Business Insights I Learned From My Parents

My parents are great business people. Period.

Although they had almost everything in the world stacked up against them, they were able to persevere and make an impact in their respective industries. My parents’ generation were born right around the time of the Korean war. They grew up in a post-war country that was left in ruins after a horrific conflict that split a country in two. Not only did they survive, they were a part of a generation that turned a country around to make it one of the most powerful economic engines in the world. What a legacy!

For most of life until recently, my parents were in the restaurant industry. They started some of the most iconic Korean restaurants in the Los Angeles area. It’s quite amazing to consider that they created new ways of enjoying Korean food and introduced what has now become staples in Korean culture. [For those who may be familiar, my parents introduced many new ideas including Korean Buffets, Dong Chi Mi Gook Soo (cold noodles) at the Corner Place (our first restaurant), Duk Bo Sam (rice wrap with Korean BBQ concept first introduced at Shik Do Rak), and many more.]

Although they started as immigrants to the US with almost no money and no grasp of the English language, they went for it and persevered.  Now, it didn’t come without a cost. It cost them their marriage, relationship with their only son (me), and multiple physical breakdowns. Nevertheless, I still believe that they had the best intentions in mind as they pursued this. It wasn’t about money. It was always about creating opportunities for our family, specifically me. For this I’m grateful. I really don’t think I would have had the opportunities I’ve had without them. Even through our rocky seasons of relationships, I always knew they wanted the best for it.

Looking back, I realize that I’ve learned a lot from my parents about doing business well. These are insights that they never verbally told me (given of our language barrier), but nevertheless, they modeled them well. Here are some of the lessons that I “caught” about business from my parents:

  • Hard work can create opportunities that you can’t currently see. I’m pretty sure I became a workaholic because of my parents. Was it unhealthy at times? Of course. Nevertheless, I picked a core essential element to running a business well. You have to be willing to put in the hard work if you want to accomplish your goals. You can spend time rationalizing every excuse in the book as to why things are not turning out the way you hoped they would, but sitting on your ideas will never get you anywhere.
  • Treat people with dignity even if they abuse your kindness. The restaurant industry can be a vicious world. I saw my parents lose almost their entire fortune because of numerous unwarranted lawsuits by employees. My parents have always tried to go above and beyond in treating their employees well. For some employees in difficult situations, they’ve provided things like vehicles and places to live over the years only to have some fo them come back and sue them falsely. I can’t tell you how many spinoff restaurants have been started with lawsuit money by former employees. Even with these painful experiences, my parents have remained generous in the way they live life. Human kindness and dignity are non-negotiables to them. I suppose this is why I keep choosing to see the best in people even at times when others take advantage in me. I’d rather side on optimism than live in cynicism.
  • Pave the way for another generation. My parents did what they did in large part because of me. I’ve taken this perspective and have applied it to my current business. I’m regularly thinking of ways to impact future generations, especially our kids. It’s not just financial security I’m trying to attain. It’s also building a strong network of relationships that could possibly frame opportunities for our kids to pursue whatever their heart desires. I can’t wait for the day to open up new doors for my son and daughter by introducing them to influencers and thought leaders in the respective fields they will eventually pursue.
  • It’s really not about the money or even our reputation. My parents taught me through their ups and downs that money comes and goes. People will love you when you have a lot and many will leave you when you don’t. Nevertheless, what truly remains is our core being. While financial stress appears to be a constant stress for running a business, it never has to be the ultimate identifier of our being or even our success. My wife and I are working towards modeling this for our kids. Our socio-economic status should never become our primary goal. I love what John Wooden said… “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

What’s interesting about these insights (and many others that I have listed) is that they are more about a perspective with which to live life with as much as they are about running a business.

My father is now remarried and lives a bulk of his time living in Korea while running a restaurant out there. My mother took a totally different route and started an orphanage in China working with many physically and mentally challenged kids. Both are still heroes in my book.

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Charles Lee
Charles is the CEO & Chief Idea-Maker at Ideation, a brand innovation company that specializes in helping businesses & organizations build remarkable brands via innovative business design, organizational change architecture, brand integration, design, web, and marketing services. He is also the author of Good Idea. Now What?: How to Move Ideas to Execution, a practical book designed to help people move ideas to implementation. Charles is regularly invited to speak to leading companies and organizations on topics such as creativity, innovation, idea-making, and branding. Executive leaders from brands including Wells Fargo, Toyota, The White House, Catalyst, William Morris Endeavor, mun2, Council of Urban Professionals, Chick-fil-A, and many others have benefited from having Charles present at their key events.