MSJ Alumni Web Extension

By Staff Writers Amy Chen, Katherine Guo, Jonathan Ko, Julia Park & Vicki Xu


  1. Describe your journey from the end of high school to where you are today.

  2. Were there experiences during high school that helped you realize what you want to do?

  3. What were your biggest influences throughout high school and beyond?

  4. What advice do you have for current MSJ students who might be looking to follow your path? What about MSJ students in general?

  5. Where do you see yourself going in the future? What role has MSJ had in that?

Cena Barhaghi

1. “I started my clothing brand Pink Dolphin my senior year of high school at MSJ. At the time, it was more of a hobby than anything else. I didn’t know anything about the clothing industry or running a real business. I taught myself how to use design programs off YouTube tutorials, Google to find manufacturers, etc. After high school, I started my freshman year at SJSU. In college I decided to study business finance because I  was already learning how to design on my own and realized I needed to understand how to run a business and control finances in order to have a successful business. My first year at college I was living on campus and it was what you would expect, a lot of partying etc. My second year, I moved back home and realized I was over all the partying and having fun and wanted to focus on my future. I started to put a lot of my time and effort into my business. By my junior year, things were really paying off, our sales were up, we had more fans and stores that wanted our product. I moved our HQ from my parents’ garage to a loft in Los Angeles. The move to LA was really important because it is a thriving area for fashion, manufacturing and also networking. I was still in school in San Jose at the time and would spend Tues-Thurs in the Bay Area and Thurs-Mon in LA. This was probably one of the most stressful times of my life because I was stuck in between school and work and was on constant flights every week. I did this for about 6 months and then decided to drop out of school and fully pursue my business ventures when I felt like the risk was worth it.”

“Once I was in LA full time, I literally spent every day and night working on the brand. From designing and spending time with manufacturers during the day to being in the nightlife scene at night meeting and networking with people. Networking and being in the right places at the right time was really a huge part to the business becoming as successful as it has today. With social media and everything that is going on today, traditional marketing doesn’t really work anymore. Its[sic] really about meeting the right people and just being around the right stuff. You have to get out of the house and really be in touch with whats going on in the streets. Once I was in LA, I started hiring the right people and we opened our first store in LA on Fairfax & Melrose in 2012. In 2013, we opened our second flagship store in San Francisco on Haight & Ashbury. At this point the brand had a strong grassroots presence and we were being carried in over 600 stores worldwide and was employing a staff of over 45 people. Being able to travel all over the world for fashion and meet so many people has been one of my favorite parts of having a successful business. Fast forward to 2017 and I’m very proud of our successes so far and we are continuing to work hard everyday to build an empire.”

4. “As much as schoolwork and books are important (they really are, I apply a lot of the knowledge I learned in high school and college and constantly apply it to my daily life and business), I think with how much the world is changing with the internet and social media that networking and street smarts is the other half of it. There have been countless situations that have changed my life and career because of people I have met or places I have been. I think it is really important to understand the value of communicating with others and meeting new people. You never know what doors that might open for you. There is no right or wrong way to go about it, you just have to make the effort to get out there in the world and it just happens with good energy. This applies to every field but even more when it comes to creative industries.”

5. “While building a successful clothing brand, I have built a successful infrastructure thru that (factories, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution & fulfillment, web store creation, design teams, etc). My partners and I have now launched a successful juniors brand (Haus Of Jr) which is being carried in high end stores like Barneys NY and brand development/consulting company (Special Delivery LA) doing clothing for artists and social figures such as Kylie Jenner & Kehlani. I see myself continuing to build a fashion empire launching other brands and doing brand development and consulting for others through the infrastructure we have built in the future. I’m currently building a new 30,000 sq. ft. HQ to house all these ventures on a property I recently bought in the LA area. We are moving into the new creative space this summer. Other than that I am working on a few other ventures in the real estate space and hospitality space but keeping most of the focus on the fashion side.”

Sophie Diao

1. “After graduating from MSJ in 2009, I enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts, majoring in Character Animation. My program taught us a lot about the process of making animated films, and I found myself being drawn to the visual development and illustration aspect of it. After an internship with the Google Doodles team the summer after my third year, I returned full-time post-graduation and have been making Google Doodles since. On the side, I do freelance painting and design work for various TV and film studios, as well as personal commissions.”

2. “I had always had a lifelong interest in drawing, but the activities I participated in in high school helped me realize how I wanted to channel that interest. Speech and debate got me interested in philosophy and justice, while Smoke Signal taught me how to work with a team under real deadlines.”

3. “A lot of books I read in English class inspired me to think about my own stories: Brave New World, The Great Gatsby, etc. I was also greatly inspired by the work of other artists online, like Heather Campbell and Jen Wang.”

4. “If you’re looking to make a career in art, don’t ever stop being curious – curiosity is what feeds the idea machine. If you post art online, don’t get too caught up in what’s popular or trendy. Make something that represents you.”

5. “I’m not really sure at the moment, but I would love to eventually do something entrepreneurial involving succulents and art. MSJ taught me so much about being a self-motivated person – invaluable experience that I try to hold onto.”

Richie Zeng

2. “I was always interested in technology growing up but I never really thought about pursuing engineering until high school. I did robotics all four years at MSJ, which really pushed me towards engineering. The area I was most actively involved in was programming which eventually led me to study [Electrical Engineering and Computer Science] at Berkeley.”

3. “My biggest influence in high school was my robotics coach Mark Edelman. We were just a bunch of kids who had no idea what we were doing, and Mark was always there to help. Rather than just giving us the solutions to problems we ran into he would guide us towards finding the solutions ourselves, even if that meant spending the whole day working on a problem. I credit a lot of the problem solving skills I have to his mentorship. He demonstrated what it meant to lead by example, which I took to heart as I became a team lead.”

4. “Whatever work you end up doing into adulthood will take up over half of your waking hours. It’s important to be working on something you’re passionate about. I was fortunate to find my passion in technology and engineering early, but for many [it] takes some time to find out what you’re passionate about. As a teen and young adult, always optimize for learning. I decided that leaving school to pursue my own startup, going through all aspects of taking a consumer electronics product to market, was the best learning experience for me. For many other people, staying in school will be the best learning experience. Take a wide breadth of classes in school to find out what you’re passionate about, dive in deeper once you discover your interests.”

5. “I ultimately want to build a product used by everyone in the world. That would be incredibly satisfying to see. If anything, being at MSJ gets you accustomed to working significantly harder and smarter than the average person. That’s an invaluable skill that can’t be taught, you need to live through it. That’s what’s going to help me and other alumni achieve their goals.”

Natali Morris

2. “I always regretted that I did not write for the Smoke Signal. I think part of me always knew I’d be a journalist but I did not make an effort to join the staff because I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and we were not allowed to do extracurricular activities. But I really wanted to. I saw how hard all the writers were working and how much they enjoyed it and the part of me that watched from the sidelines learned a hard lesson about holding yourself back. I think if you are pulled to do something and don’t take action, there is a part of you that feels the loss of that growth experience acutely. Also, since I held myself back so much as a teenager I spent the early part of my career saying yes a lot. I said yes to a lot of opportunities and that is how I had the opportunity to do on-air reporting, writing for various publications, interviewing people I respected. So I guess the biggest lesson learned is this: if you feel pulled to try something, DO IT!”

3. “My favorite broadcasters are Leslie Stahl and Rachel Maddow. I am very proud that Maddow is a Bay Area native like me! I am also a big fan of Lawrence Lessig and his writing and wish that everyone would read his book Republic Lost. Do that before you get your voter registration! Everyone do that!”

5. “Well I just had my third (and last!) baby in the fall. I haven’t been working much since she was born but I can see myself wanting to work more as she gets older. As I think about what that looks like on the horizon, I feel that it is necessary for me to create new opportunities for myself rather than simply going back to the network. This is a hard time for journalists with an antagonistic administration and I know that had I been working more during my pregnancy I would have just been one more voice in a sea of voices in a time when cacophony accomplishes nothing. I want to figure out how to write, speak, and broadcast in a more useful [manner]. I think we will all do well to realize that broadcasting is not about the thrill of seeing your name in print or your face on television. It is about serving a democracy. When we see our career as serving our own highest and best purpose, we can help heal what is so divided in our country. I hope that I can go back to work and help in a more rational way rather than just add my voice and face to a fragmented and noisy media.”

Vikrum Aiyer

1. “I was a bit of a Speech and Debate nerd, and that shaped a huge part of my life long-term — I was made aware of policy issues, current events … just society in general. So I thought to be paid to debate professionally would be cool. I decided to become a lawyer, and you know, being an Asian at Mission — parents were cool with that. At UC Berkeley I majored in Political Science, but I realized by the end of undergrad that what I was reading about in the news was kind of different than how I learned about them. In the classroom it’s all theoretical, in a vacuum, whereas in real life there are tons of different scenarios. I was very keen on going to law school, and I was obsessed with the world of politics, but I also wondered: what about people surrounding the politicians? You know, speechwriters, chiefs of staff, things like that. I started to get more interested, and I wanted to go out to DC, so I went to a grad program at DC, fell in love, and worked for politicians in DC at the federal level.”

2. “I’d say about my areas of interest at MSJ — political science, government, the Smoke Signal, Debate — all you’re told to focus on, while well-intentioned, you have to give yourself a certain amount of flexibility in not knowing what will happen. I took a leap of faith when I went to DC not knowing anyone. We should learn about those moments when we’re not sure what’s coming next, instead of just dedicating ourselves to textbooks.”

3. “Back when I went to MSJ, the feverish sense of ‘I can drop out of school and build my own startup’ wasn’t so pervasive then. There were the classic three jobs — doctor, engineer, and lawyer — only. In the government, I got a chance to work on tech and business policy, see what works to help businesses grow. I think it’s one thing to allege that something’s good for growth or the economy from the government, but it’s totally different to be in the receiving position.”

4. “I definitely think Debate was a pretty huge informative part, especially at a time when the president questions a lot. You know — my politics are pretty clear, having worked for the Obama administration and all that — but at a time of political uncertainty, it’s important for people to see multiple sides of an issue. Debate taught me critical thinking, [to] communicate crisply, write well, and it was a huge benefit, especially thinking about another person’s point of view. I know that at Mission we bucket ourselves into certain archetypes, and they’re partially reinforced by our activities and friends, but at Mission I ended up doing lots of different activities and made friends with certain people who weren’t all like me. Just sit with someone new at lunch, broaden your horizon, open yourself to others’ perspectives — it forges bonds. It does sound kind of silly, since you have your own clique of friends, but you should push yourselves to establish bonds with people unlike yourselves and build networks of folks.”

5. “In public services, there’s nothing like X job leads to Y job leads to Z job. You end up amassing different experiences, adding more arrows to your quiver. Don’t be afraid to meander a little. For example, if you’re really into computer science, that’s what you want to do, and by your third, fourth year you want to try something else, don’t be afraid to go down different horizons. There are a lot of different ways life can play out, and we are all better off that we understand that instead of following lanes, we’ll be more effective in whatever we choose.”

Matt Faust

1. “I have taken a circuitous journey from the time I left high school to where I am today. When I left high school, and even college, I was certain I was going to be a sports writer. A dramatic shift in the journalism industry, the 2007 financial crisis and three jobs later, I found myself in a career I love, working in communications in the sports and entertainment industries. After eight years of working at FleishmanHillard, an international public relations agency, I took a job in Corporate Communications at Electronic Arts, the Redwood City-based video game publisher. I am responsible for EA Brand Content, which means I oversee the stories we tell on and our @EA social media channels. It’s an amazing experience being able to work on something I’ve loved since I was a kid, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by co-workers I truly feel like are my family.”

2. “The first experience that helped me realize the path I would take was on the football field when I realized I wasn’t going to be the next Joe Montana. Once that happened, I moved on to more realistic dreams and set my sights on sports journalism. I worked on the Smoke Signal my junior and senior years, the feeling of being able to share a story with so many others was addictive. I think everyone has a story to tell and something important to bring to the world, and it is fun to share those stories.”

3. “Working on the Smoke Signal, and in particular the journalism teacher at the time, Mr. Brunak, were the biggest influences on me during my high school years. I loved seeing my hard work pay off immediately when the stories hit publication and working with Mr. Brunak showed me what a leader should act like. He was driven, but he was human, and he took a caring and deliberate approach to everything he did, and I always knew he was in my corner — whether it be teaching me a lesson or patting me on the back. After high school, there are too many people to list. You never know who is going to be the person who gives you your big break — mine was a family friend of my mom’s — and relationships are the key to attaining opportunities.”

4. “I work mainly on websites and social media. The first was in its nascent stage when I was in high school and the second didn’t even exist. Skills can be learned, but as you start your career there is no replacing hard work and a positive attitude.”

5. “I hope I will continue to be a storyteller at EA and sharing the stories of the games I love. The foundation of the skills I have today — writing, working with others, learning from others and sharing their story — started at Mission. But beyond the books and the high-pressure tests and SAT prep, the most important thing I took from my time at Mission was the relationships I developed. At the end of the day, no matter what line of work you do, you are working with people. How you work with others, good or bad, can often define where you end up. The relationships I developed at Mission still help me to this day, and I hope that will be the same for many of you.”

Noa Kretchmer

1. “The biggest thing I had to learn before diving head first into such an unforgiving, difficult, and dark industry was learning to find joy in the little things. Find joy in failing at an audition. Find joy in sitting for hours, memorizing lines. Find joy in everything, and joy will find you.”

2. “A big obstacle I had to overcome was my insecurity regarding my talent, body, etc. There is simply no room for doubt in such a ruthless town, and I (albeit slowly) had to learn to have faith in myself.”

3. “First of all, enjoy high school. Enjoy every single moment of it because it’s a time of such discovery, one that is hard to find afterwards. If anyone at Mission is passionate about and wants to pursue acting, my advice is to chase it to the ends of the earth. Break out of the Mission bubble, break every single barrier, and break legs.”

4. “The work ethic I learned and developed at Mission is undoubtedly the quality that has saved me time and time again. Having a solid foundation of work ethic is something rare, and people take notice. Every industry is heavily reliant on networking, how people view you — work ethic is something people see and remember.”

5. “At some point in my life, I definitely want to teach theater at a high school level. I have no doubt that I gained the desire to do this because of my experiences in high school, even all these years later.”

Sarah Ching

2. “The most influential thing about attending MSJ was being surrounded by motivated students. I learned from peers who were willing to help and share how they succeeded but also a lot from teachers who believed in not only teaching their subject but also how to be good person in the world. We are seen as a very academically driven school, but I feel like most students were very well rounded in sports, arts, student council, etc., on top of academics. Whether that was just for their college application or for their own enjoyment it made us excel as a school.”

3. “I can’t really name a single individual who influenced my time in high school, I think I took a little from everyone. By doing that you learn from the strengths and weaknesses of multiple individuals and groups of people. Today, I continue doing that, I learn a little from my family, friends, strangers, co-workers, teammates, whoever it is, they’ve taught me something whether they or I know it, or not.”

4. “MSJ students who want to be a graphic designer, I would say try Yearbook, find a mentor who is currently in school for it, draw more, or join a club and become the art person who creates all of the promotional posters for it. If you’re torn between going to a prestigious art school or a public school, it’s all what you make of it as an artist. The only difference is maybe the resources, while you do put more money into a private art school with fancier equipment, even if you go to a public university, you can still get the same job as anyone else. And similar advice goes to all MSJ students in general, it really is what you do with your education in college, and not necessarily where you go. Just make sure are working hard no matter where you are.”

5. “Hopefully in the future, I’m making a living doing whatever I want to do, instead of being tied down to a 9–5 job. And for me that is photographing and traveling, while still freelance designing. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a 9–5 job in the Silicon Valley, but I don’t necessarily think it’s for me, forever. While that is what I am currently doing, and it works for me, for now, I’d like to be elsewhere one day, again doing what I want to do, wherever I want to be.”

Kylan Nieh

1. “I graduated from Mission in 2010 and went to college at UC Berkeley. During my time at Cal, I absolutely fell in love with the community — everything from the academia to the people I met — I’m really happy that I went there. I graduated in 2014 with a double major in Computer Science and Business Administration and started my career in tech at LinkedIn. I am now a Senior Product Manager leading our Student products as well as a new strategic initiative with Microsoft (which acquired us earlier this year) for one of our first Microsoft + LinkedIn integrated products set to launch later this year.”

2. “I did not know what I wanted to do until college. That being said, I wouldn’t have figured out what I wanted to do without my experiences in high school. Extracurriculars like student government helped me figure out some of my strengths and passions (as well as weaknesses), which enabled me to build upon that in college. I also learned a ton in high school — both inside and outside of the classroom — which I still apply to my job today.”

3. “Family, friends, teachers, coaches, mentors [were my biggest influences].”

4. “Don’t follow anyone else’s; everyone has their own path to achieve their own goals. It’s up to you to figure out how you want to walk your own path. And the best part? We don’t know where our paths lead. It’s called life :). It’s incredibly important to set goals for yourself. They help guide your path. Take advantage of high school and college to discover new interests, passions, and goals.”

5. “My goal in high school and college was to one day find a platform to better the lives of others. The work I am doing today is creating economic opportunity for hundreds of millions of people in the global workforce. It feels incredibly fulfilling to be making an impact at a company with such a phenomenal vision. Down the road, I hope to continue to find ways to help people in all different shapes and forms.”

Graphic by Centerspread Editor Ashley Chang

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