Today marks the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. It’s been the hardest year of my life, and I had very little headspace for meeting people, let alone maintaining an online presence. I shut down all social media accounts and haven’t posted for the full twelve months. But I thought it apt to come out of the shadows and share about my father as my family remembers his life today.
They say that patience is a virtue. While he embodied many, I’d say that patience is the virtue that best encapsulates my father’s life. It’s something I struggle with every day as a venture capitalist. In my former job as a derivatives trader, I literally had real-time feedback about my results. Like a raging addict hoping for that next hit of dopamine, I’d often click on the “compute PNL” button multiple times each second.
But in VC it often takes ten years or more to receive decent data on whether you’re any good at this job. The average vc/founder relationship lasts longer than the average marriage. This is why the game of venture capital requires patience. And when I get impatient it helps me to reflect on my father’s journey.
Hie-Joon Kim turned five years old as the Korean War came to a close, and like most products of the post-war era, his upbringing consisted of consistent hardship, with a sprinkle of hope. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the only outlet he knew, his education. It just so happened that he really loved learning, and like most lifelong learners he often found himself sharing knowledge with others.
There was very little time for hobbies in those days and given that large swaths of the Korean population had just died, everyone who remained treated competition as a life-or-death pursuit. The only time I’ve ever heard my dad talk about anything fun from his childhood was when he and his brother played “school”, taking turns being the student and the teacher. Even when he was playing, my dad was in a classroom.
It was this passion for learning and education that brought him to the top of his class, at the top schools in Korea. He and my mom brought a couple of bags of clothes and a heart full of the American dream for graduate school in the US, again attending some of the top institutions there. It was clear to him and everyone around him that my father was destined for academia. More than his performance, it was his innate need to gain and give knowledge that made it so blindingly obvious.
So after he had finished his postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, Dad applied for academic positions. But somehow every door shut in his face. This was clearly his destiny and calling. He knew it. Everyone knew it. But it just wasn’t panning out. He experienced buffet portions of sadness, confusion, disappointment, and a whole slew of other emotional staples. I’m sure he questioned God too. “I know you’ve called me to this, so how could you shut all these doors? Why God? Why?!”
But he kept his head down and found what work he could, eventually as a researcher for the US Military. He struggled at work, struggled to integrate socially, and struggled with rebellious kids who resented their identity. I got bullied as a kid and blamed my dad for my suffering, but it was only after I had grown up that I realized my plight paled in comparison to his. If I felt like an outsider in America well, he must have felt that so much more. If I felt like I didn’t understand American culture well at least English was my first language. And perhaps most importantly, I had no idea that from the day I was born until the day I left for college, my dad was enduring in a line of work that he felt was clearly not his calling.
As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Mom says he had pretty much given up on that calling. If there was any remnant, the academic dream was a shadow of its former self. But then one day, out of nowhere, my dad got a call from Seoul National University asking if he’d like to be considered for a professorship.
Well, he applied and got the job, and when he started, he did some things that he could only do because he had NOT been in academia for his entire career. As one example, in Korea, teachers will never ask for feedback from their students. The Confucian culture leads to this idea that those in authority need not ask underlings for their opinion. Since a teacher is clearly the authority, why would he ask his students about how to teach? But my dad broke that rule and asked every student after every lecture to write one thing they liked and one thing they didn’t like about class that day. Through this process, he quickly honed his delivery and soon won an award given to the top lecturer at the top university in the country.
That initial notoriety led to journalists reaching out to him for quotes, and then shortly thereafter he started writing his own columns. Book deals came soon after. Appearances on radio and television followed. Eventually, he starred in his own nationally syndicated TV show. Dad became the Korean Bill Nye The Science Guy.
Another development that came out of his outsider status was a new type of science curriculum. Dad started asking “Why is it that we teach science in these discrete subjects, memorizing facts from biology, chemistry, and physics? The human brain is not designed to memorize facts but to understand stories.” So, he created a curriculum that teaches the story of the universe, from the big bang through present day, weaving in concepts from each of the three science subject areas throughout.
The approach was revolutionary and required a different perspective that he wouldn’t have had if he had gone into academia from day one. He tested the curriculum at Seoul National, then at some gifted high schools where he taught, and soon the government caught wind of it and made it their mandatory national science curriculum. Every year half a million kids encounter the mystery of the universe through my dad’s learning journey, where he literally wrote the book.
I turned 45 this year, and I started venture investing professionally ten years ago. I have some early signs that I’m pretty good at this business. Multiple unicorns, demonstrated ability to return investor capital, strong testimonials from my founders… But if I’m honest with myself, there are days when I feel lost. I look at others who seem to be speeding ahead in various ways, and I feel behind where I’m supposed to be.
In those moments I often find myself reflecting on my dad’s life. He questioned his trajectory for years and years, and he didn’t even get started teaching until he was 50. He just kept his head down, worked his tail off, and leaned on his faith and not his own understanding. Looking back, it all makes sense. He had to go through what he went through, to make the impact that he made, ultimately touching the lives of tens of millions of people. But for decades he felt like he was wandering in the desert. And for decades he persevered.
One year after his passing there are still days when I find myself in tears. I miss my dad a lot. I wish I could see him again. I’ve even found myself questioning God’s timing. “Why did he need to die now? God, why did you have to take him away?” But when looking back on my dad’s life, I know that even though we don’t understand it in the moment, ultimately we can trust that divine timing is never early and it’s never late. It’s always on time. I believe I’ll see Apa again someday, and until then I can only try to live out what he lived out so well. Patience.