Building consumer brands through creative leadership
Sujean Lee served as chief operating officer of Momofuku Milk Bar, where she ran all facets of the global dessert business spanning e-commerce, brick-and-mortar, and brand experiences. She oversaw 400 employees nationwide, and built the small bakery into a household consumer brand. Previously, she was senior vice president of corporate affairs at Chobani, where she also co-founded the Chobani Women’s Leadership Forum and was founding president of the Chobani Foundation. Sujean began her career in the federal government, serving as assistant staff secretary to the president at the White House. She graduated from Harvard University, where she was the first Asian American student body president. Sujean is the daughter of Korean immigrants, and was born and raised in New York City. She surfs, and is a certified yoga and meditation teacher.
What attracted you to the dual JD/MBA degree, and to Columbia in particular?
My experiences in student government during college inspired me to move to DC, and I loved my work at the White House. But I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do next. The dual JD/MBA seemed like a great way to figure that out. I knew I would learn a wide range of topics—everything from contract negotiations and tax law to entrepreneurship and brand marketing. I was drawn to the versatility of the JD/MBA, both in its coursework and its extracurricular activities. As a New Yorker, I was excited to come back home to New York City. There’s nothing quite like having all of Manhattan as your campus.
How has your JD/MBA helped you through your career?
The JD/MBA sparked my passion for entrepreneurship and gave me a holistic understanding of what it takes to launch and scale a company. On the one hand, law is such an integral part of building a business. As COO, for example, I negotiated operating agreements, financing documents, leases, employment contracts, and strategic partnerships. And at Columbia Business School, I learned about innovation, leadership, and branding—not just conceptual frameworks but also real-life case studies about companies that have succeeded and failed. Completing both programs helped shape me into a creative and adaptable business leader.
What aspects of your work have you found most rewarding, and why?
It’s rewarding to know you’re making a meaningful impact. At the White House, I helped prepare the president’s briefing books, and knowing that I was putting together important information for the president and his senior staff was fulfilling every single day. As a business executive, I’ve helped shape consumer brands through storytelling, strategy and execution, and team building. I start by identifying a deeper purpose or vision that the brand is trying to achieve—it could be encouraging a healthy lifestyle, or celebrating everyday moments—and infusing that sense of meaning into brand communications as well as the company culture. And it’s a privilege to be able to build a talented, authentic, and hard-working team, and to create a positive and collaborative work environment.
What advice would you give to current and aspiring JD/MBAs?
- Take the time to identify what you enjoy doing and what you’re good at—and do more of that. Playing to your strengths helps keep you energized and fulfilled.
- Take advantage of every opportunity to make meaningful personal connections. Don’t be afraid to initiate a conversation, and follow up afterwards. Don’t wait.
- Make yourself a priority. No matter how busy you are with school, work, or family obligations, carve out time every week—whether it’s yoga or journaling or running—to recharge and reenergize. These breaks make you more productive—and even inspire more creativity.