Country of Origin: South Korea
Charles Lee knows all about serving people. He learned by observing his parents, who ran several Korean restaurants, both in the country of his birth and in Los Angeles during his childhood. His parents served up not only authentic Korean barbeque, but also a helping hand to those in their community who were sometimes in need.
The Lee family, looking for opportunities, emigrated from Seoul, South Korea in 1978 when Charles was three years old. They first landed in Flushing, NY where they had one family member who had already immigrated. Over the years, many other family members followed.
When Charles was in the 3rd grade his family moved to L.A., where they knew there was a strong Korean community already established. His parents, born just prior to the Korean War, were hard-working restaurateurs, and found success running restaurants both together, and apart after they ended their marriage when Charles was a middle school student. An only child, Charles felt the pressure of being one of the few Korean-American kids in the neighborhoods where they lived and at the same time felt a bit of a disconnect from his parents, who were immersed in their business and never learned to speak English fluently.
Charles grew up knowing, despite his parent’s hopes, that he didn’t want to work in the restaurant business, but also being aware that he somehow wanted to serve people. He cites both observing the generosity of his parents, even when they didn’t have much of their own, as well as the influence of the church as his inspiration to help others. He knew he wanted to serve who he refers to as the “under served.” He always felt there was a way to use his skillset, and do it in a way that benefits others.
He was willing to work hard and did so while working odd jobs, including driving a cab, while admittedly breaking all the stereotypes of being Asian by dropping out of college, not once, but twice, before finally settling in, for the second time, at Life Pacific College, a private Christian school. He graduated there with good grades and went on to get his Master’s degree in Philosophy at Biola University. He eventually returned to Life Pacific College, this time to teach.
While teaching, he began helping friends with startup companies and he became very interested in ideas, specifically other people’s. He used his skills to encourage people in business and to mentor them through conferences, social media and other trainings on idea execution.
In 2009 he founded !deation, a 20-person idea-making company that specializes in helping brands scale their business with strategic implementation. He’s built a reputation on his ability to take an idea and execute it well and has worked with some top companies like Google, Toyota and Wells Fargo. His company helps their clients to refine their innovation strategy and then project manage it to the actual execution of creative services. Research shows that over 90% of ideas are not realized. Or, as Charles says, “They go to the grave.” His goal is to minimize the number of people whose ideas die before they get started. He sees a big correlation between what he does and his immigrant roots. For him, it’s about taking an idea and starting from nothing and working hard.
Now a naturalized citizen, Charles is interested in legacy. He feels like he watched his parents sacrifice a lot to get ahead, including their marriage. He’s very dedicated to his wife and two children and wants to leave a heritage that shows much about hard work, but also about the importance of family.
The big thing that he wants to leave for his kids is not any sort of wealth, but his network. His kids are in a unique position. If they want to pursue anything in this world, there’s probably a good chance that Charles know someone in that field. He still expects his kids to work hard, but feels like he has a unique gift to give them. Some legacy indeed.