Saturday, November 6, 2010

A CEO's hands-on involvement in charity

Lee Joung-hoon, left, CEO of Ulsan-based Samchang Enterprise, is congratulated by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, after he was chosen as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). / Courtesy of Lee Joung-hoon

By Bae Ji-sook

When Lee Joung-hoon was selected as a member of the Clinton Global Initiative’s (CGI) inaugural group earlier this year, he couldn’t believe it.

He was the only Korean to be selected. Among 19 others nominated were Jennifer Buffett, president and co-chair of the NoVo Foundation; Lauren Bush, co-founder of FEED Projects; and Jeff Gordon, NASCAR champion and co-founder of the Jeff Gordon Pediatric Cancer Foundation ― all global household names.

According to the foundation’s website, the CGI was established by former U.S. President Bill Clinton to convene global leaders to devise and implement innovative solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges.

At its annual meeting and at events throughout the year, the CGI gathers government officials, business leaders, and nonprofit directors from all over the world, creating opportunities for them to collaborate, share ideas, and forge partnerships that enhance their work.

To fulfill the action-oriented mission of CGI, members devise practical solutions to global issues through the development of specific and measurable commitments to action.

The foundation has grown, joining hands with 150 current and former heads of state, 15 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, hundreds of leading CEOs, heads of foundations, major philanthropists, directors of the most effective nongovernmental organizations, and prominent members of the media. These CGI members have made more than 1,900 commitments, which have already improved the lives of nearly 300 million people in more than 170 countries. When fully funded and implemented, these commitments will be valued at $63 billion, the foundation said.

“I was first stunned to be picked. The fact that I was the only one selected among Japanese, Chinese and Korean nationals made me proud, too,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Times. “The foundation approached us in February asking for my CV. That was my first encounter with the group and now I am committed to many of its projects,” he said.

Lee, a Carnegie Mellon graduate, said his alumni, who all play major social roles around the world, may have recommended his nomination for his passion in making the world a better place.

Lee and his company Samchang Enterprise, an Ulsan-based core technology group involved in the instrumentation and control of nuclear power plants, has been dedicated in helping less privileged teenagers receive education for a better future.

He has joined hands with Chinghwa and Beijing universities in China to support the students with scholarships, and has donated scores of computers to poverty-stricken areas in Sri Lanka.

Lee also opened a primary school in Nepal in conjunction with mountaineer Um Hong-gil, who has been to Everest several times and has grown a passion toward the country. The two are now pushing a second project to build Shree Bindu Keshar Primary School there.

But Lee is not satisfied. He said he was impressed and at the same time motivated by the achievements of fellow CGI leaders _ Jeff Gordon, a four-time NASCAR champion, raised $10 million for child charity and operates a relevant organization as well as a children’s hospital; Zainab Salbi, who established Women for Women International has helped more than a quarter of a million people start a new life after war; while David De Rhothschild crossed the Pacific ocean in a recycled plastic boat.

“They are all amazing people and I have the greatest admiration for them. They also inspire me to be a better person and put more passion and aggression into improving the world we live in,” he said.

The CGI leaders held several workshops and decided to construct a refugee town in the Congo. “There are about 43 million refugees from political suppression, natural disasters and others. Congo has one of the largest portions where 80 percent of them are women and children. The members agreed to visit Congo in the near future and discuss ways to built refugee camps and set an example to the world,” Lee said. “I am thrilled. The CGI work is not easy. I have been running all day long for the past couple of weeks but drawing and imagining a better future is quite rewarding,” he said. His voice was a bit dry and the tone was quite low, reflecting his fatigue.

Lee said the things he has done are not charity. He said it was giving back what he received throughout his life and helping other hopefuls to receive the same benefits.

“About 20 years ago when I was studying in the U.S. my father’s company wasn’t doing well. However, the staff and local residents’ devotion brought me to this place. Then I vowed to myself that I would support those who have a strong willingness to study but cannot afford to do so. It started at a personal level, but many people have offered to participate,” he said.

Lee, now a successful businessman at the helm of seven affiliate companies and nine overseas branches, challenges the young to be ambitious in charity and global philanthropy.

He recalled last spring when he left for the Himalayas on a “Hope Expedition.” He carried memos of hopes of 3,000 people and conquered Makalu, the fifth highest peak in the world at 8,463 meters above sea level. He buried the memos in a time-capsule on the peak.

“The whole experience helped me to get graver sense of responsibility as well as patience and persistence to hang on to a project, which everyone else wanted,” he said.

Right after he returned from Makalu, he learned that a Korean man was to take up the challenge of cycling 3,461 kilometers around France. He was fighting cancer and was willing to prove to cancer patients around the world that the illness could not stop his dreams.

Lee joined the man and helped him throughout training. The man completed the course but his record remains unofficial. “After he passed through the Arc de Triomphe, he stared at me and burst into tears. On his wrist was the yellow rubber band made by the Lance Armstrong Foundation saying ‘never give up,’” Lee said.

“I have again learned that nothing can be an obstacle and nothing can be a difficulty if you truly put yourself into it. I am young, you are young. We can do it, you know,” he said.

Who is Lee Joung-hoon?

Lee Joung-hoon graduated from Carnegie Melon University in 1996 and acquired an MBA at Duquesne University.

He worked at the presidential secretariat between 2003 and 2007 and started his career at Samchang in 2008.

Lee is currently an executive at the Um Hong-gil Human foundation, CEO of Samchang Enterprise, head of MBM Samchang International, a joint venture between Samchang and the royal family of Dubai. He also serves as foreign affairs representative for Sheikh Mohammed Maktoum of Dubai.

What made Lee an innovative leader?

We can safely say that philanthropy among rich people has been more of a formal act. They would establish a foundation or attend charity events but were not really hands on about the projects they were directing.

However, Lee is in charge of every detail of his projects. While the company remains as his largest sponsor, Lee designs and performs the charity work he is involved in. His passion and effort have been rewarded by being selected as an innovative leader by the Clinton Foundation, where Bill Clinton himself reportedly handpicks the 20 leaders.

Lee is also a leader seeking for communication. Instead of the top-down orders usually spotted at corporations in the country, he is keener on bringing people together.

He said, “That’s something I have learnt through encounters with leaders in various countries and from different cultural backgrounds. Global change is actually moving to acknowledge the importance of ‘us’ and that ‘we can run faster than individual.’ Adapting it and conducting it is the key to gaining global leadership and becoming an innovative leader.”

Lastly, Lee said an innovative leader should be able to invest for the future, even though it may not show promise in the present.

In this sense, Lee has also been devoted in supporting next generation leaders through higher education. He and his father are big sponsors of Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology. This year, Konstantin Novoselov, advisor to the UNIST Graphene Research Center, where the institute and Samchang hold joint venture research, received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his study of graphene.

“I hope students could be challenged, learn more from him and take whatever they can. It is extremely important to move on from your teacher. I hope they can,” Lee said. 

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