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Vanessa Liu Is Redefining Entrepreneurship Through Personal Growth and Professional Impact. Here’s How.

An Interview With Brooke Bohinc


Original headshot photo credit: Kevin Abosch


Vanessa Liu, the Co-Founder and CEO of Sugarwork, boasts more than 25 years of diverse expertise as a serial founder, operator, strategist, and investor.


Rooted in personal growth and resilience, Vanessa’s entrepreneurial journey has not been straightforward. During her childhood, Vanessa’s parents struggled early on as entrepreneurs, causing her to associate the family business as simply a means to an end. However, her perspective shifted as she saw her mother transform into a success story. Today, Vanessa harnesses AI at Sugarwork to enable companies to capture and own tacit institutional knowledge, allowing for accelerated onboarding and boosting productivity. As she continues navigating the world of entrepreneurship, Vanessa’s approach remains focused on cultivating a supportive network and a culture of celebration.


We asked Vanessa about the problem Sugarwork solves, if she always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur, and what’s next for her and her company. 


What problem does Sugarwork solve?


We created Sugarwork because we saw a huge challenge for companies when it comes to critical knowledge transfer. I saw this pain point firsthand when I was serving clients at McKinsey and again at SAP. When tenured employees with years of experience would leave the company, with them went critical knowledge—information such as what customers really cared about, strategies to compress sales cycles gained through first-hand experience, efficient and effective process management, internal partners who could support your customer and your team, and much more. 


Tacit knowledge represents 80% of a company's critical knowledge, and is based on years of experience. This is the information you need to keep your business running smoothly. Fortune 500 companies lose $31.5 billion annually due to the loss of critical knowledge when people walk out the door. This is being intensified by mega trends like Baby Boomers leaving the workforce, high attrition, and remote work. Sugarwork is an AI-powered platform designed to help companies capture tacit knowledge, thereby accelerating onboarding time and driving up productivity, client, and employee service. We recently helped a publicly-listed tech company save $20 million in labor and risk costs while they offshored their engineering division using our platform. 


Did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?


I had no desire to become an entrepreneur. I watched my parents struggle as they launched their businesses when I was young. My mother started a retail business when my brother and I were in elementary school to support us as my father was pivoting careers to become a lawyer and had to go back to school. We would spend weekends packing up shopping carts with watches, jewelry, and sunglasses, making our way to Queens Plaza flea market on the E subway train. My mother asked for loans from skeptical family members who questioned why she, as a woman, was not staying at home. 


It was very tough to witness, and I viewed the family business as a means to an end—getting food on the table. I distinctly thought that being a business owner was never going to be for me. However, my mom’s influence as a gritty entrepreneur was greater than I ever could imagine. My now 81-year-old mom is running the successful Swarovski’s preferred design studio, where she and her team bling out objects such as taxis for Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS launch or tour outfits for Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Today, I view being an entrepreneur as a worthy challenge, a way to help drive creative and impactful solutions, and an homage to my inspirational mom. 


The people you surround yourself with are the key to success. If you work with people you really like, you will always learn and grow, no matter the outcome.

What were the most difficult and most impactful lessons you’ve learned starting and running a company?


Though I help others all the time, I find it hard to ask for help myself. This is a lesson I’m continuing to learn. A few years ago, one of the first companies I co-founded, InsideHook, was on the verge of running out of money. After experiencing rapid growth the first three years, we found ourselves being swept up in the disruption that was happening in media. We had deployed all of our capital, and we were scraping by, just meeting our bi-weekly payroll with revenue that was coming in. The stress levels were extremely high—employees were leaving, my co-founder and I were disagreeing, and our investors had had enough.

 

While meeting up with a senior executive of a company I was advising, he saw the stress on my face. He asked what was wrong. Typically, I’m the one asking him that question. I blurted out, “I need help to find a buyer for our company,” and proceeded to tell him what was going on. He heard my ramble for five minutes, and then said, “I might know someone who could be interested.” Two weeks later, I met his contact. Three months after that, he was the new owner of InsideHook. 



We dare you to brag. What achievements are you most proud of?


I am very proud of the work I did at SAP.iO, where we brought seed to Series C startups into SAP’s ecosystem. Over three and a half years, I worked with 87 companies, 80% of which were founded by women and underrepresented founders. The long-term trajectory of technology depends upon who is at the table when solutions are crafted. The ability to both discover and support brilliant creators and entrepreneurs who have historically not been a part of the conversation is a gamechanger. I’m still in touch with these founders, more than two years after leaving SAP.


What resources or people have contributed the most to your successes?


The opportunities I’ve been given have been overwhelmingly due to incredibly generous mentors. For instance, I currently sit on two public boards—Appen and Goodman Group—and I’m often asked how I started doing board work. When I was running SAP’s early-stage accelerators, I realized I missed my work advising executives on matters of corporate strategy, though I loved working with startups. I caught up with one of my mentors, Steve Hasker, 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

 

What have you learned about building a team and a support network around yourself?


The people you surround yourself with are the key to success. When I was in consulting, we assessed potential recruits through two lenses. First, are they good problem solvers? Second, are they someone you want to spend eight hours stuck in an airport with? This very simple construct is how I’ve looked at building teams. I always share with mentees that if you work with people you really like, you will always learn and grow, no matter the outcome. As a leader, I also think a lot about motivating the team, and I am a strong believer in celebrating wins, no matter how small, as happiness makes people want to engage more and fosters creativity. 


What’s next for you and Sugarwork?


This year is a critical one for us at Sugarwork, as we just came out of stealth and are onboarding as many customers as possible while preparing for a next fundraise. At the same time, I’m celebrating a big milestone birthday this year. I’m marking it by saying “yes” to 50 things my family and friends propose to do together.

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