Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with the Amazing Yoo-Mi Lee

by Richard Whittaker, May 7, 2015


 

 


I first met Yoo-Mi Lee at a ServiceSpace retreat in 2007 (when ServiceSpace was called CharityFocus). Yoo-Mi encountered the founders of the group at their first public meeting in 1999 and was so impressed that she joined.
     Having served in many capacities, she's now the coordinator of KarmaTube, one of ServiceSpace’s several projects. Until recently, I knew almost nothing about her personal story, but from the beginning of my acquaintance with Yoo-Mi I was struck by her self-possession, forthright intelligence and substance, along with her sense of humor. It's an impression that's never wavered.
     But it wasn't until a long car ride back to the Bay Area with just the two of us after a ServiceSpace event that I learned more about her remarkable personal journey. As I listened, it wasn't long before I had to ask, "Would you be open to an interview?" She was, although with one thing and another, a year passed before we recorded a conversation. It took place while she was staying in Oakland for a few days.


Richard Whittaker:  You were pointing toward a career in finance, right?

Yoo-Mi:  Most of my careers have all been pretty much happenstance. When I was in college at Cornell I saw my friends applying to law schools and business schools because they didn’t really have goals. It was just a means of delaying a decision about what they were going to do after college.
     I’ve always had a desire to be self-sufficient from a fairly young age. I had two younger brothers and my father had had to start over again several times in his career. And after me my brothers needed to go to college and it was very expensive. I worked during school to support myself so my parents didn’t have to put out a lot of money for my education. I got a student loan and then I worked thirty hours a week while I was in school to pay for my expenses.
     After graduating I wanted to get out there and work right away. It was in the early 80s where most fields were male-dominated and I did not want to be slotted into the secretarial role. I was not going to go on to business school or law school or get an advanced degree, so any job that required typing tests I did very badly in, on purpose—or I refused to take the test.
     Over the summers I would temp and I kept getting put into these jobs that required math skills even though my language skills are way better than my math skills. And because I refused to go into a secretarial role, I kept ending up in financial positions.
     So I took a job as an assistant in the finance department of an insurance company that made most of their money in their investment department, which is where I ended up. The guy who hired me was a far-sighted and very generous person. He looked at where I went to school and said, “Look, you’re overqualified for this job, but we need additional help in this department. You can train as an analyst in the equity field or the bond field and we’ll teach you what there is to know.”
     From there I was recruited by a money manager who wanted someone who had no experience in trading before. He had his own style of doing things and he didn’t want somebody who had bad habits. So he recruited me through one of the brokerage firms I dealt with and I went to work for him. I left that job just before the crash in 1987.

RW:  How long were you there?

Yoo-Mi:  About five years. I was actually working on Wall Street in both my jobs.

RW:  What were you doing exactly?

Yoo-Mi:  When I first started I was doing what’s called secondary securities analysis. I wasn’t doing primary research on companies. I was evaluating research analysts at other brokerage firms in order to figure out which brokerage firms to trust in specific industries so we could buy and sell stocks on the basis of their recommendations. I was working for an investment department of an insurance company in the beginning. They didn’t have the manpower to visit companies and do evaluations and all of that themselves. So we relied on research analysts at various brokerage firms. I might find out that the auto analyst at Merrill Lynch was good, or the media analyst at Morgan Stanley was good. So we would take their recommendations as opposed to anyone else’s. That’s primarily what I did. I went to a lot of investor meetings at these brokerage firms where their analysts spoke about what they knew about different industries etc. etc. We would make buy and sell decisions on the insurance company’s portfolio based on recommendations that were given to us.
     The only money making department in that insurance company was the investment department. You know, they collect the premiums and then invest it. That is what kept the company afloat. It was called Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company. I’m not sure it still exists. I was being slated for a management position because they had no diversity in the company. They thought, “Oh, here’s a young Asian woman who is in the investment department.” They put a photo of me in the annual report and in the HR brochures as a marketing ploy. When I left there were a lot of people really angry at me because their stab for diversity was gone

RW:  Knowing you I can imagine they were also angry because you were good.

Yoo-Mi:  Well, possibly. I had a fairly substantial responsibility. I think they were going to ask me to join the board and I thought, “What do I know?” I was only twenty-three. I worked there for two years. Then I worked for a small money manager.

RW:  After you left the insurance company?

Yoo-Mi:  Yes. I was recruited by this man who received 500 million dollars to invest and he needed some help to put that money to work.

RW:  How many people did he hire for this?

Yoo-Mi:  Just me.

RW:  He must have thought pretty highly of you.

Yoo-Mi:  Well, he wanted someone with no experience. And he had me training at all the large brokerage houses. So I would spend a week at Merrill Lynch, at Morgan Stanley, at Goldman Sachs, at Bear Sterns. You know, the major brokerage firms. And at Goldman Sachs I was there when Bob Rubin was there. I was training with the three traders on his arbitrage desk. Then I went on to execute trades for this money manager.

RW:  Did you get to know Robert Rubin?

Yoo-Mi:  No. I worked with his traders, though. I could see him sitting in his office. [laughs]

RW:  I recall from an earlier conversation that you were being groomed to go somewhere high up.

Yoo-Mi:  When I left, one of the third-market makers who used to call on us—again, there were a lot of people who were upset that I was leaving. I had relationships with all the brokers at the major brokerage firms—one of the third-market makers said to me, “I was all set to get you a job at George Soros’ currency desk.” Which is not something that I ever wanted. [laughs]

RW:  That’s impressive. You must have absorbed a lot dealing with these people during your years with these high powered traders.

Yoo-Mi:  I did. I did. And when I got out I really wanted to work for a company that made something real, something tangible. So I eventually went to work for a cooperative that canned fruits and vegetables, something you could eat as opposed to these intangible securities.

RW:  What else would you say about your immersion in this world of high finance?

Yoo-Mi:  Some of the things there… I saw people moving markets for no reason at all except that they were just bored.

RW:  Moving markets. That means….?

Yoo-Mi:  Change the prices.

RW:  Strategically selling to make prices change?

Yoo-Mi:  Or just buy, buy, buy and raise the price of a security just like that. And I saw that people with access had every means of increasing their assets—just because of their access. For instance, when brokerage firms go into real estate investment a lot of these brokers have access to initial pricing of condominiums—in Vail, for example. They have no interest in buying a condominium, but it’s an investment and they get in cheap and flip it and make money because they had access to capital and to margins.

RW:  You were in the world of big, big money, right?

Yoo-Mi:  Yes. A lot of the people I dealt with, their bonuses were in the millions of dollars. To be fair, that was most of their income.

RW:  And it wasn’t like you’d aimed at this.

Yoo-Mi:  No. It wasn’t “I want to work on Wall St.”

RW:  Earlier you described feeling a lot of responsibility—are you the oldest sibling?

Yoo-Mi:  Yes.

RW:  And your father had some hard times?

Yoo-Mi:  No. We didn’t have hard times, but we relocated several times. So my father left Korea after the Korean War when there was nothing there. Food was hard to come by. Living was very difficult. He was recruited by the Ugandan ambassador to Korea. So we went to Uganda. My father was a surgeon in Uganda for six and a half years. It was an amazing childhood for me and an amazing career for my father. We left during the first coup d’etat by Idi Amin. I was eleven and a half.

RW:  Uganda. Gosh.

Yoo-Mi:  After the Korean War my dad was still a medical student because the war had interrupted his studies. He was held, wrongly, as a prisoner of war by the Americans even though he was from South Korea, but he happened to be near the border and nobody believed he wasn’t North Korean because nobody could tell the difference. So he was held as a POW for a long time in the American camps and when he got out he was still a medical student. So after he finished medical school he went to Uganda.
     Uganda gained independence in 1964 and when the British left there was an exodus of professionals. Uganda recruited professionals from all over the world. I think it was incidental that we left because Idi Amin had come to power. We left primarily because there was no decent high school opportunity for me, or for any of us. We’d gone to a British private primary school, which was still in Uganda.

RW:  What’s the main language in Uganda?

Yoo-Mi:  English. So my first language is English,

RW:  How about Korean?

Yoo-Mi:  I left when I was five, so I never learned it formally. And my parents, because they were so anxious for us to do well in school, wanted me to learn English. But I didn’t start school until a year late because my dad was posted to a little village where there was no running water and no electricity. I think we moved six times before we found the school I could attend.

RW:  What are some of your memories of living in Uganda?

Yoo-Mi:  It was idyllic. Uganda is in the tropics, but the altitude is high. So the weather is perfect. It really is like paradise. You have these game parks with elephants and lions and rhinos and giraffes. It was lush. They said that if you planted a stick in the ground, it would grow because it was so fertile there. And everywhere we lived we had fruit trees in our yards; we had grapefruit trees, avocado trees. We didn’t eat them because we didn’t know they were edible. I remember the freedom of being able to wander anywhere because it was safe at the time. I would ride my bicycle all over the place and roam around and feel very independent.

RW:  It was rural then?

Yoo-Mi:  When I was really young we started out in the north where it was very rural, but by the time I started school, we lived in a town—and we ended up in Entebbe.

RW:  That’s a good sized city?

Yoo-Mi:  It’s not far from Kampala, which is the capitol, but the airport is in Entebbe.

RW:  Were there many Westerners there?

Yoo-Mi:  What I remember is an international community, particularly at the school I went to, because it was a former British primary school, so the politicians’ kids went there; a lot of ex-pat children went there. I had friends who were from South Africa, friends from the U.K.

RW:  You were five when you arrived in Uganda, right?

Yoo-Mi.  Yes.

RW:  So being so close to nature where you didn’t have to be afraid, what did you find?

Yoo-Mi:  One time I rode my bike further than I’d ever ridden before and I ended up in some kind of community that was completely empty. I did not see a single soul and I thought, wow, this is kind of strange. Where is everyone? I saw a little kiosk and I put on my brave face and I walked up there. Somebody was tending the kiosk, so I bought something. Then I turned around and all of a sudden the place was full of people. I had no idea where they came from and I didn’t know what to do, so I got on my bike and very calmly started riding away and then I raced home.
     In Entebbe, we lived next to a botanical garden and also next to a zoo. And of course, there were birds all over the place—amazing birds, birds of prey in the middle of town.

RW:  Are there any bird memories that stand out?

Yoo-Mi:  Yes. There were lots and lots of vultures because there was lots of garbage, so there were these huge vultures everywhere. You would see crested cranes. That’s the Ugandan national bird. They’re like white cranes with a fringe of gold—beautiful. Ibises were everywhere and eagles all over the place. There were tortoises. We used to swim at a hotel pool and there were tortoises just roaming around. We had some exotic pets,

RW:  Like what?

Yoo-Mi:  We always had dogs. Once it was a very rainy day and the dogs were barking so we went out and there was a gray parrot in the hedge, so my dad brought it in. The bird talked, so clearly it had been a pet. It could imitate anybody and everything. It imitated all of us in our specific voices. The bird would call the dog and the dog would come running [laughs]. We had a monkey. We had a baboon for a short period of time, but it wasn’t tame.

RW:  Your parents welcomed having all these different animals.

Yoo-Mi:  I think it was mostly my dad. [laughs]

RW:  Tell me about your dad’s medical practice in Uganda.

Yoo-Mi:  He had the most unbelievably gratifying professional experience. He was a surgeon and every single case he would see in the hospital was an emergency because there weren’t enough hospitals around. The waiting list to see someone in a hospital was two years. So he was saving six to eight lives a day.
     He was very fast. Here a surgeon will do maybe two surgeries a day, max. He was doing eight. Even there he had the reputation of being very fast. So we would get bolts of cloth or chickens or watches from grateful families.

RW:  It sounds like he worked almost pro bono.

Yoo-Mi:  No. He worked for the hospital. He was paid a salary and was given a home to live in. But people were just so grateful.

RW:  So, as a doctor, he was living the ideal life in helping people in such a real way day in and day out,

Yoo-Mi:  And he was seeing diseases that he’d never seen before in his life. You know, elephantitis. Where in Korea would you see that? So a lot of times he was operating from a text book. He was taking slides of all these gross things [laughs] that he found fascinating as a physician. I think he also sent to a pathologist in Korea a sample of the AIDS virus before it had been named.

RW:  And then Idi Amin came in.

Yoo-Mi:  We started there under Milton Obote and we left during Idi Amin’s coup d’etat. We had some immunity because they didn’t want to kill the doctors. My father had an MD license plate.

RW:  Where did you go when you left?

Yoo-Mi:  We came directly to the U.S. And my father took a job in the Bronx in a hospital there.

RW:  How did he find that transition?

Yoo-Mi:  It was really difficult for him because he switched fields. A former classmate of his had come to the U.S earlier and was practicing medicine in Chicago. He gave my father what I consider bad advice. He said, “Look, you won’t get a decent position as a surgeon in the U.S. because most of the prime positions are going to go to American graduates; you’ll get stuck in the boonies.”
     He wanted to be in an urban area, so he decided, quite wrongly, to switch to anesthesiology. As a surgeon, of course, he was always dealing with them. That switch was the worst thing he could ever have done for himself. As a surgeon he was always interacting with people, and my dad has an amazing bedside manner. He used to give us all our immunizations and you wouldn’t feel the needle going in. He was just that good. But, as an anesthesiologist, he was just a technician. He was just this person that nobody talked to, nobody appreciated. The most frustrating thing for him was to see American surgical graduates bumbling surgical operations that he could have done in a fifth of the time, and done right. So it was difficult for him.

RW:  It sounds difficult. Now I’m wondering if we get back to the world of high finance. It sounds like you were in the heart of the money beast somehow. So you’ve first hand impressions of that world. I wonder if you would just say a little more about that.

Yoo-Mi:  The reason I wanted to get out of it was that I didn’t have anything in common with the people there. Their focus, day and night, was making more money. And if it wasn’t making more money, it was this conspicuous consumption that came from not having any real interest in life besides making money.      
     So, in order to be good at what you do—and I’ve always tried to be good at what I did—you have to eat, sleep and drink what you do. I didn’t want to be one of those people who ate, slept and drank “The Street,” meaning Wall St.
     And for me, there were some disturbing trends. When I first started, the market was only open from 10 to 3. That was plenty for me. When the market was open you were on the hook every single minute from 10 to 3. You couldn’t leave your desk, even to go to the bathroom because a stock might move and if you missed it you would cost somebody money. We were investing money for investors, some of whom could have a fortune, but others were like the widow in Pennsylvania who brought in her stock certificates in a shoebox, and I really didn’t want to lose any of Mrs. Skinner’s money because this was her retirement.
     So it was very stressful to be on all the time. I was looking at three screens, and in those days there was the ticker tape also, which I had on my desk in my little fishbowl. Even with a cover, it was still very loud, that tapping out of text, which you had to scan along with looking at all of these screens—the New York Stock Exchange, the NASDAQ, the American Stock exchange. And I did have the multiple phones. You know, I’d be on different phones at the same time: “Buy this,” “Sell that,” “Hold this.” [laughs]
     So the stress was not to my liking; the people were not people I wanted to be friends with; and most of the brokers, all they did was socialize with their clients and other brokers. As I said, I was on the buy side. I was a client, so they would wine and dine me; they would give me sports tickets, chocolates, Christmas presents and so on, and it was all excessive.

RW:  So there was the quid pro quo aspect.

Yoo-Mi:  With some people. There was one broker who was a salesman from Goldman Sachs who would say, “Yoo-Mi, my kids need new shoes.” [laughs] This was a guy who would fly his motorcycle to California so he could ride it somewhere and have it sent back to New York.
     Others were okay, but of course, there was that unstated implication, and I never liked that. I never kept the presents. I always just distributed them among the office people.

RW:  Well, I’m still thinking about your six and a half years in Uganda. That would give you a perspective that very few people growing up in the U.S. would have. I didn’t even ask you about your relationships with the Africans themselves. Did you have friends?

Yoo-Mi:  I did have friends in school, and during Idi Amin’s coup, some kids wouldn’t show up. They would just disappear. I’d ask, “Where’s Joy?” And they’d say, “Her father had to go into hiding.” There were a number of kids who went into hiding with their parents.

RW:  It must have been an interesting transition for you coming to the U.S. What was it like for you?

Yoo-MI:  The first thing for me was the lack of freedom. And when we got here, my mother was paranoid. We were in the Bronx. The city was so much bigger than anything we’d ever seen. So all of the sudden it was, “No, you can’t go out.”
     In Uganda, cars were pretty rare and you could walk anywhere on the street. It was interesting for me to see all these cars, but my mother was very cautious in the new environment.

RW:  It must have been traumatic for your mother.

Yoo-Mi:  My mother is one of those people who doesn’t do well with change. She didn’t want to go to Uganda, but when she was there when you asked her if she wanted to go back to Korea she’d say, no, even though she hadn’t wanted to leave Korea. Did she want to come to the U.S.? No. But when she was in the U.S. did she want to go back to Uganda? No.
     It was traumatic for her. She’s still not a good speaker of English. Eventually, in the Bronx, there was a big enough Korean community that she didn’t have to speak English. She would go to a Korean grocery store; she’d go to a Korean church, Korean video stores. Everything she needed was available. So New York wasn’t that big of a problem and eventually she got used to it.

RW:  So you arrived in the Bronx around age 12. 7th grade?

Yoo-Mi:  I think it was the 7th grade, but I was a year behind.

RW:  So how did that go?

Yoo-Mi:  I went to junior high school in the Bronx, which was different. There were huge public schools. They have a kind of system and when I first went into the eighth grade it was 8.5, or something like that. It went up to 8.9. There were that many classes of 8th graders. A couple of weeks later they put me in 8.1, then a couple of weeks later they put me in a special class for the more advanced.
     In the summer I went to a high school to take some science classes. We were all taking tests to get into these specialized schools. I had no idea what was going on. My parents had no idea, either. There were people talking about portfolios for music and arts and since I didn’t have a portfolio, what was I going to do? So I just took the academic test and I got into the Bronx High School of Science, one of three specialized academic public schools in NYC.

RW:  Earlier you mentioned that you got hired because of your mathematical skills, but you said you thought you were even better on the language side.

Yoo-Mi:  Right. I never felt really comfortable in math, but I guess that compared to everyone else, my skills were good.

RW:  Would you say something about the language side?

Yoo-Mi:  My father always said I should be a lawyer because I was very good at making arguments either for or against whatever it was they wanted me to do or be [laughs]. And I’ve always been a bookworm. I remember a classmate saying to me, “Do you have to read while you’re walking home from school?”

RW:  Did you ever get into a debating club or anything like that?

Yoo-Mi:  Well, my high school was fairly specialized. We didn’t have a football team, but we had a forensics team, a debate team; we had math teams, all of that stuff. And because it was a specialized school, there were so many geniuses there. So I figured, “I’m not competing.” And we didn’t have rankings in that school at all. We got a special diploma, too, because we had to take all kinds of classes that were in addition to the standard New York curriculum.

RW:  You didn’t involve yourself in some of those other things so much?

Yoo-Mi:  No, I didn’t. I think I went to a forensics event. I just thought, I’m not in the same league with these guys. So I hung out and played cards with the black kids.

RW:  Did you develop some close friends among the black kids?

Yoo-Mi:  I did, until my senior year. I just had lunch with them and played cards, and I didn’t think anything of it. Then one of the Chinese kids wanted to talk to me. She wasn’t a friend, but I sort of knew who she was; she said, “Why are you sitting over there?”
     I said, “What are you talking about?”
     She said, “Well, they’re all black. Why don’t you come sit with us.”
     So I hadn’t realized there was an Asian table, a Black table and so on. And I refused. But it opened my eyes, and after that I felt a little bit awkward in either situation. But I did start interacting with the Asians a little more because they kept inviting me.

RW:  You were in 12th grade. So there were four or five years where you hadn’t noticed these differences.

Yoo-Mi:  But I’d grown up in Uganda. The funny thing is that in Uganda, we were called “white people.” The East Indians were called “Indians,” the Americans were called “Americans” and everyone else was called “white.”
     When I came to the U.S. I didn’t have any way to categorize myself. I wasn’t Ugandan. I wasn’t Korean, because I didn’t feel any affinity and I didn’t really speak the language. I didn’t feel culturally Korean. But I wasn’t “white” even though I’d been considered “white” in Uganda.

RW:  I’ve heard a little about the difficulties people face when they’re in transition culturally. Could you say more about that?

Yoo-Mi:  It was more real for my parents than it was for me. I didn’t go through the direct Korean-American dichotomy because it was intermediated by having lived in Uganda where there was an international community; we were part of that group. So I didn’t realize some of the cultural issues with being a Korean until I was an adult—things like ages not mixing, things like the humility, not boasting—which is very different from Americans [laughs]. So it took me so much longer to even realize these things.

RW:  You’ve had a trajectory in your life that’s very unusual.

Yoo-Mi:  Yes. I’d walk down the street in New York and kids would say “chinko” or “jap” or whatever, and I’d think, “I’m not either of those.” So it didn’t bother me. But when I started working, I felt sexism way more than racism. There was a lot of racism. Things like brokers I’d be speaking with and they couldn’t quite catch my name. But I didn’t have an accent so, “What’s going on here? With your name, you’re supposed to have an accent.” They would keep asking me where I was from.
     “Oh, I live in New York.”
     “Yeah, but where are you really from?”
     “New York.”
     “Okay, where are your parents from?”
     “They’re from Korea.”
     “Okay. But you don’t have an accent.”
     I’d get that crap all the time, which didn’t really bother me. I’d make a game out of it. “Where are you from?”
     “Guess.”
     “Chinese, Philippine, Thai…”
     Most people would never guess. But the sexism got to me because I wanted to be financially independent. My parents come from a culture where a woman is not ever financially independent. But I was more academically oriented than my brothers and because my father is an intellectual, my mother said, “Okay, we’ve decided to let you go to college.”
     I’m like, “Of course, I’m going to college!” [laughs]

RW:  Okay. Now how did you get into the non-profit world?

Yoo-Mi:  I was working for a food processing cooperative in the central valley that had an office in San Francisco. It took me a long time to get this job. When I left Wall St. I wanted to take a break. I thought it’d be six months or maybe even a year. So I took Italian at UCB.

RW:  How did you end up out here in the Bay Area?

Yoo-Mi:  You know, Mark. I’d met him in college. He’d worked in New York for a year before he came out to law school here. I stayed in New York because there was a good chance he would be moving back after he got out of law school. But he decided he wanted to stay in the Bay Area and I was ready to leave the industry. So I came to San Francisco. That’s when I took the class in Berkeley.

RW:  What year was that?

Yoo-Mi:  1987. And after a while, I started looking for a job. I interviewed with the Museum of Modern Art for any position; the woman interviewing me was Helen Schwab. She looked at my resume and said, “I wish I could show your resume to my husband.”

RW:  So Helen Schwab is connected with Charles Schwab?

Yoo-Mi:  Charles Schwab’s wife, yes. I thought, if I wanted a job with your husband, I wouldn’t be talking with you [laughs]. Everyone wanted to put me in a box. Why do you want to leave finance? Don’t you make much more money there? Why do you want to be in the arts? So it took me a heck of a long time to get a job.

RW:  Why did you consider the arts?

Yoo-Mi:  I wanted to do something different from what I’d been doing and I thought it might be interesting and enjoyable. So I ended up taking off a lot more time than I’d intended. Then I started temping again and I did a project for this food processing company redoing their entire policy manual. That had me interacting with all the senior management and a whole cross section of the organization. And again, it was a guy in their finance department who was interested in hiring me. So he hired me as a business analyst. I did things like a cost analysis of their forklift operation to looking at acquiring an olive processing plant to doing due diligence on wastewater treatment facilities for olive waste—all kinds of stuff. It was interesting.
     And then I got interested in working internationally because of a cherry shortage. Remember when they weren’t allowed to use the red dye #3?

RW:  I remember how red dye #3 suddenly was hitting the consciousness of people.

Yoo-Mi:  Right. Then there was a shortage and we began looking at operating some fruit processing facilities in Bulgaria. Bulgarian cherries are amazing. And also there was a peach shortage at one point. So I was sourcing peaches from Eastern Europe and bringing them here to sell. I did a couple of trips and ran into people doing cooperative development work funded by a pass-through. It’s a little complicated—the funds were from the USDA and it was passed through USAID, the agency for international development, and then into a cooperative development granting facility. So we were like, “Wow, you mean we could get money to actually do some of this exploration?” So we applied and we got funded…

RW:  You say “we” and that’s probably you doing most of this yourself, right?

Yoo-Mi:  Yes. We had a very small department. There were three of us. So we started doing some work in Eastern Europe. Then because there was corporate development money out there we thought why not fund part of our salaries? Co-ops go through cycles of boom and bust. So we did some training in California of folks from Moldavia and Bulgaria and Belorussia; we brought agriculturalists here so they could look at our processing facilities and canneries and all of that. When the Soviet Union collapsed, since it had been a centralized system, you did one thing and someone else did another thing. So no one knew how to do everything.
     So somehow we got into the international development world, the cooperative development world. At one point, the co-op decided, “Hold on a minute! This is going too far from our core business.” So the department was closed down and I was picked up by a non-profit out of Washington D.C.. Their president called me and said, “I hear you’re out of a job. Would you like to come to work for us?”   We’d gotten a grant he’d tried to get. So, okay, steal the competition.[laughs] I went to work for this NGO.

RW:  Did you move to Washington D. C.?

Yoo-Mi:  Temporarily. I traveled a lot. I designed and developed grant proposals and funding programs that we would submit to USAID. So I did that for around five years. I left because I could no longer stomach being funded by the U.S. government. I felt that most of the money was not going to the countries, but to U.S. firms and U.S. consultants.

RW:  What didn’t you like about that?

Yoo-Mi:  On the one hand we were asking these other markets to be free and open, for them to get rid of their market boards and if any of them were knowledgeable enough to say, “Well, what about the dairy industry? Isn’t it subsidized in the U.S.?” I would have to say, yes, you’re right.
     Then they would ask me, “So why do you want us to free up our own market?”
     Or we would not give aid in rice production because California produces rice and we don’t want any competition in rice, or soy or… And you’re allowed to fly business class if you’re flying across the ocean; you can spend as much money on hotels as you want—and this and that. And they have various mechanisms for the way they were giving money: one is cooperative agreement—we decide together what we’re going to do; one is a grant—you figure out what you’re going to do; and another is contracting with companies that are doing development for profit.
     USAID was going more and more towards giving these for-profit companies all of these contracts. That just doesn’t sit well with me. Like in Kazakhstan one of these for-profit companies had set up their offices and were housing their staff at the Hyatt Hotel. That’s where all the money was going, like for rooms at $300 a night. I just didn’t want to be part of that.

RW:  It’s a kind of corruption you’re describing.

Yoo-Mi:  Totally. So that’s how I got into development and then I got out of it. I couldn’t continue in good conscience.

RW:  What an interesting story. You’ve gone all over the place and have seen so many different things: life among the high rollers on Wall Street; you’ve spent time with non-profits and have gotten a good look at some of the unsavory ways the U.S. spends its money on projects in other countries. And when you left all that how old were you?

Yoo-Mi:  Around 40.

RW:  So then what happens?

Yoo-Mi:  Well, for a couple of years I did some consulting in international development. Then I found that the people who could afford to pay me were all being funded by the U.S. government; the people I wanted to work for couldn’t afford to pay me. So I looked at taking an executive position at a local non-profit. But at the time, being an executive director of some local non-profit meant you’d be paid forty thousand to work eighty hours a week and wear five hats—be a fund raiser, manage the NGO, do operations and all that. I thought, that’s just ridiculous—and it would be totally frustrating.
     So I decided to give my time away. I thought I’d just feel so much better. I’d want to be giving my time away to the people who couldn’t afford to pay me.

RW:  Oh, gosh. That’s beautiful.

Yoo-Mi:  It would just be more satisfying than working for a non-profit. Most non-profits are fighting to stay alive every minute of the day. And a friend of a friend sent me the first public announcement for the first public meeting of CharityFocus [now ServiceSpace] in April of 1999. So Mark and I drove down—Mark was going to go off bike riding. It was in one of those conference rooms at Sun Microsystems. Ashish was there, and another guy named Girish. Harshida was there and Sujata. Trishna was there. She was 19 or something like that. Viral was 18. They were still at UC Berkeley. Nipun was fresh out of college and had his first job at Sun. Ashish was also working at Sun.
     I was listening to all these kids talking about starting this organization and thinking, “Wow, these kids are amazing! They’ve thought of a lot of stuff. But they could sure use my help!” [laughs] And at one point, Sujatha said, “I feel really old here!”
     I said, “Sujatha, how old are you?
     She said, thirty.”
     I said, “Get in line, because I’m forty!” [laughs]
     So in the meeting, I said, “You know, you guys could monetize your volunteer hours and get matching funds.”
     Nipun said, “That’s great, Yoo-Mi. But why do we need money?”
     “What are you talking about? Of course, you need money! You know, for an office, for a secretary, a receptionist, for supplies.”
     “We don’t have an office.”
     “Well, don’t you need an office?”
     “I don’t think so.”
     You know how Nipun is [laughs]. He never says, “That’s a terrible idea!” He says, “That’s great, but why do we need that?”
I’m thinking, “These kids are crazy!”[laughs] I said, “Well, how are you going to do things?”
     You know, this was before the days of everything being online. They were meeting in food courts and people’s homes, and things like that. The more times he would ask,Why do we need that? I started thinking, “Hmmm. Well, if you don’t need money for an office and you don’t need money for a staff, really why do we need money?
     I was so impressed with these kids that I said to Mark, “Okay, we’re having the next volunteer meeting in our house!”
We had a big house on Telegraph Hill in SF. And at that meeting Mark was so impressed with these kids that he signed up as a volunteer on the spot. So we were having meetings like this and people started saying things like, “Why don’t we have a volunteer party.” That’s when Nipun started saying: “We need to be serious! This is not about having fun. We can do service, but no parties.” [laughs]
     Trishna and I would look at each other and say, “Oh, brother!” [laughs] But yeah, it grew from there. And the more I delved into the vision behind the program, the more I got to believe in it. And at some point I had that “aha” moment—“Okay, now I get it! And I’m comfortable with it.” But it took me about six months with this “no money,” “small,” “why do we want to be big?”

RW:  You were right there at the beginning when this small group was also trying to figure all this out.

Yoo-Mi:  But they had already figured it out. They had all of it figured out! Things changed and it became more solidified, but the core principles were there. That was the amazing part of it. I thought, “How did these kids figure it out?” Because there was an answer to all of my questions. “Well, why don’t we want to be big? Doesn’t everyone want to be big?”
     Even then Nipun was saying, “If I get hit by a bus tomorrow and this is all we’ve done, I’ll be happy.” [laughs]

RW:  It’s interesting how your life took you to this group, and how what Nipun was saying kept resonating because nowhere else had you run into this way of thinking.

Yoo-Mi:  Right.

RW:  It makes me think how your father must have been a very important model. Somewhere you got an ideal of service in your life.

Yoo-Mi:  Well, he was a very big part of shaping who I am. My mother was also, in the sense of “This is not what i want to be.” My father is very rational, and I’m very rational. He’s inquisitive. He’s thoughtful and he has always lived by principles. And he’s a very democratic person. So he didn’t want us to belong to the club when we were in Entebbe even though I desperately wanted to swim in their pool. It was a privileged place and he just wouldn’t have it.
     When he was in New York, he would never join a private club. He always played golf on public courses. And he had loyalty to Korea. When there was a Korean product, he would prefer to buy that; otherwise, he would buy an American product because we were living in America and he wanted to support the American economy.
     Those kinds of things really made an impression on me. And the fact that he always wanted to pick up the best of every culture. With my mother, every Korean custom, we’re going to do it!—eat noodles on New Year’s, celebrate the 60th birthday because that’s the thing to do.
     My father refused to celebrate his 60th birthday. A long time ago if you lived to the age of 60 that was a big deal. My father said, “I don’t feel like I’m ready to be put out to pasture.” But he did consent to celebrate his 80th birthday. So as a rational human being, he was able to pick and choose.

RW:  Thinking about something yourself and seeing if it makes sense—that’s a very good principle for anybody.

Yoo-Mi:  Right. I still remember that when my father was a resident and was working under an attending—generally doctors have a high standing everywhere—that this attending had a son who worked as a baggage handler at JFK airport. If this doctor had been a Korean in Korea he would never have admitted that his son was a baggage handler. But this doctor talked very proudly of his son. My father thought, “Wow, this is great!” Because why should we be ashamed of our children no matter what they do? So those things have stuck with me.

RW:  There’s a real sense of conscience there. So you’ve been connected with ServiceSpace from the get go. What are some of the most rewarding things for you about that?

Yoo-Mi:  I don’t have any highlights like that, because as far as I’m concerned, I’ll do whatever needs to be done. For many years I was “helpers@…whatever” First I was helpers@charityfocus. For a long time I just answered email. Then I was “helpers@pledgepage when we took over PledgePage. Then I was helpers@propoor. So for a long time I just answered email, either for the entire organization or for a specific project.

RW:  You say there weren’t any high points, but I take it that you weren’t unhappy.

Yoo-Mi:  Not at all. My thing was whatever I can do, I’m happy to do that.

RW:  So what’s the happy part there?

Yoo-Mi:  I think I finally learned not to attach my happiness or self worth to outcomes. KarmaTube is the flashiest thing I’ve ever done at ServiceSpace [laughs]. And ProPoor was the most drudge-filled work—like adding NGOs to a database, fixing typos for announcements, answering incomprehensible emails, scouring data bases to discover which funding agencies were still there, getting rid of the ones that weren’t; it was just drudge work. But it never bothered me. I figured it was important to someone. And I did feel it was very valuable to certain folks who weren’t plugged in to the big Indian NGO networks. So we might have been providing the only information that they had access to for resources.

RW:  What it is about your work with ServiceSpace that keeps you going?

Yoo-Mi;  I think it’s because I feel that any small act I can do has a ripple effect somewhere. So if I can make a positive change in someone’s life, even if I don’t know who that person is, I want to be able to do that.

RW:  There’s some faith in the inherent value of doing the small acts of service that you’re doing.

Yes:  Yes,

RW:  Would you say something about that?

Yoo-Mi:  Even answering an email promptly is valuable to somebody. I just had an exchange with somebody, I don’t know where he’s from—for KarmaTube. English is certainly not his first language. He emailed saying, “I was looking at a couple of videos and I found some weakness in your code where someone can get in and attach spam or even do further damage.” And even before I saw the email, Nipun had sent me a message saying the problem was fixed. He said, “Just thank him. I think he was trying to sell his services.”
     So I answered the guy, “Thank you very much. If you see any other problems, please let us know.” And his response was, “Thank you so much for answering my email so promptly. Most site managers don’t ever answer their email.” That’s a tiny little thing, right? But who knows? Maybe it prevented this guy from hacking our system.

RW:  Yes. And I’m interested in this intangible thing. What is it about this work that makes it worth doing? You’ve been doing this work with ServiceSpace for 16 years now. A lot of people might say, “It’s drudge work, there’s no money. What is this?”

Yoo-Mi:  It’s hard to quantify and qualify. I haven’t really thought about it in those terms. I’ve always felt I’ve wanted to do whatever is necessary to serve the organization because I believe in what the organization is doing. I think we’re having impact in all kinds of ways. And why is that?
     Perhaps part of it is, as I’ve said before, that I’m not attached to outcome. I don’t need to say, “We’ve grown by x amount.” I don’t care about that anymore. I did in the beginning. Like, “Oh, we could attract thousands!” We had tens of volunteers at that time. “We could grow to hundreds and thousands of volunteers!”
     I think I really bought into what Nipun was saying, “Why do we need to do that?” If it’s just one person doing something that’s of value to somebody else. I think it’s just being satisfied in serving, and my serving you, serves me.

RW:  That’s true. When I try to articulate what it is about ServiceSpace that I think is so powerful, pretty soon I’m stumbling. The word “purity” comes up, but that’s a loaded word.

YooMi:  And can anything really be pure?

RW:  It’s dubious, for sure. But there’s something actually very powerful about the idea of doing small acts of service without any strings attached—and having that as a core value. It might not sound powerful, but I think people feel it when they come in touch with it in an authentic way.

Yoo-Mi:  And the other thing is that the core people associated with the organization are so—I was going to use the word reputable, but it’s more than that; they’re such good human beings. They put 110% into what they’re doing at a level of excellence you rarely see anywhere, let alone in a volunteer organization. Part of what keeps me going is seeing people like Nipun or Guri or Pavi or Viral or Pancho—you can just go down the line and name people who are putting in so much and doing it at such a high level.
     When Nipun writes code, which he does in no time flat, it’s what takes people three months to build in Silicon Valley. And he will have done it in a way that is a hundred steps ahead of not just “the fix” but future issues. And when I see Trishna having put these systems in place—and she was doing this when she was 19 years old—for an organization of 400 thousand people, it blows my mind. When I see Guri, and the detail and thought she puts into the design of the websites, it blows my mind. And I could just go on and on.
     In the early days, this was also the case. Mark and I would say, “Oh, she’s just the nicest person in the entire… He’s just the nicest… These people were just the nicest people we’d met in our lives. Then we’d go on about how they’re also the smartest, because they are. They are brilliant people. And the most generous. And there’s the mutual respect. It just brings out the best in you. It makes you want, as the saying goes, “to step it up.”

RW:  Yes. There’s an experience of something that we miss in this materialized culture of getting and having. What would you say attracts people to ServiceSpace?

Yoo-Mi:  I think there are a whole bunch of things. People are attracted for different things. I think the people who come to Awakin Circles are attracted to something different than people who volunteer for a project. There’s a big difference between the people who are doing local volunteering face to face as opposed to people who are doing it virtually. It’s much harder to make the connections, but there are very strong connections that are made through the virtual volunteering projects as well.
     I think it is, again, the connections that are made, the constant generosity of time that is given to people. One of the things we would do in the beginning, and we’ve codified that, was we wanted to create volunteer opportunities for other people. So I’ll sublimate what I want to do so that you can have a good experience. I can do this ten times faster than you can, but I want to foster your volunteer experience. So this thing will get done ten days from now as opposed to right now. But if this can be done in multiple ways with multiple people, what better way of being of service than allowing you to serve, and you to serve, and you to serve, rather than just me serving. That’s also another aspect of this.

RW:  Well, as you put it, to sublimate my desires to create something for you—that’s coming from a certain vision of what it is to be human. In some way, I am you. You are me. It’s very different from the individualized West where I will succeed. I will get my way.

Yoo-Mi:  As you were saying that, two words came to me that I’ve heard over and over again in the ServiceSpace lingo: “selfless service.” The selfless part of it is what attracts people. When someone gets into contact with a volunteer or a project, it’s that selfless aspect that draws you because you know it’s not—there’s no agenda there. People are just serving to serve. They’re happy to serve you, and by serving you they get pleasure.

RW:  It’s interesting to ask, what pleasurable about that? You could think that with “selfless” one could feel deprived, empty, nothing. But in this case it’s more, not less.

Yoo-Mi:  Right. [silence, then we both laugh]

RW:  Would you reflect on how it’s going at KarmaTube?

Yoo-Mi:  I used be a little bit stressed about volunteers not doing their work. We’ve got many videos that need to be reviewed and written up. I used to have a goal of uploading three or four videos a week to the site. Then, “Oh, gosh, I don’t have any videos in the queue. What am I going to do? Am I going to bug the writers?”
     I’ve gone through a couple of different cycles of this and I think I’ve finally come to accept that okay, if there are no videos there are no videos. That’s fine. If I want to write one up and put up, I’ll do it! If I want to approve a video without going through the whole process, I’ll just do it! There are plenty of other videos out there. Or I’ll ask just one person to do something as opposed to the whole team.
     So I’m much less numbers oriented now. I’ve found that when I’ve despaired and have just let it go, all of the sudden four videos are written up! [laughs]

RW:  It sounds like how it’s going with me and the magazine [works & conversations]. It’s going to be a month late. Well, c’est la vie.

Yoo-Mi:  Exactly [laughs] It will get out when it’s done, right? But reading some of the comments and some of the pledges is amazing. I’ve literally had comments, “This video saved my life. I was going to commit suicide.”

RW:  That’s really something, isn’t it?

Yoo-Mi:  And you never know which video will touch which person. I don’t know if you saw that video called, I Like Being 98 about this old woman. When she was 97 her driver’s license was taken away from her. She’d made a promise to a neighbor that she would take her grocery shopping so she could stay in the place where she was.
     When she lost her license she felt really bad. So she fought. She went back and she passed her test and was given her license back. That video, I mean there were people saying, “I’m sixty eight years old and I know that I have another twenty years to go!” Wow! [laughs]
     So I know the work is having an impact. It’s quite gratifying to see that. Of course, I’m not doing this alone. I feel a lot of gratitude for the volunteers and particularly for people like Nipun.
     When Nipun says to you, “That’s not a trivial job.” As opposed to, “This is a huge task.” You think. “Oh, no.” Then the next day he’ll say, “Well, I just went ahead and did it.” [laughs] So who knows how much time he spent? That always inspires me.

RW:  When I interviewed him, I asked him if he’d done any coding that day. Of course, he had.

Yoo-Mi:  I’m always saying to Mark, “You would not believe what Nipun has done now.” How does he do it? We all wonder how he answers all his emails, does all these meetings, fits all his travels in and does all these other things.             
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.     

 

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