Many of us have heard of FitBit, the electronic fitness brand that’s almost as ubiquitous as the Apple Watch. And even better known is the football franchise based in the same city as FitBit’s HQ: the San Francisco 49ers.
However, did you know that both of them were founded and owned by Korean Americans?
Koreans have come a long way — in business particularly. The motherland is responsible for some of the biggest brands across the world now including Samsung, LG and Hyundai. Newer brands including Kakao, Line and even the company behind “Baby Shark” (the 2nd most viewed video on the Internet at 6.58 billion views) was founded by Korean company SmartStudy which is the parent company of Baby Shark’s maker: Pinkfong.
However, the success hasn’t stopped there. In the U.S., we’ve seen many Korean Americans blow up the startup scene including the following:
Brian Lee, is co-founder of Legalzoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com, and The Honest Company If you don’t know these companies, you may not know Jessica Alba and Kim Kardashian. If you do, well, did you know they were the faces and co-founders or were a huge part of the latter 2? You’ll see it if you just dive a little deeper. Lee is now doing what many successful founders do: he is now a VC for BAM Ventures.
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Coffee Meets Bagel founders Arum, Dawoon and Soo Kang famously declined $30 million USD to buy the entire company by Shark Tank’s famous VC, Mark Cuban. The very popular dating site now competes with the likes of the top apps on your phones vying to help you get married. Two years ago, they raised $12 million in their Series B on top of the $7 million they got in the first. CNET called it the “Best for breaking the silence” dating app alongside common brands like Tinder and Bumble.
Curtis Lee, (Wikipedia) is an American entrepreneur, angel investor, and co-founder and CEO of the on-demand car services company, Luxe. Prior to Luxe, Lee also founded workforce analytics company, WorkStory.Co-founder. In his recent LinkedIn profile, his latest venture is Pinwheel, as Co-Founder & CEO. Luxe was acquired by Volvo in 2017. His Twitter handle: @curtislee
Dug Song, sold his company Duo Security to Cisco for $2.35 billion in 2018. He co-founded Duo Security in 2010 with Jon Oberheide, and over the years, the two men built it into a cyber security empire specializing in multi-factor authentication. Throughout his career, Dug has made a point to champion for the customer and has a no-compromise attitude when it comes to exceptional product quality. His Twitter handle: @dugsong
The guy who wrote the story about Dug was no less the founder of one of the most successful PPC companies ever: Larry Kim. Kim founded Wordstrream which is used by over a million marketers worldwide and employs more than three hundred people and manages billions of dollars of ad spend on behalf of tens of thousands of customers. WordStream was acquired by Gannett, parent company of USA Today, for $150 million in July, 2018. Kim is now heading Marketing for his new company he founded called MobileMonkey. He’s prolific on the Internet for content. You’ll easily find him generating something that supports MobileMonkey digitally.
Jon Lee, Founder of Cooper (formerly known as Prosperworks), Twitter handle: @JonLeePW. He world’s first zero input CRM for Gmail. Prosperworks sells sales management applications that are closely integrated with Google’s cloud applications including Gmail, Drive, Sheets, and Calendar. ProsperWorks currently has 63,000+ companies using its services. KOREAN?
Sarah Nam, Co-founder & CEO of Lever, (Twitter: @srhnhm) a collaborative hiring platform that engages an entire company in the sourcing, vetting, and closing of top-tier talent. Lever’s software helps companies post job descriptions, collect applications, conduct interviews, and analyze job candidates in a way that weeds out bias, allows collaboration in hiring decisions, and helps tech leaders think about their next hire in broader terms.
Tim Hwang (Wikipedia), the founder of FiscalNote, a legal analytics platform based in Washington D.C., Hwang closed $10 million in Series C funding in 2016, bringing his total to over $30 million raised.
The list is extensive and is growing exponentially. Check out some of the amazing entrepreneurs who are of Korean descent:
- David Kim, former CEO of Baja Fresh
- Daniel J. Kim, founder of Red Mango
- Charley Shin, founder of Charleys Philly Steaks
- James Kim, founder of Amkor, billionaire
- Jim Kim, founder of venture capital firm Formation 8
- Peter Kim, founder of Hudson Jeans
- Moon Kook-jin, founder of Kahr Arms, manufacturer of the Desert Eagle
- Young Lee, co-founder of Pinkberry
- Ilhan New, founder of La Choy
- Jane Park, founder of Julep, cosmetics company
- James Park, founder and CEO of Fitbit
- Lucas Roh, founder of Hostway
- Daewon Song, co-founder of Almost Skateboards
- James Sun, CEO and founder of GeoPage.com; The Apprentice finalist
- Michael Yang, founder and CEO of mySimon, founder & CEO of Become.com and Michael Yang Capital Partners I LP
- Richard Yoo, founder and former CEO of Rackspace
- Monica Kang, Founder/CEO of InnovatorsBox
- Ji-hoon Rim, Former CEO of Kakao, Professor at NYU
- Andrea Jung, the President and CEO of microfinance company Grameen America.
- Do Wan Chang and Jin Sook Chang, This husband and wife team founded the popular fashion chain Forever 21. They started it with a single store and just $11,000 and grew it to include about 800 stores around the world.
- Steve Y. Kim: Kim worked multiple jobs to support his family in the early part of his career. And he went onto found multiple successful companies, including Fibermux and Xylan.
- Michael W. Choe, CEO Charlesbank
- Chong Moon Lee, founder of Diamond Multimedia
- Gideon Yu, co-owner of the San Francisco 49ers and Executive Chairman and CEO of Bowers & Wilkins
Before all of these folks, there were some pioneers we should also showcase:
Korean American Startup Pioneers:
Thai Lee, Korean Thai American is CEO of IT provider SHI International which generates $10.7 billion in sales. Her $3.2 billion real time net worth is considered the 268th richest in the world as of 9/21/2020. Born in Bankgkok, Lee grew up in South Korea and moved to the U.S. for high school.
Paul Song – Not a lot of people know that Paul was possibly the ONLY other company to go public from Seattle the year Amazon did (1997). And Song’s company frankly grew astronomically on the NASDAQ. A few details from his LI:
Under his leadership, the company grew revenues from $3.5 million in 1993 to $116 million in 1998, with offices in 15 cities throughout the US and UK and over 900 employees. Up to its successful IPO in June 1997, Aris was able to grow without outside funding or debt. Aris has been listed twice in the Inc Magazine’s Inc 500, the fastest growing private companies in America (1996, 1997) before becoming a public traded company on the NASDAQ in 1997. In 1998, Aris was listed number 12 in the “Washington Technology Fast 50”, 53rd on Forbes 200 Best Small Companies in America and 41st on Business Week’s list of Hot Growth Companies. Aris merged with CIBER, INC (NYSE: CBR) in September 2001
Jeong H. KIM: Kim immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and spoke very little English. He eventually joined the Navy and worked several jobs before starting his own ventures. In particular, he founded “Yuri” Systems (named after his daughter) which sold for more than a $1 Billion USD at the age of 37 yo (which most likely was the first Korean unicorn in the Korean American community). He served as the President of Bell Labs from 2005 to 2013.
Kim was quoted as saying at the sale in 1998:
“I had always felt I wasn’t the smartest,” the 37-year-old Kim said in a telephone interview yesterday. So he compensated by working impossibly long hours – 120 a week early on, he said. “People can look at someone like me,” he said. “They see someone who looks different, who speaks with a funny accent. And maybe they’ll say, if I set my goals high, maybe I can succeed like that, too.”
Kim currently serves on the boards of Samsung, Arris Group and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). He was previously on the boards of Schneider Electric SA (France), McLeodUSA, MTI MicroFuel Cells, In-Q-Tel, Bankinter Foundation of Innovation (Spain), NASDAQ Listing and Hearing Review Council, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, among many others. He also enjoys his position as a minority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the National Hockey League‘s Washington Capitals, the National Basketball Association‘s Washington Wizards, the Women’s National Basketball Association‘s Washington Mystics, the Arena Football League‘s Washington Valor, the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., and manages the Kettler Capitals Iceplex and George Mason University‘s EagleBank Arena.
Mr. Ike Lee serves as Executive Advisor at Tembusu Partners. Earlier, he served as Venture Partner at Ignition Venture Partners. He served as the Chief Executive Officer-Enprecis Asia at Enprecis. Throughout his 30-year business career in the United States, Ike Lee has achieved a formidable record of success as an investor, venture capitalist, and advisor to numerous early-stage innovative technology companies. He has advised key industry and government leaders in Asia on emerging global technology trends and strategic business developments, as well as the role of the Venture Capital industry. Ike’s experience includes handling mergers and acquisitions for Samsung Electronics, as well as advising a number of successful technology startups. Most recently, Ike has begun to focus his energy in the wireless and communication industry. He was drawn to Enprecis due to the growth in automotive telematics and the critical role that technology will play in the future of the industry. Ike believes that the breadth and depth of the information and software being provided to the automotive sector will grow significantly, and CQI answers a substantial need in the industry today. As the CEO of Enprecis Asia, Ike uses his regional and industry expertise to bridge the gap between Asia and the Americas, crafting mutually beneficial relationships between forward-thinking companies.
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Korean American VCs:
Several Korean VCs we’ve never heard of were profiled here in a Startup Conference. Check it out. It might not be around in 2020, but maybe for 2021, you’ll see even more Koreans “venture” into the VC world. For now, these are the ones we know about:
- Brian Lee, BAM Ventures
- Choong Sohn, 3M Venture Investments, Sohn Capital Advisors
- David Lee, Refactor Capital
- Perry Ha, Draper Athena
- Young Chung, Dag Ventures
- Han Kim , Altos Ventures
- Eric J. Kim, Goodwater Capital
- Hyuk-Jeen Suh, Samsung Ventures
- John Nahm, Strong Ventures
- John Ryu, Scout Ventures
- Richard Jun, BAM Ventures
- Brian Chang, Collaborative Funds
- Ike Lee, former Partner at Ignition Venture Partners
Korean Venture Capital Firms
- POSCO Capital
- Korean Investment Partners
- SoftBank Ventures Asia
- Altos Ventures
- Atinum Investment
- KTB Network
- SV Investment
- IMM Investment
- LB Investment
- Smilegate Investment
- STONEBRIDGE Ventures/ STONEBRIDGE Capital
- Bass Investment
- Company K Partners
- Bon Angels
- Ascendo Ventures
- Samsung Venture Investment Corporation
- Sparklabs Ventures
- Kakao Investment/Ventures
- Mirae Asset (Ventures) Global Investments | Venture Wing, (Example of VC/PE investment)
- Fast Investment
- KOLON INVESTMENT
- Neoplux Investment Company
More Native Korean Startup Founders:
There are a bunch of other Korean entrepreneurs building future “SmartStudy” like organizations profiled here.
Korean American Startup Executives
And here are some other Korean Startup Executives working for some very notable brands:
- Young Lee, VP of Business Development, Amazon.com
- David Lee, former senior vice president of finance at Best Buy, former CFO of Zynga; COO and CFO of Impossible Foods
- Kenny Kim, Udacity
- Emilie Choi, VP Coinbase, Former VP LinkedIn
- Nelson Chai, investment banker and former CFO of the New York Stock Exchange
- Sabrina Kay, founder and chancellor of Fremont College