Every summer since 1989, CAPAL, the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership, has hosted the Washington Leadership Program for interns and young professionals in Washington, DC. The leadership program is a series of seminars and discussion panels that highlight a selection of policy issues and career tracks.
At the United States Capitol Building in a Washington Leadership Program session titled “Career Reflections: What I Would Tell My College Self,” C2 Education founder and CEO David Kim acted as a featured speaker alongside such luminaries as U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, the most senior member of the Senate, and Gregg Orton, the current Legislative Director for Congressman Al Green.
Read on for Mr. Kim’s inspiring speech, which focused on the joys and challenges of entrepreneurship:
I’ll never forget the look on my mom’s face when I told her what I wanted to do after college. You’d think I’d told her the apocalypse was upon us: You are throwing your life away, you will never be respected, you are asking for a lifetime of instability. Why can’t you just be a doctor like your cousin Ron or a lawyer like cousin Grace? Why, why, why?
And I, like a typical kid, answered, Why not?
But let me take a step back, back to before I broke the news of my future plans, back to before I even knew what my future plans were. In my first year at Harvard, I knew I was going to declare an English major. Then I interned with Senator Sarbanes, and in my second year, I knew that I was going to be an environmental science and public policy major. I spent a summer interning in the world of finance, and I knew I was going to be a finance major. In truth, none of these things was for me.
I agonized over the decision. What should I decide? Apply to grad school. Apply to law school. Contrary to popular opinion, I did have the grades and scores needed for those routes – I had options. I certainly didn’t choose to start my own business out of desperation.
No, I chose to start C2 Education because I wanted to.
There are a lot of stigmas associated with being an entrepreneur. I’m not an MD, or a PhD or a JD – but my name already has plenty of D’s in it, so I don’t miss having those extra initials following me around. Besides, I already have a Master’s degree in ADD, which I’m pretty sure is a prerequisite for being an entrepreneur in the first place.
But for all the stigma and for all the risk, entrepreneurs have a proud history in this country. The U.S. was built by entrepreneurs. We celebrate the Mayflower and religious freedom, but in reality, colonization of America was done more for economic reasons than for spiritual reasons. If you don’t believe me, go watch Avatar, also known as “Pochohontas James Cameron Style”. And those colonists who traveled here and built houses also built businesses – stores, restaurants, and service providers of all stripes populated this country and built it into a prosperous nation.
And all of this happened because entrepreneurs look for opportunities to fulfill needs. We see a need and we meet it, and in the process we enrich the lives of our customers while helping to grow the economy and create jobs.
Is it more noble to be able to say, “Oh, I work at Goldman Sachs” or “I’m a consultant for McKinsey”? Is it more noble to be able to say “I’m a dentist,” or better yet, “I’m a REAL doctor”?
Being an entrepreneur is just as valid an occupation as any other – perhaps more so because entrepreneurs make it possible for those other occupations to exist. And, unlike most other professions, especially the fancy ones that require all those D’s at the end of your name, entrepreneurship provides a route to success for anyone, regardless of background. I know so many immigrant families to who came to U.S. and began small businesses. I was recently at the White House briefing for Korean Americans where the U.S. Commerce Department praised the Asian-American small business community for its industry and innovation; and I could not help but swell with pride for being a member of that community, a member of a community which allows anyone access to the American Dream.
The joys of being an entrepreneur are many. I find great joy in living in a constant state of controlled chaos, in seeing a product that I’ve created make a real difference in the lives of my clients. But these joys require a great deal of work and know-how, as my cousin Ron, the doctor who my mother wanted me to emulate, has sadly discovered. Because the reality is that all of those “D” jobs require a certain bit of entrepreneurship, too, and Ron-the-Doctor might be great at healing people, but he can’t do what I do. No one taught him the business of being a doctor, and so he asks, How do I network, How do I negotiate, How do I lead and build teams?
Entrepreneurs need to be stubborn and persistent; they need to be simultaneously impatient and patient; they need to be able to make tough choices; and they need to be okay with being alone. It is probably this chaotic lifestyle that led Cameron Herold of 1-800-got-junk to say that bipolar disorder is nicknamed the CEO disease – entrepreneurs have to be bipolar to a certain degree simply to fill so many roles. Ted Turner and Steve Jobs had it. Steve Jurvetson and Jim Clark and Jim Barksdale had it, and they used their unbalance to built Netscape. Imagine if we put all of these insane geniuses on Ritalin – Al Gore really would have invented the internet. This ability to thrive on chaos is a core skill for budding entrepreneurs.
Learning to be more bipolar isn’t enough. An entrepreneur needs to build people skills, communication skills, and negotiation skills. An entrepreneur needs to learn to enjoy risks – take weird classes, go study abroad, go take a role in a play, do anything as long as it’s a risk. An entrepreneur needs to establish roots in the community they want to serve. And an entrepreneur needs to be able to build and lead a team of bright and talented individuals.
And they need to learn how to do this by choosing a mentor.
Successful entrepreneurs are fast learners – they have to be. I was lucky in that my mentor was my dad, who built a great multi-location Taw Kwon Do business in the 80s which he called Kim’s Karate. I grew up watching him learn through trial and error – I saw what he did well and what he didn’t do so well, and I learned.
You need to find people to learn from. Inc magazine, Entrepreneur, and YPO offer excellent programs for budding entrepreneurs and local chambers of commerce are chock full of successful business owners. If you want to run a business, you first have to see how a business is run.
You will try and you will fail and you will get back up and try again. That’s the nature of business. And if you’re lucky and you work hard and you have a good product, one day perhaps you’ll teach someone else the blueprint of running a business.
You thought you could do anything? You can. You can change the way we think about what is possible. Have a clear vision of how life can be better. Entrepreneurs can be anyone – with or without a trail of D’s after their name. Seize the opportunity to create the job you always wanted.
Today, in a world of uncertainty plague by economic troubles, it’s hard to see success down the road. But turbulence creates new opportunities for success and pushes us to discover new ways of doing things. So what opportunities will you go after, and more importantly, why? If you’re a true entrepreneur you’ll know that the risk isn’t the reward. No. The rewards are driving innovation, changing people’s lives, creating jobs, fueling growth, and making a better world.
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your college self? And if you are a student not yet in college, what do you hope that your college self will achieve?