Twenty-five years ago, Sung-Joo Kim ’81 began building a fashion empire. This year, Charles Hay, the British ambassador to South Korea, stopped by her office in Seoul to share some unlikely news: Queen Elizabeth II had chosen Kim to become an honorary officer of the Order of the British Empire. She would be the first Korean woman ever to receive this award.
“I have no idea how they found me for that!” says Kim. But she’s built her career by defying expectations and expanding opportunities for women in her country and throughout Asia.
As an international transfer student at Amherst, Kim was influenced by the “very active feminist movement going around America” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She went on to pursue graduate studies at the London School of Economics and Harvard.
Her father bequeathed his multibillion-dollar energy business only to his sons and expected his daughters to enter into arranged “power marriages” with other wealthy Korean families, she says. Instead, Kim married a middleclass British-Canadian man whom she met at Harvard. “My parents completely cut me off ,” she says. “I had to drop out from school and instead find work.”
Kim got her start in business at Bloomingdale’s in New York. In 1990 she returned to South Korea to start her own company distributing European luxury brands such as Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent to the Korean market. Today Sungjoo Group owns the German luxury brand MCM, employs more than 1,500 people around the world (the majority of them women) and exports handbags, designer clothing and other goods to 35 countries, including the U.S. market.
Kim accepted the royal honor — in the form of a medal and a certificate signed by the queen — at Ambassador Hay’s home amid a cozy gathering of family and friends. It recognizes Kim’s “contributions to UK-Korea relations,” says a statement from Hay. In addition to sending her daughter to junior high and high school in London and owning an apartment there, Kim has donated funds to British institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, Wales Evangelical School of Theology and London College of Fashion, among others.
She serves as a trustee of Asia House, and she founded the Pan Asian Women’s Association to foster advocacy and cultural exchange among “accomplished Asian women living around London.” And Sungjoo Group owns the Korean franchise for the British retailer Marks & Spencer.
Inspired by the humility and philanthropy of her devoutly Christian mother, Kim believes awards like this one—and the honorary doctorate in humane letters she received from Amherst in 2000—come with the responsibility to be a better leader and role model. “I feel God is giving me more homework to do,” she says.
Geun-hye Park, South Korea’s first female president, has given Kim plenty of work to do, too. Kim co-chaired Park’s campaign committee and helped her win the election in 2012. Last year Park called on Kim to become president of the Korean Red Cross, a position traditionally reserved for the country’s elderly male former prime ministers. Kim accepts no payment for the Red Cross role; she sees it as a chance to use her business expertise to continue helping poor and disabled people, as well as suffering people in North Korea. Her motto, she says, is “succeed to serve.”