a venture capital firm called Fashion Umbrella that
funds fledgling apparel companies. Still, she's in no rush to get
back in the CEO seat. "The life I have now gives me a chance to be a
normal human being. My company was a passionate love affair for 14
years, but I never had a social life. It would be nice to get
married and have a family. That's something I just never got around
A Sharp Mind
Who redefines cutting edge
by James Flanigan, Los Angeles Times, 01/01/03
Sabrina Kay has stitched together quite a success story -- one that
shows why Los Angeles remains a productive center of the global
garment industry and underscores how U.S. trade statistics can be
During the last decade, Kay has built the California Design College
into a vital institution that teaches computer-aided pattern making
and apparel-merchandising methods to hundreds of students a year.
Her graduates, in turn, are finding jobs plentiful. That's because,
although Los Angeles has lost a large amount of sewing work to
places where it can be done much cheaper, from Mexico to Central
America to Asia, the high-end tasks are being performed here. Among
them: computer-aided design and pattern making, size grading and
"Designs are all being done by U.S. firms," says Brent Kauffman, a
20-year veteran of the California garment industry and sales manager
for Isda & Co., a high-end sportswear firm based in San Francisco.
The patterns and instructions are then sent via the Internet to
China, South Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere in the developing world
for the needlework to be completed. The resulting garments come back
through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where they are
registered as imports. But the more valuable intellectual property,
which was created here and beamed to Asia, is not counted as a U.S.
export. That's because digital CAD-CAM files, unlike cartons of
slacks and blouses, can't be tallied by customs officials.
The upshot: Experts spend too much time worrying about a growing
trade deficit while missing the fact that the local apparel industry
is doing pretty darned well despite the competitive pressures of the
The trend also shows why Sabrina Kay was on to something when she
borrowed an initial fund from her father, an apparel retailer, to
open her school in Koreatown in early 1992. She had all of six
students back then.
"I gave my father a 15-year business plan," says Kay, who emigrated
from Seoul to the U.S. with her parents at age 19. "But I wrote it
in English so he couldn't pick it apart."
To be sure, hers is not the only place around to learn computer
skills tailored to the garment trade. Others, including the Fashion
Institute of Design and Merchandising (with campuses in Northern and
Southern California) and Cal Poly Pomona, offer similar courses. But
Kay geared her program for older pupils -- many of whom already were
out in the working world and eager to advance.
"I wanted to establish a technical school that would simply teach
job skills without all the other academic courses," she explains. At
the time, the garment business was only slowly adopting computer-
aided techniques because the software was expensive and the Southern
California economy was mired in recession. But Kay made a deal with
Lectra, a French software developer, to spread the use of its
programs if the company would supply her classrooms.
Her next big move was to obtain accreditation for the school -- a
process that soaked up considerable energy. "In 1995, I worked day
and night," Kay recalls. She used to offer her employees overtime so
they would stay late and help her, prompting a running joke around
the college: "So, who got to sleep with Ms. Kay last night?"
The hard work paid off. Today, California Design College pulls in
multi-million dollars a year in revenue. Many of those who attend
the school rely on federal loans and grants to pay their $12,000
tuition -- an arrangement that has provided Kay with a more or less
guaranteed source of income.
In the last two years, Kay has expanded her curriculum to include
courses on how to present merchandise, manage an apparel company and
display and sell apparel through three-dimensional fashion
presentations on the Internet.
"Everybody wants custom fashion, but they don't want to pay for it,"
Kay says. The answer, she asserts, is technology: allowing customers
to buy garments measured by computer and then made to order.
A couple of months ago, Kay took the next logical step for an
entrepreneur: She sold her school for somewhere in 8 figures to
Education Management Corp.
The Pittsburgh-based company was attracted to the college "by the
curriculum's focus on fashion technology," says David Pauldine,
president of Education Management's Art Institutes, a system of
adult schools teaching art and design, culinary skills and fashion.
But something else proved enticing as well, he adds: "Sabrina's
leadership and the fact that she has some years left to work and
advance her career."
For Kay, who will continue as head of special projects for Education
Management, going with the larger firm means "having access to the
capital and infrastructure to expand academically." She wants to
begin attracting foreign students and offering bachelor's degrees.
The implication is clear: The needles may have gone abroad. But the
sharpest minds remain right here.
The Dawning of a Techno Couture
by Anne H. Kim
When Southern California's aerospace industry collapsed, Kay Fontana
found herself out of a job. Her only prospect was a lifelong dream
that until now was just that, a dream. Armed with her retirement
money, she took a chance and enrolled in a fledgling design school,
the generically dubbed California Design College. Kay was in her
late 30s. After graduating from CDC, she landed a job with Chorus
Line Apparel teaching computer aided design, CDC's specialty. Today,
Fontana is the company's VP.
Taking chances. To many, that's what fashion is all about. And for
some students, like Fontana, who find themselves having to start
over again later in life, a school like the California Design
College can be a welcome opportunity.
"More than anything [the fashion industry] is very challenging, I've
seen a 22-year-old making $100,000 a year and I've seen a 57-year-
old just getting started," says Sabrina Kay, founder and executive
director of California Design College. "It's only possible in the
Originally, Sabrina Kay had wanted to open a school that would
provide retraining for fashion industry professionals. But she
realized there weren't too many professionals out there in need of
retraining. She switched her focus and developed a basic design
program using computer technology. Today, her students are as varied
as an artist's palette and they find new careers and lives at CDC.
The school itself was built on a chance Kay's father, and numerous
other investors and educators around California took back in 1991.
Amid the many discouraging sentiments, CDC opened its doors with the
goal of giving students with dreams of scissors and tape measures a
competitive edge by teaching them computer aided design.
There's no denying technology is invading us. Everywhere you look
there are people huddled over laptops or people looking at ads
screaming about special internet discounts. Some think, all this hi-
tech gadgetry is really getting us nowhere, only faster.
But in a fast-paced, highly scrutinized industry, such as fashion,
doing things the old fashioned way will only leave aspiring
designers in the scrap bag.
Technology is definitely the runway of the future for fashion and
CDC is walking the catwalk before everyone else. Lectra, the largest
international company that provides computer programs for the likes
of Calvin Klein and Pierre Cardin, considers CDC to be the best
training ground available for technological design. Just last year,
the school was also offered full accreditation as a junior college
allowing students to apply for Pell grants and Stafford loans. CDC
was also approved as a vendor for the Job Training Program for which
CDC has capped 95 percent placement and completion. All in just
under six years of operation.
"It's been a short time, but we kind of sailed through," Kay says
with a smile.
To any other person, "sailing through" may not mean coming in
everyday along with 'everyone else but leaving at 2 a.m., (3 a.m. is
overtime), and sometimes pulling all-nighters when deadlines need to
be met. Other people might have cause for a nervous breakdown if
they had Kay's schedule, which includes sitting on the boards of 14
different community organizations, writing columns for five
newspapers, not to mention the countless weekly television and radio
shows she co-hosts.
But all these "extracurricular activities" take place strictly
during her "spare time," insists this petite professional whose
energy bubbles over in her laughter. And to all those who ask why
she doesn't just throw everything down and take off for a vacation,
she answers, pointing to her desk, "This is my vacation. When I'm at
work, I'm the happiest. "Except skiing, of course," she adds.
What matters most to Kay is making the difference and watching
students take the initiative to educate and improve themselves. Kay
gets a kick out of visiting different fashion companies and walking
into the computer room where all the employees are CDC
graduates. "It's almost like your baby has grown up and became an
adult!" says Kay with a proud smile.
That's why Kay doesn't really miss designing, which is what she
originally intended to do after graduating with a degree in
industrial design from California State University Long Beach. Kay
believes working on the educational side of fashion makes more of an
impact. C o u n s e l i n g always was and always will be a very
large part of Kay's repertoire at CDC. Each year, she makes it a
point to meet all of her students at least once and on average she
spends about four or five hours on her students to help them figure
out what they want to do. The importance of one-on-one attention at
CDC makes it unrealistic to expand the enrollment beyond 300. To
Kay, having a school of 2,000 students is "mass production."
Having a personal touch is ingrained in Kay who takes her
inspiration not from a fellow designer but from her father. There
aren't too many fathers out there with enough faith in an
inexperienced 27-year-old to give her $500,000 for an experiment.
Kay's father did. After the first year, she lost $250,000. But
instead of berating her for losing so much money, he took her to an
expensive jewelry store in Beverly Hills where he had a $500,000
necklace waiting for her.
"He said, 'Here, try this on,'" remembers Kay. After a few minutes,
they left the store and the necklace. You see, there are women out
there who spend $500,000 on a necklace, her father told her, but he
was proud of Sabrina because she was putting her money where she
felt it would do some good. With that lesson and some sound business
advice, Sabrina was off and running again.
California Design College has gotten past its initial hurdles and is
continuing to grow stronger every year. With the help of her "second
family," her staff, with whom she credits CDC's success, Sabrina
hopes that some day all the great designers will be CDC graduates.
If she keeps going the way she is, that goal just might be possible,
but if anyone knows Sabrina Kay, she can't stop there. But more
importantly, Kay won't rest until her long term goal to teach
computer aided design globally via satellite is realized. But, of
course, that means working overtime.
Sabrina Kay - President and CEO, California Design Center. Sabrina
Kay attended E-Hwa Women's University in 1981 as a freshman, and
immigrated to the USA in the same year. She graduated from
California State University in Long Beach, majoring in industrial
design. She is a member of the California Association for Private
Postsecondary Schools, as well as the National Association of Women
Business Owners. Active in the Korean community, Ms. Kay is a member
of the Korean American Coalition and the Korean American Chamber of
Design innovator Sabrina Kay
Interview with Sabrina Kay.
February 25, 2003.
Interviewed by Lynna Kim
Transcribed by Anna Mai
Korean born Sabrina Kay has been surrounded by the fashion industry
her entire life. She was only 19 when her family immigrated to
America, and despite language barriers and being a single mother,
Sabrina has become the founder and CEO of the California Design
College in Los Angeles, a nationally accredited and award-winning
college that incorporates innovative CAD/CAM software into fashion
Korean born Sabrina Kay has been surrounded by the fashion industry
her entire life. She was only 19 when her family immigrated to
America, and despite language barriers and being a single mother,
Sabrina has become the founder and CEO of the California Design
College in Los Angeles, a nationally accredited and award-winning
college that incorporates innovative CAD/CAM software into fashion
design. Sabrina 's own desire to teach led her to form CDC from the
ground up, starting with only $500,000 and six students in her first
year. Since then CDC has become a multi-million dollar business
within only 10 years, boasting 2,500 graduates with a job placement
rate of over 90%. Awarded as "The Most Successful Asian American
Entrepreneur Under 40?in 1999, Sabrina's success has been recognized
by many and serves as a source of inspiration for other Asian
Americans, especially women. Additionally, Sabrina finds the time to
write articles for the Korea Times and Korea Central Daily, and host
a weekly radio show.
Click here for RealVideo interview.
Lynna: At the age of 19, your family immigrated to America. What
aspirations did you have at that time and what motivated your father
to pick up your whole life and move to another country?
Sabrina: I was really young and when you're 19, especially when
you're in high school in Korea, you are not allowed to make a lot of
decisions. So I really didn't have a lot of aspirations at that
time. I had a lot of respect for my parents and I believed that my
father did make a right choice.
Lynna: Well, when you founded California Design College in 1991, you
decided to do something completely different, something really
unique. You actually incorporated the computer software into fashion
design. What inspired you to make such a bold decision?
Sabrina: When you are young and brave, it kind of makes you do a lot
of things that you didn't plan on doing. I grew up in the fashion
industry, so I was very familiar with fashion. Then, at that time I
was also working at another college, and I loved being in education,
being with the students. So, I wanted to incorporate fashion and
education together and I started doing research on who was doing
what out there. When I saw computer softwareI have always been a
geek, I love computersI kind of wanted to know how these fashion
technologies were getting into the workforce. It was kind of right
at the beginning of the curve, no one was teaching computers to
anyone and there were no facilities teaching computer fashion
design. I saw the opportunity, I jumped at it, and it just
flourished from there. I started with six students. I actually
started a college in my bedroom for the first six months. It was
just my assistant and myself, and we started incorporating the
school. I was in my 20s, I didn't know what I was doing, and I
didn't have any business background. So it was easy for me to just
go ahead and do it because I didn't have a lot of information and I
had no fear. So, we started a college and we started preparing all
the self-study programs and went through all the application
processes, got the license from the state, and then just started a
Lynna: And as you mentioned, it started with 6 students in your
living room and it exploded to 2,500 students?
Sabrina: No, over 2,500 graduates. We have over 500 current students
right now and we're growing each year. But, my goal was not to be
really the largest institution around but we wanted to be the best
institution around. And I think we accomplished that. Growth came
very naturally. We never really focused on, "Okay, we're going to
grow this much next year, we're going to grow that much next year.?
We always focused on technology, we always focused on what we can do
to be better. And that was our motto from the very beginning.
Lynna: So, you think the implementation of your computer software
was a very attractive thing for your students?
Sabrina: Absolutely. That was our claim to fame; it was the niche,
it made a difference. When you look at fashion design, a lot of
colleges focus on artistic students, right? So, college students,
high school students, or even students who are in junior colleges,
they have to be either artistically talented or they have to be more
of an artist or a creative person to be in the fashion industry or
have guts to think about being a fashion designer. Three questions
that I had the most, as a college counselor in the fashion design
college, was, "Am I talented enough??That's always the first
question. "I don't know if I really like this. I love fashion. I
have always been looking through the fashion magazines and really I
have a lot of passion for fashion, I love the fashion industry but
I'm not sure if I am talented enough.?That's always the first
question. The second question is, "What do you think I am going to
be when I graduate??They don't know what's available out there and
they cannot see that as a reality. People are dreaming but they
don't see that as a reality. The third thing is, "How much do I make
when I graduate??So, those are three questions and I wanted to solve
for students. One of the ways that you can see yourself very clearly
in what you're doing is by learning the computer technology. You are
not focusing on your talent, you're focusing on the technological
skills just like when you go to medical school, and you learn how to
cut up people. You are actually learning with your hands how to do
things. By doing it, people feel much more confident that they can
really be a fashion designer because they are depending on the
weapon called computer technology.
Lynna: You've convinced me. I think I want to go into fashion
design. Well, in 1999 you were awarded as the "Most successful Asian
American entrepreneur under 40.?Do you feel your Asian American
background has helped or hindered your rise to success?
Sabrina: I was definitely under 40. I don't know if I was the most
successful Asian American woman. I was honored and I was very
flattered that I was awarded for such an honor, but I never really
focused on what I am, whether I am Asian or I am a woman. I was
never discriminated against by being Asian or by being a woman, nor
have I ever had an opportunity to take advantage of that situation
either. There are some minority small business loans, there are a
lot of programs focused for women, but once you start labeling
yourself and victimizing yourself, then you become that. I truly
believe that if you want to be treated equally, you have to act like
an equal. When you look at our industry, a lot of college presidents
are 50- and 60-year-old white males. Until now, I thought I was a 50-
or 60-year-old white male. I acted like one and I went there as a
colleague and I worked like a colleague instead of victimizing or
labeling myself as an Asian American woman business owner. I think
that just focusing on your goal, focusing on your future instead of
focusing on what can be possibly negative or a hindrance to you,
helped me a lot more. Again, ignorance sometimes is a great blessing
that you can have. I didn't know any better.
Lynna: Well, actually I have never really heard that side of the
story. Usually the media portrays women striving so hard against
male domination. It appears in your perspective, since you've been
through that experience, that it's not like that exactly, that it's
by your own personal standards and if you think that you can do it,
then you can do it.
Lynna: So, do you feel that the media has misportrayed Asian
Sabrina: I don't think the media has misportrayed them because
prejudice is not something that happens overnight, it's something
that happens over time. People live by it everyday. And, I think it
exists, but once you start victimizing yourself to be that victim of
the media, you become that victim. So, when you become more of an
equal, you truly believe that you are one of many and the
opportunity is equal and you don't focus on what is so-called weak
or a weakness for you. Then, you don't think about it. So, when
someone calls me a successful Asian American woman, I have to look
at the mirror to see if I am an Asian American woman just to
recognize that "Okay, that's right, I am an Asian American woman.?
But, I think business is really gender-blind and race-blind because
business always looks at the results. And as long as you are
successful, it doesn't really matter what color or what gender you
are, you are successful.
Lynna: Right, great. Okay, as you probably know, traditionally, the
West has valued entrepreneurship, while the East has valued more
communitarianismthe "me?versus "us?mentality. So, you chose the
path of entrepreneurship, and how do you feel about this divide in
values? And do you see more Asian people adopting the Western value?
Sabrina: Western and eastern values came close together, I think
within the last 10 years. And a lot of the western values
of "failure is great,?you know, you fail 10 times and succeed once
and then the success is much more sweeter than the success without
failure, is more of a western value. Good examples are Abraham
Lincoln and Thomas Edison. We really look up to them as mentors
because of their failures, not just because of their success. And I
think that that's a great spirit. Whereas, Asian mentality
is "failure is a disgrace?to the family and once you fail, you've
dishonored your family and you really did not do well. So, a lot of
Asian culture, I think, strives to be more timid and doesn't
encourage the boldness. But somehow, recently, a lot of Asian
people, I really believe, lead the entrepreneurship. So, you see a
lot of Koreans and a lot of Chinese business owners in Los Angeles
and I think it's because when we came to America, well, welcome to
the world of no choice when you don't speak the language and you
have to make the money. You end up starting something of your own.
And then you end up kind of being assimilated into Western culture
and you learn that failure is okay. We're not ashamed of a possible
failure type of spirit, so when you combine those two spirits
together, it's a beautiful combination. It creates wonderful
entrepreneurship in this country.
Lynna: We also know, along with being the president and founder of
CDC, you write columns. You write for the Korea Times and Korea
Central Daily, as well as a weekly fashion talk show. So, it's
obvious that you are very immersed in the media. Do you feel that
the media has played a large role in publicizing CDC?
Sabrina: I cannot deny that media has helped CDC's growth. I
jokingly tell people that I sold my time to the media because we
didn't have the money to advertise. So, I volunteered to write a lot
of newspaper columns and go to all the talk shows. So, I became a
household name, therefore CDC became a household name. But also, a
lot of times, publicity is a blessing and a curse at the same time.
When you have that much publicity, people's expectations are very
high. And, you have to live up to those expectations. After I
started CDC, I feel that I never really had a personal life, I never
had privacy and that was the price to pay. I was willing to do that
because I had to grow my baby, and we didn't have a lot of funding
to grow my baby. I was willing to sacrifice my privacy. I took that
responsibility very seriously. When media talks to you and when
media is with you, then you are not just talking, you are talking to
so many different people, and you are influencing a lot of people's
decisions and thoughts. So, I take that very seriously.
Lynna: I'm just curious, it sounds like you do enjoy your job. Do
you have any regrets along the way, or would you want to do this no
Sabrina: I have absolutely no regrets. I have been so blessed. Byron
said he woke up one day and he became famous. I woke up one day and
I just couldn't believe what the heck happened to me. You know, you
set a great expectation for yourself and you have a very high
standard to achieve your goal. When the reality exceeds your goal,
when reality exceeds your dreams, then what do you do? You've got
nothing but to thank God, you know, "Thank you, I don't know what
I've done, but thank you for this blessing.?And then I'm willing to
give back to whoever needs it.
Lynna: You provide Asian American women with a role model to look up
to. Now I know before you said you don't want to label yourself as
an Asian American or a woman. But, the reality is, I'm sure there
are a lot of Asian Americans who look up to you. Now, having that
kind of position and inspiring these young women, how does that make
you feel? Does that bring you more pressure and give you more
Sabrina: I think so. Whether it's my students or anyone else,
whenever someone tells me that they look up to me as a role model,
I'm completely flattered, number one, because I don't know if I
deserve that role. But, I look at my mentors who have helped me
along the way, and they didn't volunteer to be mentors but they
became mentors because of their actions and because of their
sincerity. And I think I sincerely believe that whoever comes to me,
I am willing to help because I have a great story to tell. If that
inspires anyone, I feel extremely blessed that I can be part of
their life, in some way, some how, in any way possible.
Lynna: Who are some of these role models that you've had along the
Sabrina: The greatest mentors that I had in my life, and I still do,
are my parents. My father brought me all the goodness of human
beings. He brought me literature, poetry, opera, classical music,
all the good things in life. And, then he taught me how to be fair
without being weak. My mother was very good at stressing me out,
ever since I was a child. She brought me discipline, how to be the
best, and how to be assertive and ambitious without losing
femininity. So, I think my parents who were so different from each
otherI still wonder how they lived together for 40 yearsboth
brought interesting values to me and I think that made me who I am
today. Along the way, I've had great mentorsbusiness colleagues and
other college presidents, even neighbors whom I meetand I am a
people-junkie. I love people. I love friends. And I'm a very loyal
person, so once I make a friend, I want to keep them for the rest of
my life. There are not that many that you feel that "I'll do
anything for you?and "You'll do anything for me,?but I feel blessed
that I have enough that it spills out of my ten fingers. I feel
really blessed that I have those great friends who are also my
Lynna: That's wonderful, wow. One final question. What advice can
you offer to other Asian American women striving to make it in
Sabrina: I would say to stay focused and that's one of the most
important things in life. I think we are all born with A.D.D., you
know, there are a million and three things that interest you
everyday. Especially when I talk to my creative students, they have
thousands of ideas, and they dream of these ideas every single day.
You know what? Ideas don't pay. The reality is that you can only do
so many things in 24 hours. The first step is information. A lot of
times, when you have thousands of different interests you cannot be
the expert; you cannot be the professional in many areas. So, be an
expert in one area. Have that information. Be the junkie in one
career or one thing that you choose. Be the best so that no one else
can compete with you because you are the best. Whether it's singing,
or running, or anything else, whatever your passion is, have that
information, have great mentors, and have great friends. Surround
yourself with that one thing that you like the most. Then, the
second step is to make a solid plan based on that information. And
then, put it into action. When that information becomes action, then
the transformation starts. That's when the success begins.
Lynna: Wonderful. Thank you so much for your wonderful answers. We
appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Sabrina: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.