Rags to Riches: The Tae Yun Kim Story

Ali Woo
6 min readDec 13, 2016

The phrase “rags to riches” gets thrown around a lot, but sometimes it’s particularly appropriate, as with the life of Dr. Tae Yun Kim. Over the years, her story has been told many times, including stories by USA Dojo (Martial Arts Biography — Tae Yun Kim) and Gold Sea (Tae Yun Kim: Guiding Spirit), but it is a story that bears repeating.

Tae Yun Kim’s Childhood

As the 1946 Lunar New Year approached, the Kim family was excited to welcome their first born child into the world. Korean tradition held that a first-born son — especially one born at the beginning of the new year — was a blessed child that would bring luck and good fortune to the family. However, in the early hours of New Year’s morning it was not a son, but a daughter that was born.

Following this inauspicious birth, Tae Yun Kim was considered a curse by her family, and bad luck by most of the people in her small South Korean village, simply because she was a girl. As the years passed, she was beaten, starved, and ridiculed by those closest to her. The male-centric culture of her home country tried to crush her hopes and dreams before she was even old enough to form them.

When Tae Yun was just five years old, the chaos and violence of the Korean War came to her small town. Her family, like many families, abandoned their daughter and fled. Ironically, it was at this time that she met her first friend. With bombs falling all around her, young Tae Yun Kim met another young girl just a few years her senior. This girl told Tae Yun that they needed to run, encouraging the younger girl by saying, “Let’s race!”

As Tae Yun chased after the first person who had ever shown her kindness, a bomb exploded right in front of them. When she came to her senses, she desperately began searching for her new friend. Unfortunately, the older girl had not survived the blast, and many other people from her village had been killed in the bombing as well. But against all odds, this unwanted girl had survived. It was then that she decided she wasn’t going to run any more. In the future, she would stand her ground and fight for her life.

After the war ended, Tae Yun was taken in by her Grandparents. It was there that she first observed several of her uncles practicing the Korean martial art of Taekwondo. She was fascinated and intrigued by what she saw, and immediately formed a strong desire to pursue the art herself.

However, 5,000 years of tradition forbid a girl from training in taekwondo. Her uncles told her that she could not train, and that it was a ridiculous notion. But Tae Yun Kim would not be stopped; she was determined that she would learn the martial arts. After a lot of persistence on her part, one of her uncles finally agreed to teach her the basics of taekwondo, certain that she would give up after receiving her first few bruises.

To his surprise, the young girl did not give up. Instead, she trained hard and progressed quickly. Unfortunately, despite her progress, most of her family tried everything they could think of to get her to quit. This resistance culminated in her Grandfather arranging a meeting with a well known Buddhist monk. Her Grandfather’s expectation was that this Master would convince the young girl to behave as her family thought she should.

It was this meeting that changed the course of Tae Yun’s life forever. Instead of telling her how she ought to behave, the monk conversed with the child, asking her what she wanted to do when she grew up. The essence of her answer was, “I want to teach. I want to be me. I want to be an original.” The Master looked into her eyes, trying to discern the desires of her heart. Finally, he answered her, “I will teach you.”

Tae Yun Kim: Martial Artist

Despite increased physical abuse from her parents, Tae Yun Kim could not be dissuaded from learning taekwondo. Now that she had someone to believe in her, to help her, to guide her, this young girl began to grow and flourish. It was during her training that she first began to think, “He Can Do, She Can Do, Why Not Me!”, a phrase that would serve her well throughout her life.

Under her Master’s care, she dedicated every bit of energy she had to training and learning the ancient principles that she was being taught. Her training eventually paid off, as she became the first female black belt in Korea, then the first female master, and eventually the first female Grandmaster in the martial arts.

In 1968, her Master encouraged her to immigrate to the United States. So, with very little money and even less knowledge of English, she moved to Burlington Vermont. The money she had was just enough for a small, run-down apartment and cheap food. But here, in the “Land of Opportunity,” Tae Yun Kim was ready to make her place in the world. Despite the barriers of culture and language, she wanted to open her own martial arts school.

Tae Yun found herself working three jobs in order to make ends meet and to save a little money so that she could pursue her dream of teaching martial arts. Before long, she had saved enough money to open a small taekwondo studio in an old garage. She began teaching students during the few hours when she wasn’t working, and her classes slowly started to grow. Even a fire at the garage did not deter her from teaching her students.

Over the next several years, she was able to save enough money to open a real martial arts school. Her reputation had grown during that time, and the school proved a success, drawing enough students to fill the classes. As the crowning victory for this woman, who had been told she could not pursue the martial arts, Tae Yun eventually established a separately recognized martial art. Known as Jung SuWon and officially recognized as a unique style in 1989, her style is practiced exclusively at her Jung SuWon Academy in Fremont, California.

Tae Yun Kim: Business Success

Long before her dream of having a successful martial arts school came true, however, Tae Yun Kim sold her house to fund another dream. Guided by a vision, she decided to found Lighthouse Worldwide Solutions with the help of some of her students. The company’s focus was on computers and their mission was to use science and technology for the betterment of mankind.

Early on, the company focused on creating Bible-based video games and custom software applications for other businesses. Then, as the business began to grow, Tae Yun made the decision to move the burgeoning company from Vermont to California, setting up shop right in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Around 1989, the focus for Lighthouse shifted to cleanroom monitoring systems. They have continued to develop and innovate various monitoring systems for clean water and air, and have become leaders within that industry. As CEO, Tae Yun Kim has been instrumental in moving the company forward.


It’s hard to imagine more humble beginnings than those of Tae Yun Kim. But from her difficult beginning has come a legacy of strength and success. She is not only an accomplished martial artist and business woman, she is also a philanthropist, inspirational speaker, and published author. In short, she is truly the embodiment of what can happen if you live by her motto: “He Can Do, She Can Do, Why Not Me!”