Millennial Money

32-year-old Harvard grad opened an ice cream shop with her mom—now she makes $230,000 a year

How a 32-year-old earning $230,000 a year in Washington, D.C. spends her money
How a 32-year-old earning $230,000 a year in Washington, D.C. spends her money

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.

In 2019, Annie Park was backpacking in Southeast Asia when she received a call that changed her career.

Her mother Sarah — a former deli shop owner — was bored with retirement and had decided to open an ice cream shop in Bethesda, Maryland. But she needed Park to help for a few months to get the store off the ground. 

"To be honest, at first I was like, 'ice cream shop?'" says Park, who had recently graduated from Harvard with a master's degree in education policy and management. "I wasn't very excited about it."

But "it was never a question of was I going to help her or not," says Park. "I think that comes from being an only daughter to a single mother in an immigrant family."

Annie Park in Washington, D.C.
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The idea wasn't a complete surprise: Park's mother made ice cream as a hobby, often experimenting with new flavor combinations, like apricots and pistachios, or fresh cherries with rose water.

Unlike commercial ice cream that relied on food coloring and flavored syrups, Sarah only used natural ingredients, like real strawberries instead of strawberry flavoring.

After months of preparation, the March 2019 opening of Sarah's Handmade Ice Cream was a smash success, with long lines of customers lasting until the store closed at 9 p.m. "It was something none of us ever expected," says Park. 

Park and her mother had little time to celebrate opening day, as they were up until 3 a.m. making more ice cream before the store opened again the next morning. 

Within a year, Sarah's Handmade Ice Cream opened a second store in the D.C. area and currently has plans to open a third location in Potomac, Maryland, in December 2023. 

Instead of helping out for a few months, Park became a full-time partner in the business, which now has 35 employees and brings in $1.86 million in annual revenue. In 2022, Park earned just over $230,000 — a salary of $118,625 and, as part of the partnership with her mother, the profits from the second store, which totaled $111,677. 

Building a new life in the U.S.

Park was born in Seoul, South Korea, and emigrated to the U.S. with her mother in 2000, when she was 9 years old. Moving to Maryland provided better job prospects for Sarah, and also meant she could avoid the stigma of being a working single mother, which is looked down on in South Korean culture, Park says.

Sarah worked two to three jobs while learning a new language, only spending money on necessities. "My No. 1 lesson to Annie was material [wealth] doesn't give you happiness," she says. "You need to make money to a certain point, but once you chase money, it never ends."

Annie Park with her mother, Sarah.
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In the meantime, Park went to school and studied violin. With music, language wasn't a barrier for Park, and she took pride in winning scholarships and awards. "It pushed me to work harder," she says.

After high school, Park attended Boston College, graduating with a bachelor's degree in music and communications in 2013.

From there, she accepted a position with Teach for America teaching ESL full-time in inner-city Baltimore. The program also allowed her to earn a master's degree in education for free from Johns Hopkins University.

"I saw myself in a lot of my students," says Park. "A lot of them were immigrants or had parents who didn't speak English."

Annie Park at Harvard.
Courtesy of Annie Park.

In 2015, she enrolled in a one-year program at Harvard University to earn a master's in policy and management. And despite her background in education, she found herself gravitating toward entrepreneurial projects on campus. 

Park graduated from Harvard in 2016, but over the next few years, she realized she didn't "like policy work at all." 

That's when her mother called.

Running the ice cream shop

Despite Sarah's Handmade Ice Cream's successful grand opening, it took over six months for the business to become "a well-oiled machine," Park says.

Now, the original location in Bethesda brings in nearly $1.1 million in annual revenue, while the newer store in North Bethesda has annual revenue closer to $767,000.

While Sarah describes her daughter as her "life companion," the early days of the business weren't without conflict. They had never worked together before and had to learn how to resolve differences of opinion.

"Now we realize who has the strength to do what," says Sarah, describing how their roles evolved. Park handles day-to-day operations, such as staffing, while her mother focuses on new flavors and quality control.

Annie and Sarah Park at Sarah's Handmade Ice Cream in 2020.
Courtesy of Annie Park.

The pair have also made a few unusual moves that help them stand out. For starters, the store has never had a marketing budget. Instead, Park and her mother donate ice cream to local nonprofits and community organizations, which has attracted loyal customers in the Bethesda area.

Park also created a leadership program for employees, most of which are in high school. The program encourages career growth for all skill levels and rewards loyalty. "We don't hire shift supervisors from the outside," she says. Instead, her policy is to promote from within the ranks of her staff.

Within a few months of opening the first store, Park realized the business didn't have to be limited to just "a mom-and-daughter shop."

"It could be a series of ice cream shops," she says. "I'm looking at Jeni's, I'm looking at Ben and Jerry's. They started somewhere."

How she spends her money

Here's how Park spent her money in March 2023.

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  • Savings: $9,306 for a third store location
  • Housing and utilities: $2,190 for her half of the rent; water and heat bills
  • Discretionary expenses: $1,495 for travel, entertainment, home-cleaning services and household items
  • Food: $432 for groceries and restaurants
  • Insurance: $286 for car and renters
  • Transportation: $148 for ridesharing and gas
  • Subscriptions and memberships: $18 for Netflix and cloud storage

Rather than spend or invest the second store's profits, Park puts the cash into savings, earmarking some of it to go toward opening a third location. In March 2023, she was able to put away $9,306 and has roughly $290,000 in total savings that she's built up since middle school.

Park also has just over $157,000 in investments. She didn't make any contributions in March, choosing to focus on saving up for the third store instead.

Park's biggest monthly expense, aside from savings, is the $2,190 she spends on her two-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., which she splits with her boyfriend.

Annie Park at home.
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Travel is another large expense, as Park typically goes on vacations between December and March, when business at the ice cream shops is slower. Park and her mother went to Costa Rica in March, which accounts for $1,184 of Park's discretionary expenses for the month. 

Park has $38,000 in student debt, but with the payment freeze, she's currently choosing to put money into the third store and her investments instead. 

"I'm also a bit hopeful that loan forgiveness might kick in at any time," she says. As a Pell Grant recipient, she could qualify for up to $20,000 in student debt relief, although the status of student loan forgiveness remains in limbo.

Looking ahead

Going forward, Park hopes to open more ice cream shops with her mother, buy a house and, one day, start a family.  

"I'm not sure if this sounds clichéd, but I want to be able to do it all," she says. 

While she never planned to run an ice cream store, all of her previous experiences had a "synergistic effect" on where she is now, from teaching young people to working on entrepreneurial projects to even her high school job as a Starbucks barista. 

Annie Park outside Sarah's Handmade ice Cream in the North Bethesda, Maryland.
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"I think one of the things that has really shaped where I am today is that I thought that all of these different life experiences were random and I thought I was lost," she says.

"It's a weird feeling of looking back and saying that none of those experiences were a waste of time, I've been able to combine it together and now it's fueling [my work] at Sarah's Handmade."

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