From Soldier to CEO: How the Army Shaped Me into an Entrepreneur
After my sophomore year at Columbia University, I went home to Korea to serve in the army for two years. For men aged 18 to 35 who want to maintain Korean citizenship, military service is required.
Needless to say, it was a life-changing experience.
My time in the army tested my patience, resilience, and ability to adjust to changing conditions. In my main role, I worked under a general to help manage confidential information about limited-range missile commands. My daily routine included waking up in the middle of the night, grueling exercises, and combat training. I also participated in rifle training (where I earned the position of top shooter in my squad), chemical gas tests, and hand-to-hand combat.
In this customary test of physical, mental, and social endurance, I learned a great deal about myself and my heritage. Only later would I realize that my time in the cold and mountainous terrain of the Korean foothills also taught me lessons that have prepared me for my journey as an entrepreneur.
The army works much like a startup - you’re part of a small team with huge tasks, and you have to work together to problem solve on a daily basis. At any given moment, there could be a thousand obstacles in your way. You may have a role or title, but in reality, you wear many hats and get to explore your strengths.
Lesson 1: Leadership
As a soldier, I had few powers outside of my general position, but I assumed a role as a leader among my peers. I took advantage of downtime to create community and team building activities, and I organized a group of soldiers in my squad to help rebuild churches in the surrounding parts of camp. The lesson learned? That leadership does not come by holding a gun or by having the ability to fight, but it comes with trust, a vision, and a common goal.
At my startup Gooroo, which brings together students and tutors through an app, I lead the team by participating in small tasks as well as big ones. From passing out fliers at Columbia University to meeting with investors about the future of my company - I try to set an example by being fully involved in the daily life of Gooroo. I go out of my way to have coffee or lunch with different team members so that they understand their importance in the company and how their contributions can help us achieve our goals. Each week, I set aside time to reflect on how I can improve as a leader and how I can help the team succeed.
Lesson 2: Teamwork
Consistent teamwork is a necessary skill to learn in the Korean army since you’re flown out and placed with other soldiers on a freezing mountaintop, and assigned long and arduous tasks. The unit became a very close-knit community where the ability to work interdependently and as a team was as much expectation as it was a necessity. These connections have stayed with me even years after my service and have proven to be not only valuable friendships, but future business contacts as well.
As most entrepreneurs know, teamwork has proven to be as instrumental in a startup as it is in the army. But at Gooroo, working together is at the core of our values. A line of communication between employees and management is always open, ensuring that no idea goes unheard. Employees, clients, and tutors are able to come together over the common goal of breaking the stigma of tutoring services as an expensive and unfair process — just as a tutor and student come together to learn a new skill. Each month we have a team dinner outside of the office so that employees can enjoy each other’s company and maintain a strong company culture.
Lesson 3: Humility
There’s nothing like living in the mountains of the Korean Peninsula as a reminder to stay humble. Without all the comforts of life in a modern society, I became more appreciative of my natural surroundings, friends, and alone time rather than the luxuries I had previously taken for granted. We became accustomed to going days without a shower, and when we did get to take a shower, it was freezing cold — literally. We grew used to functioning on minimal sleep since each night we were required to wake up to guard the armory in two-hour shifts. Limited internet access and no cell phones disconnected me from the world, but allowed me to appreciate the true values in life and to be humble about what I have.
Humility is important as a leader in a start up and as an entrepreneur in general. It’s easy to be proud of your product, but the truth is that there’s always going to be a competitor, a problem, another idea, etc. that comes along. Being humble can provide you with an edge that allows you to see your product as it is and to be able to make necessary changes as they come. Even when things are going really well, I am able to stay aware that there may be changes the next day, the next week, or the next year, so I try to stay level-headed.
These are just some of the lessons learned. When I reflect on my time in the army and my current experience as an entrepreneur, I see a lot of parallels. It seems counter-intuitive that the army — a place where most minutes of your day are mapped out by a superior — can enlighten the path of a business leader.