Written by Caroline Huftalen Tuesday, September 04 2012
Snapshot: Karen Chung, Founder and CEO of Special Learning
Karen Chung, a native of South Korea, has turned her American dream from big business investing and entrepreneurship to founding companies and programs whose solutions affect the social climate.
Chung first made the switch by founding and serving as CEO of Nomadic Diversity Solutions, an executive search firm that specializes in placing women and minority executives. Since, she has founded Special Learning, Inc., a global source for educational resources and technology for autism and Applied Behavior Analysis.
Below she talks about what influenced the change of career scenery both professionally and personally.
Womenetics: You are the founder and former CEO of Nomadic Diversity Solutions, an executive search firm that specializes in placing women and minority executives with clients. As a native of South Korea, did your own experiences in the business world inspire this initiative?
Karen Chung: As a general rule, I think that people from other cultures, particularly those that immigrate to foreign countries, are more sensitive to how diversity impacts one’s life across all areas, both personally and professionally. Also, minorities tend to cultivate a diverse cultural and professional network naturally, so it made sense that we leverage our experience, networks and expertise to assist in helping Fortune 500 corporations hire exceptionally qualified professionals in positions where they, too, can make an impact in increasing the level of diversity within those organizations.
Generally, that strategy only works within organizations with a true understanding and appreciation of the power of diversity across race, gender, culture, ethnicity and sexual orientation, but luckily there are enough organizations out there that made the job fun and seemingly impactful.
Womenetics: You continued your work in promoting women in the workplace by being one of the founding members of the graduate level degree program on women's leadership at Benedictine University. Why did you want to continue this work on the education level instead of the corporate one?
Chung: Certain women have different needs and learn better in environments in which they are surrounded by and taught by other successful women. Benedictine was leading the charge in creating a customized program that took into consideration the needs of working women who preferred to learn first-hand from other women that have successfully climbed the corporate or entrepreneur ladder, not to mention taking into consideration the other issues and challenges that come with being a mom.
My feeling was that this program could make a big difference in the lives of other women and provide them the same opportunities to succeed without regard to gender and, in some cases, ethnic and cultural differences. That made this endeavor something that I wanted to devote my time and attention to.
Womenetics: Your past experience has ranged from real estate to banking to retail, but in 2010 you founded Special Learning, Inc. What prompted this decision to go from the corporate side of business to the more philanthropic side?
Chung: Social entrepreneurship has always interested me because it allows individuals to blend their entrepreneurial skills with endeavors that truly make a positive impact in society. With proper education, training and experience, many entrepreneurs are able to apply their core competency across verticals or industries, so when the opportunity presented itself for me to build a business in an industry that helped individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their care takers by using current and emerging technologies, it made sense.
Womenetics: Why did you find it so important to combine technology into these educational resources with Special Learning, Inc.?
Chung: Autism is not a condition that is isolated to the U.S. While estimates place the numbers of individuals with ASD around 3 million, the number is exponentially higher globally. As an example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are 1,100,000 cases of autism in China; 650,000 in the United Kingdom; 500,000 in the Philippines; and 180,000 in Thailand.
While products and services to support the autism community are by and large available and accessible in the U.S. and Canada, there is a gross lack of availability and access to these products and services in global markets. In evaluating how to close the gap, technology was an obvious solution. By creating products in platforms and formats that can easily be accessed with a simple Internet connection and leveraging the power of the Web, we are able to deliver training, products and services in a cost-effective manner to individuals and organization with needs, regardless of geographic borders.
Womenetics: How did your past experience help prepare you for this newest venture?
Chung: Although positive experience is something that one shoots for in being an entrepreneur, I continue to take away more from the “less than successful” moments in my career. Many entrepreneurs are very driven and competitive, and that drive is sometimes best fueled by not wanting to make the same mistakes over again. The impending success, however it is defined, keeps all of us going to make the right decisions. Certainly, success takes us a long time to achieve, and failures generally have a greater impact on a business. Failures can create good lessons for us to take away important lessons from, though, and help us pay attention to a variety of details in future endeavors.
Other entrepreneurs changing the world for the better with their businesses:
Inspired by coupon apps like Scoutmob and Groupon, Annalea Krebs founded EthicalDeal to incentivize buying socially-responsible products by giving consumers awesome discounts.
Michelle Morgan wasn't feeling fulfilled by her career as an architect, so she launched HUB Atlanta, which she describes as "a community of entrepreneurs using market-solutions to solve the problems of the world."
Cultivate Wines isn't only commendable for producing boxed wine that tastes good -- their philanthropic arm, The Give, takes a democratic approach to donating a share of company proceeds to a variety of causes.
Caroline Huftalen received her bachelor's of arts in theater and English with a concentration in journalism from the University at Buffalo. She is currently a writing master's of fine arts candidate at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her previous publications include USA Today College, Buffalo Spree Magazine, BurnAway and the podcast series Quilt Stories.