Liz Yam knows what it’s like to be the “only one” in a room. As a Chinese American digital strategist and creative executive, she has often been the only person of color, the only woman, and the youngest person sitting at predominantly male tables.
“I don’t doubt that sometimes people thought I was my CEO’s assistant,” she said.
However, biases soon dissipated as Yam’s creative prowess and ability to supply fresh ideas helped move companies like the Peter Arnell Agency forward.
Now, co-founder, and head of strategy of Keithcity Group, Yam helps well-known brands, such as Chipotle, Head & Shoulders, and TikTok, with strategic platform solutions that continue pushing them to the top.
“Liz is the backbone of this company,” said Alejandro Corpus, Keithcity’s co-founder, and creative director. “With every great idea, there needs to be a power at hand that helps execute. Liz is that for us. I knew from the minute we crossed paths during our agency days that there was a reason she was the youngest person in a room full of executives.”
Corpus met Yam at Peter Arnell and discovered they worked well together early on. It wasn’t long before the pair created the New York City-based design agency, Keithcity.
“The first project that Liz and I took on was under the pretense of ‘Let’s knock this out and enjoy the holidays.’ Fortunately, that did not happen. We quickly learned that we had the opportunity to create something big and break away from what it meant to work in the creative field,” Corpus said. “That first project led to us to building our company, and we haven’t looked back.”
Yam wholeheartedly “throws herself into projects,” he said, a trait that upsets Corpus at times.
“Sometimes, I get mad at her for that, but without that ability to give 300 percent, there would be no us,” Corpus said.
Keithcity Group focuses on industry trends and is currently working with Web3 and NFTs. Yam predicts those types of projects, along with the metaverse, will continue an upward trend.
“More businesses will want to be involved with these projects if they haven’t been working on them already,” she said.
She describes a typical workday alongside Corpus as an effort in collaboration to reach success.
“I’m synching with Alejandro and debriefing on team assignments, meeting with clients, and potential clients. Team members share progress and receive feedback,” she said.
Corpus called Yam “the glue” within the firm.
“(She’s) the one people look to for guidance, feedback and direction,” he said. “I have vision, but Liz is the person who puts all the pieces together.”
A disrupter in her field, Yam credits her parents for helping to foster her drive and tenacity.
“My parents owned a restaurant where I worked every day. You learn that ‘whatever it takes,’ kind of attitude,” she said.
In addition to teaching her to work hard, her parents encouraged her creative endeavors.
“I was always good at drawing or crafts and sewing and fashion,” Yam said. “My parents noticed that I didn’t take any interest in law or becoming a doctor. They understood that something creative would be more so my passion.”
Her art teachers also inspired her, helping her realize her abilities. As a youth, she won local art contests and continued developing her craft.
Yam’s parents sent her to the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC.
“I attended classes at FIT when I was in high school, but I realized that fashion wasn’t for me,” she said, adding that around that same time, she discovered what graphic design was and found something she enjoyed.
After high school, Yam attended and graduated from Pratt Institute with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communication Design.
While attending Pratt, she landed internships, including one with her former professor, Frank DeRose, at his graphic design studio, Zut Alors!
DeRose became a mentor to her and helped to open up her creative mind.
After college, her career flourished, and she began art directing for companies in various industries.
“I’ve never been afraid to work in any environment,” Yam said, adding that her ability to move up kept her from feeling like “a small fish in a big pond.”
Her career trajectory continued, and she spent several years at Peter Arnell as the head of digital products.
“She is a native leader,” said Martina Benegas, Keithcity’s lead graphic designer. “Liz is the piece that makes everything work. She is our supporter. She manages every project with passion and responsibility. What I like most is that she takes care of every team member.”
Benegas recalled a former Keithcity project for an SMS marketing platform company called Community, for which Yam’s ingenuity propelled the initiative forward.
“We were creating a video to promote a scavenger-hunt activation,” she said. “The whole storyboard for it was perfect, and Liz ensured there wasn’t a single detail missing. I worked specifically to illustrate the map and worked hand-in-hand with Liz to ensure every scavenger-hunt location was (precisely) as Google Maps showed. We knew the map would only show for a few seconds during the video, but it was worth it.”
“The result was amazing,” Benegas recalled. “The map illustration gave the video a great vibe and dynamism. That summarizes Liz–taking care of every detail, working hard behind the scenes, and making everything feel smooth and natural.”
In a recent Medium article, Yam expounded on the importance of creating a comfortable and positive workplace culture where people can work autonomously but understand the benefits of working as a team to use each other’s complementary skills.
“What I like most about Liz as a leader is that she communicates in a great way,” Benegas said. “She congratulates and motivates you every time you do a great job. She lets you know when you are on the wrong path. She’s always encouraging you to push harder to expand your limits.”
Although business is essential, for Yam, work is a piece of life’s puzzle; it’s not the entire picture.
“I’m taking things a day at a time,” she said. “Life is short, and I work hard, but I don’t live for my career or stress about it like I used to.” She said she enjoys visiting museums, cooking and listening to music in her free time.
“I’m happy to continue building the agency that Alejandro and I have built,” she said.
Her career advice to others is simple.
“Work hard and create opportunities that show your skill-set,” she said. “That will give you more visibility and autonomy to move up in the ranks.”
Nicole Major is the publisher and CEO of Pink Butterfly Press LLC. She has written professionally for more than two decades for various publications, including The Fairfield Daily Ledger, The Jacksonville Business Journal, and The Rock Hill Herald. She has written internationally for PC World Egypt, The Middle East Times, and Am Cham Egypt's Business Monthly Magazine.