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Valuing Family and Social Impact Launched Kevin Lee into Entrepreneurship

Kevin Lee ’12 had an interest in business and a desire to make a social impact. UC Berkeley taught him that it was possible to pursue both.

April 30, 2024
by Amanda Chiu
Kevin Lee ’12 posing with his business partner Kevin Chanthasiriphan. Kevin Lee ’12 (left) with his business partner Kevin Chanthasiriphan. The two Kevins launched their company immi, a healthy instant ramen alternative, in 2021. / immi

Kevin Lee didn’t see himself as the typical Berkeley student. 

While his high school classmates stacked AP classes, Lee focused on his guitar club. When teachers recommended taking physics to get into a good college, Lee took personal finance and discrete math. When college application season came around, Lee wrote his essay about how he’d learned to put family over business through his dad’s example of working in Taiwan to support Kevin and his mom in the States. “I don’t know if Cal’s going to like that I’m prioritizing my family over my career,” he thought. 

Fast forward: Lee graduated from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and went on to work in tech, co-founding several companies. And yet, some things haven’t changed for Lee. He probably wouldn’t describe himself as the typical business success story that you’d read about in the media. And Lee still strives to put his values first in his work. 

As a Cal undergrad, Lee jokes that he was, academically, “a horrible example of a business student.” Instead, he focused more on internships and student organizations. Lee served as the president of the student consulting club Asian Business Association, now known as Berkeley ABA. The club had a high attrition rate when Lee first became president, and he and his fellow officers worked hard to turn it around. The experience gave Lee a taste of on-the-ground business leadership and formed lifelong friendships between Lee and several of the Berkeley ABA officers.

“I’ve always cared about social impact. It’s extremely important to me… to do good while making money in the world. The biggest thing I learned from Berkeley was [that] it is very possible.”

Kevin Lee ’12

The Cal Alumni Association recognized Lee’s undergrad accomplishments with The Leadership Award. For Lee, the bigger honor was seeing his parents’ hard work validated. “[My parents] really sacrificed a lot to allow me to be able to even get into a place like Berkeley,” Lee stated. “[The Leadership Award] is the result of generations getting to this point.”

immi ramen cup on a table.
immi makes instant ramen “with better nutrition and high-quality ingredients” without decreasing food enjoyment. / immi

While academics might not have been his main interest as a college student, Lee enjoyed his classes at Haas’ Center for Social Sector Leadership. The Center’s emphasis on social impact strategy and leadership especially resonated with him. Lee participated in the Social Sector Solutions program, which allowed him to work with McKinsey consultants to support nonprofits.

“I’ve always cared about social impact,” said Lee. “It’s extremely important to me to give back and also to do good while making money in the world. The biggest thing I learned from Berkeley was [that] it is very possible.”

From Lee’s UC Berkeley experience, one main question arose: How can we have the most impact at scale?

That question persisted throughout Lee’s career after Cal. In 2014, Lee fulfilled a longtime dream of opening a school when he co-founded Product HQ, an online education company that trains future product managers.

“We all have different paths into entrepreneurship. One important thing is to start exercising that ‘hustle muscle’ as early on as possible.”

Kevin Lee ’12

Currently, Lee co-leads the company immi, which produces plant-based instant ramen. The company’s mission was personal for both Lee and his co-founder, Kevin Chanthasiriphan. The two had seen many of their family and community members develop diabetes and chronic health problems. “We always wondered, ‘Can we reinvent some of these Asian American foods we grew up eating, but with better nutrition [and] high-quality ingredients?’” said Lee. “immi was kind of like that thesis.”

Young Kevin Lee with his mom.
Young Kevin Lee with his mom. Growing up, Lee learned to prioritize family over personal success. “As a first-generation immigrant, it is imperative for me to ensure that I can take care of my family.” / Courtesy of Kevin Lee

Again, family came first.

Lee is excited about immi’s future. On the day of our interview, immi had just launched immi cups, their new cup ramen line. In addition to grocery stores, immi hopes to expand to sell at other retail stores and college campuses. While Chanthasiriphan’s alma mater UCLA was the first college to have immi’s ramen on campus, Lee hopes Berkeley will be a potential later stop.  

Apart from business, Lee is passionate about mentorship. His main advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: don’t quit your day job.  “In society, we really glorify this idea of dropping everything to jump into starting a company,” says Lee. Not everyone, though, has the privilege to risk everything to start a business. This is a lived experience for Lee. Financially providing for his parents was one of Lee’s non-negotiables. He chose to continue his full-time job when building Product HQ in order to have a regular salary and did so again when he built immi. Knowing that he had an income to support his family gave Lee peace of mind when his businesses were starting. “We all have different paths into entrepreneurship. One important thing is to start exercising that ‘hustle muscle’ as early on as possible.” 

A lot of Lee’s own “exercise” happened at UC Berkeley, where he learned all he could about the social sector side of business. At the same time, Lee encourages current students to expand the scope of their opportunities beyond campus. From Lee’s perspective: if you’re curious, reach out to anybody, even people outside of Berkeley, and let them know you’re a college student who wants to learn more.

“Your life has begun. If you have an interest in something, don’t wait four years to do it. I say this because when you go out there [after graduation] and you try to recruit for a job, people don’t want you to be like, ‘Here are the things I will do when I start [working].’ They want to see you’ve been living and breathing this thing already.”