Lyft News

APIDA Heritage Month Feature: Sonja Ji Young Kim

May 29, 2024

Meet Sonja Ji Young Kim (she/her), Senior Counsel, Advertising & Marketing at Lyft and member of our UpLyft Ascend ERG. UpLyft Ascend aims to advocate for AAPI identities within Lyft, encourage and foster community, and facilitate professional development in the workplace and beyond.

In honor of Lyft’s “Sounds & Soul” theme for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month, Sonja shares how creativity and celebration shows up in her traditions and daily life.

What is your role at Lyft, and how did you get into this field? 

I joined Lyft in February as Senior Counsel, Advertising & Marketing, focusing on product legal support for the Lyft Media team. With nearly 14 years as an in-house lawyer in the entertainment and media sectors, my career journey was heavily influenced by my upbringing.

Growing up in a family with immigrant parents from South Korea who each came on their own to the U.S. in the 1970s (when Korea’s global profile was not what it is today), education and health were deeply valued, and academic excellence was expected. My parents were very generous in supporting us and sacrificed a lot to do so – whether it was enrolling us in music, art, and dance lessons or various academic enrichment programs, or funding our education; while I was in elementary school, they even decided to move from one Bay Area suburb to raise us in another just 30 minutes away solely for its high-performing school district.

By sharing these insights into the support system I had to get to where I am today, I also want to avoid perpetuating the “Tiger Parent(s)” trope or the cliché narratives like being forced by my Asian parents into a certain profession. Asian/Asian American parents are often portrayed as oppressively strict and controlling, and while that can be true for some, it’s reductive to assume that we all experience the same parenting style. While I acknowledge feeling the weight and guilt that children of immigrants (or, even non-immigrants) often experience from witnessing all of our parents’ sacrifices for us – and, I accept that I probably made the “safe” decision to pursue this career path – I understand that my parents, like many others – regardless of cultural background – simply wanted to provide better opportunities for their children. Given all of the barriers, hardships, and traumas that my parents encountered as immigrants, I recognize that they did the best within their means to set us up for success to achieve the so-called — and arguably, increasingly illusory — “American Dream”. 

Some pivotal moments from my high school years which steered me towards law include interviewing a lawyer for a career research assignment and attending a youth legal leadership forum in LA where one of the speakers was a transactional entertainment lawyer who repped musicians. Despite not initially exhibiting the typical traits of a future law student/lawyer, such as participating in debate club or mock trials, I excelled in English class, received recognition for strong writing skills, and gravitated toward the humanities and concepts of justice (particularly when witnessing or experiencing disempowerment in unjust situations).

I was also deeply immersed in the pop culture trends (especially music) of the late ‘90s and early aughts, and I developed a keen interest in pursuing the business side of the entertainment industry - I even recall scouring liner notes in CD booklets of my favorite albums and being excited to see the credits of artists’ entertainment lawyers or their legal/business affairs and management teams. At the same time, I was troubled by the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Asians and Asian Americans in the media that I consumed during this era, so I was motivated to pursue this industry to advocate for change. Therefore, the aspiration to become an entertainment lawyer emerged since I could merge a practical path (law) with another that was fueled by passion (the creative industries).

After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in Mass Communications, I fulfilled my dream of moving to LA to specialize in entertainment and media law at UCLA Law. After completing law school and passing the California bar exam, I was determined to accelerate my goal to become an in-house lawyer at one of the major television or film studios and commit to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and enjoying my practice area; so, I took a different path than the typical roadmap of toiling away for years at a law firm without work-life balance. “Breaking into” the entertainment industry is also notoriously difficult and as someone who did not have any nepotistic ties and just relied on school/alumni connections and a bit of luck in the job application process, I still managed to get my foot in the door.

I had some interesting legal internships at one of the major Hollywood talent agencies and SAG, and my first job as an attorney was at a boutique entertainment law firm. I then went in-house as a television production counsel at Fox Television Studios, then to a music merchandising counsel role at Live Nation Merchandise when I returned to the Bay Area. When I landed at Pandora, I pivoted to a digital advertising counsel role and joined a close-knit legal team with an exemplary manager and mentor who trained me in adtech, invested and supported my growth, and taught me the importance of promoting inclusivity and collaboration. After nearly 7 years at Pandora, I was recruited for a new opportunity when Block acquired TIDAL. And now, I’ve landed here at Lyft during this time of hypergrowth, and I am excited to continue learning!

For those curious about this career path, I am happy to share more insights, but the key takeaways are to embrace adaptability, challenge complacency, maintain an open mind, cultivate empathy and kindness, prioritize networking, remain tenacious, and know your worth.

How do you incorporate creativity into your daily life, whether it's through cooking, crafting, or other activities?

I appreciate this opportunity to showcase my creative interests, as it challenges outdated stereotypes, particularly those surrounding the legal profession and Asian/Asian American communities. Contrary to the image of lawyers as rigid and unimaginative, I’ve encountered many within the field who possess remarkable artistic talents, proving that our creative pursuits can coexist with, and even enhance, the intellectual demands of law. Similarly, the stereotype of Asian/Asian Americans as technically adept but creatively limited is rapidly being dismantled by the rise of creative-minded influencers of Asian descent and the global popularity of Asian entertainment, offering a refreshing counter-narrative. 

In my adolescence, I played the piano, violin, and alto saxophone, and I took elementary level dance and art classes. This early immersion set the stage for my enduring appreciation for the arts and creative expression, which only amplified as I ventured into working in the creative industries.

To be completely candid, I’m still on a quest for my creative calling. The pandemic years offered some time to explore and dabble in new hobbies, none of which have really stuck, but over the last decade or so, I’ve been dedicated to a creative movement practice off-hours and on weekends. Music also continues to play a major role in my life; although I haven't played an instrument in decades, discovering and listening to new, evocative music is a vital source of inspiration and joy, and it’s a constant companion. Growing up without seeing Asian faces in the American music and broader entertainment scene, it’s been incredibly exciting to see K-pop become a global phenomenon (as I studied the genre’s history in college while abroad for a summer in Seoul and saw its potential as far back as 2006 despite the cultural barriers). In addition to sounds from Asia finally making it over here to the States, it’s also been exciting to see a new generation of American artists of Asian descent emerge here in the U.S. I’m also very fortunate to have a strong network of creatives, some of whom are working on amplifying more Asian American storytelling and whose recommendations for new cultural experiences – from films to art exhibits – also enrich my life. 

An immersive and independent style of international travel has been another outlet for my creativity, providing opportunities for deep introspection and the expression of my creative vision through amateur photography and designing unique and memorable travel itineraries. Paris, a city I’ve visited multiple times in recent years, stands out as an exceptionally inspiring place as it’s an epicenter for creativity. As I continue to explore and refine my talents, I’m excited for the next chapter in my creative explorations, so stay tuned!

Photos from my first birthday where I wore both Western attire and a hanbok to depict the duality of straddling two cultures as an American of Korean descent.

What is a cultural tradition or practices that speaks to the theme for APIDA Heritage Month?

This question actually prompted some deep reflection, as it revealed my limited engagement with Korean traditions, and I realized that I may not have a lot to share. Apart from some distant memories of participating in Korean New Year (Seollal) traditions (saebae) long ago and childhood photographs that show me wearing the hanboks gifted by my grandmother from Korea, my family did not consistently observe Korean holidays or traditions. Instead, we adopted the American holiday calendar.

While there is undoubtedly a sense of loss with the erasure of culture and traditions within one generation (a common consequence of cultural assimilation), I also see the upside with the opportunity to start anew by combining the “best of both worlds” and blending traditions to create a hybrid cultural identity. In fact, my parents, who each left their homeland and respective families, exemplified this by connecting with, and exposing us to, people and cultures beyond the Korean/Korean American community; their friends and neighbors who were from a diverse set of cultural backgrounds, including Chinese, Danish, Italian, Japanese, Kenyan, Malaysian, Mexican, and Persian, ultimately became their “chosen” family. 

Though I am now proud of my Korean heritage (as I did not always fully embrace it while growing up in a predominantly white community), and it’s been especially exciting with the surge in South Korea’s global prominence and popularity of its pop culture, beauty trends, and cuisine over the last couple decades, I often feel disconnected from it, finding identities like “Californian” or “global citizen” more fitting. Yet, I remain open to exploring Korean traditions that resonate with me to experience that cultural connection. In fact, as a wellness enthusiast, a personal tradition that I’ve cultivated in adulthood and have embraced for over a decade is the Korean spa ritual (jjimjilbang). This ritual has not only been my sanctuary where I can indulge in self-care and rejuvenate mentally and physically, but it also allows me to connect with, and celebrate, Korean beauty and health practices, engage with members of the Korean community (even with my limited Korean language skills), and support AAPI- and immigrant-owned businesses. 

What's a favorite recipe or dish that holds special significance for you and your family, and why?

I was very fortunate to grow up in a household where both of my parents contributed to meal preparation, though my mom, who is especially talented with her creative culinary skills, handled the lion’s share of it.  As is probably the case in many other Asian and Asian American households, food is among my parents’ love languages; there’s even a photo I’ve shared where my mom cut out the letters of “LOVE” from dried seaweed laver to decorate a bowl of Korean fried rice (bokkeum-bap) that she once prepared for me. I also have to recognize my parents’ versatility as they expertly handled cuisines beyond the Korean dishes that they were familiar with; in fact, these non-Korean dishes are actually among the ones that I highlight here as I view these meals as a testament to my immigrant parents’ adaptability and courage to step outside of their comfort zone to provide a more enriching experience for their children: 

  • Corned beef: One of my favorite meals growing up that my dad prepared for us was corned beef with cabbage, carrots, and potatoes, and I even celebrated it in a journal entry assignment in grade school. I visited my parents this year on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and they had even prepared corned beef for lunch; though I’m not as excited about it today, it still evokes nostalgia for me.

  • The “classic” American Thanksgiving menu: For years, my mom has prepared an epic Thanksgiving feast. She once shared that when she first arrived in the U.S., she did not like turkey but it became an acquired taste for her. Out of curiosity, I recently asked her why she never featured Korean dishes like kimchi at Thanksgiving, and her response was simply because her children were “American”.

Besides the non-Korean cuisine items listed above, one Korean dish that has become my post-Korean spa indulgence is seolleongtang, a hearty ox bone soup that I love eating with radish/daikon kimchi (kkakdugi). If you’re in San Francisco, I highly recommend the one at Daeho Kalbijjim and Beef Soup, and if you’re in LA, there will be no shortage of great options in K-Town. 

I can provide an endless list of Korean main and side dishes (banchan) which I especially love, but I’ve listed the notable ones below. My culinary skills are limited so I’ve never actually cooked any of these myself so hyperlinking to helpful recipes if you’re curious:

  • Galbi-jjim or Kalbi-jjim: Delicious braised beef short ribs.

  • Tteok-guk or Dduk Guk: Koreans traditionally eat this rice cake soup on New Year’s Day; apparently, because the rice cake ovalettes resemble coins, it symbolizes prosperity.

  • Miyeokguk: Koreans traditionally eat this seaweed soup for their birthdays; I’ve just eaten it whenever I’ve had a craving for it.

  • Samgyetang: A Korean ginseng chicken soup made with cornish hens that my parents would whip up when we were feeling under the weather. 

  • Sikhye: I loved this sweet rice dessert punch with malted barley flour as a child when my mom brewed it but from what I recall, the preparation time can be long!

  • Gim-bugak: I have childhood memories of my mom sun-drying seaweed sheets “glued” together with rice paste in our backyard to make these delicious seaweed chips from scratch, but these days they may be available in pre-packaged form.

In closing, I’d like to share that I haven’t had many opportunities to feel very open about discussing my favorite Korean dishes because like some Asian Americans who grew up in communities, or found themselves in spaces, where their ethnicity was not prominently represented, I’ve been on the receiving end of some ignorant and xenophobic comments with so-called “lunchbox moments'' in the past during elementary school days and even in some professional settings (to learn more, see links: NBC News Voices: Have You Ever Had a 'Lunchbox Moment'? or Eater: The Limits of the Lunchbox Moment).

I also don’t feel particularly qualified to be an expert in Korean cuisine, and it can be fatiguing to over-explain your culture. However, when I started at Lyft and saw that our lunch menu offered options that were inspired by some Korean recipes, it was actually a relief and quite comforting to be at a workplace that celebrates multiculturalism through food!