Jeong Kim was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1960, but his early years were troubled by an unstable home life. When he was five, his parents divorced. Kim lived with his father, who also had a son from an earlier marriage that had left his father a widower. “It was very unusual for a divorce to take place in my culture in those days,” says Kim. “I think marriage to my father had been very difficult for my mother.”
Kim’s father married for a third time, but it was an unhappy household. Frustrated and angry, Kim’s older half-brother took his rage out on Kim. In 1974, when Kim’s father immigrated to the United States seeking work, Kim took the opportunity to run away to find his mother. He knew her name and eventually found her. She wanted to keep her son but knew that his father would find him, so she sent him to live with her younger brother’s in-laws. The arrangement worked out well for a short time, but eventually, Kim was discovered, forced to return home, and then immigrate to the United States with his stepmother and siblings. “Life was very difficult in my father’s house,” says Kim. “There were times when I considered suicide because I saw no way out of my situation.”
Kim’s father found work as a field engineer for Washington D.C.’s subway system, the Metro, and later bought and managed a liquor store. Settling in Baltimore, the family lived in a public housing project called Pioneer City. “Immediately, I felt I didn’t belong anywhere,” says Kim. “I didn’t fit in with any groups. I spoke very little English, and I was bullied and teased for being a minority. Every day, I was approached by boys looking to pick a fight. I had a choice: I could cower and try to avoid confrontation, or I could stand up and fight. I chose to fight. In my father’s eyes, that made me a troublemaker. But I didn’t see it that way. I was trying to be good, I didn’t do drugs, I worked, and I did well in school. My father and I just never saw eye to eye.”
Financially, the family struggled. They bought clothes at thrift shops, and Kim was offered free lunches at school. But instead of accepting government assistance, he went without lunch. Teachers recognized his work ethic and tried to encourage him as much as they could, but Kim continued to have problems with other students. At home, life remained challenging. “We argued a lot,” says Kim. “My father would finally explode and tell me if I didn’t like things the way they were, then I should leave. When I was 16, that’s what I did.”
Kim never returned home. His math teacher allowed him to live in the teacher’s basement until Kim graduated from high school. He got a full-time job at 7-Eleven and gave half his paycheck to his teacher for room and board. “He didn’t want to accept it,” says Kim, “but he knew my pride would be hurt if he didn’t. I had always thought a lot about my future, and I once wrote a letter to a friend in Korea telling him I wanted to be the best in the world at something. I had ambition. I knew I wanted to get an education, and now I felt that on my own I could make that happen.”
Kim harbors no bitterness toward his family and blames neither his father nor his brother for his troubles. “They had their own perspectives and their own pressures they had to deal with,” he says. “But I knew I wanted a different life, and I was determined to go forward as best I could.”
Given his excellent grades in advanced placement classes—along with his economic hardship—Kim was allowed to graduate a semester early, in December 1978. Accepted at several schools, he chose Johns Hopkins University because its combination of scholarships and grants offered him the most assistance.
From the beginning, Kim was in a rush to graduate. Skilled in computer programming, he got a job designing software for a startup tech firm called Digitus, where he quickly became a partner. At the same time, he took as many credits as his school would allow: 40 a year compared to the usual 30. He earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science in only three years.
With an engineering degree from a prestigious school, Kim had many options, but he felt a compelling need to give back to his adopted country. Kim joined the U.S. Navy and served as a nuclear submarine officer from 1982 to 1989. While in the service, he married his college sweetheart, Cindy, and earned a master’s degree in technical management from Johns Hopkins.
By then, Digitus had fallen victim to consolidation in the computer industry, and Kim lost everything he had invested in the company. He resolved that, upon leaving the Navy, he would start his own business. Unable to obtain financing for his own startup, however, he signed on as a contract engineer for AlliedSignal at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. While there, he earned a doctorate in reliability engineering from the University of Maryland, completing a four-year program in two years. “I was still in a hurry,” reflects Kim. “With my master’s, I felt I was preparing for the business side of a company I would one day own, but technology changes so quickly, I felt I needed my doctorate to catch up on my technical knowledge.”
After completing the doctoral program in 1991, Kim borrowed against his credit cards to start Yurie Systems, Inc., which manufactured devices that made it easier to send data and video over the Internet. Kim and the team he put together threw themselves into the company. He put in 100-hour workweeks, year after year. He hoped the company would go public within five years—and it did. In 1997, Business Week named Yurie the top “Hot Growth Company” among all public firms in the United States. In 1998, Kim sold Yurie to Lucent Technologies for $1.1 billion.
At this point, Kim was only 37. He had worked hard to achieve his entrepreneurial vision, and it had paid off. Most would consider it time for a well-deserved break. But it is not in Kim’s nature to stop going forward. He stayed on with Lucent, serving first as president of Carrier Networks, then as president of the Optical Networking Group. In 2002, he joined the University of Maryland faculty in its electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering departments. At the same time, he organized a group of investors to purchase Cibernet, a provider of cellular billing exchange services, where he served as chairman.
In 2005, he returned to Lucent as president of Bell Labs. As its 11th president—and the first recruited from outside Bell Labs in its 80-year history—Kim brought an entrepreneurial vigor to the most revered name in American innovation. In the last two years of his eight-year tenure, Kim also served as Alcatel-Lucent’s chief strategy officer.
Kim co-founded Kiswe Mobile, Inc.—a startup focused on interactive mobile video. “I have returned to my first love: conceiving, launching, and building a company that will bring exciting new technology to the marketplace,” he says.
Although Kim’s career, hard work, and innovation have brought him wealth, he says he never worked for monetary reasons. “I work for my passion. That is what makes me happy. I like the idea of working on something big.”
Asked to define success, Kim cites the respect of his peers. “I knew that by the time I was president of Bell Labs, I could compete with anyone in the world on the technical side of things. But what I am most proud of is the fact that I earned the respect of world-class researchers. They don’t care how much money you have; they care only about what you can bring to the table.”
Kim’s approach to life is essentially optimistic and forward-looking. “I believe in trying to make each day better than the day before. When I first came to America, I set the goal of learning a new English word each day. Each day, I was speaking better than the day before. My daily exercise ensures that I am fitter than I was the day before. Happiness, I believe, comes from thinking tomorrow will be a better day than today. But I don’t try to just make tomorrow bright for myself. I think it’s important to think how you can make the day better for your family and loved ones.”
Kim is self-effacing when talking about his Horatio Alger Award. “I am extremely honored by it,” he says. “To think that the Members find me worthy is truly humbling.”
In 1998 and 1999, Ernst & Young recognized Kim as Entrepreneur of the Year. Inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2004, he has received numerous awards, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the ICAS (Institute for Corean American Studies) Liberty Award, and the American Immigration Law Foundation Award. In 2013, the French government bestowed on him its highest decoration, the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Kim helped found Venture Philanthropy Partners, which provides money, expertise, and personal contacts to improve the lives and boost the opportunities of children and youth in low-income families.
Dedicated to the education of others, Kim has served on the boards of the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and Stanford University’s Freeman Spogili Institute of International Studies. For his contributions to the University of Maryland, the school built the Jeong H. Kim Engineering and Applied Science Building.
As a leading figure in technology innovation, Kim has often been called on to lend his insights to the cause of national security and peace. He has served on the U.S. Presidential Commission on Review of U.S. Intelligence, the CIA External Advisory Board, the Award Committee for the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative Board.