How a 34-year-old went from making $40,000 right out of college to $400,000 now at TikTok

Andrew Evers and Lisa Setyon | CNBC Make It

This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.

When Sora Lee was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, she got what she considers to be pretty bad career advice.

"'Pursue a major that you're passionate about,'" she says an advisor told her and her peers. "Good for her that her career worked out, but I don't think that was very helpful advice for someone like me who was an international student."

Lee began studying political science, which she was interested in, until she considered how it could affect her earnings and ability to get a job down the line. As an immigrant from South Korea, Lee was already thinking about her ability to stay and work in the States, which would require an employer-sponsored visa. 

In her mind, that would be difficult to attain without a job in a highly competitive field. She didn't think a bachelor's degree in political science alone would lead her there.

"I don't think it's mutually exclusive to pursue money or pursue passion, but I do think you can't not think about money because a lot of us need to support [a family] or don't have any family to support [us]," Lee tells CNBC Make It. 

She wound up double majoring in political science and economics to broaden her job prospects, and the decision seems to have paid off. 

Sora Lee is the global head of product marketing for TikTok.
Mickey Todiwala | CNBC Make It
Sora Lee is the global head of product marketing for TikTok.

Now 34, Lee lives in San Mateo, California, and earns a base salary of $320,000 a year as the global head of product marketing at TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance. This year, she'll receive $80,000 in restricted stock units, which brings her total compensation up to $400,000. 

She started at TikTok in 2023. That year, she received $48,000 in RSUs and a $50,000 sign-on bonus in addition to her base salary.

That wasn't her only compensation. Money from a severance package, stock sales, renting out a room, selling a house and working her side hustles brought her 2023 income to about $840,000.

Lee didn't know she would go into tech. Her first job out of school in 2012 only paid around $46,000. But she's championed for herself in negotiations, learned how to succeed at work and applied those lessons with each career transition she's made along the way.

"It's hard to dream of becoming something that you've never heard of or been exposed to," Lee says. "I try in my life to show that there are these career paths, but going into tech was not really a goal I had in mind. I just kind of fell into it."

Working with some of 'the world's smartest, most competent people'

Being in Berkeley helped Lee get exposure and jobs at startups in the area that were willing to hire international students. After earning her bachelor's degree, she started working at a small video analytics startup called TubeMogul. 

While working at TubeMogul in 2012, she became aware of Netflix as it was beginning to take off. TubeMogul was competing for an ad tech partnership with Netflix, so Lee learned about the company's own technology and culture.

"My coworker said, 'If you're frustrated about the working culture [at TubeMogul], you should read this deck,'" Lee says of a Netflix company culture statement. "I thought it was so refreshing, just kind of thinking it's something that could happen to me far, far away in the future."

She wouldn't have to wait long. A Netflix recruiter reached out to her that same week.

Lee started working at Netflix on its digital marketing programmatic buying team in 2014, earning a salary of $110,000. She stayed there until 2016, and took as a position at WhatsApp, which is owned by Meta, in January 2017. She stayed at Meta for six years in several different roles for Facebook, eventually earning over $200,000 a year.

By this point, she knew she could command a large salary and enjoyed the benefits of working at highly regarded tech companies. But her satisfaction didn't primarily come from the free lunches.

"I think the biggest perk is getting to work with some of the world's smartest, most competent people and learning from them," she says. "We can talk about the office food, travel and all the glamour that comes with it. But at the end of the day, I think that's the benefit that all companies should strive to provide."

Lee frequently travels for work, mainly to New York, Austin, Texas and Los Angeles.
Andrew Evers and Lisa Setyon | CNBC Make It
Lee frequently travels for work, mainly to New York, Austin, Texas and Los Angeles.

By the end of 2022, Lee felt she was outgrowing her role at Meta, and had begun looking for new opportunities. But the final decision to leave wasn't entirely hers. "It was actually perfect timing that I got laid off," Lee says of being part of Meta's November 2022 job cuts.  

"I got laid off on Wednesday, got my offer from TikTok on Friday, and had another offer from another firm on Monday because I had already been interviewing," she says. "I negotiated between the two, and I got this TikTok role and I was able to get the [Meta] severance and start my new job."

She began in her current role at TikTok in January 2023. 

'I felt like I made it'

By now, Lee's annual income has grown nearly 10 times from what she earned fresh out of college. And while she's enjoyed her salary progression, her more recent pay increases haven't felt as sweet as getting her first big check did.

The jump from earning $46,000 a year to $110,000 when she started at Netflix was huge. "[I] felt like I made it," she says. "That's when I bought my first designer purse."

Now working alongside senior executives and directors "making millions," Lee says she doesn't feel as wealthy as when she first joined the six-figure salary club. 

While she wants to continue increasing her salary, money alone isn't enough. She wants her work to feel meaningful and challenging, so she wouldn't necessarily take a better-paying job unless it satisfied those psychological needs.

"You spend so many hours in a week [at work], why spend it on something that you're not excited by?" she says.

How she spends her money

Lee didn't always have the financial cushion she has now. She opted to graduate from college in three years in order to save money, and while she was a student, she donated her eggs three times for cash to pay her tuition.

"I don't regret it," she says of that decision. "I think it was a good way to help fund my education [and] at the same time, give children to families who wanted their own kids."

In 2019, she had a child of her own, Jackson. She shares custody of him with her ex-husband after their marriage ended in 2021.

Lee enjoys spending time with her 5-year-old son, Jackson.
Andrew Evers and Lisa Setyon | CNBC Make It
Lee enjoys spending time with her 5-year-old son, Jackson.

"I wasn't super prepared for the divorce even though I had initiated it," she says. "I don't have any regrets. I was at a point where I would be fine, even if my net worth starts at zero."

She earned more than her husband at the time and was ordered to pay spousal support for a year after the divorce was finalized. Additionally, she had to pay hefty lawyer fees and sell two of the homes they owned together, one at a loss.

"My ex was managing all the finances, so I was pretty oblivious to anything like personal investing," she says. "I didn't know how to do anything, which sounds kind of funny because I'm the one with an MBA degree."

Here's a look at Lee's spending in March 2023:

  • Housing and utilities: $2,787 for her portion of the rent, split with her current partner, plus Wi-Fi and utilities
  • Discretionary: $4,445 on a necklace she bought herself, a camera, household goods, cleaning services, books and gifts for friends
  • Child care: $2,339 for Jackson's pre-K
  • Savings and investments: $2,326 toward her 401(k) and flexible spending accounts
  • Transportation: $1,203 on her car payment and charging fees
  • Subscriptions and memberships: $487 for Pilates classes, Netflix, a water filtration system, ChatGPT, Audible and an indoor playground
  • Food: $427 mostly on groceries; her partner buys meals when they dine out
  • Student loan payment: $246
  • Gifts: $200
  • Insurance: $125 for health, vision and dental insurance

Lee's only outstanding debt is around $36,000 for her Tesla and just over $3,200 in student loans from her master's degree. She has a mortgage in her name for a home in Lake Tahoe, but her ex-husband makes the payments.

Lee's company covers her phone bill, and she pays for car insurance bi-annually, so she didn't make a payment in March.

Though she doesn't regularly contribute to savings, she has over $21,000 in cash across several personal and business checking accounts and over $8,000 in company-sponsored flexible savings accounts. Additionally, Lee has $755,283 invested in retirement accounts, a 529 savings account for Jackson, and crypto and regular brokerage accounts.

All told, her net worth is around $843,000.

Buying back her time

Between her son, her job — which often has her traveling cross-country — and her burgeoning side hustle as a content creator, public speaker and author, Lee has a full plate. As a result, she always looks for ways to optimize her routine and make the most of each day.

"I only have [Jackson] half the time and I want to be really present when I'm with him," she says. "And then when I don't have him, I also want to go full-in on my work and my other endeavors."

As a result, she pays for a house cleaner to come twice a week and is happy to spend money on experiences with her son, like an indoor playground membership. Lee says those special activities and quality time help keep her grounded.

"I almost feel like God or some sort of higher being gave [Jackson] to me so I can take a pause and enjoy life versus constantly thinking about how I can do better and be more, and feeling anxious about how I am not doing enough, and how I'm not making enough money," she says.

Lee says she struggles with anxiety around whether she's making enough, or if her home is "nice enough," which stems from how her dad spoke about money when she was growing up. "My father constantly talked about money and he would place value on people based on where they live or what kind of cars they drove," she says.

She hopes to teach her son to view money in a healthier way.

Lee and her son, Jackson, enjoy hosting friends for dinner parties and play dates.
Andrew Evers and Lisa Setyon | CNBC Make It
Lee and her son, Jackson, enjoy hosting friends for dinner parties and play dates.

"I like having adult discussions with him," she says. For example, Jackson can identify certain car brands like Porsche and knows they're expensive, but she'll tell him things like, "Just because someone has a nice car doesn't mean that they're wealthy."

She knows a 5-year-old may not fully grasp the concept of a depreciating asset, but he can start to understand that having expensive things doesn't always mean someone is rich.

'I want to see how far I can take this'

The future of TikTok in the U.S. remains uncertain, but Lee isn't worried about her career.

In fact, after appearing on a Netflix reality show, "Love After Divorce," she saw her social media following begin to grow and realized she had an opportunity to leverage the audience to elevate her career in a different way.

Her growing follower count helped her secure brand partnerships and speaking engagements, "which gave me a lot of joy because I do love sharing how to become a more effective employee and how to navigate corporate careers," she says.

On her TikTok, YouTube and Instagram accounts, Lee shares career and lifestyle advice based on her experiences. At speaking engagements, she gives similar advice on how women in particular can climb the corporate ladder. Last year she brought in over $8,000 through these avenues, and she expects to bring in over $19,000 this year, thanks to more events and a book deal.

Lee enjoys golfing in her free time.
Andrew Evers and Lisa Setyon | CNBC Make It
Lee enjoys golfing in her free time.

"I love creating engaging or educational content to help others," she says. "It's been really fun and really rewarding, so I want to see how far I can take this."

Lee encourages her followers to get comfortable talking about money because it's helped her learn about personal finance after her divorce. 

"Don't be embarrassed about how little you're making, or don't be embarrassed that you don't know how to do this," she says. "We're all figuring this out together."

For income earned in South Korea, conversions from South Korean Won to USD were done using the OANDA conversion rate of 1 Won to 0.00077 USD on December 31, 2023. All amounts are rounded to the nearest dollar.

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