By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A gorgeous home on Lake Washington is what Jason Lee and his wife Mia call home. It is here that they spend their time when they are not bicycling, boating, or contributing to organizations helping the community. If you’re lucky, you might be invited to the family home to witness a classical music concert by Lee, who plays the guitar and piano but doesn’t consider himself a very good musician. If you’re luckier like me, you may be invited to share a traditional Korean meal with Lee, who is a foodie, and Mia, who gives the meals a healthy balance!
Lee was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea in a large family and was educated in a school run by American missionaries. While the missionaries provided him with the financial and educational opportunities to study and live in the United States, they also instilled in him the desire to help those in need.
Lee’s story begins in 1980 when he came to the United States to become an attorney, but it has one constant. His wife has influenced his career and philanthropic work through the years. “We were engaged in 1979. [Mia] came to Portland, Ore. to become a doctor and I followed about eight months later to become a lawyer. We got married in March 1980,” Lee said.
After he graduated from law school, Lee practiced law for about 10 years. He dealt with business and real estate matters mainly for members of the Korean community. He ran his own practice with two other lawyers and two or three staff members. “It was tough. I began thinking about going into business myself. I turned 40 and felt I had a window of time to venture out on my own. My wife was a physician and was working full-time and I felt that it was economically feasible for me to take some risks. So, I set aside about 3-5 years to try something else and if it didn’t work, I would go back to law,” he said.
His company, Firstech, manufactures and distributes automotive electronics, such as car alarms, remote starters, dash cameras, and interfacing devices for vehicles. Talking about his risk taking, Lee says it happened mostly by accident. “In early 1995, we decided to move to Anchorage, Alaska. I found a business and my wife was employed with a hospital in Anchorage. I thought it was a good start. So, in 1995, I started a retail store and by 1998, I began developing my own product line.”
Lee has been building on Firstech’s success ever since and has, in turn, influenced the community around him. Lee’s expertise in accounting and law make him very welcome in organizations that need processes and structure.
“My strengths made it possible for me to quickly get involved in an organization. Everywhere I go, there is something I can help with. Whether it is to improve their accounts system or the foundation of the organization, my business experience helps in the decision-making process,” Lee added.
Lee sits on the board for the Cornerstone Medical Clinic. It provides medical care for members of the Korean community, short-time visitors, or those introduced to the clinic through Korean businesses or friends. Lee’s wife is a doctor and volunteered with medical missions to China, Kenya, and Cambodia. She wanted to give back to the community and began working at Cornerstone in 2011. It was then that the organization started to recruit a board of directors. “That is when I began participating. It was because of the good leadership of Dr. Jae Jun Byun, the main physician. He is very motivated and inspiring. As a businessman, I didn’t have the time to start a venture of my own and so I thought I could contribute through this organization,” Lee explained.
There are many reasons why people come to this clinic — the availability of medical staff and services in their native tongue among them. Some people do not want to pay a large deductible and some come because it is convenient, especially the elderly. There are also newcomers who may be frustrated with mainstream medical care.
The organization makes healthcare services readily available.
Lee is also a member of the board for the Korean American Education and Culture Foundation. The Foundation operates a Korean school for language, culture, and history with about 650 students at campuses in Seattle and Bellevue. It was the leadership of this organization that attracted Lee. “I was very surprised to see how robust the operation was. I was also very impressed and inspired by the people who provide their services here, including the board of directors. I help out financially and in the decision-making process,” Lee said.
However, there is another reason for his involvement in the organization. “Second generation Koreans do not speak the language and by the time they realize it is good to learn Korean, it is too late. This organization is mainly for the parents who know how important it is for the kids to learn Korean. I don’t know how much the children like it, but many students tell me that their parents love the program,” he chuckled.
To put his innovative spin on the program, Lee is trying to balance the conventional offline education with an online strategy. Next summer, he plans to have the beginner level of the Korean language course made available online, so students can access the material from their smart phones and computers.
His pride in his cultural identity comes across clearly with his advice to young Koreans in the United States. “As Koreans and Asians, it may be challenging for us to compete in the mainstream, but at the same time, we have our own niche. We have the benefit of a good education. Many Asians are good in math and very good at working in groups. We have the discipline and if we find out what we are good at, it is an advantage.” he offered.
Lee uses his success as an example. “I would not be able to be successful with my background, but Korean firms would do a majority of the engineering work for companies across the world. I was able to go back and persuade them to help me build my product line. I have never experienced any prejudice here in the United States. In fact, I had a better chance because I was here,” he said.
As evident from the guitar cases and music sheets lying around in the room, Lee is a patron of several musical groups. He serves as a chairperson of the Korean Music Association, the business director of the Diakonos Choir.
He is also very involved with the Community Church of Seattle (Hyungjae Church), leading engineering and IT teams at the church for the last four years. He also supports several missionary organizations. It isn’t shocking then that his daughter is away doing missionary work in Japan. “I am busy and well occupied in my own business, but I cannot work all the time. I am 63 and I enjoy supporting and brainstorming with good leadership and those who dedicate themselves, their resources, time, and energy,” he added.
Since leadership seems to be an important aspect in Lee’s life, I asked what he thinks makes a good leader. “Good leadership comes with knowledge and experience. A person’s personality is very important, too. I notice that in the organizations I work with. The leaders are very successful in other areas, including their own business,” Lee answered.
Among the Korean community as with his children, Lee feels that they grew less politically involved. “My kids were not very mainstream. I think our culture is more family oriented. We focus on what we are doing. I think leadership will take time. It will take a few more generations to see the changes. I have a lot of friends working for Microsoft or Expedia or Amazon, they are all engineers.”
The leadership problem doesn’t bother him much, but Lee would like to see the younger generation get involved in some volunteer work. “This generation is money and time conscious. They are building their careers and families and supporting their businesses and organizations, but it would be nice to see more young volunteers. I would like to find a cause through which we can mobilize more youngsters to have a stronger Korean identity and ideas so that our culture is not lost.
Jason Lee will be honored on Dec. 1 at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s annual Top Contributors Awards Dinner, held at the House of Hong Restaurant in Chinatown.
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.