Manila, 18 December 2015 — Meet Hyoungmin Kim, a student of management with a passion for education who worked at a professional football club and then became a convener of urban youth exchange programs for Asia and the Pacific. What can we learn from his leadership journey, and what are his 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Hyoungmin was born in 1973 in Jeonju—a South Korean city famous for traditional foods—as the eldest of two children. His father suffered from a heart disease, and passed away when Hyoungmin was ten years old. His parents had married for love, he explained, and against the advice of their doctor, who cautioned that his father might only have a short time to live.
Because his father’s poor health made it impossible to work, his mother took the responsibility to support the family, working two jobs to do so.
Recalls Hyoungmin, “I hardly saw my mother when I was young. She would get up very early and leave home to work before my sister and I got up, and she would come back late when we already slept. She worked incredibly hard, and there was almost no time to spend together."
He grew up in Seoul, where his mother had moved to give his father better access to health care. While his mother’s income was hardly enough to support the family’s most basic needs, Hyoungmin remembers how she still gave money to poor people, which he could not understand at the time.
“It took me a long time, until I turned 20, to appreciate how much my father loved us. His disease was such a costly burden for our family, and making ends meet was consuming all of my mother’s energy during my school years."
From age 14, Hyoungmin took on jobs to supplement the family’s meager resources, delivering newspapers and tutoring younger kids. After graduating from high school in 1992, he ventured out on his own to support himself.
“At that time, the only passion I had was to get a good job and make enough money to get by and support a family. Korea was growing fast, and I thought that a career in engineering would be my best bet. Making money was at the top of my list. I believed that would make me happy."
He entered Sun Moon (Seonmun) University to start a double-degree program in electronic engineering and management, yet he soon found out that his electronics study did not resonate with him, and he decided to focus on business management in stead.
Before long, he started dabbling in business, connecting manufacturers with students who wanted custom-designed shirts, which earned him up to $1000 per month to support his studies. From these entrepreneurial forays he also discovered his interest in planning, refining ideas and brokering deals for start-up businesses with students and young professionals, which attracted him more than working in a large company with older people.
In his third year he ran for chair of the student body and did not succeed. Thinking that he would try again the next year, he took time out to invest in studying a foreign language, which he saw as a basic requirement for an international career. At the time he disliked English, and chose to travel to Japan to learn Japanese in stead.
After studying Japanese for two years at Hirosaki University in Aomori prefecture, he realized from his fellow students that English proficiency would be a requirement to work and live abroad. Under their influence, he also developed an interest in the US.
Instead of returning to Korea to finish his management study, he decided to try his luck in the US. He arrived in Boston in 2000 with $1000 in his pocket, and started learning English at the YMCA. Without a scholarship, he discovered from a fellow student how to survive and support himself by selling roses on the market and in bars.
“Special holidays and Valentine's Day were my high points, allowing me to sell more roses. I was determined to succeed, and over time I learned that having to support myself made me stronger. In comparison, some of my Korean friends with scholarships or lots of money to spend didn’t have the drive I had, and some of them failed in their studies."
Education and roses
After 2 years of language study during the day and selling flowers at night and in the weekend in Boston, Hyoungmin moved to upstate New York to enroll for management courses at Bard College and the masters of religious education program at Unification Theological Seminary where his earlier management study credits in Korea were recognized.
He completed his studies in three years in 2004, studying 1-2 days per week and working the other days to support himself. He became the manager of an ‘As Seen on TV’ store in a mall. For his studies, he majored in children’s education, with his research focusing on the experiences of children from mixed marriages.
Meanwhile, during breaks his entrepreneurial spirit and the need to support himself drove him to venture out to work with friends to sell a variety of products door to door. One such trip brought him to 20 states in 2 months. Through this sales work, he learned from practical experience. He describes one of his biggest lessons as believing in your product.
“Our products included artificial roses and smile stickers, and neither held any attraction for me. So my colleague questioned me how I expected to sell something to other people that I did not like myself. She said my problem was not my product—it was my mind. I needed to love my product, she said, and make it attractive in the eyes of my customer. This experience taught me how to love my work and connect with people at a deeper level, with stories."
Meeting up to 100 people a day during sales trips, Hyoungmin attracted plenty of practice to develop his skills in communication and perspective taking, and further developed his positive attitude to overcome obstacles. His sales experience became his training to form his character and prepare him for his subsequent work.
“My street experience dealing with people has taught me that with a good and strong mind, we can do everything and overcome anything. It helped me to change my character. I used to be very shy, and standing in front of people and talking and persuading was really not my thing. I learned that cultivating the right mindset is the key for success, and that continues to be the case for everything I do now,” he explained.
A year before graduating with his masters degree, Hyoungmin’s communication skills were put to the test when he found his partner and married in 2003. Yeonkyo Jeon had been introduced to him by a friend who gave him a photo of her, and their initial contact was limited to email and phone calls. To his surprise, she accepted when he proposed, explaining that he had already appeared in her dream before their courtship. He then bought a ticket to Korea and formally repeated his proposal when meeting her for the first time in person at Daegu airport.
Competition and cooperation
Returning to Korea after graduation, his first job was for the Seongnam Professional Football Club, handling international relations and marketing for the international players. Settling in the Korean workplace did not come easy to him.
“I found the work ethic in Korea so competitive. I realized that I had become used to a more collaborative way of working during my years in the US, and the change was very challenging for me. I felt as if I did not fit in."
It was in 2008 that a friend asked him to join his educational business, Pines International Academy, where Hyoungmin’s knowledge of education and proficiency in English and Japanese were recognized as valuable assets.
He started working as a student advisor, and learned to engage deeply with Korean students and their parents, guiding and supporting them in aspiration for education overseas, including in Canada, Japan and the Philippines.
“I discovered that many students going overseas failed to adjust, even if their parents had the money to support them. What they lacked was something else, and I was surprised to discover what it was. They lacked love, from their school. Even if students were interested in our program, they would tell me “one day you will also leave us.” It made me think how we could show our genuine care for their progress, over a longer period. That is how I got interested in developing youth to become leaders, starting with leadership in their own life. I found that we could help them with a caring approach."
Creating youth programs
As Hyoungmin took these next steps in his career, he continued to put his entrepreneurial instincts to work, and started developing new programs for the students, beyond their regular subjects. To do that, he used a bottom-up approach, starting with listening to the students’ needs.
Recognizing the desire of Korean students to gain overseas experience and dream of a life of significance, he started working with international organizations to support youth activities and engagement, first with UN Habitat, and then expanding his partnerships to involve the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and UNICEF.
In 2015, he joined the Asian Youth Forum at the ADB as a resource person, and together they developed a plan to let this experience evolve into an Asia-Pacific Youth Exchange Program that would involve immersion training for young people in development work at local government level. He chose the Philippines as the location for the first Asia-Pacific Youth Exchange (APYE), because of the open-minded interest of Philippine colleagues and the widespread use of English language, making it easier for Korean students to communicate. The first such exchange program was scheduled in January 2016.
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders
So what are Hyoungmin’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, to learn from other young Asian leaders and to share your experiences.
“Learning from each other is a great start, rather than figuring things out by yourself."
Second, to find a capable mentor who is a good listener for young leaders.
“My mentor in Korea has always guided me, and made himself available when I needed him. Some mentors talk much more than listen, so it is important to find a mentor with good listening skills. With an experienced and listening mentor, you can overcome obstacles and become an effective leader."
Third, to get support from your family as you set out on your leadership journey.
“To become a leader, you have to step out and explore new opportunities. Frequently these involve travel. Your family needs to have understanding of that, to support that freedom. Young leaders will gain many benefits if they are allowed by their families to spread their wings. You can explain this to your family, in a transparent way, to get their support."
As we talked, Hyoungmin was already preparing for the Asia-Pacific Youth Exchange in January 2016, and he asked me for my support to the program.
He explained that, going forward, he wanted to create more opportunities for Korean students to learn how to work with governments, businesses, NGOs and universities overseas.
“Immersion trainings will work best,” he said. “Each student has different talents and interests, and working with a wide range of partners will help us to cater to their individual needs in a caring way.”
Hyoungmin is passionate about international sustainable development, and his eyes shone when he talked about developing global youth leaders who can support local and international sustainable development.
“Internationally, the UN has now adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and we need to realize them in 15 years. This is a great opportunity for young leaders to learn and gain experience now, so that they can be in the drivers seat for change when the SDGs results become due. By investing in education now, with field work and personal learning, they will be able to make changes happen."
To support the development of young leaders, Hyoungmin believes that CEOs and government leaders have a big role to play, especially around issues of sustainability.
“Companies need to urgently go beyond corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects, to integrate sustainability in their business operations. In Korea, there is still much to do to orient businesses more to sustainability. I believe that executives have to show the way, starting by opening their mind and listening to young leaders with care."
Hyoungmin is already thinking how to catalyze these changes, for example by inviting CEOs to come and speak at Asia-Pacific youth exchange programs.
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