Chancellor and CEO,
Sabrina Kay moved from South Korea with her family when she was 18. She resented having to emigrate and barely spoke English, but when she got to Los Angeles she studied computer science and math in college.
“Our goal was to achieve better lives, assimilate into America and stay in this great country,” she said.
She wasn’t content just to study. After working with her parents in the apparel industry, she started a vocational training school out of her bedroom in 1992, teaching apparel workers how to use then-revolutionary computer-aided design and manufacturing machines.
Ten years later, after growing the enrollment, she sold the school for millions, enabling her to join 21 charitable boards and earn a fistful of graduate degrees, including an M.B.A. from USC and a doctorate in education from both the University of Pennsylvania and its Wharton business school.
Along the way, she’s also developed a successful fashion line for professional woman called the Sabrina Kay Collection. And if that weren’t enough, in 2007, she decided to try her hand at education again and bought Fremont College, a Koreatown vocational school.
Her biggest surprise on the road to becoming an entrepreneur? The outcome. “I’ve always had high expectations about my career,” she said. “But reality has exceeded those expectations.”
Still, she sees the downside of starting a business in the United States compared with Korea, chief among them labor costs. Also, she notes “it is a highly litigious environment where it’s easy for people to try to win the lottery though lawsuits.”
And success still means working hard, sometimes from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. These days she often works past midnight.
“The business environment in the U.S. gives equal opportunities to anyone who has focus, discipline, tenacity and is willing to make the honest commitment to working hard and achieving their best,” she said.
Her parents still live in town and they remain close. And she goes back to Korea every other year. It’s a good reminder of how much she’s learned and how much effort it took.
At Fremont, she has transformed the curriculum and is applying the educational theories she developed at Wharton, which involves teaching through a work-based system that eschews textbooks and aims to turn out valuable employees.
The for-profit school offers apparel design, but many other subjects, including paralegal studies and physical therapy. It grants accelerated associate and bachelor’s degrees.
“I bought Fremont College as a laboratory to prove that anyone who has focus and commitment, with proper education, can succeed,” Kay said, “because that’s what happened to me in this country.”