Netkal VI Fellow Caroline Choe (32) has already accomplished more than most approaching retirement. For starters, the Newbridge Investments CEO holds three bachelors and two masters degrees, serves on three boards, and hosts a weekly bible study at her downtown LA penthouse. It’s no surprise that she was the youngest female Korean American director to sit on the board of a bank. The bank was acquired a month ago by a larger competitor at the highest price multiple in the last 8 years for a west coast bank. Also busy saving the world, she is director of her family foundation and recently traveled to Haiti to provide microfinancing to grow the economy for future generations. Last year, Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Choe to the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. She speaks with NetKAL VI comrade Jennifer Sanderson about how she’s accomplished so much, so young.
JS: What makes you a success at such a young age?
CC: First of all, I think everyone else in NetKAL is a lot more successful than me and this is not false humility. You know I am not one to waste my words.
I think a lot of who I am can be attributed to how I grew up. Having parents who were entrepreneurs instilled in me a sense of resilience and perseverance. Growing up without brothers in the family never made me think twice about what a female can or cannot do. Strong faith always kept us grounded whether things were going well or flipped upside down. In my formative years, I was told to try out everything I wanted to do and I did. I still live by these principles.
I think as Korean Americans, we all have that gene in us where we hustle no matter what. That is why we’ve come so far along in such a short period of history in the US. That is why South Korea is such a prosperous nation. NetKAL is evidence of this.
JS: How did you hear about NetKAL?
CC: NetKAL has a brand in our community. It’s hard to miss. We also have active, successful local advisory board members like Stewart Kim who are great advocates of the program.
JS: What does the NetKAL Fellows program mean to you? How has it impacted your life?
CC: Some of my closest friends are from NetKAL. The program is beyond the Saturdays and Sundays once a month for six months. It’s about the network and friendships that build within your class, former and future fellows, and the board. We really become vested in the lives of those in NetKAL and want to see them do well. It also becomes a full circle as we want to give back to the program so it continues to be a success.
JS: You have a rep as a smart investor – is it true?
CC: When you have 100% skin in the game, you have no choice but to work twice as hard to make things work out. People sometimes are more interested in the sexier projects, but I look for the opportunities that most don’t invest or focus on. I also don’t mind rolling up my sleeves. Most would be surprised to hear this, but if a faucet breaks in one of our properties, I can fix it! I also know I have caused heartache in my trusted advisors by zagging when others were zigging. Not too long ago, I decided to invest in China with a friend when everyone was getting out. Yes, I had some sleepless nights, but I am happy to say we are doing well now.
I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I think I have a good gut when it comes to people, can understand what situation surrounds him or her, and try to fit all the pieces together. Generally, everyone is happy with the results. I think recently a friend said it perfectly, “I have the ability to recognize good people and motivate them to achieve results.” I also only work with good people. Someone can be the smartest person but if they have bad character, you are always watching your back. Life is too short for that.
JS: Mayor Garcetti appointed you to the city planning commission. What’s your new role as a commissioner?
CC: I am very excited about the new administration for Los Angeles. Mayor Garcetti has made the intentional choice in appointing a majority of women as commissioners as well as going after young talent. He is such a wonderful breath of fresh air for our city and I have shared my thoughts with him on where I would like to see our city’s direction head towards. I’m a true believer of momentum. I see the momentum building in LA.
When I was getting my master’s at USC, I worked on a research project on the development of downtown. At that time, we concluded that there was not a significant critical mass for residential and retail development. Today, it’s a different story. With our proximity to Asia, I believe our city can be molded to become a global cosmopolitan city.
I think it is extremely important for people in business to understand government and vice versa. The ideal is for a person to be able to understand the business, government, and nonprofit sectors.
It’s really an honor to serve on a commission like the city planning commission because other than the city council and mayor, we are the only commission that can change policy. The projects we look at are the largest in scale and possibly the most impactful projects to the 3.8 million Angelenos. We cover 15 districts and all of the incorporated areas so you can imagine the geographical breadth. I guarantee that at least one project will touch the lives of every single Los Angeles NetKALer hopefully in a positive way. It’s exciting because once the projects are built, I can drive by and see the impact – it’s raw and tangible.
I want people to visit LA and think wow this is a world class city. We have Chinese developers wanting to build in downtown and I say build like the buildings in Shanghai. Make our cityscape more beautiful and exciting.
JS: You have a full plate… What motivated you to help Haiti?
CC: Human dignity and hope. Have you ever met someone without the hope of tomorrow and basic dignity? It’s devastating and heart wrenching. I remember asking a woman in Haiti what was her dream and hope for life? She didn’t understand my question. She couldn’t comprehend that she could dream of doing something. That is mind blowing.
Everyone blames the 1% but every person in the US is the 1% of the world. I think we all feel as if we could do more. In microfinance, a little goes a long way! The $3000 we lent to a Haitian to start a pasta shop made an impact not only on his life, but will make an impact on the life of his future children. And he paid it back within a year! In a place like La Plaine, Haiti, where the unemployment is 90%, it is life changing.
JS: I know that women’s issues are dear to you. What is your role at Asian Pacific Women’s Center (APWC)?
CC: I have been serving as Board President and a board member for the last six years. We focus on the Asian Pacific Islander community where 60% of the women experience domestic violence. We have a track record of 100% domestic violence free lives with our past clients. I am so proud of what we do for the women that come to us and especially the children. We break the cycle for the future generations. We operate as a grass roots organization but we are known in the community for our big impact. Lately, we have been focusing on providing free counseling for those without health insurance. We have many partner agencies such as CAST who send their clients to us. It is a cause so dear to my heart and I am inspired by the women and the families who overcome adversity.
JS: What else inspires you?
CC: Traveling. I love listening to different languages and experiencing new cultures. I want to make intentional trips to experience the poorer areas of cities I visit. I mean really how many five star hotels can one stay in? It’s all the same. When you visit these areas, you can understand how people live. I remember when I visited a house in a village in China, I saw solar heater made with scraps of mirrors. Talk about creativity!
Living a meaningful life. I think most of us want to make an impact of some sort during our lifetime. The thing is 99.9% of us will not be remembered for our profession or even our name – we can’t even remember the names of our great grandparents. I periodically go into my woman cave and wrestle with what it means to live a meaningful life. I am coming to terms that it may mean a series of little moments rather than one big hurrah – being a good friend, sister, colleague, stranger.
I really admire NetKAL advisory board member Phillip Chang who recently stepped away from Yogurtland, the company he founded, to focus on his faith based calling. I think sometimes we just get so tunnel visioned. He is living on the edge.
JS: Do you have hobbies (do you even have time for them)?
CC: I love food so much that I invested in Bestia, a local restaurant in downtown LA. Once in a while, I’ll take out my electric violin when I feel like jamming. Most recently, I’ve been trying to practice the art of doing nothing. It’s a lot harder than you think. I was recently inspired by a mentor to fully engage in every point in my life. I’m trying to empty out to be filled again.
JS: What’s next for Caroline Choe?
CC: It’s hard to say. I feel like I’m constantly learning about myself so things are always evolving. I am working on a new project which I hope to be able to share with you by mid year. It’s always exciting and I feel liberated when new doors are opened.
It’ll be something good for sure.
About the Author
Jennifer Sanderson, NetKAL VI, Producer, Executive Director of CAPE — a non-profit in Hollywood that improves the image of AAPIs by developing writers, actors, and executives for leadership positions in TV, Film, and Digital Media.