MY parents emigrated from South Korea to the United States when my father enrolled in graduate school here for a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. My mother makes the woman who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” look like a kitten. She had strong ideas on how to raise children and pushed my older sister, Lydia, and me.
Lydia and I learned to play piano, violin and guitar and took tennis, swimming and ice-skating lessons. If I got a 100 on a test, my mother wanted to know why I hadn’t gotten extra credit. Her teachings have been helpful in my professional life.
My father gave me math and science lessons. When I was about 4, he bought an early computer and wrote basic scripts for me to type so I’d feel I had programmed it myself. I’d watch my dad go to work every day and decided I wanted a job. After seeing him get his shoes shined, I pitched the idea that I should do it, and he agreed. I was probably terrible at it, which meant he put up with badly shined shoes. Later, his approach to any problem I had was to suggest I think about it differently. I’ve heard his voice when facing challenges.
In 2001, I graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. I belonged to a student political organization and was a teaching aide to one of the lecturers, who was also a business leader and a former candidate for governor. I thought that I might go into politics, but she told me that I should prove myself first and gain some credentials.
I thought that was a harsh viewpoint, but after reflecting on it, I took a job with McKinsey & Company in Atlanta after college and worked in the energy sector. I found that I loved business.
Ken Ostrowski, my mentor at McKinsey, shaped who I became as a professional. He gave me an opportunity to become a project manager at a very young age. On an early project, I was with some clients when one of them looked around the group and said, “What does McKinsey think about this?” I realized that I was the most senior person in the room, and thought: “Holy cow. I’m McKinsey.” It was a bracing experience. I understood that even at a young age you’re responsible for the institution you represent and you’d better have a well-thought-out plan.
When I was a senior manager, I didn’t get along with one of my colleagues. When I complained about him to my husband, Matthew, who is always a source of advice and support, he said, “I bet he dislikes you, too.” It stopped me short. I pictured this man saying similar things about me to his wife. I realized that, like me, he was just a person struggling to get through this difficult project, and I started treating him differently. We both stepped back and ended up having a good experience.
While doing due diligence on Advantix Systems for MatlinPatterson, a private equity firm that wanted to invest in the company, I got to know the investors and top Advantix executives. In 2010, the C.E.O. asked me to be president of its United States division. It was tough leaving McKinsey, but I also saw the job as a great opportunity.
Advantix uses a liquid desiccant technology in air-conditioners to dry the air, rather than a mechanical technique that condenses water vapor from the air. I travel with our sales and field support teams and have spent time in clients’ machine rooms and on their rooftops to learn what they need. In three years, I’ve been able to expand our market and add 30 industry applications.
If anyone had ever told me that I’d be trading in my high heels for steel-toed boots, I would never have believed them. But you never know where life will take you, and sometimes you just have to go and see.
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