Yang was born in Schenectady, New York on January 13, 1975. His parents were immigrants from Taiwan who met while they were both in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. His father graduated with a Ph.D. in physics and worked in the research labs of IBM and General Electric, while his mother graduated with a master's degree in statistics. Yang attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and went on to attend Brown University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in economics. He later attended Columbia Law School where he earned a his law degree.
In 1999, after graduating from Columbia Law School, Yang began his career as a corporate attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York City. He left the firm in 2000 to launch Stargiving.com, a website whose purpose was celebrity-affiliated philanthropic fund-raising. Yang later joined a healthcare software startup, MMF Systems, Inc., as its Vice President. After working in the healthcare industry for four years, Yang left MMF Systems to join a small test preparation company, Manhattan Prep. In 2006 he became CEO of that company. The company expanded from five to 69 locations and was acquired by Kaplan in December 2009. Yang resigned as the company's president in early 2012.
In late 2009, Yang began to work on creating a new nonprofit fellowship program called Venture for America, which he founded in 2011. Its mission was "to create economic opportunity in American cities by mobilizing the next generation of entrepreneurs and equipping them with the skills and resources they need to create jobs". Venture for America trained 40 graduates in 2012 and 69 in 2013 and 106 in 2014. The company sought to recruit the nation's top college graduates into a two-year fellowship program in which they would work for promising startups in developing cities across the United States. By 2017, VFA had an annual operating budget of $6 million and was operating in about 20 U.S. cities. In March 2017, Yang stepped down from his position as CEO of VFA.
On November 6, 2017, Yang filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to run for President of the United States in 2020. His campaign proposes a $1,000/month "Freedom Dividend" to all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 (a form of universal basic income) and has proposed other strategies in response to predictions of mass unemployment arising from technological automation. Yang proposes creation of a department focused on regulating the addictive nature of media, a White House psychologist, making Tax Day a national holiday, and increasing the salaries of federal regulators but limiting their private work after they leave public service. Yang's campaign slogan is "Humanity First". He believes that automation of many key industries is one of the biggest threats facing the workforce.
On March 11, 2019, Yang announced that by receiving donations from 65,000 donors in at least 20 U.S. states, he had met the requirements for being included in the first round of debates for candidates in the Democratic presidential primary election. He calls his campaign supporters the "Yang Gang", and they have brought attention to his campaign on a number of social media sites including Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others.