Eddo Kim, Founder of Education Non-Profit The Supply, On Pursuing Your Passion

Eddo

Eddo Kim knows a little about education. After all, he has degrees from three Ivy League schools: Columbia University, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. So it makes sense that he’s dedicated his life to educating the youth in urban slums. In April 2010, Kim founded The Supply, which works with different schools in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Kim hopes that by educating these students through a curriculum that focuses on service learning and community building, they’ll create the “cities of tomorrow” and take back ownership of their own communities. So we sat down with this real-life superhero to get some insight about the process of creating a non-profit organization and where he got his inspiration.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What is The Supply and how does it work?

Eddo Kim: So The Supply was founded on the belief that education for the global poor, particularly those living in urban slums, is broken. When we think about education, we think, “Let’s just drop into a bucket a bunch of knowledge.” But being up there and speaking with students and communities as well as thinking about what the purpose of education really is particularly for those contexts, what we started to realize was that education can be much more impactful and meaningful for the students living there.

To put more specificity on that, one of the core issues in urban slums is exclusion and lack of participation, whether in civics or politics or community building. And we thought to address that, the best place was at school. So we wanted to really equip the students with the proper tools. Of course, obviously getting the basic education is really important: the math and English. But we thought schooling could be a lot more than that. So we started working with schools and implementing a service learning curriculum, which allows students to participate in project-based learning, problem solving, and all of it revolving around doing service and community work.

SHY: Can you explain the “bottom-up” approach you used to help slums that led you to focus on giving the youth education? 

EK: We really think from a bigger scale, the problems of slums can be solved at the local level by students and by community members. Obviously, the attitudes and mindsets need to be shifted to really think about their community in a much more “we can restore it” type of attitude. We think that a service learning approach allows students and communities to think about their community in a drastically different way. Again, our belief is that service learning is a radical way to transform the minds and hearts of these young people. But also in return, the hope is that they will radically transform their communities.

SHY: What are your thoughts on the education system in the U.S.? People seem to collectively agree that it’s a broken system. Are there philosophies from this bottom-up approach that can be applied to American schools?

EK: Yes, absolutely. I mean it’s ironic that we are replicating service learning from America in some ways. It’s become, in the last decade, a more relevant learning model. It’s not widely popular, but that’s where the inspiration comes from. But yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t say broken, but it’s so focused on standardized testing, especially for communities that are underprivileged and under-resourced. The standardized testing is pretty disconnected with a lot of the learning developments that happen with these young people living in these more under-resourced communities. I’m not saying that our schools need to be completely overturned. There’s obviously merit to a lot of the classwork and the testing that’s happening. But at the same time, how we think about outcomes and how we think about how students are learning and how students are developing is also very important to consider.

SHY: Why did you choose to go to Kenya?

EK: We actually landed on Kenya; I wouldn’t necessarily say it was very intentional. We initially were connected to a gentleman named Manuel through the connection with a professor that I had when I went to graduate school. And the idea was proposed to him, and he told us he would take us around multiple schools in Kenya. So that’s the initial connection. By immersing ourselves in the Nairobi slums, it became really apparent that a service learning model could be applied to a lot of these low-cost private schools in the slums. So we worked with one school, then we replicated it into four. Last year, we worked with nine schools in Nairobi.

SHY: What inspired you to start The Supply

EK: If I can bring it all the way back to high school, in a lot of ways I was pretty frustrated with growing up as an Asian-American and Korean-America  and thinking about what I was doing all of this work for. Surely it couldn’t just be to meet the expectations of my parents or to go to a prestigious school. I was wrestling a lot with the whole idea of what’s the purpose of not only education but once I get through with education.

I did have the privilege to go to a school like the University of Pennsylvania for undergraduate. I think Penn opened my eyes to a lot of things. UPenn’s campus is adjacent to one of the most under-resourced communities in America, which is West Philadelphia. They even joke with you when you’re on campus that you shouldn’t pass a certain street. I think that really startled me a little bit, because I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and you don’t really see the poverty up front and center. So on campus, their whole belief and model was to bridge the gap between the Ivy League towers of Penn and the outside community. That’s where I was introduced to service learning and how impactful it was not only for myself but also for the communities. In a lot of ways, that was the initial inspiration to pursue education as an intellectual and academic field.

I did go into asset management at SEI Investments, admittedly to appease my parents in some ways, and I hated it. I hated that one year I was there, so I ended up pursuing a graduate degree at Columbia University. Eventually, I was planning on working in the U.S., potentially wanting to start a charter school in New York. I had done a yearlong project in a charter school in New York based around service learning and culturally relevant pedagogy. But after graduate school, it was the “was starting a non profit very realistic,” and I was in my mid-20s, so there were personal things I needed to think about in terms of financial security. Also, a lot of different things were happening that lead me to put the idea of starting a non-profit and working in a non-profit on hold. So I started a tutoring and consulting shop in New Jersey  called Ivy Writers Academy. And even the way that process went – you can talk to a lot of our old students – is that the way I saw that entire experience was not necessarily that I cared so much about the SATs and getting them into college. But it was a really great time for me too, because I met hundreds of students through that process and was really able to mentor students and give them a different perspective on how they should handle parental, societal, and cultural expectations and do what they love and pursue that. After three years of doing that, I had to listen to myself and really ask whether I was super passionate about what I was actually doing. I finally had the courage to start a non-profit. I started The Supply back in 2010 and ever since then, it’s been the full-time work that I do and really haven’t turned back. It’s something that really inspires me on a daily basis. I realize that until the day comes where I’m not inspired by it, I’ll continue to pursue this work.

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SHY: It sounds like you started The Supply to help people, but you could have done that in many different fields. Why did you pick education? Why is youth education so important?

EK: To talk about it a little more cerebrally in terms of a big picture: you could hear a lot of the narratives when you hear the whole political conversation today about the 1% and the 99% in terms of the wealth disparity. In a lot of ways, having traveled to different countries and even thinking about the prestige of having an Ivy League degree, and in my case having three, it’s more of the social capital. Social capital is in some ways greater than financial capital. Even going to church at a young age, you hear a lot about being a good steward of your finances, but you rarely hear this argument that you should be a steward of your education. I think part of it is that with finances, you can always give that 10%, or you can give away some of your money and still be okay. But the harder conversation is when you think about giving up your education or using your education for promoting good. That’s something really you either identify with or you don’t. In some ways, thinking about what the purpose of education is, the common person would say you need it to climb the social ladder and the financial ladder and be successful in this world. But I love this idea that education can be used to build communities and build this world: to solve the most complex problems in this world and really use education as a way, not to sound cheesy, but to change the world.

I think that narrative of using your education to change the world is obviously in the minority, and the reason is because it requires so much of yourself. You can’t say, “I’m going to give up 10% of my education to do this.” Ultimately, education in some ways determines your job and your path. And I think this narrative is something that we need to share more in our schools through teaching more about social responsibility, civic participation, and community building. Things like that are really important to be developed in our schools.

So for me, it’s a personal thing. There’s a lot of reasons why I’m passionate. And then from the academic and intellectual aspect, I’m really interested in education, education policy, and curriculum development. More specifically, education for the under-resourced and under-privileged is something that challenges me and inspires me on a daily basis.

SHY: You started The Supply when you were 26 years old, and you come from a Korean culture that is focused on traditional definitions of a successful career, such as becoming a doctor or lawyer. So can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges you dealt with in starting the non-profit?

EK: There were a lot of challenges.  Age and, as you mentioned, cultural background, and societal expectation was also a big one. For example, with age, it was, “Oh, you’re too young.What does he know?” And now that was paired with, “Oh, he’s young, but he has three degrees; what the heck is he doing with his life?” In terms of societal expectations, it was not only externally hard in terms of people’s expectations, but even internally, seeing a lot of my peers, friends, and classmates starting to have a quote-on-quote normal lifestyle because of working on Wall Street or being engineers. I think there were internal struggles where it was, “Man, what am I doing? I’m so far behind in a lot of ways.” So always wrestling with that and beating the demons, I guess. And with my cultural background, it was more about disappointment and guilt, which was an internal struggle. It’s like, “Man, I’m probably not fulfilling my parents dreams.” And Asian-Americans or Korean-Americans, not necessarily only, but we have a hard time with those things.

At the same time though, all of those things were not only challenges and disadvantages, but they ended up becoming huge advantages for our whole organization, because my whole belief is that you need differentiation to have a leg up. And the reason I say that is because my age became this juxtaposition where it was, “Oh, the non-profits like this are always older people, more established people,” so that became more positive. The Asian background or the Korean background, people became fascinated by that; “Hey, there’s no other Korean American founder of an organization. That’s really cool.” And on top of that, they think, “Oh, but this guy has degrees from Penn, Columbia, and Harvard,” which is even more so a major fact where people got drawn to our work. (Editor’s Note: Kim received an Ed.M in International Education Policy from Harvard University Graduate School of Education.) And we had multiple ways of drawing people in. So as much as I say it was a challenge, it was hugely beneficial for us in the beginning parts of our organization because of some of those what might seem like challenges.

SHY: In your mission statement, you talk about “the cities of tomorrow.” What does that mean? What does that look like?

EK:  We’re seeing in today’s world that the polarization of this world is very apparent in a lot of the issues that are happening.  The wealth disparity is huge. Slums are one seventh of the world’s population, and it’s going to continue to grow. Probably about 30% of the world’s population is going to be living in these places of abject poverty. And in some ways, the hope and aspiration is, number one, that these slums and these people living in these slums are going to be recognized as citizens, human beings and people who deserve just as much dignity as everyone else in the world. But second, I think they can be a good representation and an example of what the world should look like and can lead the way in terms of this idea that the world cannot keep going in the way that we’re going today. And so how that all ties in with our mission is that through service learning and an education that’s much more about being our brother’s keeper, we can see a world that is more considerate and caring for the poor. But we can also see a world that’s, in general, starting with the poor even, continuing to bridge the divide that’s happening. Again, kind of cheesy, but kind of a utopian world of sharing and collaboration and all those good things.

SHY: The Supply has been in existence now for 6 years. Can you tell us about some of the progress the organization has made? There are now 9 schools in your network and you project 20 schools by 2016. How do you get schools in your network and how do you plan to double the number by this year?

EK: We made a lot of progress. I think for us, it’s not necessarily something where we aspire to, for example, build a million wells or build 50 thousand schools. That has never been the main objective. For us, we felt in the beginning stages, we needed to break a lot of misconceptions, whether it’s about slums or poverty. Even this idea of urban slums, I think people had such a wrong impression of them that we felt it was important for us to educate the larger community about the urban slums. Even though it’s not something that’s a part of our core programs, I would say that we started to make great progress on making people becoming more aware of the larger issue. That’s one thing.

I would say for number two, in terms of our curriculum, it’s something that took a lot of work to develop and to pilot. And we’re continuously piloting it, because it’s such a revolutionary and innovative idea that it continues needing to be embedded. We’re doing a lot of internal testing and internal data measurements. It’s a lot of stuff that we don’t push out publicly, because in terms of public consumption, they like to hear about our schools and our students. So I would say actually the number of schools and number of students is, I know it sounds weird saying it, but it’s probably the least of what we feel like how we’ve grown over the last 6 years. We do feel like if we are able to be even successful in one school, it’ll create a domino effect in terms of in schools, whether it’s in Nairobi, neighboring countries, or even around the world, they’ll start to adopt our curriculum and our learning model that we’re pushing forward.

But in terms of some of the goals of trying to reach more schools, we have placed internal goals, 9 – 15 – 20, that kind of trajectory just really wanting to make sure that we’re steering our work in a way that is responsible yet can reach more students. There are thoughts this year of possibly slowing that down a little bit and maybe potentially running one school in Nairobi that would allows us to create a perfect school and be the shining example of how powerful the curriculum can actually be. So to answer your question, I would say that our organization definitely has made headway, but we still have such a long way to go. But we’re definitely proud of a lot of the accomplishments to this point.

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SHY: What are your future plans for The Supply? Do you plan to stay within Nairobi, Kenya or branch out into different parts of the world?

EK: What we’re seeing is that there’s a lot more context in which we are able to work. Some of the plans are definitely to expand outside of Nairobi and even outside of East Africa. There are definitely some ideas to potentially be in East Asia, specifically China. Geographically, we’re not enclosed in anyway. But at the same time, we understand the need to make sure that wherever we are today, we’re not thinking too ahead or we’re not thinking of such lofty ambitions where we forget about the work today. But for sure, we’re not limited in any kind of geographical sense.

SHY: You turned 32 on January 2nd. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

EK: Hopefully young in spirit still, youthful and energetic. One thing that’s important for anyone that’s aspiring to get into this work or even thinking about the non-profit sector in general, there’s an importance to really balance your life just because when your daily life is working with and for the poor or when you’re in the grind and doing something that you’re so passionate about, there’s times where you have to step away from it too and have this healthy balance of doing other things that you love and have other passions and meeting people. And for me too that’s a really important lesson that I’ve learned. The older I get, I’m realizing that I’m not able to do my work to my max if I don’t have that quote-on-quote work/life balance. So I would say in 10 years, I don’t necessarily see myself burning out in any way, or I don’t see me not pursuing The Supply, just because that realization has helped me a lot. Because there was a season, maybe after 2 years, when I started to feel really burnt out. But it wasn’t because of my lack of passion for the work. It was because I didn’t realize how important it was to not have your whole life be identified with The Supply. In a lot of ways, the first couple of years, it was like “Oh It’s fine. I’m okay.” But it was really being able to back away from that, which has ironically helped a lot. That’s not necessarily new information, but it’s important for people to be reminded of that importance of that balance.

SHY: What advice do you have for our readers – especially those who are interested in entrepreneurship or creating a non-profit?

EK: For people who have this aspiration to start things and to create things very unique, a couple things come to mind. We’ve never been afraid to admit to failure, and we’re very transparent when it comes to the fact that we don’t know much, but we’re always trying to learn more. And I think that approach really works. So the first: never be afraid to admit insufficiencies and failures.

Number two is to always make sure you have people that you can bring into the work. You’re never going to be able to do it on your own. Right now, we have a really great ward of directors that has become even my own emotional support. And when I started the organization in 2010, the first couple of hires were really important. In a lot of ways, that startup team was very important for the later success of the organization. Not feeling like you have to do it all on your own is super important.

My third piece of advice would be that authenticity is very important. I appreciate your questions about my own passions and my own interests because people nowadays really connect the founder with the work. And people desire to see authenticity. For example, someone who is starting a social enterprise  – let’s say he’s making jewelry and he’s saying, “30% of it, I want to give it back to senior care.” I think it’s important that that person has some experience or some relevant experience with senior care in order for that social enterprise to be successful. It’s not enough just to say, “Oh, I think this is a great opportunity for me to get into, and I think I can literally target the heartstrings of a lot people if I use this issue.” Let’s think of another issue: global warming. If you have no connection or ties with global warming, even though you put out a great non-profit or you put out a great enterprise and you’re supporting that cause, it lacks authenticity. Therefore, it’s going to run out of steam really quickly. What I mean by that is that as a business model, it’s going to run out of steam really quickly, and as an entrepreneur, you’re going to run out of steam really quickly too because it’s not something you’re deeply passionate about. It’s not something you’re going to run through a wall for. If something goes wrong, you’re going to go onto the next issue or the next business model.

It’s the same thing as when people write college essays. Sometimes I’ll read through college essays, and people write about why they want to be a doctor. It’s very obvious when there’s an authentic essay. Let’s say there’s someone whose brother passed away from a rare disease and who has been spending the last 4 years in a lab, researching it and wants to be a doctor because of that. That’s a compelling reason and a story that’s very authentic and believable. And it’s very apparent when you meet that person. There’s this, what I like to call “lastiness,” which is this aroma you get from this person that’s very authentic. And then there’s people who fake their way through a lot of things. That’s where I would say as an entrepreneur, it’s not about creating anything and everything. It’s about creating something that’s personally meaningful to you. In the long run, it’s going to be a success. No matter what happens, it’s going to be a success because it’s going to be something you’re personally invested in.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

EK: I don’t know if this is a superpower, but I think that empathy is a big thing. I think having so many different personal and professional experiences, really being able to empathize with a lot of younger people and the different struggles that they go through, and being able to provide a level of advice that’s applicable and relevant – that’s the one thing that although the last decade has been hard, in many ways very untraditional and difficult, all of the experiences that I’ve have created a high level of empathy. Again, I don’t think it’s a crazy superpower, but I think it’s something that I’ve definitely been able to nurture and develop in the last decade.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

EK: I would probably have to say my dad. As cliché as that is, it comes full circle. As much as he was against me doing a lot of these things, his narrative is exactly the same. He came to America 30 years ago with a dream. So I always joke with him that he can’t say anything to me, because he did something even crazier to fulfill a dream. Of course, his dream also was selfless, and it was something that wasn’t about his own aspirations and ambitions. Everyone says that I’m my dad’s doppelganger physically, but I think I’m also very similar in his entrepreneurial and self-starting spirit. So he’s definitely left a legacy impression on me and that’s all I can hope for – even if there’s one person that is inspired, I think that’s the goal.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

EK: It’s not in any way self-deprecating, but the more and more I do this, I want The Supply to be remembered, and I want the people we serve to be remembered. I think I’m much more comfortable now with this idea that if I’m not even connected with it, it’s completely fine. That’s how I would answer that question. It’s okay not to be remembered. That’s not the joy of being a founder or the joy of starting this type of work. The joy is to be forgotten.

SHY:  What is something that you do every day that you think everybody else should do?

EK: This world is so connected, so I spend about five minutes on social media, five minutes reading up on the news, and five minutes watching sports highlights. I even get caught up in pop culture news, so I’ll read Perez Hilton. I want to know everything about everything. They’re all interconnected in a lot of ways, and you can’t remove certain trends that are happening with your non-profit or your work. A lot of people might assume that all I read is The Stanford Social Innovation Review or The Chronicle of Philanthropy. But those are two things that I don’t read as much. Trying to be relevant both personally and professionally is super important. So even when it comes to networking, and networking is very important, I would say that being relevant and knowing many things about many things is really important.

SHY: Is there anything you want our readers to know that I haven’t asked?

EK: The important thing is always having the mentality of not “when I get huge,” or “when my company or organization gets big.” It’s always daily. It should be “when my organization is or was small,” because that is really where the best ideas come from and where you personally, as much as it’s painful, find out exactly what kind of things you’re going to run through a wall for. Those are very important questions to ask. On a daily basis, always having the mentality of the daily grind and not aspiring one day to be sitting on the beach in Hawaii, really understanding that every single day is a daily grind – everyone that’s started anything has chosen that path.

So be grateful for that, because it is a privilege. It’s not something that should be seen as a sacrifice or “Oh, I’ve given up so much.” It’s what everyone lives for, especially for those who are starting non-profits or any kind of socially minded organizations, it’s much more about how you’re in the world and communities around you. Hopefully, that’s your main drive and that’s your main motivation. It’s not about building an organization, it’s not about your brilliant idea of change. Ultimately, I always go back to the root word of philanthropy, which means the love of humanity. Even philanthropy has been bastardized to really become this cool thing to do, with groups like Charity Water and TOM Shoes. Philanthropy has become so much about models and fundraising schemes, like ice bucket challenges, when really philanthropy is about love of humanity and having that be your drive every single day – whether that’s the people you work with or even people that you meet over lunch. All of that is very important and something that I think the people that are in this space should always be reminded of.

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Written by Diana Kim

Eddo Kim knows a little about education. After all, he has degrees from three Ivy League schools: Columbia University, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. So it makes sense that he’s dedicated his life to educating the youth in urban slums. In April 2010, Kim founded The Supply, which works with different schools in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Kim hopes that by educating these students through a curriculum that focuses on service learning and community building, they’ll create the “cities of tomorrow” and take back ownership of their own communities. So we sat down with this real-life superhero to get some insight about the process of creating a non-profit organization and where he got his inspiration.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What is The Supply and how does it work?

Eddo Kim: So The Supply was founded on the belief that education for the global poor, particularly those living in urban slums, is broken. When we think about education, we think, “Let’s just drop into a bucket a bunch of knowledge.” But being up there and speaking with students and communities as well as thinking about what the purpose of education really is particularly for those contexts, what we started to realize was that education can be much more impactful and meaningful for the students living there.

To put more specificity on that, one of the core issues in urban slums is exclusion and lack of participation, whether in civics or politics or community building. And we thought to address that, the best place was at school. So we wanted to really equip the students with the proper tools. Of course, obviously getting the basic education is really important: the math and English. But we thought schooling could be a lot more than that. So we started working with schools and implementing a service learning curriculum, which allows students to participate in project-based learning, problem solving, and all of it revolving around doing service and community work.

SHY: Can you explain the “bottom-up” approach you used to help slums that led you to focus on giving the youth education? 

EK: We really think from a bigger scale, the problems of slums can be solved at the local level by students and by community members. Obviously, the attitudes and mindsets need to be shifted to really think about their community in a much more “we can restore it” type of attitude. We think that a service learning approach allows students and communities to think about their community in a drastically different way. Again, our belief is that service learning is a radical way to transform the minds and hearts of these young people. But also in return, the hope is that they will radically transform their communities.

SHY: What are your thoughts on the education system in the U.S.? People seem to collectively agree that it’s a broken system. Are there philosophies from this bottom-up approach that can be applied to American schools?

EK: Yes, absolutely. I mean it’s ironic that we are replicating service learning from America in some ways. It’s become, in the last decade, a more relevant learning model. It’s not widely popular, but that’s where the inspiration comes from. But yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t say broken, but it’s so focused on standardized testing, especially for communities that are underprivileged and under-resourced. The standardized testing is pretty disconnected with a lot of the learning developments that happen with these young people living in these more under-resourced communities. I’m not saying that our schools need to be completely overturned. There’s obviously merit to a lot of the classwork and the testing that’s happening. But at the same time, how we think about outcomes and how we think about how students are learning and how students are developing is also very important to consider.

SHY: Why did you choose to go to Kenya?

EK: We actually landed on Kenya; I wouldn’t necessarily say it was very intentional. We initially were connected to a gentleman named Manuel through the connection with a professor that I had when I went to graduate school. And the idea was proposed to him, and he told us he would take us around multiple schools in Kenya. So that’s the initial connection. By immersing ourselves in the Nairobi slums, it became really apparent that a service learning model could be applied to a lot of these low-cost private schools in the slums. So we worked with one school, then we replicated it into four. Last year, we worked with nine schools in Nairobi.

SHY: What inspired you to start The Supply

EK: If I can bring it all the way back to high school, in a lot of ways I was pretty frustrated with growing up as an Asian-American and Korean-America  and thinking about what I was doing all of this work for. Surely it couldn’t just be to meet the expectations of my parents or to go to a prestigious school. I was wrestling a lot with the whole idea of what’s the purpose of not only education but once I get through with education.

I did have the privilege to go to a school like the University of Pennsylvania for undergraduate. I think Penn opened my eyes to a lot of things. UPenn’s campus is adjacent to one of the most under-resourced communities in America, which is West Philadelphia. They even joke with you when you’re on campus that you shouldn’t pass a certain street. I think that really startled me a little bit, because I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and you don’t really see the poverty up front and center. So on campus, their whole belief and model was to bridge the gap between the Ivy League towers of Penn and the outside community. That’s where I was introduced to service learning and how impactful it was not only for myself but also for the communities. In a lot of ways, that was the initial inspiration to pursue education as an intellectual and academic field.

I did go into asset management at SEI Investments, admittedly to appease my parents in some ways, and I hated it. I hated that one year I was there, so I ended up pursuing a graduate degree at Columbia University. Eventually, I was planning on working in the U.S., potentially wanting to start a charter school in New York. I had done a yearlong project in a charter school in New York based around service learning and culturally relevant pedagogy. But after graduate school, it was the “was starting a non profit very realistic,” and I was in my mid-20s, so there were personal things I needed to think about in terms of financial security. Also, a lot of different things were happening that lead me to put the idea of starting a non-profit and working in a non-profit on hold. So I started a tutoring and consulting shop in New Jersey  called Ivy Writers Academy. And even the way that process went – you can talk to a lot of our old students – is that the way I saw that entire experience was not necessarily that I cared so much about the SATs and getting them into college. But it was a really great time for me too, because I met hundreds of students through that process and was really able to mentor students and give them a different perspective on how they should handle parental, societal, and cultural expectations and do what they love and pursue that. After three years of doing that, I had to listen to myself and really ask whether I was super passionate about what I was actually doing. I finally had the courage to start a non-profit. I started The Supply back in 2010 and ever since then, it’s been the full-time work that I do and really haven’t turned back. It’s something that really inspires me on a daily basis. I realize that until the day comes where I’m not inspired by it, I’ll continue to pursue this work.

The Supply1

SHY: It sounds like you started The Supply to help people, but you could have done that in many different fields. Why did you pick education? Why is youth education so important?

EK: To talk about it a little more cerebrally in terms of a big picture: you could hear a lot of the narratives when you hear the whole political conversation today about the 1% and the 99% in terms of the wealth disparity. In a lot of ways, having traveled to different countries and even thinking about the prestige of having an Ivy League degree, and in my case having three, it’s more of the social capital. Social capital is in some ways greater than financial capital. Even going to church at a young age, you hear a lot about being a good steward of your finances, but you rarely hear this argument that you should be a steward of your education. I think part of it is that with finances, you can always give that 10%, or you can give away some of your money and still be okay. But the harder conversation is when you think about giving up your education or using your education for promoting good. That’s something really you either identify with or you don’t. In some ways, thinking about what the purpose of education is, the common person would say you need it to climb the social ladder and the financial ladder and be successful in this world. But I love this idea that education can be used to build communities and build this world: to solve the most complex problems in this world and really use education as a way, not to sound cheesy, but to change the world.

I think that narrative of using your education to change the world is obviously in the minority, and the reason is because it requires so much of yourself. You can’t say, “I’m going to give up 10% of my education to do this.” Ultimately, education in some ways determines your job and your path. And I think this narrative is something that we need to share more in our schools through teaching more about social responsibility, civic participation, and community building. Things like that are really important to be developed in our schools.

So for me, it’s a personal thing. There’s a lot of reasons why I’m passionate. And then from the academic and intellectual aspect, I’m really interested in education, education policy, and curriculum development. More specifically, education for the under-resourced and under-privileged is something that challenges me and inspires me on a daily basis.

SHY: You started The Supply when you were 26 years old, and you come from a Korean culture that is focused on traditional definitions of a successful career, such as becoming a doctor or lawyer. So can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges you dealt with in starting the non-profit?

EK: There were a lot of challenges.  Age and, as you mentioned, cultural background, and societal expectation was also a big one. For example, with age, it was, “Oh, you’re too young.What does he know?” And now that was paired with, “Oh, he’s young, but he has three degrees; what the heck is he doing with his life?” In terms of societal expectations, it was not only externally hard in terms of people’s expectations, but even internally, seeing a lot of my peers, friends, and classmates starting to have a quote-on-quote normal lifestyle because of working on Wall Street or being engineers. I think there were internal struggles where it was, “Man, what am I doing? I’m so far behind in a lot of ways.” So always wrestling with that and beating the demons, I guess. And with my cultural background, it was more about disappointment and guilt, which was an internal struggle. It’s like, “Man, I’m probably not fulfilling my parents dreams.” And Asian-Americans or Korean-Americans, not necessarily only, but we have a hard time with those things.

At the same time though, all of those things were not only challenges and disadvantages, but they ended up becoming huge advantages for our whole organization, because my whole belief is that you need differentiation to have a leg up. And the reason I say that is because my age became this juxtaposition where it was, “Oh, the non-profits like this are always older people, more established people,” so that became more positive. The Asian background or the Korean background, people became fascinated by that; “Hey, there’s no other Korean American founder of an organization. That’s really cool.” And on top of that, they think, “Oh, but this guy has degrees from Penn, Columbia, and Harvard,” which is even more so a major fact where people got drawn to our work. (Editor’s Note: Kim received an Ed.M in International Education Policy from Harvard University Graduate School of Education.) And we had multiple ways of drawing people in. So as much as I say it was a challenge, it was hugely beneficial for us in the beginning parts of our organization because of some of those what might seem like challenges.

SHY: In your mission statement, you talk about “the cities of tomorrow.” What does that mean? What does that look like?

EK:  We’re seeing in today’s world that the polarization of this world is very apparent in a lot of the issues that are happening.  The wealth disparity is huge. Slums are one seventh of the world’s population, and it’s going to continue to grow. Probably about 30% of the world’s population is going to be living in these places of abject poverty. And in some ways, the hope and aspiration is, number one, that these slums and these people living in these slums are going to be recognized as citizens, human beings and people who deserve just as much dignity as everyone else in the world. But second, I think they can be a good representation and an example of what the world should look like and can lead the way in terms of this idea that the world cannot keep going in the way that we’re going today. And so how that all ties in with our mission is that through service learning and an education that’s much more about being our brother’s keeper, we can see a world that is more considerate and caring for the poor. But we can also see a world that’s, in general, starting with the poor even, continuing to bridge the divide that’s happening. Again, kind of cheesy, but kind of a utopian world of sharing and collaboration and all those good things.

SHY: The Supply has been in existence now for 6 years. Can you tell us about some of the progress the organization has made? There are now 9 schools in your network and you project 20 schools by 2016. How do you get schools in your network and how do you plan to double the number by this year?

EK: We made a lot of progress. I think for us, it’s not necessarily something where we aspire to, for example, build a million wells or build 50 thousand schools. That has never been the main objective. For us, we felt in the beginning stages, we needed to break a lot of misconceptions, whether it’s about slums or poverty. Even this idea of urban slums, I think people had such a wrong impression of them that we felt it was important for us to educate the larger community about the urban slums. Even though it’s not something that’s a part of our core programs, I would say that we started to make great progress on making people becoming more aware of the larger issue. That’s one thing.

I would say for number two, in terms of our curriculum, it’s something that took a lot of work to develop and to pilot. And we’re continuously piloting it, because it’s such a revolutionary and innovative idea that it continues needing to be embedded. We’re doing a lot of internal testing and internal data measurements. It’s a lot of stuff that we don’t push out publicly, because in terms of public consumption, they like to hear about our schools and our students. So I would say actually the number of schools and number of students is, I know it sounds weird saying it, but it’s probably the least of what we feel like how we’ve grown over the last 6 years. We do feel like if we are able to be even successful in one school, it’ll create a domino effect in terms of in schools, whether it’s in Nairobi, neighboring countries, or even around the world, they’ll start to adopt our curriculum and our learning model that we’re pushing forward.

But in terms of some of the goals of trying to reach more schools, we have placed internal goals, 9 – 15 – 20, that kind of trajectory just really wanting to make sure that we’re steering our work in a way that is responsible yet can reach more students. There are thoughts this year of possibly slowing that down a little bit and maybe potentially running one school in Nairobi that would allows us to create a perfect school and be the shining example of how powerful the curriculum can actually be. So to answer your question, I would say that our organization definitely has made headway, but we still have such a long way to go. But we’re definitely proud of a lot of the accomplishments to this point.

The Supply2

SHY: What are your future plans for The Supply? Do you plan to stay within Nairobi, Kenya or branch out into different parts of the world?

EK: What we’re seeing is that there’s a lot more context in which we are able to work. Some of the plans are definitely to expand outside of Nairobi and even outside of East Africa. There are definitely some ideas to potentially be in East Asia, specifically China. Geographically, we’re not enclosed in anyway. But at the same time, we understand the need to make sure that wherever we are today, we’re not thinking too ahead or we’re not thinking of such lofty ambitions where we forget about the work today. But for sure, we’re not limited in any kind of geographical sense.

SHY: You turned 32 on January 2nd. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

EK: Hopefully young in spirit still, youthful and energetic. One thing that’s important for anyone that’s aspiring to get into this work or even thinking about the non-profit sector in general, there’s an importance to really balance your life just because when your daily life is working with and for the poor or when you’re in the grind and doing something that you’re so passionate about, there’s times where you have to step away from it too and have this healthy balance of doing other things that you love and have other passions and meeting people. And for me too that’s a really important lesson that I’ve learned. The older I get, I’m realizing that I’m not able to do my work to my max if I don’t have that quote-on-quote work/life balance. So I would say in 10 years, I don’t necessarily see myself burning out in any way, or I don’t see me not pursuing The Supply, just because that realization has helped me a lot. Because there was a season, maybe after 2 years, when I started to feel really burnt out. But it wasn’t because of my lack of passion for the work. It was because I didn’t realize how important it was to not have your whole life be identified with The Supply. In a lot of ways, the first couple of years, it was like “Oh It’s fine. I’m okay.” But it was really being able to back away from that, which has ironically helped a lot. That’s not necessarily new information, but it’s important for people to be reminded of that importance of that balance.

SHY: What advice do you have for our readers – especially those who are interested in entrepreneurship or creating a non-profit?

EK: For people who have this aspiration to start things and to create things very unique, a couple things come to mind. We’ve never been afraid to admit to failure, and we’re very transparent when it comes to the fact that we don’t know much, but we’re always trying to learn more. And I think that approach really works. So the first: never be afraid to admit insufficiencies and failures.

Number two is to always make sure you have people that you can bring into the work. You’re never going to be able to do it on your own. Right now, we have a really great ward of directors that has become even my own emotional support. And when I started the organization in 2010, the first couple of hires were really important. In a lot of ways, that startup team was very important for the later success of the organization. Not feeling like you have to do it all on your own is super important.

My third piece of advice would be that authenticity is very important. I appreciate your questions about my own passions and my own interests because people nowadays really connect the founder with the work. And people desire to see authenticity. For example, someone who is starting a social enterprise  – let’s say he’s making jewelry and he’s saying, “30% of it, I want to give it back to senior care.” I think it’s important that that person has some experience or some relevant experience with senior care in order for that social enterprise to be successful. It’s not enough just to say, “Oh, I think this is a great opportunity for me to get into, and I think I can literally target the heartstrings of a lot people if I use this issue.” Let’s think of another issue: global warming. If you have no connection or ties with global warming, even though you put out a great non-profit or you put out a great enterprise and you’re supporting that cause, it lacks authenticity. Therefore, it’s going to run out of steam really quickly. What I mean by that is that as a business model, it’s going to run out of steam really quickly, and as an entrepreneur, you’re going to run out of steam really quickly too because it’s not something you’re deeply passionate about. It’s not something you’re going to run through a wall for. If something goes wrong, you’re going to go onto the next issue or the next business model.

It’s the same thing as when people write college essays. Sometimes I’ll read through college essays, and people write about why they want to be a doctor. It’s very obvious when there’s an authentic essay. Let’s say there’s someone whose brother passed away from a rare disease and who has been spending the last 4 years in a lab, researching it and wants to be a doctor because of that. That’s a compelling reason and a story that’s very authentic and believable. And it’s very apparent when you meet that person. There’s this, what I like to call “lastiness,” which is this aroma you get from this person that’s very authentic. And then there’s people who fake their way through a lot of things. That’s where I would say as an entrepreneur, it’s not about creating anything and everything. It’s about creating something that’s personally meaningful to you. In the long run, it’s going to be a success. No matter what happens, it’s going to be a success because it’s going to be something you’re personally invested in.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

EK: I don’t know if this is a superpower, but I think that empathy is a big thing. I think having so many different personal and professional experiences, really being able to empathize with a lot of younger people and the different struggles that they go through, and being able to provide a level of advice that’s applicable and relevant – that’s the one thing that although the last decade has been hard, in many ways very untraditional and difficult, all of the experiences that I’ve have created a high level of empathy. Again, I don’t think it’s a crazy superpower, but I think it’s something that I’ve definitely been able to nurture and develop in the last decade.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

EK: I would probably have to say my dad. As cliché as that is, it comes full circle. As much as he was against me doing a lot of these things, his narrative is exactly the same. He came to America 30 years ago with a dream. So I always joke with him that he can’t say anything to me, because he did something even crazier to fulfill a dream. Of course, his dream also was selfless, and it was something that wasn’t about his own aspirations and ambitions. Everyone says that I’m my dad’s doppelganger physically, but I think I’m also very similar in his entrepreneurial and self-starting spirit. So he’s definitely left a legacy impression on me and that’s all I can hope for – even if there’s one person that is inspired, I think that’s the goal.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

EK: It’s not in any way self-deprecating, but the more and more I do this, I want The Supply to be remembered, and I want the people we serve to be remembered. I think I’m much more comfortable now with this idea that if I’m not even connected with it, it’s completely fine. That’s how I would answer that question. It’s okay not to be remembered. That’s not the joy of being a founder or the joy of starting this type of work. The joy is to be forgotten.

SHY:  What is something that you do every day that you think everybody else should do?

EK: This world is so connected, so I spend about five minutes on social media, five minutes reading up on the news, and five minutes watching sports highlights. I even get caught up in pop culture news, so I’ll read Perez Hilton. I want to know everything about everything. They’re all interconnected in a lot of ways, and you can’t remove certain trends that are happening with your non-profit or your work. A lot of people might assume that all I read is The Stanford Social Innovation Review or The Chronicle of Philanthropy. But those are two things that I don’t read as much. Trying to be relevant both personally and professionally is super important. So even when it comes to networking, and networking is very important, I would say that being relevant and knowing many things about many things is really important.

SHY: Is there anything you want our readers to know that I haven’t asked?

EK: The important thing is always having the mentality of not “when I get huge,” or “when my company or organization gets big.” It’s always daily. It should be “when my organization is or was small,” because that is really where the best ideas come from and where you personally, as much as it’s painful, find out exactly what kind of things you’re going to run through a wall for. Those are very important questions to ask. On a daily basis, always having the mentality of the daily grind and not aspiring one day to be sitting on the beach in Hawaii, really understanding that every single day is a daily grind – everyone that’s started anything has chosen that path.

So be grateful for that, because it is a privilege. It’s not something that should be seen as a sacrifice or “Oh, I’ve given up so much.” It’s what everyone lives for, especially for those who are starting non-profits or any kind of socially minded organizations, it’s much more about how you’re in the world and communities around you. Hopefully, that’s your main drive and that’s your main motivation. It’s not about building an organization, it’s not about your brilliant idea of change. Ultimately, I always go back to the root word of philanthropy, which means the love of humanity. Even philanthropy has been bastardized to really become this cool thing to do, with groups like Charity Water and TOM Shoes. Philanthropy has become so much about models and fundraising schemes, like ice bucket challenges, when really philanthropy is about love of humanity and having that be your drive every single day – whether that’s the people you work with or even people that you meet over lunch. All of that is very important and something that I think the people that are in this space should always be reminded of.

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Written by Diana Kim

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