Vanessa Liu on the State of Entrepreneurship, AI and How to Pivot
October 27, 2023
Vanessa has worn numerous hats, most recently as CEO of SugarWork.

Vanessa has over 25 years of experience and a proven track record of value creation as a serial founder, operator, strategist and investor across SAP, Trigger Media and McKinsey.

She is the Co-Founder and CEO of Sugarwork, an enterprise SaaS knowledge sharing platform empowering employers to own and maintain the knowledge, skills, and relationships that drive their businesses. She was most recently Vice President of SAP.iO, SAP’s early-stage venture arm, where she oversaw SAP.iO’s North American Foundries in New York and San Francisco, including programs devoted to women and diverse-led B2B enterprise tech companies, and recruited and accelerated 87 enterprise software startups. Prior to SAP, Vanessa was Chief Operating Officer at Trigger Media Group, a $22MM digital media incubator. She co-founded Trigger’s portfolio companies: InsideHook (digital media company & men’s lifestyle brand) and Fevo (SaaS technology for group experiences at live events). She began her career at McKinsey & Company and was an Associate Partner in the Firm’s Media and Entertainment Practice, based in Amsterdam, London and New York.

Vanessa currently serves as a Non-Executive director of Appen Ltd. (ASX: APX) and Goodman (ASX: GMG).

"I’m very excited about the potential for generative AI, but I find myself worrying ever more about inequality, unethical applications and the projected job displacement that will result from its adoption."

You have held numerous roles; what is your secret to pivoting?

From my perspective, the different roles I’ve had - from consulting, founding companies, running accelerators, to sitting on boards - have all naturally flowed from one another as there is a red thread tying them together: solving problems through innovation. The transitions have been smooth as I’ve focused on three things - first, knowing where I’d like to have more impact; second, taking stock of which of my skills are most important; and third, leaning on my “personal board of advisors” for guidance and support. For instance, a few years ago I had a moment of reflection where I realized I missed advising executives on matters of corporate strategy while yearning to be in an environment where I could learn from seasoned leaders. But I also did not want to give up my day job of being in the startup trenches. I caught up with one of my mentors, Steve Hasker (who is currently the CEO of Thomson Reuters), and was sharing some of my reflections when he said it was time for me to start thinking about potentially becoming a public board director. Though I had not been on a public board before, the experience I had as both a former management consultant and as an entrepreneur were very relevant. Before long, one of the boards he sat on was looking for a new director, and I got the chance to put my hand up and was offered the role. 

When you look at the state of VC and entrepreneurship at the moment, how do you feel about the industry?

Like the rest of the industry, I’m very excited about the potential for generative AI, but I find myself worrying ever more about inequality, unethical applications and the projected job displacement that will result from its adoption. It’s one of the main reasons why I started Sugarwork - I want to make sure there are solutions out there that are net positive for society. It is a very good time to build - the VC market is still very strong when it comes to doling out first checks (though tougher for later stages) - and I hope that more purpose-driven people will be enticed to start a business now. There are so many problems to solve, and AI could be at the forefront of many solutions.

What leadership advice has propelled you throughout your career?

A key piece of advice that stands out is building a network and finding mentors who pound the table for you. I would not be here today without the breakout opportunities I was given by those who believed in me more than I did.

A second one is being authentic and not being afraid to show vulnerability. I bring everything to work (literally, including my kids and sometimes my parents too!), and I think that this creates deeper connections with colleagues.

Do you have one secret to your success?

My husband Harold is my secret. I would not have been able to pursue my dreams to be an entrepreneur without his support and the partnership we share at home. He is the stable force for our family, the one who makes every soccer game (assuaging the mom guilt when I’m on the road); and my biggest cheerleader. He jokes that I’m the upside case in the family, and he’s the base case.

Who is a woman you admire?

My mom. She’s 81 years old now, and still running her successful bedazzling business in NYC’s fashion district. She started her entrepreneurship journey when my brother and I were in elementary school as our dad decided to go back to school to become a lawyer as a second career. I viewed the family business as a means to an end – getting food on the table for us. I saw just how tough it was sometimes to make ends meet – to the point where she had to take loans from reluctant family members – and I thought that being a business owner was never going to be for me.

I didn’t realize my mom’s influence as a gritty entrepreneur was greater than I ever could imagine. I watched, mainly on the sidelines, as she navigated her path filled with many zigzags and learnings. The business evolved from selling watches and sunglasses behind a counter at Queens Plaza flea market, to the successful crystallizing business it is today as Swarovski’s preferred design studio. She and her team blinged out taxis for Kim Kardashian and Swarovski’s SKIMS launch a couple of months ago; they have done tour outfits for Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Rihanna too (check out her work on Instagram).

What’s one thing you can’t live without?

My camera. In a different life, I would have been a photographer. Perhaps that’s my next career pivot.

What is one big trend you’re excited about in 2024?

Aside from generative AI, I’m excited about the pace of development for climate solutions as well as how aggressively corporations are increasing their sustainability targets. We are at a tipping point with the climate crisis, and these shifts are very meaningful.


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