Out of the many military experiences and skills that have transferred over to business, grit and focus have been the most indispensable. “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit.” These are excerpts from the Soldier’s Creed that we (soldiers) tend to joke about for being overly melodramatic, but those words have been ingrained in me since the first day of boot camp and continually refined while patrolling the scorched fields of Afghanistan. When lives are on the line, quitting is not an option and intense focus is essential to accomplishing the mission. Funny enough, despite vastly different circumstances, what was true then holds true now.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Kim, the co-founder and COO of KPOP Foods, a brand inviting people to discover and enjoy Korean food and flavors through its delicious products. He’s a Los Angeles native and a U.S. Army combat veteran. During his military career stationed around the U.S. and abroad, Mike introduced many of his soldiers and colleagues to Korean cuisine. The blend of brilliant flavors and the feeling of shared excitement caused by these meals left those familiar and those new to Korean food wanting more. This intersection of food, culture, and people became what would inspire him in the future. Mike served in the US Army for five years in various positions from an Infantry Platoon Leader to Project Manager to Assistant Operations Officer. He’s worked in multiple cities across the United States, Afghanistan, and South Korea, leading teams as large as 60 people. Upon transitioning from the military and entering graduate school, Mike began working as a Strategy and Business Development Associate at Edison Water Resources, an Edison International company where he tackled a wide-array of issues around scalability and growth. In early 2017, Mike and his co-founder, Theo Lee, launched KPOP Foods. Mike received a B.S. in Engineering Management from the United States Military Academy at West Point and his M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me. I was born and raised in Northridge, a suburb of Los Angeles, blessed with amazing family and friends. Growing up, I competed in multiple sports that taught me important lessons in leadership, teamwork, and greater purpose. These values influenced my decision to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point where I earned my Bachelor of Science in Engineering Management.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
My co-founder Theo Lee and I run a company called KPOP Foods that we launched out of UCLA Anderson in February of 2017. KPOP Foods’ vision is to be the premier Korean food brand for America with our products in every major retailer across the nation. We currently have five products in market consisting of a line of Korean sauces and seaweed snacks. We make our items right here in Southern California and sell nationwide via direct to consumer, specialty retailers, and very soon, major grocery chains.
We not only make accessing and using Korean food and flavors in your everyday meals easy, but also push the boundaries of traditional Korean food companies by partnering with other brands, artists, and influencers. Over the holidays, we collaborated with DogHaus — a growing fast-casual burger and hot dog chain — to create the KPOP Burger. For every burger sold, $1 was donated to No Kid Hungry. The collaboration was a great success for a great cause and continues to open up new opportunities.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I served in the US Army for five years. Early 2012, I deployed to Afghanistan, where I led US and Afghan soldiers in over 100 combat missions during the height of fighting season. When the fighting subsided, I took over a project management role where I oversaw developmental projects for a district. It was a rewarding experience as I got to see how these projects created jobs for the local economy and built trust between the locals and their government officials. My last duty assignment led me to South Korea where I spent a year and a half working with the South Korean Ministry of Defense wargaming, conducting risk analysis, and reporting key insights to military executive leadership.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
Absolutely! I was finishing up a training course in Arizona awaiting my next assignment when my HR rep called me to tell me that none of my ten requested assignments were available. I couldn’t believe it. My rep told me a position had recently opened up in South Korea and asked if I would consider taking the role. It wasn’t what I originally expected nor wanted, but I decided to be open to the opportunity. Needless to say, I took the job and it changed my life forever.
Born in Los Angeles, but of Korean descent, I was unsure of what to expect living and working in Korea for the first time. As much as it was different, a lot was strangely familiar. I cultivated a deep connection to the people, food, and culture. My experience there was fundamental in my decision to start a Korean food company. Had it not been for the military, KPOP Foods probably wouldn’t be here today. I’d be remiss if I didn’t share that I met my fiancée while stationed in Korea. I have the Army to thank for that too!
I believe everything happens for a reason. While we can positively control much of what happens in our lives, it’s important to know that in those situations where things don’t go our way, a new opportunity often awaits. Put your best foot forward and things have a way of working themselves out.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
It remains the greatest honor of my life to have served alongside so many heroes and experience their feats first hand. All their stories deserve to be told, but one in particular comes to mind. One of my junior leaders worked tirelessly for his team, training and mentoring them daily while always putting their physical and mental well-being ahead of his own. He constantly wore an infectious smile that immediately brightened all those around him, even in the worst of days. During a mission overseas, he suffered a concussion from an enemy attack. I told him to get back to base for medical treatment; but he refused, almost pleading with me to stay. He said to me, “I can’t leave my guys.” Later that afternoon, he lost his life while shielding us from another enemy attack. I will never forget his sacrifice and love for us all, and everyday I strive to carry on his legacy.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Forged from a series of tribulations and decisions, heroes protect and inspire because they possess a special kind of love. A love that allows them to be selfless, putting the lives of others before their own. It doesn’t mean that they don’t get scared or have moments of conceit; but at critical junctures, they choose others over the fear and themselves. Heroes carry a love that expands equality and freedom, because they’ve experienced the injustices of the world firsthand. They are a symbol for many to do good and to be good.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
Yes. Anything less would strip heroes of the praise and respect they deserve. But to clarify, we face life and death situations every day, whether it’s in a war zone or in a classroom. The former just so happens to be generally more immediate than the latter. For heroes to affect lives, their inactions must also bear the consequence of death. It is not a responsibility anyone can carry.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Develop your own leadership style. They call the United States Military Academy the greatest leadership institution in the world not simply because it’s produced the General Patton’s or the Coach K’s of the world, but because you’re immersed by so many varying styles of leadership on a daily basis. All of our professors, staff, faculty, and student body were prime examples of both good and bad leaders. I don’t believe that there is one cookie cutter mold of the perfect leader because leadership styles are as unique as a person and their experiences. Learn to recognize the good and ignore the bad. When crafting your own style of leadership, embrace the styles that resonate with you, deciding what you want to emulate and what you want to avoid. This is 100% applicable outside of the military context. Learn from and study the leaders you work with and other leaders in society.
Active listening is essential for any team. When I was first given command, the senior leaders left in my charge were better soldiers than me. They were seasoned veterans having been deployed to war zones numerous times and knew how to operate and maintain all of our multi-million-dollar equipment. My respect for these soldiers, coupled with my desire to earn the privilege to lead them in combat, allowed me to toss aside any ego and ask them for help. I earned their trust and respect by asking for constant feedback and input when making key decisions. This allowed us to operate seamlessly as a team understanding each soldier’s strengths and weaknesses. As a result, we were able to condense a one-year training program down to four months without cutting corners.
Get outside your comfort zone often. Leaders gain perspective with each new challenge or experience. It is the collection of these perspectives that foster the empathy, awareness, and resilience required for a person to lead an organization through both the good and the bad. Whether I was trudging through the swamps of Florida during moonless nights, eating live octopus with South Korean Army officers, or walking through an active mine field to talk with local villagers in Kandahar, what I thought I knew to be true was constantly being challenged. As leaders, we have to push ourselves to think differently and challenge the status quo. In both the Army and in business, complacency kills.
Seek out the multiple spectrums of mentorship. You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t growth-minded and didn’t possess the ability to make a positive impact in someone’s life. Whether I was the mentee or the mentor, I learned mentorship is a two-way street in more than one metaphorical sense. First, while seeking the right teacher is important, it’s just as crucial to open yourself wholeheartedly to the teachings. Secondly, finding others to guide isn’t just about you helping them. As a mentor, I seek to offer objective and unbiased constructive criticism and expect it in return, creating a loop of positive reinforcement.
Practice humility. You can’t have an ego as a leader and expect to foster teamwork and progress. While stationed in South Korea, a discernible language and cultural barrier existed between us and our South Korean colleagues. Our job required us to work closely together and even with the presence of translators, there was much lost to the nuances of each culture. My ability to speak Korean was pretty much non-existent at the time, but I earnestly threw myself into the environment to learn the language and culture. I was initially worried about making an unwanted spectacle of myself, but I had to check my pride at the door. This effort allowed us to learn more about each other and our respective cultures, leading to greater understanding and cooperation. In the end, we were able to share information, coordinate, and help each other in situations we may not have otherwise.
Do you think the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Yes and of course. Out of the many military experiences and skills that have transferred over to business, grit and focus have been the most indispensable. “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit.” These are excerpts from the Soldier’s Creed that we (soldiers) tend to joke about for being overly melodramatic, but those words have been ingrained in me since the first day of boot camp and continually refined while patrolling the scorched fields of Afghanistan. When lives are on the line, quitting is not an option and intense focus is essential to accomplishing the mission. Funny enough, despite vastly different circumstances, what was true then holds true now.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
Joining the military was the best decision of my life and has much to do with who I am today. Coming back after deployment was tough because of the drastic lifestyle change and the amount to process. I was constantly on edge, noticeably aggressive, and subject to mood swings. Fortunately, my friends and family helped me through the worst of it, and I’m glad I made the conscious effort not to distance myself from them. While they might never truly understand what I went through, our conversations were therapeutic and made me more self-aware. Since leaving the military, I’ve developed friendships with a lot of other veterans with similar backgrounds. Sharing war stories, current problems, and advice about how we’ve dealt with issues with each other over a couple of beers has also been tremendously helpful.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently working with several distributors and grocery chains to place our sauces and seaweed snacks into stores nationwide. All I can say is that it’ll be happening very soon and that it’ll be a new frontier ripe with opportunity. No other Korean American food brand has products in these markets where consumers have been searching for a more diverse selection of goods. I believe we’ll be opening up the floodgates for other exciting and diverse food startups to follow. Beyond introducing more Americans to Korean food, flavor, and culture, this is another step towards our overall goal of making people smile through each interaction with our products and brand.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Have a clear vision and take care of your team. If you don’t have a clear vision yet, this is a golden opportunity. Work with your team to create a clear and shared vision, empowering and giving ownership to each member. Lastly, your team is your family — look after them and they’ll look after you.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
No one can run a business on their own and the same goes for managing a large team. Mentor, train, and delegate. Invest in and take care of your junior leaders and managers, and in return, they’ll continue to add value and growth to the team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
First off, I’d like to thank every person that’s been a part our KPOP Foods family. From our food scientists and copywriters to our analysts and sales reps, their talent, energy, and creativity have allowed us to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. I’m proud of every member and seeing their continuous growth has made this journey all the more fulfilling. Furthermore, I know I don’t get to say it enough, especially to him, but I wouldn’t be here if not for my co-founder and CEO, Theo Lee. He’s the most relentless, innovative, and intelligent person I’ve ever worked with. He’s the first in the office every day at 6am even after a night of networking over beers. Constantly searching for the big ticket, he takes unconventional approaches to problem-solving. Because of that, we’ve landed some of our largest partnerships and deals on the fly. One time, we didn’t even have a final product in hand. I joke with him all the time that he would have done well in the military.
Lastly, I’m eternally grateful to my family and friends who have supported me in all my endeavors across the world. From sending me care packages overseas to advocating fiercely for each of our new product launches, they’ve been with me every step of the way.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I would say I’ve had limited success and there’s still much I’d like to do. However, I do get the occasional message from aspiring entrepreneurs and members of the Asian American community that what we’ve accomplished here at KPOP Foods has not only served as an inspiration for some to follow their dreams, but also gives voices to those traditionally unheard.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Be kind, do good, and ask others to pay it forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
I’ve fought in the arena my entire life. I have literally bled, sweat, and cried in all my victories and countless more defeats. But what I’ve learned by stepping into that arena are lessons I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I’ve loved basketball and the Lakers ever since I can remember, so along with that came my love for Shaq. I had his life-sized poster in my room that I used to measure my height every year. There was even a point when I was sure I’d be as tall as him after growing six inches one summer. Along with being the most dominant center to have ever played the game, Shaq’s a savvy businessman. But most of all, he just has this larger-than-life personality which would make for a very memorable and enjoyable meal. Shaq, if you’re reading this, let’s grab a 2,000-calorie meal sometime.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.