"I'm not a natural businessman, and I'm not motivated by money," says Jeong Kim, who sold his telecommunications company for $1.1 billion. The key to success is "having a goal and the motivation to do something significant."
In 1998, when he was 37 years old, Jeong Kim sold his telecommunications company to Lucent Technologies for $1.1 billion. It was a classic rags-to-very-great-riches story for the Korean immigrant, who lived in a subsidized housing project after he arrived in Maryland with his family at age 14, barely able to speak English.
By age 16 he was living in his high school math teacher's basement and supporting himself by working several jobs -- including the night shift at a 7-Eleven -- while attending school during the day. He graduated from high school a semester early but delayed going to college because he didn't have the money. He saved, applied for financial aid and went to Johns Hopkins University a year later to study engineering.
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While at Hopkins, Kim worked full-time for a technology start-up founded by fellow students and professors. But after graduation he decided to join the Navy. "I wanted to pay back society," says Kim. "Maybe that's idealistic, but it felt right."
Serving for seven years on a nuclear submarine taught Kim about leadership, integrity and teamwork, he says. "When you're surrounded 24/7 by 120 other people, you learn to tolerate differences and appreciate other views."
Not incidentally, he also picked up strategies that have become central to his business philosophy. "I tend to say less and do more," says the soft-spoken Kim. "In a nuclear submarine we call it silent service. A show of force is not our mission. Our job is to be very effective." When he started his business, "I stayed in stealth mode for as long as possible so that when I came out, we were far ahead of our competitors."
His Navy experience also introduced him to a telecommunications switching problem that eventually became the basis for his business. Kim got an MBA from Hopkins while still in the Navy and a PhD in engineering from the University of Maryland while working full-time for AlliedSignal.
In 1992 he ventured out on his own as a consultant because the overhead was low, and he gave himself three years to change his mind. It took more than a year to land his first contract. When he eventually scored a $75,000 job to perform a nuclear-safety assessment, it gave him the cushion he needed to continue working on his switching technology.
Finally ready to break out of stealth mode, Kim introduced his technology and sold thousands of switches to ATT, Verizon and other big companies. His own company, Yurie Systems, landed on the cover of BusinessWeek when it went public in 1997.
Even after the business was sold a year later, Kim didn't slow down. He managed Lucent's optical-networking business and doubled its revenue.
Kim, his wife, Cindy, and two daughters live in Potomac, Md., in a sleek and airy home that's stunning but not showy. He has given millions of dollars to both Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, where he returned as an engineering professor and where a building bears his name. He's a major supporter of Venture Philanthropy Partners, which enables community-based organizations to help low-income children in the Washington, D.C., area.
Last year Kim left teaching to become president of Bell Labs, and he commutes to New Jersey each week. "I don't know how to take time off," he says. "But I was never focused on the money. You work hard to have good times with your family." And Kim has a bit of fun himself: He's a co-owner of several professional sports teams. Displayed prominently in his office is a picture of himself with Michael Jordan, once a fellow owner of the Washington Wizards.
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