paying it FORWARD
Marketing maven Danika Wong ’06, international studies and political science, fuels growth of the Social Sciences Alumni Network
D anika Wong ’06 steers her team into the unknown every day. What questions will customers ask their AI-powered chatbots tomorrow, and what new features will they come to expect in the next six months or six years? Wong leans into this emerging industry with adaptability, flexibility, and curiosity – which she honed as a UCI student.
“There was no class for marketing an AI company or political science course for the decentralized metaverse. It gets back to basic curiosity: looking at market trends, identifying opportunities, and figuring out how to bring them together,” Wong says. “Social sciences gave me the opportunity to learn how to learn.”
As Wong’s career grew, she also developed a deeper appreciation for her college experience, and started lending her marketing expertise to help grow a different kind of startup: the rapidly expanding UCI Social Sciences Alumni Network.
Wong was interested in business from the time she first arrived at UCI – just a short drive from where she grew up in Huntington Beach. She took classes running the gamut from linguistics to economics, but quickly settled on double majoring in political science and international studies. Both built on her previous experience with the Model United Nations, and helped her grapple with the complex issues surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which cast a long shadow over her senior year in high school. But college was about more than academics.
“I’m not motivated by a need to get a bunch of As, or to get to some specific next step,” Wong says. “I wanted to explore the full campus life.”
To that end, her first year she joined UCI HAPA, an organization for mixed race Asians. Her second year, she joined a sorority, eventually becoming its vice president of recruitment. She also worked as a counselor for the Student Parent Orientation Program (SPOP) and served on committees for the Associated Students of UCI, helping put on the homecoming festival and other events. In her senior year, she had a marketing internship with a travel company. Through all of these activities, she met her husband, Adam Yamaguchi ’06, and created memories to last a lifetime.
“UCI gave me so much. It’s where I grew into myself, where I met my husband, and it provided me the opportunity to have unique and diverse experiences that set me up to do a lot of things in my career,” Wong says. “Now I want to help future generations go faster and get farther.”
Wong’s first full-time job after graduation was on campus as a marketing coordinator in the UCI Career Center. Ironically, she had never used its services as a student. But this made her an ideal person to strategize about how to reach others who, like her, were racing head first toward their graduation date without taking the time to plan for what comes next. Working at the center not only made Wong a huge advocate for its services, but also equipped her with a new set of skills for job hunting.
“It’s so hard to get a job out of college when you don’t know exactly what you want to do,” she says.
After a stint in interior design, Wong returned to marketing with an ecommerce job at Macys.com, testing features we now take for granted, like the “quick view” button on products or the ability to make purchases directly through a social media platform. She later moved to New York with the company’s millennial marketing team, where she first focused on marketing to this coveted audience, then focused on how to leverage mobile as a new way to shop and engage with the brand. It was in the Big Apple that Wong began to appreciate the value of the UCI alumni network.
“In New York, networking was a bigger part of career building than I had experienced before. I started realizing that the UCI network is a really good well to draw from,” she says. “The idea of getting a job from a job board seems so crazy now. It’s all about who you know.”
Danika Wong ’06 with Kevin Weaver ’11 (left) and Roger Whitenhill ’04 (center) at a private tour of the Jonathan Art Foundation collection of California plein air art at the Jonathan Club, downtown Los Angeles.
Wong left Macys in 2015 for an advertising technology firm, and soon returned to Southern California with her husband and young daughter.
“A common thread in my career is looking for that new thing that no one is doing yet, something a little bit different,” Wong says.
Today, Wong is the chief marketing officer and head of product for Satisfi Labs, which uses conversational artificial intelligence to power chatbots and voice assistants for entertainment venues, tourism sites, and athletic teams – including about half of all professional sports teams. Their natural language processing (NLP) understands a variety of questions customers ask about finding their tickets, nearby parking, or a venue’s updated COVID-19 safety requirements.
Although chatbots get a bad rap, Wong points out that the huge increase in online information, global connectivity, and demand for realtime answers has outpaced anything human staff could realistically respond to.
“We’re looking toward a world where companies have to figure out how to answer an exponential number of questions for a much larger and more global group of customers,” Wong says. “Ten years ago in ecommerce, we’d never have guessed people would expect their clothes delivered to their doorstep in two days. Now we’re asking, what will the future of the AI chat experience look like, and what will people expect in terms of the quality of the conversation?”
Soon, Wong says, we’ll all be buying tickets to shows by simply asking Alexa or another virtual assistant. But the rapid evolution of the industry is something Wong thrives on.
“Does marketing mean the same thing today that it did when I was a student? Absolutely not. The point is there is no roadmap, you just have to be open to the opportunities and jump in and learn,” she says.
When they moved back to California, Wong and her husband remained connected with UCI’s alumni network.
What I love about this network is that we’re really making a concerted effort to engage with alumni and show people why it’s important to stay invested.
They attended Homecoming, donated to Giving Day, and started talking with old college friends about how to help more alumni like themselves reconnect with their alma mater and, especially, with the School of Social Sciences.
“Where I’m at in my life, settled down with an established career and family, I’m starting to understand and think about my long term legacy,” Wong says. “I realize maybe I can contribute some money and some expertise.”
As one of the founders of the Social Sciences Alumni Network, Wong lends her marketing savvy and advice to help the school connect with alumni, no matter where they are in their journey, from brand new graduates to those who are already enjoying retirement.
“The Alumni Network is like a startup in that we don’t have a long tradition or long history of social sciences alumni, because UCI is only 50 years old,” Wong says. “But what I love about this network is that we’re really making a concerted effort to engage with alumni and show people why it’s important to stay invested.”
With more than 58,000 social sciences alumni, the robust network includes professionals in fields from entertainment to policy making, who support and encourage each other, as well as the school’s 1,000+ new graduates each year.
“I didn’t necessarily appreciate everything that UCI gave me at the time. But now I want to give back and help someone else experience what I did,” says Wong. “It’s about paying it forward to future generations of Anteaters.”