Going Away to College and Being Career-Oriented in Patriarchal South Korea

It was quite difficult growing up in South Korea in a family where women were thought of as second-class citizens. I grew up in a very traditional household where authority was nearly absolute and we had to listen to orders and follow them almost blindly -- especially my two other sisters and myself since we were women. When it came to marriages that were not pre-arranged, they were simply not permitted; we were obliged to follow these strict traditions and uphold the family name.

As a female growing up in Korea, I was discouraged from taking a more career-oriented path in life. I have nevertheless always admired that fact that my father was a self-made man. I've always been taught by my father to do what you can to do best and not to be swayed by what others do.

Ever since elementary school I've always 'worked.' As a child I did chores like polishing my father's shoes and 'negotiated my salary' every year. After graduating from Yonsei University, I was accepted at Amherst College in the US, but my father said: "No way. You marry your husband. Following him is fine, but do not go by yourself." Being a woman also didn't help given that Korea is a patriarchal, Confucian-based society (even more so 20 years ago). So I tried to convince him. I did everything, but he said: "No way." He didn't even want to let me leave the country!

Getting accepted to Amherst was a dream come true and an opportunity I couldn't miss. However, knowing that my destiny was set and my father wanted me to stay in Korea left me wondering what to do. Eventually, I resolved to invite some keynote graduates from Amherst -- even some prominent ministers and cabinet members and one of my father's co-graduates, a Japanese Ambassador for whom he had great respect. I invited them to his house for dinner and told my father that they were coming. But he didn't believe me and disregarded the invitation.

During the evening we had a nice gathering with about 20 guests, and my father arrived late around 10.30pm. He was shocked since all of the dignitaries and keynote guests were in the house waiting for him. Embarrassed, he sat down in the living room with about 20 people, including the President of the Amherst Korean Association. The President briefly said that Amherst was a great college and that I had strong potential, concluding with a request to attend. The pressure not to lose face was intense. The next day, I left for Amherst. It was amazing.

There were other big and small challenges on the way, but I've always had my tactics in convincing them -- which still today helps me when dealing with issues in my company.

While learning English was a challenge, the language itself wasn't the biggest challenge -- it was the novelty of the Western educational system and adapting to it. During my first year at Amherst, for example, I received a 'C' from a class I was confident that I would ace. When I visited the professor, confident that he must have made a mistake, the reply I heard hit me like a hammer. My approach to the issue was not mine, it was what was taught in class. What I was missing was a critical point of view. This incident made me realise that independent and critical thinking is a valuable asset that is needed throughout one's entire life. This was different from the traditional Confucian-based educational system which I grew up with, where we were typically required to memorise large amounts of information without as much of a need to interpret what we learned and reflect our understanding of the content.

After studying, I returned to Korea, but my parents refused to allow me to take a job, even saying they would be ashamed of me if I did. That was indeed hurtful -- during my time at Amherst, I had the opportunity to experience women's economic empowerment, and the ability to embrace a critical way of thinking where I could decide for myself as well as stand on my own two feet. I knew I had to leave.

After returning to the U.S. to study at Harvard and to escape my impending arranged marriage, I married one of my classmates who was Canadian. As a result, my parents were speechless. The next day, they pulled my name out of family tree and they stopped every dollar financing my education. For four years nobody spoke with me. It wasn't so much the economic difficulties, it was the emotional trauma that was enduring.

We were penniless, as my husband was still studying for his degree. I eventually got a job with the legendary New York retailer Marvin Traub, who became a great friend. My path to business success had begun.

Sung-Joo Kim is a featured speaker at the APEC Women Leadership Forum 2014, 20-22 August 2014 in Beijing. For more information, please visit here.