Vanderbilt alum on entrepreneurial success: Money is byproduct, not end product

Jonn Kim started his business with nothing to lose.

He’d seen too many people pass up entrepreneurship because they might lose their house, or their car, or their stock options. Tired of his secure corporate job, Kim became willing to work at McDonald’s if his dreams fell apart.

They didn’t.

Ten years ago, in Huntsville, Ala., he launched GaN Corporation – it stands for Geeks and Nerds, a name he scribbled on a napkin that he later framed. Today, GaN attracts large public and private contracts for software, hardware, cyber security, information technology, testing and other tech services.

The Spring 2015 Chambers Family Entrepreneurial Lectureship speaker told a crowd gathered Monday in Vanderbilt University’s Featheringill Hall that his success — and the success of all entrepreneurs — rests between fear and greed. Too much fear, and potential entrepreneurs never strike out on their own. Too much greed, and they lose sight of why they started a business to begin with, and then they lose everything.

Jonn Kim, center, president and CEO of GaN Corporation, at a post-lecture reception with Associate Dean Cynthia Paschal, left, and Associate Professor Joel Barnett. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

Being an entrepreneur, he said, means using the resources everyone has: time and aptitude.

“I want you to stop thinking about money as an optimizing parameter. It should be a byproduct of what you do in life, not the end product,” Kim said. “I’ve see entrepreneurs pursue money without success. It’s not because they weren’t smart or weren’t working hard. To make money, you have to get lucky, and luck is not something you can control.”

Raised in Korea, Kim emigrated to the U.S. as a high school senior. Back home, he said, they had no indoor plumbing and only “two toes and some water.” It’s one of his favorite phrases to describe all someone needs to be an entrepreneur: a tomato, a potato, and water.

He earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Vanderbilt in 1999 and holds four patents. But his pride is most apparent when he discusses Geeks and Nerds Foundation, his nonprofit that provides scholarships to promising students in the states where his corporation does business.

During the question-and-answer portion of Kim’s lecture, second-year biomedical engineering major Rebecca Weirs asked something Kim said reflects the stress that university students bear: What if you don’t know right now what you want to do with your life?

“You’re going to find it. It takes a while,” Kim said. “Maintain your integrity, stay true to yourself, learn. … I’m envious of people who have a clear path. My path has been very random, but it’s been very fulfilling. It doesn’t matter whether others understand you.”

Weirs said afterward she appreciated the answer.

“That’s something I’ve been worried about,” she said. “Should I be doing research? Should I have an internship lined up? It was reassuring to know I just have to be doing something productive, nothing in particular.”

John Bers, associate professor of the practice of engineering management, had another question for Kim: How does he get GaN employees to be entrepreneurs?

The short answer: Not very well. And that’s OK.

Entrepreneurs are not made, Kim explained.

They’re born.

Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering