Sabrina Kay: Innovating Higher Education

After dropping out of college as a single mother, Sabrina Kay founded the California Design College (CDC). She would go on to sell CDC, get her MBA and PhD, and establish Freemont College, a college that tailors its courses based upon employers’ needs. Sabrina’s passion for higher learning, and personal academic achievements, have influenced her goal of revolutionizing education to reach a broader swath of students and better prepare them for the workforce. Watch the video to see her story – a great example of business innovation.

Here is the full transcript of the video:

I think some people are really talented in math, some people are really talented in creativity. I think hard work is also a talent, and I jokingly tell people that I’m not as smart, or as tall, or as pretty as you, but I can out-work you.

I grew up in South Korea with  my tiger mom and romantic dad. When I was 18 years old, my parents decided to move to America. I went to the only school that would accept me without SATs and had my daughter when I was in college and became a single mom. So, I dropped out of college.

All I wanted was to provide enough for my daughter. So, I got several different jobs, actually, to make sure that I make ends meet. We used to go to donut shops together and my daughter sees a dozen donuts for sale, and I said, “No, you’re going to get one and I’m going to get one.” And she looked at me and said, “Why?” And I kind of told her, pretty painfully, “Because I don’t have enough money.”

And then, one day, my dad and I were reading a newspaper and saw computers coming into the fashion industry. So, I made a cold call to that computer company, and I told them, you know, there’s a lot of people in the fashion industry from the Korean community and they don’t know how to use computers, and they will be your best customers. They donated software to me.

I found a garage space in Korea town, killed all the cockroaches in the garage space and started teaching people with the computer software that they gave me. That was the humble beginning of California Design College.

I worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. I didn’t see myself as 20-something female entrepreneur. I saw me as a young, scared, insecure girl who had a child who I had to provide. Eventually, it became one of the top 4 fashion colleges in California.

One day, I got a phone call from a guy who was kind of like a legend in a private college sector and he offered me more money than I ever possibly could imagine. When I became a single mom in college, my goal was to buy a dozen donuts for my daughter. Ten years later, I sold my company for a good, comfortable 8 figures. I came home and told that to my parents, and my mom said, “You need to go back to school.” And I said, “Mom, I’m in Fortune Magazine.” And my mom said, “That does not give you a college degree.” And I said, “Ok, I need to go back to school.”

I applied to USC to the MBA program and they said they will make one exception for a person without a college degree. So, because USC took a chance on me, that door opened up my entire academic career.

I loved school so much. I told my professor, “I had so much fun, I don’t want to graduate.” And he goes, “Oh, why don’t you go and get your PhD.” And I thought to myself, that is such a great idea. And I applied to the joint-degree program at Wharton, at the graduate school of education. When I was at Wharton, I saw great possibilities about how we can make America’s education system better. I looked at after school programs in inner city and became a chairman of After-School All Stars Los Angeles. I wanted to close the gap between traditional classrooms and 21st century workplace. And I told my CFO, “We have to buy a college.”

I didn’t know a lot about Fremont College, but one thing I knew is I wanted this to be the laboratory of my doctorate program because I saw America as one of the best countries in the world that gives opportunities to anyone who is interested in excelling and want to do the hard work.

Private colleges have that freedom and agility that capitalism actually offers, and innovation is here in education right now. My next phase is being able to teach a million people. If a single mom who couldn’t speak a word of English, who didn’t know anybody could become a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, why couldn’t you?