WHEN SOUTH KOREAN Mee Kim decided to start her own business offering temporary office and clerical support to companies in Jakarta in 1997, she had no idea she would soon be facing revolution on the streets as financial and political crisis swept Indonesia, and potential customers fled the country in droves. “(Jakarta) was one of the booming cities before,” she recalls. “Investors were everywhere. The moment (the crisis) hit, it went dead.”
After seven years in the serviced-office industry with Australia-based Servcorp, Ms. Kim had set up CEO SUITE in Jakarta so she could be her own boss. Her timing couldn’t have been worse. “It wasn’t the right time for anyone to start anything,” she says. “It was the biggest fear I ever had to overcome in my life.” To survive, she switched from targeting companies looking to expand in Indonesia to those that were downsizing. The gamble paid off: Now, CEO SUITE has 50 employees at offices in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai. Ms. Kim, 42, lives in Jakarta with her husband, Joseph Siswanto, and their 6-year old son, Eugene.
What difficulties did you face as a woman executive?
In (South) Korean society, a woman’s place is to be silent… that’s one of the reasons I left Korea. In Thailand I became the country representative (at Servcorp), when I was 28 years old, which would have never happened in Korea. The same thing with my company – if I had set it up in Korea, I don’t think it would have been a success…Every time you walk into a business seminar, you are noticed because you are one of the women there. In my 20s and 30s, I got easily offended…but now, as I head to my midlife, you kind of hunger for that attention.
Was it hard trying to raise a family while starting your own business?
It’s both the same, really. School never teaches you how to be a mother, or to be a business owner. The experience (of motherhood) was pretty shocking, the body changes, the hormone changes, you feel a tremendous sense of responsibility, because both of you are starting from scratch and no one else is responsible but you…We had been trying (to get pregnant) for years, we went to specialists in Singapore and Korea. We gave up, then two months after (I started the business), like a miracle, I was pregnant.
What do you wish you’d known 20 years ago?
I was still naïve and emotional and didn’t know much about life. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I wasn’t rich, I was very ambitious. All-in-all, that built my muscles for life. If I had to do it all over again, I would learn to enjoy every moment. In men, I viewed them as someone I should compete with, not someone I should love. It would be nice if I was a little bit more feminine.
What is the key to being a successful entrepreneur?
I really had to learn how to create the need (for my product). There were no calls, no business, so I needed to educate the customer that they have needs they don’t even know (of). Then it was management by self-control – control my fear, control my budget, learning to take the risk of going into new markets. Those were the biggest challenges.
How do you manage your time?
There are days I just want to scream, there are days I just want to go home and cry on my husband’s shoulder. I try to delegate more things – except for kissing and hugging my child, I can delegate most anything. It was hard, it took many years (to learn to delegate), and to find people you trust who are capable.
Who is your mentor?
Being a Korean woman in the world, it’s not easy to get someone who can advise me. I read a lot of books, and those authors of the books have been my mentors.
What book has influenced you the most?
“The Eyes of the I: From Which Nothing Is Hidden,” by David R. Hawkins. It’s about the spiritual side of life…to understand every act of day-to-day life is part of the universe and everything interacts and links together, that’s when you really understand and gain peace in life. Not just through temporary satisfaction. It’s really inspiring also, “The Essential Drucker,” by Peter F. Drucker…It’s on my desk and I open it up often when I encounter a problem. It’s about how to be a leader, how to influence each other, and at the end of the day how management is about putting people together with the universal goal of improving individual lives and society, and the importance of self-control. I love everything he’s written.
If you could take time out to study, what would you do?
Language and culture have been my interest, always. I speak basic Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, French, German…I would like to take time off and learn Chinese. Our business is expanding into China…we plan to open a new office in Beijing in two months. (China) is the biggest country with the longest history. Until you really master the language, I think it’s very hard to understand (the Chinese market).
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Every woman’s dream is to look like a Jennifer Lopez. Frankly, I think I’ve got more than I wanted. I wish I was naturally endowed with great communication and leadership qualities. To be able to communicate effectively will help in the understanding of human complexities. Dealing with a lot of people, I realized my limitations. You can learn (management theory), but at the end of the day, what really works is your ability to understand (people’s) psychology, their motivation, their system of thinking, the limitations of certain personality types. You need to understand people as they are with a genuine interest, not just think about objective-based strategies.
What are the qualities you most want your child to learn?
Learning all the fundamental skills to make his life easier and happier, such as self-control and balancing his life. I invest my time to nurture his EQ (emotional quotient) over his IQ abilities. For example, when we watch TV programs and movies I ask how he feels, why (the character) is doing what they’re doing, and if you were in his shoes, what would you do. The latest (movie) was “The Incredibles,” which I personally didn’t like. It showed good things, such as family bonding, but there was too much violence…although it was in the form of justice, it’s sort of vengeful. Any form of violence shouldn’t be justified.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I love art, painting and antiques. Whenever I travel, I love French artists, Italian artists, the Indonesian artists PoPo Iskandar and Affandi. The most expensive I have is $50,000. I try to collect as much as I can, to keep a memory of places I visit. I keep them in my office and at home.
What’s your ideal holiday destination?
We’ve traveled half the world, we love Europe, America. But at the end the day, no place can beat Korea. It’s always closest to my heart. I left Korea 18 years ago; I go back at least once or twice a year. When I lived in Korea, my father was pretty conservative and never let me travel on my own. Now I have a husband, I have an official bodyguard. We love hiking, going to the beach and hiking, going to places like Jeju (an island south of the Korean peninsula). It’s so beautiful.
by Kevin Voigt