That Tae Yun Kim is not like any other tech CEO is an exponential understatement. And not just because she’s a woman or because she’s over 70–an unheard-of age in thirty-something dominated Silicon Valley.
The co-founder of Fremont-based clean room monitoring systems company Lighthouse Worldwide, Kim is a tech avatar, martial arts guru, civic booster, motivational speaker and a master promoter.
The petite Kim–she’s 4′ 11″ tall–practices what she calls “high heel marketing.” What that comes down to is platform shoes and big hair to equalize the height difference between herself and almost anyone she’s with. Her style is Dolly Parton–she designs clothes and favors bright colors, figure-hugging fit and an abundance of shine and sparkle.
All of this makes it no surprise that Kim was the tech headliner at the Women of Silicon Valley Conference at the Santa Clara Convention Center recently.
Kim’s personal history forms the core of her message whether she’s talking about particle counters, Tae Kwon Do, business success or overcoming insecurity. Her personal narrative is central to everything.
Born in 1946 in war-ravaged Korea, Kim’s childhood told her in every way that she was unwanted and worthless. As she tells it, her parents abandoned her when her town was bombed. She spent her childhood into her early teens with a series of relatives who she says made it manifestly clear that she was a burden.
When a matchmaker was hired to arrange a marriage, she spilled hot tea on the woman, which ensured that no marriage was going to be set up. Her grandfather took her to a local elder, a monk, for advice.
The man asked her what she wanted to do–something that she says no one else had ever done. Interested in her uncles’ tae kwon do practice, Kim replied that she wanted to study the martial art. The monk took her on as his student.
In her mid-teens Kim, reunited with her parents, immigrated to the U.S., settling in Vermont. She had little education or skill. She didn’t speak English. All she had was her Tae Kwon Do.
She tells the story that she was so determined to make friends that she took her one sentence of English, My name is Tae Yun Kim and I want to be your friend, and knocked on every door on the street until someone agreed to be friends.
It’s a style that she has never abandoned. She is persistent and determined to make you like her, to make you feel that your friendship is the single most important thing to her.
Her insistence and persistence has brought her attention. She’s been a cover girl for Tae Kwon Do Times, SF Journal, East Bound Local and American Fitness. She was a California Woman of the Year, a Silicon Valley Business Journal Woman Of Distinction, and was awarded a California Chamber of Commerce Most Innovative Business Leader prize.
She’s an energetic civic booster and philanthropist, supporting everything from the local volunteer fire department to veterans groups. She started a film festival, a clothing line, a Tae Kwon Do school featuring her own brand of the martial art called Jung SuWon and has self-published several self-help books
Just as Kim’s own story is an archetypal rags-to-riches narrative, the Lighthouse story is a just as archetypal Silicon Valley saga.
Teaching martial arts in Vermont she says she noticed calluses on her students’ hands and found out it was from playing video games. She asked a student who was a software engineer, Scott Salton, how to start a video game company. The business partners succeeded in creating an Atari-era video game, but made no money at it.
However, it was 1985 and like so many, Kim, Salton and other colleagues in the video game venture, convinced that silicon fortunes were there for the taking, moved to Silicon Valley. Salton worked for FMC, Kim taught martial arts, and they all shared an unfurnished apartment.
This time instead of a product, they decided to sell a service: contract engineering. But they found a product when a customer asked them to design a system for managing clean rooms.
They made a deal with the customer to develop a generic system that they could sell to anyone that needed to monitor particle levels. The result was a real-time remote monitoring system that ran on off-the-shelf sensors, a Windows PC, and open source software.
Seeing the success of the market, the sensor manufacturer decided to build its own system and stopped selling sensors to Lighthouse. Overnight, Lighthouse had no product.
There was only one solution for Lighthouse: to develop and build its own sensors.
It was a risky move, considering that the company had no expertise in designing or building measurement instruments. “Making the decision is 50 percent of the solution,” said Kim.
The other 50 percent of the solution was a lot of hard work.
Kim says she treated the challenge as homework. Her job was to manage a team to develop functioning particle sensors in six month so they could show prototypes at the SEMICON tradeshow.
“We hit the books,” said Salton, who has a degree in electrical engineering. “We went back to school. We hired people. If there were 15 ways to do something, instead of guessing which one was best, we built them all. We used all our skill sets. It was one of the most rewarding and productive things I’ve ever done.”
Not only did Kim and Salton have products to introduce at SEMICON, they packaged them in clear covers, Kim said, so competitors couldn’t say Lighthouse stole their technology.
Today the company sells a full range of products from particle counters and environment sensors to complete monitoring systems for industrial, biotech and medical clean rooms. Kim is now looking at AI and thinking about where that fits into Lighthouse’s growing product line, and sending engineers into the field to find unsolved problems.
“People tell me it’s impossible to do new things at 71,” she said. “But I’m still having new ideas.” In one sense or another, she’s still that girl knocking on doors and introducing herself, saying, “I’m Kim Tae Yun and I want to be your friend.”