“What do you want to be when you grow up?” This question, commonly posed to young kids, can have no wrong answers. Well, except maybe if the people asking are your Asian parents. Growing up, a lot of Asian kids are given a set menu of career choices, which includes doctor, lawyer, engineer, or something finance- or business-related. These are the jobs that, in the eyes of Asian parents, guarantee a straight path to “success” — meaning high pay, stability, and a nice professional title.
But the next generation is paving their own paths outside of what was prescribed. Asian-owned businesses make up 10% of all businesses in the U.S., and more people from the community are also occupying the startup world with Asians as the second most venture capital-backed group. And with the rise of Asian American entrepreneurship comes a new breed of future Korean American moguls who are pushing cultural boundaries by entering fields that have traditionally been considered taboo. Still, they face strict cultural attitudes upheld by society, which they are trying to subvert as they reshape what it looks like to make it in America.
Anna Lee is one of them. As a child of Korean immigrants, she wanted to pay her parents back for all they gave her. “My parents really wanted to do this idea of the American Dream and sacrifice their lives so they could give my brother and I better opportunities in the U.S.,” Lee says. So she studied hard, got into UC Berkeley, graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, and later went to work at Amazon as an engineer for their hardware division.
But then her career took a turn. While designing product prototypes, she realized how things were never really designed or engineered with women and people with vulvas in mind. One day, she met a male founder of a sex toy company who told her the standard industry practice for making toys for women was testing the vibration on the tip of your nose because that’s what the clitoris supposedly feels like. Learning this shocked her. It also gave her an “Aha!” moment. She decided to use her “superpower” as a female engineer to co-found Lioness, a sexual wellness tech company that makes smart vibrators.
I grew up in a very conservative, very religious Korean family. We never talked about sex.
Of course, starting the company was not easy especially since Lee, and a lot of other Asian women like her, don’t openly and publicly discuss sex — even with friends and family. She says, “I grew up in a very conservative, very religious Korean family. We never talked about sex.” And that’s why Lioness was something her family didn’t expect from her. Now, Lee’s been having more of an open dialogue with her mom about sex. For the first time ever, they spoke about things like sex toys and Lee losing her virginity.
“But I think at the end, the biggest thing for me was that [my mom] was like, ‘I always wondered if you were okay, after what had happened,’” shares Lee, who survived sexual abuse as a child. “That was something that she wasn't able to bring up [before]. And she was like, ‘It's nice to know that you're okay.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think I'm really working through it. I'm happy. I'm in a good place.’”
Lee adds that she’s also become a resource for other Asian people with vulvas within. Slowly, she’s seeing more people break the silence and move past the shame that once surrounded sexuality and pleasure. “The way that we're able to have those conversations is really special,” she says.
Dae Lim felt a similar pressure as a first-generation immigrant himself. “There's a bigger kind of cross you have to carry, right? Because you have to make it here,” he says.
Lim’s life goal was simple: make money. “I was like, ‘I'm gonna be a billionaire,’” he recalls. He had a plan that involved investment banking, hedge funds, and dabbling in the Southeast Asian stock market. But once he landed a managing consulting job at McKinsey & Company, he quickly realized it wasn’t for him. It wasn’t that the job was difficult, it just wasn’t what he wanted anymore.
“At the end of the day, I'm pretty ruthless. I will do whatever it takes [to] make it up there,” he says. “If I were optimizing for money, and for power, and for fame, I think the easier way would be to play within this system and kind of game it.” But money was no longer Lim’s motivator. He wanted to do something outside the confines of the corporate structure. “I wasn't trying to avoid this system, I was trying to write my own system,” he says.
I wasn't trying to avoid this system, I was trying to write my own system.
Sundae School CEO
Sundae School CEO
“If you're a Korean citizen, even if you smoke in other countries, that's a crime and you could go to jail,” he says. A number of K-pop stars, including PSY and BigBang members T.O.P. and G-Dragon, have infamously suffered the consequences for “scandals” involving weed. This very public demonization of weed has perpetuated a negative hivemind view on the plant-based drug. “Korean society is very homogenous,” Lim says. “And homogeneity comes, obviously, with benefits, but there's kind of a lack of understanding as compared to a multicultural society like America.”
So his aim with Sundae School is to destigmatize weed, and cater to other members of the AAPI community who have been misinformed about the “devil’s lettuce” by giving nods to the Asian American narrative. Their products include gummies in flavors like yuzu, milktea sundae, and lychee. And one of their most recent campaigns was an entire line dedicated to fierce Asian tiger moms. “Our mission is to globalize cannabis, galvanize the Asian American community, and spread awareness of the amazing things that the power of cannabis and the power of imagination can do.”
Though alcohol is a more than acceptable part of Korean culture, it was still a huge risk for Carol Pak to leave a stable 9 to 5 job five years ago and start Sool, her Korean alcoholic beverage company. She found that none of the giant makgeolli (sparkling rice wine) and soju producers were innovating or modernizing the staples of Korean drink menus. So she created her canned craft makgeolli brand Makku, and later soju sparkling cocktail brand Soku, for younger consumers like herself with 21st century tastes.
“It was over two years where I wasn't paying myself a salary and I was living in my parents' house,” Pak says. “And this was after I was making a lot of money and I had graduated Columbia [with an] MBA. All of my friends were getting promoted and buying houses and traveling the world. [But] I felt like I had sacrificed too much to give it up so easily.”
I felt like I had sacrificed too much to give it up so easily.
Sool Founder & CEO
Sool Founder & CEO
Startups are difficult to get off the ground for anyone. A study by the National Business Capital in 2019 showed that about 90% of small businesses fail, with only 10% making it past the ten-year mark. It becomes even more difficult when you’re not a cis straight white male founder. In 2021, female-founded companies in the U.S. overall only received 2.1% of venture capital dollars, according to a PitchBook report. An even smaller percentage of those investments went to women of color and LGBTQ+ founders.
Still, despite the many hurdles for female, queer, or founders of color, the payoff can be well worth it for some. Within the first few years of its launch, Pak’s alcohol business was able to reach over $1 million in sales with just two full-time employees. An even bigger achievement is the fact that other Koreans and Korean Americans have been vocalizing their support. “My vision was always creating a household brand, where Makku becomes synonymous with makgeolli and more people find out about the drink and the category,” she says.
More than commercialization, recognition, and access, these Korean American brands are showing pride in their identity and unapologetically taking space in industries that previous generations wouldn’t have imagined entering. Seeing their social and cultural impact in real time has become a greater indicator for success than any graph, chart or financial statement could ever be.
“This is the new culture coming,” Lim says. “The new wave of Korea is here. The new wave of Asian Americans are here.”