A year ago, Michelle Kim hadn't heard of the SoCal Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge. Now, she's planning her entire summer and fall around it.
"I saved the final bosses for the end of this year, but snow starts to hit some of the highest peaks around October, so I have to do those by early fall!" she says.
Aside from being the Vice President of Brand Design at VideoAmp, Michelle is an avid hiker. The challenge she and hundreds of other California hikers have committed to is to make it to the peaks of at least six of southern California's nine highest mountains within one year's time. She's currently halfway through.
"Once you start putting yourself out there to do these sorts of tough challenges, you get to that point in your brain where you're like, 'Oh, this is what it means to have mental stamina,'" says Michelle of how her weekend summits and interval training hikes impact her during the workweek. "When you have a crazy work period or are in a really high-pressure environment, you have that muscle memory in your brain to get through it."
Michelle has built a career of putting herself in high-pressure environments and seeing what they can teach her, and the pandemic taught her to do the same with her physical health. VideoAmp offers daily workout programming and Michelle took advantage, signing up for CrossFit workouts every weekday and supplementing those classes with yoga and weekend runs.
She hit 100 straight days of working out, then 200, then a year. Along the way, she was inspired to sign up for her hiking challenge. "VideoAmp really gave me the tools to do that; there's a community of highly ambitious and competitive folks here," she says.
Learning to express herself—and to believe she had something to say
Michelle's parents used to tell her that her imagination was bigger than she was, and Michelle agrees. "I've always been sort of a dreamer. As a kid, I was not very good at verbally expressing my feelings and art was a form of expression for me. It was my way to talk to people," she explains.
After finishing a full day of high school, Michelle would cross state lines to attend a private studio school and take art classes. She ended up going to art college for undergrad with the intention of studying fine art, but that changed course when she took a graphic design elective and fell in love with the Adobe suite.
"It was an instant relationship. I loved it from the first class," she says. "It was a way of interacting with a machine, but it's also obviously art—you get to bring the best of both worlds." She expanded her graphic design studies into typography, too, and ended up finding a set of mentors who encouraged her to apply to grad school.
"Johan, Antonio, Alice—I think about them all the time. I would never have felt confident enough to even apply to grad school if it wasn't for them. They were able to identify my potential," she says.
Michelle found out she got into Central St. Martin's rigorous two-year design program in London the night of her final undergrad show. She was thrilled, but nervous, and after moving to the UK for the program, the nerves only multiplied.
"I was one of the youngest people in the entire program. I was American. I was female. I was Asian. I felt like I had to prove myself, and re-prove myself. Everyone was super established, and I was fresh out of undergrad," she says.
But Michelle leaned into the challenge. She worked harder, knowing that all she could really do was give it her all. She also started realizing that while all of the famous designers she was learning about were men, her classmates and peers came from a huge range of backgrounds. "I knew there were designers out there that didn't look like Paul Rand," she says.
Thanks to mentors and peers who supported her, Michelle recognized that she could eke out her own place if she worked hard enough for it. "That's when I got my first taste of having so much fire under your ass that you don't even know where to start, it all just happens at once," she says.
She rose to the occasion. "I thrived. I love the whole 'figuring out' process. I love the lessons learned and the people who help you along the way. And, I love the healthy competition.That made me want to constantly chase that environment."
She chased it all the way to VideoAmp.
Rallying around challenges
After spending five years working for ad agencies and publishing houses in London and Amsterdam, Michelle was ready for a change. The west coast's sunny-all-year-round lifestyle was calling her, so she made the transition to working in branding and tech, all without knowing a single person in LA.
"I've always had that, 'You're never going to know if you don't try' kind of attitude," she explains, smiling. She ended up getting a job designing for a fashion brand, but wasn't crazy about the subject matter; she transitioned into software for an ecommerce platform, where she realized she'd found the perfect mix of rigorous technical work and creative freedom, just like she'd had in her first Adobe Illustrator class.
Tech was for her, but Michelle wanted to do more shaping there, so she looked for a startup to join. After working in several other tech startups, VideoAmp's advertising platform's ambitious goals appealed to Michelle—as did the opportunity to build the communications and brand design team.
"The creative team sat separate from everything else, which is rare. Creators are often nestled under sales or marketing, as a kind of support. But VideoAmp's CEO and co-founder, consciously made a decision to never nest creative under some other team, but to let the design team stand on its own. Having buy-in from an actual CEO who believes in design and the power that it has is super motivating," explains Michelle of why she joined.
"The team was a great fit as far as ambition and the types of goals they were trying to achieve," she says. Within her first few months on the job, Michelle was tasked with a huge project: rebranding the company and redesigning the website from the ground up.
"I was like, 'Oh, my god, that's just climbing the biggest mountain,'" recalls Michelle. But she laced on her shoes and got to work.
Her approach included not just coming up with the overall new brand design guidelines, the visual language, and the layout, but also developing systems for seeing how she was doing against her goals. "My partner-in-crime in creating the brand new website was my wonderful team over at Column Five who was there from day one of the relaunch. I couldn't have done it without them," she adds.
Michelle says she measures success and performance with CrazyEgg, Google Analytics, Salesforce, and even heat mapping and visitor click-rate data. "There's always data to chase in design. It's an easy crutch to just 'trust in your design training' and 'know good design principles,' but if you don't ever look at how people are ingesting your work, you're never going to solve real problems," she says, adding: "We're so proud that the new website gained VideoAmp its first two design awards."
"I run my team like an engineering team," says Michelle. "Two week sprints. All the technical stuff uses that side of my brain, and then I can flex my creative side."
VideoAmp's website is still a responsibility of Michelle's team, but now it's more in improvement and scaling mode. "There's never a shortage of challenges here in terms of the work we have to do for different audiences and different client bases," she says. "We're rallying around projects every day, every week, every month—the culture motivates me highly."
Paying it forward
As a VP, a big part of Michelle's job is getting work done by supporting others. It's also something she loves.
"I want my teams to shine. Giving them opportunities to also experience that is just a gift to keep giving," she says. Her mantra for her team is "We're capable of more than we realize," which means she's constantly challenging them to do more, work more efficiently and to step further outside of their comfort zone.
"We fail fast, and learn fast," says Michelle. "At VideoAmp, you're supported from day one. You're here for a reason. You're hired for something and I promise you that you're going to fly. You're going to do so much more than you ever thought you were capable of. There's so much to learn from people here across all the departments."
Thinking about creating an environment where people really feel that they have the backing of everyone around them brings Michelle back to the first environments where she felt successful as an artist: the studio teacher who believed in her. The undergrad professors who pushed her. The grad professors and the early bosses who told her she could do it, who made her keep going. A bevy of mentors and peers told Michelle that despite the fact that she was different, she could carve out her own success. She did, and now she works every day to do that for others.
"When you feel like you're supported, you can do your best work. If you have that insecurity, if you feel like you're being judged for who you are as a human, and the person that you are, you can't really shine, right? Having support as a human being is first and foremost," she says. "You're only going to get the best work out of someone if they feel supported in and out of that office, if you make them feel seen."
To do that, Michelle gives her team specific, actionable tasks to help them grow and likes to lead by example. "That can mean having someone who's shy do a range of different types of public presentations to practice speaking about themselves, presenting to others, and talking about topics they're passionate about," Michelle explains. "Or, sometimes it's giving passive mentorship through impromptu working sessions where we're all equals figuring hard things out together."
"My biggest joy comes from seeing others achieve big dreams; starting from the base of their proverbial mountain, crushing the process and ultimately celebrating when they reach the top of their peak," she adds.
There's also a deep sense of responsibility Michelle feels in representing and empowering other women in the male-dominant tech industry. "I'd love to see a day when there are no 'ceilings' to shatter anymore," she says, hopefully. "Having strong female representation allows others to dream big and know they have an equal seat at the table. We need to make room for everyone to climb their mountains despite what they may feel is stacked against them."
"I like asking people to identify things they hate the most, and then encouraging them to dive in and do it," says Michelle. "I thought I would hate going up a 45-degree incline mountain for hours on end on a hot Saturday afternoon, but I do it because I know I can. You should never just be sitting with what you're comfortable with."