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The Blessing of Pain

Entrepreneur and President's Club donor Soon Wan Hong reveals how he turned setbacks into successes.

by Elizabeth Lamberti G'2009

On July 4, 1977 — the anniversary of America’s independence — Soon Wan Hong G’2005 and his wife arrived in the United States from South Korea in pursuit of the American Dream.

With a degree in chemistry from Chung Ang University in Seoul, Hong started his first business on Chicago’s South Side importing men’s clothing from Asia. Noticing the emerging trend for Asian engineering in the U.S. market, he expanded his company to include electronics. In the mid-1980s, he became a naturalized American citizen and by 1992 he had founded the Korean Merchandise Center, marketing Korean products throughout the United States.

The company was doing well—that is, until the market took a turn for the worse. Hong lost everything. “I had to start all over again, and it was a big financial struggle,” he says. “But it was God’s plan for me at that time.”

With a wife and two young daughters to support, he took one more entrepreneurial risk and founded the Asian Merchandise Center in 1998, promoting trade between Asian manufacturers and American vendors. Twelve years later, the wholesale operation is still thriving.

“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” says Hong, who was 60 years old when he completed his MBA at North Park University. “I’ve had several business ventures, some that went well, and others that did not. The North Park MBA program gave me structure. Through my classes, I learned how to have a business strategy, how to plan for things. It gave me a goal and allowed me to see the big picture. North Park gave me the knowledge I needed to succeed.”

Hong, a former president of the local Korean Trade Association and a member of the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce, knew about North Park because of his involvement in the Korean Community in the surrounding neighborhood. Still, going back to school was difficult for him, having not been a student for many years, and speaking English as his second language.

Hong is no stranger to overcoming obstacles to his educational goals, however. “When I was a college student in South Korea, it was a terrible time for my country. We were in the midst of the Korean War and there was no food,” he recalls. “I worked during the day doing whatever I could—shining shoes or cleaning—just so I could study at night and have a better life. This was an important lesson to me.”

Today, Hong is proud to report that his daughters, both graduates of Georgetown University, are pursuing exciting careers of their own—one as a lawyer and the other as a private equity manager.

He is still in touch with several of his classmates and professors, and recently took a class on social media at North Park for a new company he is starting, selling educational assessment tools. If the business takes off and he is able to franchise it, he would like to consider creating a scholarship fund at North Park. But for now, he says, he will continue to give what he can.

“There is a Korean expression that says, ‘Pain is a blessing,” Hong explains. “What this means is that adversity makes us try harder and drives us to achieve more.” This is his message to today’s students and young professionals. “Be ambitious. Have big plans. Maybe North Park can change your life, too.”

Soon Wan Hong