It was thirty years ago today when I landed in South Korea for the first time to start a new adventure- working in house for one of the largest multinationals in Korea- Samsung! Looking back, because of this move I have been blessed with a long and very interesting life and career. Not only did this position expose me to international corporate law like no other position did (many of my law school peers were working for law firms in Florida, blissfully unaware of the Asian marketplace) it also exposed me to Asia in general and of course Korean culture and business practices. Working in house for one of Korea’s largest multinationals not only changed my career but my life. I met my wonderful wife in Korea. My children were born in Korea, and I became an expat in Korea. I was able to meet people from all over the world. As the expat community in Seoul is rather small, I had the opportunity to share a beer with many foreign businessmen such as a president of a US bank, a CFO of a company from Germany, a VP from Japan , a senior partner of a large and prestigious US law firm ( that never would have hired me if I had stayed in the US) and an engineer from India. I also had the opportunity to witness Korea embrace democracy, force its dictator to retire and to hold democratic elections. And of course I witnessed first hand the expansion of Samsung companies including Samsung Electronics around the world. I still cannot believe how dramatically my life and career changed by moving to Seoul so many years ago.
However, at the beginning of my career as a lawyer my prospects for such an amazing life seemed rather distant. I graduated from law school during the 1980 recession, finding myself without a job after graduation. In those days it wasn’t that easy to land a position and I was lucky enough to turn a minor clerking job at a local law firm into a position as an assistant public defender. Though not a glamorous position, it did enable me to get some experience and to also realize I didn’t want to be a criminal defense lawyer my whole career. I had a decision to make- continue as a public defender or do something else. After working several years as a public defender I chose something else, namely going back to school to get an MBA.
After practicing law for a few years I realized my lack of business experience and decided the best way to gain such experience was by enrolling in the MBA program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Interestingly enough, though I never finished the MBA degree- starting the program changed my career and of course my life. It was while I was in the MBA program that a little known Korean company (or rather a large Korean conglomerate or “chaebol”) advertised for its first full time US trained in house lawyer. Seeing the advertisement posted at the university I was attending (and knowing nothing about Korea and Samsung at the time) I decided to take a gamble and submit my resume. Months later, having forgotten about the advertisement, I received a phone call from Samsung inquiring if I was still interested. I said yes. So, despite warnings from several friends that I should avoid Korea because of what it looked like on MASH, I found myself flying to Korea with a suitcase in one hand and a plane ticket in the other to work for Samsung. No looking back!
A number of years later, I moved back to the US where I eventually became General Counsel of Samsung Electronics America for many years. A position I never would have achieved had I not initially set out for Korea in 1986. Looking back upon my career, things may have been different had I decided to stay as an assistant public defender or even finish the MBA program instead of taking a leap of faith by flying to Korea. I made the decision early on of not getting too comfortable but always stretching myself. Always moving- either sideways or up! But that required a willingness to explore and to change. Had I not pushed myself to change I would have never experienced the life and career I am so thankful to have had.
If I have any words of wisdom to those just starting out it is that one must always be willing to change and to stretch oneself. In todays’ marketplace, learning a new language or new culture has never been so important than now. Because of changes in technologies, it is easier for people to conduct business anywhere in the world than ever before. It is vital therefore to never stop moving. Never stop learning. Move abroad, learn a language or work for a foreign company or organization. Never think your current career path will lead you in a straight direction. It may go sideways or it may go down. In essence, always be willing to change, adapt, experience new cultures, explore and try new adventures. And never, never, ever give up!!