Hard-hatted woman

Hyon Kim has learned about resilience the hard way

Hyon Kim. Photo by Emma Freeman.

Hyon Kim, 62, is a petite dynamo around whom the very air seems charged with positive energy. Her life, both personally and professionally, is a testament to her belief in never giving up. “Failure makes you stronger,” she said. “You assess why you fail and take that with you to the next venture.”

Kim could write a book about overcoming adversity. It would likely start when she was 4 years old; it was then that her family was torn apart. Until that time, she lived a charmed life. Her parents were among the Korean elite-educated people who lived well. As the only girl of three children, she was her daddy’s “little princess.” All that changed when Kim’s Communist father was forced into hiding and lost his job; Kim’s mother also lost her job as a schoolteacher.

A life turned upside down
Suddenly, the family’s fortunes turned, “and I remember asking why we went from three meals a day to two,” she said. Desperate for food to feed her family, Kim’s mother sent her and her grandmother to an aunt in Puyo to get rice. That was in 1950. While they were in Puyo in the southern part of Korea, war broke out.

Her father came out of hiding and hurried to get his family to what he believed would be safety in the north. Since Kim was not with the rest of the family, she was left behind with her aunt and grandmother in the south. She never saw her father again; it would be 40 years before she was reunited with her mother and siblings. Although he was a communist, Kim’s father was also an intellectual and deemed a threat to the Communist Party. He was killed shortly after the war. Around that same time, Kim’s aunt adopted her and hid with her in the mountains to keep her safe from the anti-Communist sentiment aimed at her by association. But she still felt alienated and would for many years.

Kim joined the South Korean Army at age 16 “to be able to finish high school,” she said. She served three years and, at 19, began working at Camp Carroll in Wae Gwan, setting the course for her life in the U.S. She was secretary to the provost, John Thomas, whom she married in July 1970.

Another life
Kim landed in Minnesota on Thanksgiving Day of that year. Dismayed by the flatness of the land and the stoicism of the people, so in contrast with her beloved mountains and the intense emotion of Korean culture, she wondered what she had gotten herself into. “I went through periods of isolation [and racism], and that’s why I understood the plight of African Americans,” she said.

“I was married to a white man from a blue-collar family. I couldn’t believe the way they talked about blacks.” The racism also spilled over to her. Kim related an incident when she and her adopted mother (here for a visit) went to Mora to visit her husband’s family. His mother “had some unexpected visitors, so when she set the dining room table for dinner, she asked my mother and me to sit at the Formica table in the kitchen. We were served last. And my husband sat in the dining room.” Why? “Because he was ignorant,” she said, matter-of-factly.

When Kim spoke to her husband about it, “he just became very quiet. He didn’t think there was anything wrong. And when I confronted my mother-in-law [about the seating arrangements] she said I was behaving childishly. There are a lot of good white people, but [my husband’s family] just didn’t get it.”

Kim, who became a U.S. citizen in 1974, worked as a waitress, keypunch operator and bartender to put her husband through graduate school. They divorced soon after he finished. “Then I went to school,” Kim said. By now the mother of two small sons, Kim enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1981. Working 30 hours a week to support herself and her children, it took her five years to complete a bachelor of science degree in business with a minor in East Asian studies.

Armed with her degree, Kim went to work as a financial planner, but had difficulty establishing a clientele. “People didn’t buy stocks from me. I look different. I talk funny. I wondered, ‘where can I shine?’ I believe you create your own destiny. I decided to use my bilingual skills.”

Kim mortgaged her home for $200,000 in capital, which she used to found a company that facilitated trade in medical devices between the United States and the Pacific Rim, particularly Korea. It was moderately successful financially. When she expanded the company’s role to include manufacturing, the new venture failed financially but first met an important goal of Kim’s: She had provided high-income employment to a diverse, inner-city workforce that included Hmong, Cambodians, Koreans, Filipinos and African Americans.

In the mid-’90s, Kim served a term on the U of M Board of Regents, becoming the first Asian American to hold the position. Her outspoken commitment to issues of gender equity and affirmative action earned her, she said, the respect of minority students and the ire of some board members.

Just before serving on the Board of Regents, Kim went back to Korea. In 1990, the North Korean government reached out to Koreans living in other countries, inviting them to visit relatives in North Korea. She jumped at the opportunity to reconnect with her birth mother and siblings. She discovered she had a third brother. “My mother was pregnant when my father was killed. There had been a void in my life. And then I actually saw them, physically touched them. It was a dramatic moment. It was very happy.”

Kim was only allowed to see her family three of the 15 days she was there. She has not been able to see them since.

Constructing her business
Kim’s first venture into construction, a field that, at the time, she knew nothing about, was not successful. She bought a bankrupt company but had to close it a year later. “It was horrible,” Kim said. “I owed people so much money. It was my fault. But when you bottom out, there is no place to go but up. And I’m a survivor. I retreated and reshaped.” Kim has never let failure keep her down for long. “I have entrepreneur’s blood in me,” she said with a grin.

In 2005, Kim started MN Best Enterprises, Inc., a general contacting and construction business. At first she ran the company out of her apartment with no capital. “During this time I did cleaning, scrubbed bathrooms and was house mom for two teenage girls whose parents were out of the country. I worked 24 hours a day.”

As she worked to establish the company, which was $150,000 in the black its first year, Kim made sure to surround herself with knowledgeable executives. “If you don’t pick the right team, it doesn’t really matter what the business is, you’ll fail,” she said.

Seated in her mauve desk chair in an office that is spartan yet comfortable, Kim talked about the peaks and valleys that have characterized her life, both personally and professionally. Right now, she’s at a definite peak. She is remarried to a Korean man, but is reticent to talk about her private life, except to say that it is “comfortable. At home we speak Korean, watch Korean dramas.”

It’s a peak time for her professionally too. She’s projecting a profit of more than $5 million this year. The secret to her business success: “Woman power,” said Kim, with a twinkle in her eye. Look around the office and you’ll see mostly women. Six of the company’s nine executives are female. The company is also multi-ethnic, with Koreans, Hmong and African Americans. That’s by design. “When I came here, I saw such injustice toward African Americans and Native Americans,” Kim said. “It was very shocking to me, emotionally. It drove me to be who I am, to show what we can do as a community of color. The majority of my 45 subcontractors are minority.”

Although she’s faced her share of racism here, “I cannot compare my pain with that of African Americans who came here as slaves 400 years ago.” Kim said.

She is not always proud of other Koreans in business, she said. Speaking of the common antipathy between Korean entrepreneurs and residents of the African American neighborhoods where they often do business, she said, “There are immigrants who come here for the opportunities, but don’t study the history of this country.

“We need to recognize that diversity is what makes our country unique. I don’t trust this country when it comes to race issues. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”