Life didn’t go exactly as planned for Chang Hun Lee.
The 34-year-old from Palisades Park graduated from New York University with a degree in political science with the idea of studying law. He took the LSAT exam but then changed his mind and left instead into the family’s retail chain of sneaker stores.
While running this business, the family received an offer to buy KBTV, the Bergen County Korean language channel that has approximately 50,000 viewers. Suddenly Lee was a news anchor.
The tide changed again last fall when the Queens native decided to go for the President of the Korean American Association of New Jersey, the largest nonprofit supporting Korean Americans in the state. Lee used his political science degree to go door-to-door. In December he won the election against Ilsun Kim of Englewood.
Now, with the start of the New Year, Lee begins his two-year term as the youngest president in the association’s 60-year history and the first second-generation Korean American to hold the office. As he becomes familiar with the ins and outs of volunteering, Lee sticks to his broadcast journalist motto: “Provide information to Koreans to help them move forward.”
Born and raised in Astoria, the son of immigrant parents from South Korea, Lee learned at a young age to work with different personalities in a way that only a shopkeeper can. He attended Catholic school in Jackson Heights while his parents worked in the family’s sneaker store in the neighborhood.
His father came to America with only $ 60 in his pocket and worked hard to build a successful business. He lost his Korean name, Dong Hyun and changed it to “Robert” in honor of an African American who volunteered to teach him English.
He also named his growing retail chain after his benefactor. By the time Chang Hun Lee was learning the basics of running a business, the family had four Robert Enterprises sneaker stores in locations across New York City.
Joining the family business helped his social skills, Lee said. Working with his brother Kum Heon, Lee served a wide variety of customers and learned about cultural nuances and consumer preferences.
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The family found another business opportunity five years ago. The Korean broadcasting system based in South Korea sought a subsidiary in the New York-New Jersey market. Through word of mouth, KBS managers found the Lee family.
“They wanted someone who had the cash flow to run it,” Lee said.
Fascinated by the prospect of owning a media company, the family bought the partnership rights and founded KBTV, based in Ridgefield.
In a nondescript office park on Grand Avenue, the Lee family opened a small office and broadcast studio, produced local news and broadcasted KBS network content such as Korean drama and entertainment at the same timeand news from abroad. Chang Hun Lee became the local newscaster and head of the family’s media operations.
Getting in front of the camera wasn’t easy, Lee readily admitted. Since he is a second generation Korean, English was his main language. He practiced his speaking daily to perfect his Korean and turned to Google Translate to get the words pronounced right.
While learning broadcast journalism, Lee had to deal with the struggles of a new business and needed cash flow to keep it afloat. The station only became profitable in 2021, after years of investing and tapping into the Korean community with sponsorship availabilities.
The local KBTV news is broadcast on weekdays at 9 p.m. on the cable networks Spectrum and Optimum. There are three additional reporters to help with the broadcast and produce news for you to use for the Korean American people. During the pandemic, the station showed segments about where to get vaccinated and how small businesses can get help from banks with loans from the paycheck protection program.
It was also during the pandemic and after the Atlanta shootings that killed six people Asian-American womenLast March, Lee had a revelation: he wanted to do more to help the Korean-Americans.
So he decided to run for the leadership of KAANJ. Many second-generation Asian Americans have no connection with older immigrants, he said, but he wants to change that.
Lee spent $ 10,000 of his own money promoting the position. Wherever he could, he spoke to the voters.
Voters recognized him from KBTV and stopped Lee from making small talk.
“You told me, ‘Your Korean has improved,'” said Lee with a smile.
Lee estimates KBTV has around 50,000 viewers in the border triangle and Pennsylvania, but his broadcaster’s reach didn’t reach him until he was campaigning. He sees no ethical conflict in being a journalist and head of a civil organization, as both organizations help Korean Americans.
Yongeun Lee, 50, from Allendale, voted for Lee. As the mother of a 17-year-old son, she is delighted to see a second-generation Korean American meddling in civil affairs.
“I am delighted that KAANJ now has a young president,” said Yongeun Lee. “It shows that many Koreans want change. It is time to let go of the old.”
Cecilia Lim, 18, from Montvale, board member of the nonprofit organization Asian American Youth Council, helped campaign for Lee.
“As the first second generation KAANJ President, he will be able to encourage many other second generations of our community to participate,” said Lim.
Lee has promising plans for the organization, including growth for popular community events like the Chuseok Korean Festival at Ridgefield Park, the celebrates the autumn harvest.
Lee wants KAANJ to be a truly statewide organization for 168,000+ Korean Americans instead of focusing on Northern Jersey. He plans to tour the state to meet with Korean communities in other areas such as Edison and Cherry Hill.
Leveraging his background in working with diverse populations in retailing, Lee plans to network with other ethnic organizations across the state through joint ventures.
He hopes to sow the seeds for future generations.
“My goal is to help KAANJ grow and make sure the next person after my tenure has a better start than me,” Lee said.
Mary Chao 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com. For full access to the latest North Jersey news, subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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