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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Climb the Corporate Ladder, Embrace Entrepreneurship, or Both?

- MBA 2018 alum Andrew Kim on finding the right balance at South Korea’s next unicorn

February 28, 2019. Seoul – As a Korean-Canadian lawyer, MBA 2018 alum Andrew Kim describes himself as a “business nomad stuck between two worlds.” Before joining CEIBS as an MBA student in 2016, he was a serial, and very successful, entrepreneur, but had reached a point where he began to contemplate some big questions in life. “Should I stay in North America, or leave to explore Asia?” “Should I continue down an entrepreneurial path, or pursue stability as a lawyer?” This is the story of Andrew’s journey from Calgary to Shanghai, and now to Seoul. Moreover, it is the story of how family, resilience, and keeping an open mind helped Andrew to forge his own path. Today, Andrew is Head of Global Business Development and Operations for Yanolja, a company he describes as “the next trendsetter in the global hospitality and travel space,” and a company which is also hotly tipped to become South Korea’s next unicorn. Andrew sat down with MBA Admissions to share why he chose CEIBS and how he found peace with the competing directions at play in his life.

Born into an entrepreneurial family, Andrew was brought up in a household with strong Asian values, particularly when it came to academics. “When I went to law school, my family was extremely proud,” Andrew recalls. “But it also meant that I had to consciously fight the entrepreneurial instincts that run deep in me and my family.” After three years of corporate commercial law with Canada’s largest law firm, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG), Andrew worked his way into entrepreneurship. By the time he enrolled in the CEIBS MBA programme in 2016, he was CEO of WOW Group, a group of companies comprised of a restaurant franchise, an interior renovations company, and a bakery (click for previous story). “Just prior to and during the early stages of WOW Group, I was also part of a group exporting Canadian lobster to Korea,” Andrew says. “My father told me that if I was serious about doing business with Asia, then I needed to experience China, which led me to do an MBA at CEIBS.”

It was a winding road, but getting an MBA at CEIBS ultimately helped Andrew land his role at Yanolja. He is the first to admit, however, that his first few months on campus were anything but smooth. “I firmly believe that people grow most when facing uncomfortable situations, but life in Shanghai was sometimes a different kind of different. I often found myself contemplating, what if I had attended a school closer to home?” reflects Andrew. The period of adjustment took him longer than he was expecting, and he advises overseas applicants to take a patient approach to understanding cultural differences. “To think that I would be able to quickly make the same splash in China as I had done in Canada, was, in retrospect, naïve,” he says. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in the business school bubble though. So if you are facing similar thoughts in your first few months, I recommend you speak to alumni who have almost certainly gone through similar experiences. It really helps you to re-focus on what you are here to achieve.”

For Andrew, entrepreneurship in Asia was what led him to business school, so that is where he focused his efforts. “At CEIBS, we have an eLab, which is an incubation platform for MBAs who plan to pursue entrepreneurial ventures after graduating,” he explains. “We host workshops, welcome investors, practice pitches, and have access to mentors that can help students to take their ideas or business plans to the next level.” One project that came to Andrew and his team involved working with a rapidly growing Korean start-up called Yanolja. At the time, the company wanted to explore market entry options into China, which led Andrew to meet with the group’s CEO and management on multiple occasions. “Although the project was put on the backburner due to the Korean THAAD Crisis (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), the company and vision of its leadership made a big impression on me,” Andrew says. “They actually lined up a job for me to join them right after I graduated, but I turned it down. I was still toying with some big life decisions at the time, but made a point of staying in touch and watching their progress with keen interest.”

Before long, Andrew was presented with an opportunity to return to his native Canada on an exchange with Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. Comparing the two experiences ultimately confirmed Andrew’s desire to work in Asia, and upon graduation, he joined the largest and most prominent law firm in Korea – Kim & Chang. The move to join such a prestigious firm made him the envy of his Korean friends, but also brought him closer to Yanolja again. He regularly met the CBO (Chief Business Officer) for lunch to discuss the rapid expansion of the group, which by that time had taken them into nearly all the niches of the hospitality and travel industry. “After eight months with Kim & Chang, the CEO and CBO of Yanolja asked again for me to join them. This time I really was torn between the two very different paths that this decision would take me down,” he says. “In the end, I remembered the words that my mother said to me before she passed away in 2012: ‘Don’t live the life that others expect to be rosy, live the life that you find rosy’, and with that I left Kim & Chang and joined Yanolja.”

Nearly one year on from that decision, Andrew is leading Yanolja’s global business development, expanding the company’s international footprint by sourcing and closing M&A deals. But more importantly, Andrew has finally found his perfect balance between company prestige, job security, exercising his legal brain, and his entrepreneurial spirit. “It’s a cliché, but I have been on a bit of a rollercoaster since joining,” he admits. “We are investing in innovative products like AI, IoT, blockchain technology, as well as strengthening our traditional niches in online booking platforms and hotel operation and construction throughout Asia.” Clearly revelling in his role, we asked Andrew to sign off by summarising the biggest impact doing an MBA at CEIBS has had on the way he conducts business at Yanolja. “When I look back on my time at CEIBS, surprisingly, the school’s motto of ‘China Depth, Global Breadth’ changed my way of thinking,” he says. “It has given me the confidence to apply the same model to Yanolja, and take this rapidly growing start-up with Korean roots to global heights.”

James Kent
Michael Thede