Business Hall of Fame: Jeong H. Kim

Engineering a telecom marvel

By: Leslie Milk

Success stories aren’t always told with bold type. Some of the most successful business leaders make their mark with quiet competence and unswerving commitment to their enterprise and their city.

The five business leaders to be inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame are just such success stories. As one of the honorees, telecom entrepreneur Jeong Kim, puts it, “I tend to say less and do more.”

The Washington Business Hall of Fame was founded in 1988 by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and The Washingtonian for the benefit of Junior Achievement of the National Capital Area. Each year Junior Achievement sends more than 1,000 volunteers into local classrooms to teach about business, entrepreneurship, and personal finance. The volunteers serve as role models for more than 33,000 kids from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The 2006 laureates will be inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on Tuesday, November 28. For information about the Hall of Fame dinner, contact Junior Achievement at 202-296-1200.

Jeong H. Kim

Jeong Kim is like the engineering building that bears his name at the University of Maryland. The building’s exterior blends into the red-brick campus. But inside is a daring and dazzling space—exposed bridge-walks and elevator shafts soar in the six-story atrium, and flat-panel TV screens line the lobby.

Kim cultivates a low profile, but his career has been dazzling and daring. When he arrived in America from Korea in 1975, the 14-year-old spoke almost no English. To earn money for college, he worked nights at a 7-Eleven.

Over the next 20 years, he worked full-time while earning three degrees, including a doctorate in reliability engineering, served seven years as a naval officer on a nuclear submarine, and founded a high-tech communications company. In 1998, at age 37, he sold that company, Yurie Systems, to Lucent Technologies for $1.1 billion.

How did Kim do so much so fast?

“I slept less,” he says.

Kim missed the computer revolution because he spent most of the ’80s in the military. But he saw opportunities in telecommunications. The Navy had a telecommunications switching problem. It was not unique; communications companies were adept at handling voice transmissions but less able to transmit data.

After the Navy, Kim went into consulting while he perfected technology for a new telecom switching system. He never discussed his plans; working on a nuclear submarine taught him the value of stealth. By the time he went public, he was well ahead of competitors. He mortgaged his house; borrowed from friends, family, and credit cards; and named the company after his daughter Yurie. That raised the stakes. “What if the company failed?” he says.

But Kim’s engineering knowledge enabled him to create a winning product. His equipment helped move high-speed data through fiber-optic and wireless links as well as through low-tech copper wires. The US government quickly became Yurie’s biggest client.

After selling Yurie, Kim managed Lucent’s optical-networking business, then began teaching at the University of Maryland. Last year he became president of Bell Labs.

Kim is also part owner of the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals and a key supporter of Venture Philanthropy Partners, a group that funds innovative programs for inner-city kids. His private foundation is named for his second daughter, Jurie.

Kim could easily retire, but money has never been a measure of success for him. “You have to keep looking for challenges that enable you to do something for yourself but also for your neighbors and your country,” he says.