Executive Coach and Consultant, Caroline Kim Oh is one of those people who radiates goodness. Like her bright smile, her presence and energy seem to light up a room. She is the type of person that anyone would want to have as a friend. (In full disclosure, I am a former client of Caroline’s and am happy to now call her a friend.) I sat down recently with Caroline to catch up and to talk life and career.
Caroline’s story begins in Korea, where she was born in Seoul in 1973. She recalls living in a nice apartment with her family which includes her younger brother by two years and her parents. “I remember we had school on Saturdays and there were sixty plus kids in a class and the teachers would hit us for stuff like not doing our homework! Those are the things I remember but we still had fun because everyone was going through the same thing.”
By the time she was 13, Caroline’s family moved to the United States. It was a sudden decision by her parents and an understandably difficult transition. Her family moved to Queens and lived with her grandmother. Caroline shared a room with her grandmother while her brother slept in the living room. She enrolled in a “tough” middle school in Sunnyside where most of the students were immigrants. Like Caroline, many of the students did not speak English. “There was a lot of fighting in the school. Everything seemed so dirty. I rode the subway by myself all the time,” she recalled.
Any English Caroline learned during middle school was mostly self taught by reading books. Despite not becoming proficient in English in middle school, Caroline advanced and with the help of an Aunt, got into a better high school in Bayside. The commute to Bayside was an hour and a half each way, so initially, Caroline moved in with her Aunt who helped her get into the school. After a couple of years, her parents wanted Caroline to move back home. The move back to her grandmother’s place had Caroline making the long three hour commute on her own throughout junior and senior year of high school.
While in high school, she studied hard and also discovered her love for fine arts. So much so, that she was a painting major for a year in college. “I was a fine arts drop out,” she joked. When asked if her parents were supportive of her being an artist, Caroline responded with a chuckle, “…because I’m a girl they didn’t mind. They wanted me to go to a good school, which I did (Cornell) so they were fine with me being an art major.” She went on, “I went to college and was an art major for a year but I was terrible. With my painting and sculpture classes I would work so hard and then it wasn’t that good. I would hate it, my professors would hate it. I cared a lot about what other people think, so I stopped.” It’s now been years since she has painted but she finds a creative outlet through writing the column, That Nonprofiteer, for the Clyde Fitch Report. Caroline ended up majoring in Asian studies with an International Relations concentration and the thought that she would go on to law school.
However, a challenging personal experience during Caroline’s senior year of college, changed what she wanted to do for a career. After graduating, Caroline worked for a modest nonprofit where she did lobbying work for small Korean-American owned businesses. The nonprofit needed a lot of help which gave Caroline the opportunity to wear many hats there and she quickly realized, “I loved it!” Through a connection made while at her first job, Caroline learned about the Masters in Public Administration degree. “I really wanted to do that because I loved nonprofit, it was so vibrant, people working so hard and doing good – but I had so much student loan debt … there was no way for me to pay for a master’s degree. Then I found out that if you worked at a university that the tuition was free. So I applied for jobs at some of the local universities.” Caroline landed a job at NYU’s Stern School of Business where she was fortunate to have her first, “…really kind boss. She was amazing. She really took me under her wing.” After patiently waiting to be able to enroll, Caroline started the MPA program at Wagner School of Public Service.
While at Wagner, Caroline learned about the startup nonprofit iMentor. She knew she wanted to work in youth development and when she read iMentor’s mission it spoke to her. “…it was like i fell in love. I’m super passive. I usually just let things come to me. That was the one time in my life I was like I’m going to make this happen. It was the first dot com boom but I would go to all of these job interviews and I would talk about iMentor. They’d ask, what do you want to do in ten years and I’d say, I want to work at iMentor.”
After sending a resume to iMentor and not getting a response, Caroline found herself at an event where a woman overheard her talking about iMentor. The woman happened to be friends with one of the co-founders of iMentor. Caroline wasted no time. She made a minor edit or two to her resume and re-sent it using the woman’s name. She got a response – and an interview – right away. At the time, iMentor was not yet ready to hire so both sides agreed to check in every so often. Finally, in February of 2000, iMentor was ready to hire but Caroline was five months away from graduating the MPA program. iMentor agreed to let her officially start once she graduated in June. While finishing her degree, Caroline started attending meetings and became a part of the iMentor team almost immediately.
In her twelve years at iMentor, Caroline quickly went from Program Director to Executive Director and President. The co-founders mentored her and supported her in helping to grow the nonprofit from startup to one that endures as highly lauded and successful in accomplishing its mission. Other nonprofits continue to look to iMentor as an example and blueprint to follow. Remarking on her success at iMentor, Caroline said, “I was in the right place at the right time and I put myself out there and I worked so hard. It was my dream job. I loved the people, I loved everything about it.” Somehow, within the twelve years she was with iMentor, Caroline also managed to marry and have two children.
After twelve years and growing the company to one of sustainability and strong achievement, it was time for a much needed break. “I felt strongly about taking a sabbatical. I was so loyal to iMentor that I couldn’t even think about looking for another job…and I really needed time off. What I thought would be about a three month break ended up becoming about a year.” She continued, “I knew I wanted to do something different but didn’t know what that meant. I ended up interviewing for all of these jobs that I didn’t want. I was already wanting to be a coach but thought “Who is gonna pay me for coaching?” I considered another job as E.D. of an organization and I was one of two candidates they were considering but at the last minute I withdrew. Six months after that, the organization folded.” It was then that Caroline decided to pursue her dream of being an Executive Coach. “I did a lot of coaching as an E.D. and I knew it was something I loved doing.”
Now Caroline is a Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC). She first hung out her shingle in 2014. Opening her own business has allowed her to control her schedule and to have better work/life balance. When asked about this, she responded, “(It’s) not trying to achieve a perfect balance but thinking about what work life mix is right for you now. Being patient with being a little bit off balance for a little stretch of time. But knowing how to make changes necessary to feel like you have the right work life mix given where you are in your work life stage. Remembering to check in with yourself regularly to see how it feels.”
Becoming the Executive Director of a nonprofit at the young age of 27 is a remarkable accomplishment. Caroline’s commitment to hard work, her passion for doing good and to helping others as much as possible, helped drive her early success. While keeping all of these motivating factors, what currently drives her the most are her son and daughter, “My kids, 10 and 8 are getting old enough to figure out life is not so black or white, and that there are grays in between. My son used to believe that all bad people go to jail, and that all people there are bad. My daughter used to think she could save every homeless person we saw with her coins. As they are growing and understanding the world better now, I feel so proud, but also a little sad. Seeing the world through their eyes always makes me want to make it a little bit nicer of a place.” She hopes for her children that “they will find, grow and enjoy their talents, and that they will use them to support themselves, to make themselves happy and for the good of the world. That they will love and be loved back.”
Caroline’s company is called CKO Coaching and Consulting. CKO, of course, being her initials. Personally, when I have a meeting or call scheduled with Caroline, I always enter it into my calendar using her initials, for example – “call with CKO.” She is the only friend with whom I do this. Something about the sound of her initials together is appealing. Although CKO stands for her name – it could just as easily stand for “Compassionate, Kind and Open Coaching and Consulting” because that, to me, is the perfect description of Caroline Kim Oh.