Name: Ji Hoon Lee
Originated From: Seoul, Korea
Undergrad Institution: The College of William & Mary
Job Before Booth: Infrastructure Private Equity / Family Office
okay…now for the good stuff:
Prior To Booth
At 12 years old I went to summer camp in rural Scotland. It was my first exposure to life outside of Seoul, and my world instantly became so much bigger. I began to question if staying in Seoul was best for me, and felt the need to explore my options – specifically going to school abroad.
My family in Seoul is very tight knit. Every single weekend growing up, all 20 of my relatives and I would gather at my grandparents’ house for a sleepover. At the time, no one in my family had ever left the country to live or study abroad. My grandfather didn’t understand why I felt like I had to go so far, when there are good schools and all of the family in Seoul.
So, as you can imagine, when I first asked my parents if they would even be willing to discuss the topic of studying abroad, their outright answer was – NO. They didn’t take me seriously and thought that I could not let go of the summer flings in Scotland and wanted to go have more fun. But, I was determined.
My dad is one of the first VC investors in Korea, so I knew I had to pitch him. I did everything! I wrote him texts, sent him letters, made and presented my first powerpoint slides. Finally, two years later they bought into my persistence. The conditions were that I had a few months to prepare for all of the entrance exams and complete thev applications – and if and only if I got accepted to certain schools then we would further the discussions. Eventually, I got accepted to one of the schools I liked and started my journey to the U.S. at age 14.
Admittedly, a big reason why I wanted to go to the states was because I loved to play soccer. Seoul has terrible playgrounds – the U.S. had them everywhere! I was the first Asian varsity soccer captain at my high school, and I had a blast. I picked up squash, which I enjoy playing regularly still to this date (before pandemic). I wanted to be able to try things that I would not be able to try otherwise, and I felt that I was immersed in an environment with endless opportunities. Playing sports was a huge driver in my life and taught me grit. Alas, the plan was always for me to stick around in the U.S. for college, but I had duties that I had to attend to.
After my freshman year at William & Mary, I got enlisted in the Korean military. I didn’t want to delay my obligation, as it is a duty that every Korean man must do. I took an exam to become an interpreter and bilingual translator. After 5 weeks of basic training I got stationed at ROK-US Combined Forces Command. We helped facilitate general communications between ROK and U.S. Army for joint military exercises and operations. It was a huge break for me, it was almost like being in an MBA program – we had a diverse group of smart and driven kids in their early 20s (and a very few in their 30s) from around the country, each and everyone fully bilingual. Funnily, in the military, I was incredibly motivated and intellectually challenged by my peers. I met many of my life-long best friends there, and most of us ended up working in similar fields in Finance in Korea and other parts of Asia.
The military in its nature is a very hierarchical, top-down organization. It was a great chance to experience first-hand and question the morality of hierarchical culture – how efficiency can be measured and improved, how healthy culture can be shaped, and how effective communications can be formed, etc. Having to carry out the work that I was not entirely stoked about, though I pushed myself to do a good job, I wanted to leave my post having done something for myself. I really learned that time really is golden and valuable, and tried to maximize the value of my spare time. I set the goal to stay fit, read as many books as possible, and take Level I of the CFA exam. Although the two years in the military were not the best years in my life – as I reflect back in those years, I am genuinely grateful to have gained life-long friends, renewed values and disciplines, as well as a slightly more matured view towards life itself. 10 days after I was discharged as a Sergeant, I headed back to my alma mater, Wiliam & Mary.
When I returned to college, I started really excelling in my academics (perhaps for the first time). In high school, I cared more about the lessons I learned outside of classrooms- on the soccer field and squash court – back in college after the military, I focused more on the topics and skill sets that I should acquire to be more effective in the real world, this time both in and out of classrooms. I really wanted to learn more about finance – how the companies are run, everyday decisions and transactions are made – so I could work in Investment Banking or Private Equity in the U.S. or Korea. I landed my first job in the Infrastructure Private Equity Division at Mirae Asset Global Investments in Seoul, Korea. I was ecstatic to learn under one of our executive directors, who was considered one of the best in the business. Back to Seoul I went – it was good to be reunited with my family, with whom outside of vacation breaks, I had been away from for nearly 10 years.
My primary job was to manage/operate domestic and global funds/assets, and source/evaluate investment opportunities in: Utilities, Transportation, and Social Infrastructure sectors mainly in Australia, UK, Spain, and the U.S. Since we had a rather lean team, I enjoyed being involved in all walks of work – from drafting financial models and negotiating term sheets to leading due diligence processes, developing relationships with limited partners, and sitting on Advisory Committees and Board meetings for most of the global funds we managed. One of the highlights was to experience for nearly a year and a half on how the Board and Senior Management of a large Project Company (A$3bn) work together to resolve the crisis that threatened the existence of the business. In Project Finance, there are many stakeholders: Project Company, Government, Equity Investors, Lenders, Construction Companies, Operation & Management Companies, and the associated Sub-contractors. There is an equal number of associated contracts, if not more – and in the case of unforeseen crisis, everything from translation of certain clauses of certain contracts to individual interests of stakeholders are put under severe scrutiny and stress-tests. Having witnessed first-hand the board dynamics, exceptional control/responses from the senior management team, behaviors of each stakeholder with different interests and simply the very process of tackling/resolving complex problems – I walked away with a tremendous amount of insights and knowledge.
After my third year, however, I found myself at a crossroads. I had a good opportunity to to climb the ladder internally. However, I wanted to gain more exposure and expertise in multiple asset classes. I began exploring. Aside from investing in public equities, I sought ways to learn more about Venture Capital and other types of Private Equity investments. During the process, I was referred to a few exceptional founders in the U.S., including some who went through Y-Combinator’s incubator program. As I made my first round of angel investments, I learned more about the VC landscape and realized that I enjoy talking with extremely smart and driven entrepreneurs who are determined to change the world for the better. Personally, I have invested in 5 start-ups in their pre-seed stages across the industries of Digital Logistics, Fin Tech, CPG, and Out-of-Home Ads – one of which, Hydrant, completed Series-A round a few weeks ago.
Shortly after making these investments, my wife (who grew up in the U.S. and Hong Kong) and I decided that it might be good time for us both to pursue different opportunities in a different part of the world – and we began to seriously consider getting an MBA in the U.S. A year before matriculation, I moved to a Family Office focused on VC and Growth Equity to help set up an office in the U.S. to invest in early- and growth- stage start-ups. Last October, I established a Joint Venture LLC between myself and Family Office. After allocating most of my personal savings in those start-ups and the public market, I packed up my bags and moved to Chicago.
Favorite Place To Eat In Chicago:
Raman Takeya in the West Loop
Birrieria Zaragoza – get the goat tacos!
If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
I would live on a small greek island called Kalymnos. I’ve been there twice and fell in love.
What’s The Hardest Lesson You’ve Learned Thus Far?
Something that I want right now, may not be the right thing for me.
I have learned to embrace the fact that some things that may seem really great, may not be great long-term and vice versa. While everyone needs the North Star that guides his/her decisions and shapes the purpose and focus, life involves a lot of unexpected journeys (and luck). As such, we should not be too proud nor too disappointed with what we get in the process; and our thoughts and actions continuously need to be recalibrated and refined accordingly.
Do You Think That Aliens Exist?
Definitely – it’s humbling to think that we’re not the only ones in this vast universe.
Currently Reading / Listening to:
Measure What Matters by John Doerr (Check out my review here)
Extreme Ownership by Joko Willink
What do you think made you unique in the MBA application process?
My values: I believe in perseverance and resilience – the idea of never giving up and having a can-do-attitude. Throughout the application, I tried my best to portray how those two values drove my journey in most candid way possible – not in a bragging way but in a way that was genuine to my character.
The Godfather Trilogy, Score, Heat, Scent Of A Woman (clearly, I am a big fan of Al Pacino and Robert Deniro)
What Job Would You Be Terrible At :
A job where I would be required to do repeated, mindless tasks.
What startup does every one need to know about? :
Shameless plug here: Hydrant is a powder mix designed with a specific ratio of electrolytes and a small bit of sugar to speed up the absorption of water in the digestive system. I have personally used the product for over two years now, and I must say, the rapid hydration helps sharpen my morning focus (and beat a hangover). If you order via this link, you will get 50% off on your first order.
What Age Do You Want To Live Until:
Long enough to see my grandchildren have their babies, but only as long as I can keep my mind clear and lift myself up at my own will (physically).
What Is Special About The Place Where You Grew Up?
Korea’s country code is 82 – pronounced in Korean it means “Hurry Up”. There is no place on Earth that is fast like Seoul. Service is incredibly fast, the internet is super fast, everything is just processed so fast.
What Do You Want To Do Before You Die?
Travel Every Country
What Do You Wish You Knew More About:
Science & Programming
I listen to a wide range of stuff… From Tupac, Biggie, Kanye, and Post Malone to U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Daft Punk.
What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
If You Didn’t Have To Work What Would You Do:
I would assume I made quite a big fortune. I would do what I love doing – find exceptional founders and invest in their ideas. I would like to expand my scope to social impact start-ups as well.
What Location Is At The Top Of Your Travel Bucket List?
Tanzania (for Safari!)
How Will The World Be Different Post COVID-19?
I believe that the remote nature of the world will persist. This disease is going to be like whack-a-mole – unless you eradicate the whole thing or if it just somehow phases out naturally, a vaccine will be the only solution. Until then, we will have to embrace the remote life as part of our new normal.
How Will You Make Your Life A “Good Life”?
On a personal level, I want to be the best version of myself and unlock all of my potential. My goal is to use that as a means to give back to the people I love and others.
What Lifestyle Changes Are You Trying To Make?
I’m trying to be home more these days (hehe).
Ever since I got married, I have been trying to spend more quality time with family, not always out meeting people, so this new trend (while not being ideal) aligns some of the changes I wanted to make. Also, I am trying to lead a more healthy lifestyle despite the challenges of quarantine (e.g. eating, exercising).
If Magic Was Real, Which Spell Would You Try First?
What Do You Want To Get Out Of B-School?
A lot. I think the most valuable asset to walk away with is the diverse network of people – who naturally bear diverse viewpoints resulting from diverse backgrounds and experiences. This is a two-year pause in my professional career, so I want to explore areas that I couldn’t get my hands on before, both academically and in practical experiences. I am enjoying PE/VC Lab this quarter, and I am hopeful and excited to participate in NVC next year.
My biggest goal is to push myself out of my comfort zone and learn to practice the ‘Pay-it-Forward’ mentality. I could not practice it as much as I wanted in my previous roles in Korea. These days, I am actively seeking to meet a ton of people, not just those who can mentor me, but those who I can help – like future applicants. When I was applying to business school, I was fortunate to have received advice from 50+ people, many of whom kindly responded to my cold e-mails. I am excited to give back what I can to the Booth community by serving as Co-Chair for EVC Group and KBG Group, as well as an Admissions Fellow.
Best Trip Of Your Life Thus Far:
Hard to choose just one. My wife and I honeymooned in Italy and France. We traveled to Paris, Florence, and the Amalfi Coast – it was beyond awesome! And of course Kalymnos. By my second trip to the island, which lasted another two weeks, I had learned my way around so I could get around anywhere on a scooter without Google Map. It felt like home, and someday I will make it home.
Who Do You Go Out Of Your Way To Be Nice To?
I try to be nice to anyone who seeks for help and who is trying his/her best to achieve the set goals.
What Really Makes You Angry?
When someone is really out of line, with absolute disregard for others for purely selfish motivations.
What Industry Do You Think Will Be Revolutionized Soon?
Healthcare and Logistics (happening now as we speak)
What Do You Think Makes A Good Friend – How Much Do You Live Up To Your Standards?
This may be a bit contradictory, but hear me out.
Good friends stand behind any big decision you make and be there for you, as you enjoy or suffer from the consequences of your decision. They also need to be able to step up and share their candid opinions with you, no matter how bad it will sting.
If my opinion is the exact opposite of my friends, I share very honestly what I think would be a mistake, but if they still go with their decisions, then I support them. I’m trying to be better about not being too strong in expressing my opinions or convincing them my way. I’m working on just simply presenting my point of view and leaving it at that.
Favorite Candy / Snack:
Haribo’s Gummy Bears are my occasional guilty pleasure
Have no regrets, knowing that I gave it my all.
What Would Your Last Meal Be?
Surf (Lobsters and Oysters) & Turf (Assorted BBQ, Korean style)
What Is The Best Way That Someone Can Spend Their Time?
Doing what you love with people that you love (preferably near the water and the sand)
How Would You Describe Your Booth Experience:
It has been more than just awesome. Saying that it has been transformational already is It has been more than just mind-blowing. Saying that it has been transformational already is not an overstatement. Even during the application process, I had to reflect deeply about my short life – now here I am finding out even more about myself. I learned to explore not just the exteriors but the interiors of not only the subjects that I am really interested in but myself – what excites me, what motivates me, and what moves me, both short- and long- term. Also, through classes and student clubs/groups, I am really enjoying working in groups with such amazing, competent classmates – learning more about others and their different viewpoints, experiences, and skill sets in the process really make my experience at Booth dense and rich.