Ben Liu, MBA ’07, and Aya Nakajima, MBA ’07: Finding Tough Love and True Love in B-School

The struggles to meet leaders’ standards and speak teammates’ language pay off. So do study trips.

June 06, 2017

Ben Liu, MBA '07, Ema Liu-Nakajima, and Aya Nakajima, MBA '07

Ben Liu, MBA ‘07, Ema Liu-Nakajima, and Aya Nakajima, MBA ‘07 | ToniBird Photography

This series features reflections from our alumni on their school experiences and their aspirations, learnings, challenges, and joys. Here, Ben Liu and Aya Nakajima reminisce with Stanford GSB about the marriage of challenging scenarios and positive results, and giving back to the place where it all happened.

For Ben Liu and Aya Nakajima, some of the best lessons they learned at Stanford Graduate School of Business also were the hardest. Take the day that Intel’s Andrew Grove chewed out Liu’s team during a second-year seminar on strategy.

“We were midway through a laboriously prepared presentation on new media when Andy interrupted and said: ‘This is not good. You need to start over,’ ” recalls Liu, MBA ’07.

He laughs about it now, though. “It was a complete and utter shock at the time,’’ he says. “But looking back, it toughened me up. It gave me a sense of what it meant to work with one of the world’s greatest business leaders.”

Nakajima, MBA ’07, says one of her most challenging times came in her biodesign class. She spent many late nights and weekends working with a medical student and two bioengineering students trying to come up with an improved diagnostic tool for women’s urinary tract infections.

We know alumni helped us. Now we feel it’s our time to do the same.

“We had to learn how to speak one another’s language, and went through many failed prototypes and heated discussions,” she says. “I learned firsthand what it meant to go through the process of innovation, especially with cross-disciplinary team members.”

Nakajima and Liu met at Stanford GSB at an orientation event for students interested in international business, and their relationship deepened when they traveled together on a school global study trip to Thailand and Cambodia. After graduating, they married and went on to pursue their careers: she in biotechnology and he in the video games industry.

Today, Nakajima works with teams of scientists, engineers, and physicians as global marketing director for Amgen Inc. and specifically for its medication Prolia, a human monoclonal antibody for the treatment of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Liu is the CEO of Pocket Gems Inc., a mobile games startup in San Francisco, which employs about 200 workers. Founded by Daniel Terry, MBA ’10, and his Cornell classmate Harlan Crystal, it created the storytelling platform Episode and the 3-D real-time strategy game “War Dragons.”

Ben Liu, MBA '07, Ema Liu-Nakajima, and Aya Nakajima, MBA '07

Ben Liu, MBA ‘07, Ema Liu-Nakajima, and Aya Nakajima, MBA ‘07 | ToniBird Photography

In addition to managing their busy work schedules and growing family obligations (their daughter, Ema, is 2, and a baby boy is due this summer), the couple regularly give back to Stanford Graduate School of Business. They sometimes speak to classes about their work and participate on panels. Liu recently served on the fundraising committee for the MBA Class of ’07 reunion.

“Stanford GSB changed our lives in many ways,” he says. “The friendships we made and the lessons we learned have given us so many life experiences and opportunities. We know alumni helped us. Now we feel it’s our time to do the same.”

— Theresa Johnston

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