The ICAS Lectures


My Journey to American Dream

Matthew Duksun Lee

ICAS Reception & Dinner
The Korean Diaspora: Challenges facing The Korean-/Asian-American Community
August 1, 2009 Saturday 6:30 PM - 9:00 PM

Gaya Korean Japanese Restaurant
Blue Bell, Pennsylvania

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: Matthew Duksun Lee

My Journey to American Dream

Matthew Duksun Lee

I accept the ICAS Liberty Award with a deep sense of humility and honor. I would like to thank Dr. Synja Kim, Dr. Sang Joo Kim and those of you involved in the process for selecting me for this award, knowing how undeserving I am of such an honor.

Imagine the possibility.

Can you imagine, 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, yourself standing here like me in front of an audience of young people to tell the story of your life? I am here today to tell you, "IF I CAN, YOU CAN." I am excited, pleased, honored and happy to be here today with you.

My goal this evening is to use this opportunity to deliver a message of hope. I would like to convince you that where there is will, there is a way, that when you set a goal, work hard and work smart, nothing is impossible, and that if someone like me can make it, you can do it and you can do it even better.

Today I would like to present my talk in two parts; First about my background starting in Korea and subsequently my life in the United States. Secondly, I will talk about some of the important lessons I have learned or the factors that have affected my career, my business and my life in general. I would like to use the remaining time for some questions and answers.

I: Personal Background

1. Korea

I was born in 1939 and raised in Hwang Hae Do (Kahrinjae), what is now a part of North Korea, until 1950 when the Korean War broke out. I was 11 years old and was in the 5th grade. I still have many fond memories of my childhood in that village. I am hoping someday I will be able to go back and visit my hometown.

After the war started, our family fled to a small island off the west coast of Korea. We had lived there for four years as refugees. Does anybody understand what it means to be hungry? I do. I still don't like barley in rice because that was all we had to eat when it was available. We had no steady supply of food and clothing except for the relief supplies we had received from Catholic Relief Services (CRS). My brother and I suffered from malnutrition and consequently my brother developed an incurable cataract.

In 1954 after the end of the Korean War, our family moved to Seoul. I lived in Seoul for a little over 11 years until I left for the United States. Although we did not have much money, I am grateful that I grew up in a happy family.

After my mandatory military service, I found a job at Catholic Relief Services to work as a caseworker doing overseas adoptions for war orphans. I was able to place about 200 orphans mostly to the adoptive parents in the United States.

However, my ultimate goal was to find a way to go to the United States to pursue my American dream. I was able to do that in 1966.

2. U. S.

Because I did not have the money to pay for an airline tickets, I had to travel to the United States free (I was lucky) on an empty freighter (cargo ship) thanks to CRS. It took over 2 weeks for the voyage across the Pacific from Yokohama to San Francisco. I thought those things happened only in the movies, but we had to go through and survive a typhoon for three days. After my brief stay in San Francisco with a friend of mine, I left for Washington, DC. This time, I had travelled on a Greyhound bus as again I did not have enough money for the airfare. It took 75 hours from SF to Washington, DC. Since then, I have made two promises to myself, 1) I would never travel on any transoceanic freighter, and 2) I would never get on a bus for any transcontinental travel. I have been successful in keeping both of those promises so far.

When I first arrived in Washington, DC, I did not have any money nor marketable skill. At the suggestion of a relative of mine, I got into the computer field starting out as a programmer. I worked for a company called Control Data Corporation, a fast-growing company during the 60s, well known in the industry as the largest manufacturer of super-computers. I worked there for a couple of years and gained valuable experience.

The most important opportunity came to me when I went to work for Westat. At that time, Westat was a small company of about 30 people. I was the only programmer the company had and I, in turn, ended up working nights and weekends for about two years. As the company grew larger, I hired more people to work with me. By 1976, I hired over 40 programmers and systems analysts to work under me. Since I had no prior management training or experience, I had to learn how to manage the staff by actually doing it. It was in a way a baptism by fire.

In 1976 when I was 36 years old, I was made a vice president of Westat. It was one of the proudest moments in my life. I left Westat in 1989 after 20 years of service. By that time I had hired over 200 programmers and systems analysts, all of whom I handpicked over the years.

Westat now is a leading statistical survey research organization serving the agencies of the U.S. Government, as well as private businesses, foundations, and state and local governments. With over 5,000 research, technical, and administrative staff, it is the largest commercial organization of its kind.

However, from the beginning, I always wanted to start my own business. I also knew that if I really wanted to do it, I had to do it before I turned 50. So I had to do it in a hurry. The problem was that I really had a good job at Westat. I had several vice presidents working under me and a number of able managers in my organization so I really did not have to do much. I was not rich but I was well paid and able to maintain a very comfortable life style.

However, I decided to make the move and take the plunge. With the full support and cooperation from Westat, I started my own business on December 1, 1988. I did that under the name of Allied Technology Group, Inc. (ATG). On the second day of January 1989, I moved six staff members from Westat to the payroll of ATG.

Allied Technology has been in business for over 20 years now with its corporate headquarters in Rockville, Maryland and other major office locations in the Washington, DC metro area, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, VA, Charleston, SC, Santee and San Diego, CA, Orlando, Pensacola and Miami, FL, Houston, TX, and many other places in the United States and overseas.

ATG is an information technology and engineering services company. ATG provides a wide range of information systems, engineering and communications network integration services, ranging from design and development through full life-cycle support to security and operational management for clients in both government and industry.

I feel very fortunate to be where we are. It may be true that there is always some luck involved in anyone's success, but let me tell you something. Things do not happen by accident. You have to work hard to make things happen.

When I was leaving Korea for the United States in1966 for good, I did that with an understanding that I would never see my family and never eat kimchi again. But I am happy to say that things have changed so much over the years that I was able to invite my parents, my brothers and my sister's family to immigrate to the United States. They all live in the Washington metro area.

Seven Important Factors/Lessons Learned

Now I am going to talk about seven important lessons I have learned or the factors that have affected my career, my business and my life in general.

  1. Language and Enculturation

    To be successful in a foreign country, you have to learn to speak the language of the locals. A lot of people do not understand and grossly underestimate how important this is. It may be more important than getting an advanced degree if you plan to stay and work in a foreign country. Wherever you are, be it in the technical track or in management, your ability to communicate effectively will significantly impact your ability to move up. Here in the United States, the days when the Korean American doctors, scientists and engineers could complain about being discriminated against and being held back because they are Korean are over. It is not because they are Korean. It is because many of us struggle with the language. In the United States, unless you have a sufficient command of the English language, it is impossible for you to communicate your thoughts and ideas effectively. It does not matter whether you speak with an accent, as long as you can speak well enough to have effective and intelligent communication. It is almost impossible for most of the Korean people who are the so called 1.0 generation to ever learn to speak English like a native.

  2. Work Hard

    Whatever you do, make sure that's what you really want to do. If you want to start a new career or a business, make sure you know what you are getting into. Don't do it because other people are doing it. You should be able to enjoy what you are doing. You should do it because it is fun. If this is not the case, get out and do something else. Once you start, give it all you got. There is no half way.

    Once I arrived in the United States, I had to struggle for several years. First I had to work at two jobs; a full-time and a part-time job everyday to make a living and to save enough money to get married. I later had to give up my part-time job in order to go to school. I got my first real, meaningful job as a programmer at Control Data Corporation in the Spring of 1967. Shortly after I started at Control Data, I told my wife that she wasn't going to see me much as I was going to be working nights and weekends. I did not have to, but I wanted to, to prove that I can do things better, faster and more efficiently than any other people. As I did not have an advanced degree or an exceptional talent, only thing I could offer to overcome that was my hard work. Because I did that, I was able to establish a reputation and be recognized as someone people could go to to get their problems solved. Because of that reputation, Westat reached out and recruited me in June of 1969. My hard work continued for a few more years at Westat, but I have not had to work nights and weekends any more since 1972. That's pretty good, isn't it?

    So, therefore, I consider the years, 1966-1972, my investment period. Hard work is never wasted. It always pays off. Hard work is good business. The reputation you establish, good or bad, will follow you for the rest of your life. Invest for your future. As they say, "There ain't no free lunches."

  3. Attract and Retain Good People

    In any organization, the key to success is in its ability to hire and retain top-notch people. What is a company? A company is made up of people working together to achieve the goals of the company. If you manage to assemble a group of good people, it becomes a good company. Obviously, the opposite is also true. You have got to be willing and able to hire the people who are smarter and better than yourself. In my case, it hasn't been a hard thing to do.

    Hiring people better than yourself is not only a sound management practice for your organization, but it also helps you personally and professionally. You can't help but grow and become a stronger manager. Never stop growing and learning.

    The people that you hire should share your ideals and dreams for the company you want to have. Make sure the employees know for sure that you care about their well-being, personally and professionally, and that you are their champion. Good managers realize that employees' well-being and companies' long-term health go hand in hand. Be fair to your employees. Be loyal. Be nice. In turn, your employees will be fair, loyal and nice to you also. What goes around comes around. Learn to share. Be generous. Do not get greedy. It is your employees after all who do all the work and make things happen. You are nothing without them. Let them share the fruits of their labor.

  4. Building Relationships

    Business is a business of relationships; relationship with your present and former employees, relationship with customers, relationship with strategic partners, relationship with vendors/suppliers, etc. Make sure they benefit from their relationship with you. A relationship which is one-sided will not last. There should be something in it for both parties. Try to establish and maintain a good relationship with everyone you deal with. You may need that person someday.

    Be careful when you hire your new staff but be even more careful when you fire someone. Quite often I get help from my former employees. Don't burn bridges. You may have to cross them again someday. This may be redundant, but it's worth underscoring. People management skills will make or break you. Trust me, if you manage people badly, it comes back to haunt you. So do what you have to do to obtain and practice good people skills. One of the best methods I have employed is watching and learning from those who do it well. A good example is my long term relationship with my good friend, Joe Hunt, CEO of Westat. Joe was my boss for a long time. I have learned from Joe that the decisions we make should be based on fairness and equity, that we should not make decisions when we are emotional, and that we should conduct ourselves always with a degree of patience and a sense of decency. It is a model that I have adopted for myself in managing the people who work for me. Even to this day, whenever I am about to make a difficult decision, I think about what Joe would do in the situation.

    In any relationship, it is important that you try to build trust, respect and loyalty. You can't demand respect or loyalty, you have to earn it.

    As I always say, loyalty is a two way street.

  5. Do the right Thing

    Always do the right thing. It is like telling the truth all the time. If you use this principle as a guide in making your decisions, you do not have to worry about what you have done in the past. It may not be the best decision, but you know you tried to do what is right. If you are unsure about your decision, err on the side of being safe. And don't let your ego prevent you from admitting mistakes just be sure you learn from your mistakes.

  6. Positive Thinking

    Nothing beats positive thinking. When you run your company or manage your group, create and maintain a can-do attitude. Maintain a positive outlook on things. Look at the brighter side of things. Be happy with and appreciate what you have. The cup is always half full not half empty. Remember! Your employees are constantly watching you, they are watching what you do or what you say, how you do things, how you feel, because you are the boss. There is no one higher than you in your organization. You are it. What you do and how you do it affects everybody. It is indeed lonely at the top, but it is important to have at least a few people with whom you can confide in and be encouraged by. Don't isolate yourself. Stay engaged and keep your vision alive.

  7. Sharing

    Making money is important. Once you have the money, what you do with it or how you spend it is more important. We should be thankful for what we have, you should be thankful to the people around you who have worked with you to make things happen, and we should learn to share what we have with those who need it more than we do. It is the shortcut to our happiness. Trust me.

    It is a funny thing. Whenever I give, I receive much more. It is the giver who benefits the most. Whenever I give, I receive more to give more the next time. It has been my personal experience. Giving is good business. We are merely a temporary custodian of our wealth. You can't take it with you. So why not share it while you are still around.

Finally, an important message I would like to deliver to you before I close once again is a message of hope. As you can see, if someone like me can make it, I am convinced you can do it bigger and better. Don't take NO for an answer. Set your goal, stick with it, work hard at it and never give up. So I would like to close by saying, "IF I CAN, YOU CAN."

Thank you.

This page last updated 8/4/2009 jdb

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