Lifting Up Our Own: Wall Street Legend Dow Kim Pledges Millions to the Korean American Community

Sometime in the early 2000s when investment banking was still a mystery to most of the immigrant community, a young Korean American named Dow Kim found a way to navigate the cutthroat ranks of traders and bankers to become one of the highest ranking executives on Wall Street. 

An understated man of few words, Kim has remained largely under the radar during the past decade and anyone who meets him now might never suspect that he once was Co-President of Global Markets & Investment Banking of Merrill Lynch, one of the largest investment banks in the world where only the CEO took home more than Kim. 

Having retired from Merrill in early 2007, Kim continues to trade actively while managing family assets and businesses but he now devotes a significant amount of time directing the giving at his Dow Kim Family Foundation, which he created in 2018 with his wife before she passed away in 2019. The unique angle the Kims agreed upon was to focus their giving solely to organizations that directly help under-resourced Korean Americans. 

Dow Kim credits his parents with giving him an important key to success in his life and career. In a book called “Lessons From the Top”, Kim was asked how he was able to rise to such heights with the additional disadvantage of being a first generation Korean American. He answered, “From a young age, I was taught to be a person whom others would think, ‘He’s a good person of character’ rather than someone who showed superficial affection. Thanks to my parents’ influence, I was known to have good relationships with people within the bank. Due to my tendencies to keep to myself, I did not put on airs and worked unpretentiously while at the same time working with those around me for all of us to be promoted.”

“If my boss commended me for doing something well, I always included the names of colleagues who worked with me. In turn, my colleagues would think, ‘He’s not in it just for himself but also considerate of other colleagues. So, when my Division had the best quarterly performance, my colleagues were genuinely happy for me. I think this was an important part of my success.”

Born in Seoul as the eldest of three children, Kim left his family at the age of 15 and moved to the States to attend boarding school at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Befriending many American friends whose parents were in finance, he realized after much self-reflection, that banking, not law or medicine, was the career he wanted to pursue in America.

Dow Kim, Williams Hall, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, 1980

After graduating from the undergraduate program at the Wharton School of Business, Kim found himself with a prestigious degree but had difficulty finding a job without a green card. He took the only job he could get in New York, which was as a credit analyst position at Manufacturers Hanover, a commercial bank where he took home a modest initial salary of $25K per year. A self-admitted reluctant commercial banker, Dow Kim saw that trading was where the action was, and after five years he was given an opportunity to be transferred to a derivatives trading desk. 

Recently married with a freshly minted green card, he and his wife then took a transfer opportunity to Tokyo, a move that Kim feels was pivotal in creating an opportunity to stand out and distinguish himself, away from the sharp elbows of the main office in New York.

In Tokyo, he became one of the bank’s highest revenue producers and began to get noticed. At the age of 32, he made the fateful move to Merrill Lynch where, in ten short years, he would find himself back in New York charged with running all of the company’s global markets and investment banking.

Switching gears from the pinnacle of the corporate world to a quieter life out of the public eye was a transition that Kim took in stride. Diving into the trenches of the non-profit world where the need can feel endless, Dow Kim found causes that allowed him to use both his resources and creativity to help fellow Korean Americans. 

The Dow Kim Family Foundation is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization engaged in philanthropic activities in areas of education, social services, and arts & culture with the sole mission to help better and empower the lives of underserved and under-resourced Korean Americans. The Foundation currently maintains long-term granting relationships with five Korean American non-profit organizations in this country.

“Dow Kim’s food giving initiative was the first of its kind, giving directly to people to meet their immediate needs. His initiative fed over 400 families with over 15,000 meals during the height of the pandemic and the initiative is still going on to this day thanks to his ongoing support,” said Esther Limb, Board Chair of the Korean American Family Services Center (KAFSC).

Here is our exclusive interview with Dow Kim on his recent pledge to give millions to help the underprivileged members of the Korean American community.

How has your philanthropy evolved over the years?

I think like many folks, the first place you tend to give is to your alma mater and that’s what I did as well. I gave to my high school to help them build a soccer field and continued to donate annually. After a while, I gave to my college as well and set up a scholarship fund to help students attend four years of college. When we moved to New York from Tokyo, we got involved in the local community. I sat on the board of my daughters’ school for nine years and gave quite a bit during that time especially when they went through a period of financial difficulty during 2008-2009.

dow kim family foundation
Dow Kim and his daughters, Dani and Katie. Philadelphia, PA, 2021

Why do you, and so many others, choose to give to their alma maters as their first experience in philanthropy?

I think I and others are very grateful for the experience that we had during school and how it contributed to our careers and shaped our lives. I had one of the best academic and social experiences during high school and college, and I strongly felt the need to give back. Also, the schools do a great job of instilling a sense of loyalty and belonging when asking for money.

What changed?

Nothing really changed with the giving that we had done for years. But when my wife Aeri got sick in 2018, we sat down and talked about a lot of different things, and the topic of charitable giving came up. We set up the family foundation and talked about what the mission ought to be. She had always given to the Korean community but I had not been involved in the Korean community until that point.

Because of my wife’s desire to help the Korean community and the change in my own thinking, I suggested that we keep it simple and narrow and just focus on the KA community across the board including social services, education, arts and culture, and even politics. That’s how it all got started. I then called close friends to advise me on the right KA organizations that we should get involved with.

What were your thoughts behind setting up a family foundation instead of direct giving?

Any time you give to a non-profit organization you get a certain tax benefit. Even if you just write a check out of your personal account you can deduct that amount or portion of it against your income (one should consult with a CPA for specifics). However, we decided to set up a foundation because of the way you can grow funds within the foundation largely tax-free. You can put a lump sum into the foundation and use those funds to invest and all the future gains are largely tax-free. This made sense for us since I felt confident in my ability to grow the funds and steadily increase our giving over time.

I spoke to my accountant and lawyer to discuss how to set up the foundation properly, and found out the best way for us was to outsource the entire function to a company that handles the day-to-day. The company we used is called Foundation Source and it does the whole operation front to back and charges us a small percentage of the assets of the foundation. There are other similar organizations out there that do the same thing.

These companies are helpful in that they will send out all the checks, do the administrative work and at the end of the year, they will prepare the tax forms. We’ve been at it for four years now and I found them to be a very valuable service.

How do you structure the giving from the foundation?

So far, we have made a few million dollars of long term commitments and pledges to five organizations: Korean American Family Services Center (KAFSC), Korean American Scholarship Foundation (KASF), the non-profit arts organization AHL, Council of Korean Americans (CKA) and Korean American Association of Greater New York (KAAGNY). There are also organizations like the Korean American Community Foundation (KACF) which I give to every year but have not made any formal pledge.

Instead of giving all at once, I felt that through our family foundation, the best way to meet our overall objectives and mission was to make 5-10 year long-term giving pledges to select organizations. The primary objective for the long-term commitments is for them to be able to budget their operations. At the same time, these kinds of pledges also demonstrate long-term commitment on our part and create opportunities to get involved strategically and help with organizational matters and things of that nature. Both of my daughters, Katie and Dani, are directors of our family foundation. So I envision them getting more actively involved in carrying out the affairs of the foundation in the coming years.  

My family foundation’s giving has always been for general use so that they will have flexibility to use the money as they best see fit since every organization is different. Some organizations like KAFSC are more affected by events and crises like the pandemic which creates opportunities for more focused projects that I can help organize and fund.

What are your criteria in choosing the organizations you support?

Our first criterion was that the organizations had to have at least a 10-year history of being in operation. I then meet with the executive directors and board members to learn more about what the organizations do and how they do it. I also try to make strategic allocations to hit different sectors such as family services, education, community leadership, and the arts.

I like to learn about their annual budgets, the services they provide, and in some cases, I get involved as an advisor. I think it depends on the culture and life cycle of the organization. One of my favorite joys is helping the Korean American Scholarship Foundation, again, going back to the link with my experience with my alma mater. KASF needed advising on some strategic matters so I’ve been enjoying getting more involved with different aspects of the organization like fundraising and leadership hiring.

When did you realize your gifts can have real impact on people’s lives?

Covid was a unique situation that acutely demonstrated a moment when people could step up and do some necessary things. Because of the connections I had formed with charitable organizations it was easier to see what needed to get done and what could get done.

During Covid, KAFSC saw a lot of need with hunger in low-income communities and at the same time I saw a lot of suffering on the part of the restaurant industry. An idea came to me for a food giving initiative to help the local Korean restaurants while providing meals to people who needed them. I connected with restaurateur Hooni Kim and he rounded up 6 other Korean restaurant owners who were interested in participating.

We initially started with a $50K donation to KAFSC (and additional fund raising), which then connected the restaurants to the people in need. The program lasted for a year and a half.

Were there any surprises as to how these organizations work?

Because I jumped in all at once in a short period of time, there were some mistakes and lessons learned when I made long-term pledges in a span of only a few months. As time went by, there were some situations that didn’t match my expectations. When that happens and you don’t see eye-to-eye, you just have to engage and manage the situation as best you can. I still think it’s good to commit long term but you need to make sure that the organization meets your expectations. But overall, our experience has been overwhelmingly positive and satisfactory.

What has been the most personally satisfying?

It’s great to feel that I can make an impact. These organizations are not that large even though they have been around for at least ten years. The incremental dollars we added through our foundation felt like they could do some real good. And importantly, over time, we hope that many like-minded Korean Americans will also decide to engage with the Korean American community.

Do you see non-monetary ways that people can do charitable work?

Many of these organizations are run by volunteers and there are many ways to help. There are endless volunteer opportunities as well as things like associate boards where young people can use their talents and time to give back. Many of these programs can also become networking opportunities for young people.

Even financially, every bit helps and even small donations given regularly make a big difference over time.

What are your thoughts on the wider landscape of philanthropy in the KA community?

There are so many Korean Americans who are more successful than me these days. Lots of young people and many pockets of individuals in Private Equity, Tech and so forth. The question is who or when will they step up? Some may think more broadly and not want to go so narrow, Pan Asian for example, which is fine. But it would be great to know that some folks are setting aside money to help fellow Korean Americans specifically.

You can’t force anyone to give. Each person has his own preference. Some don’t start giving until they are 40-50 years old. I wasn’t giving to the Korean American community, specifically, until four years ago. In my case, I didn’t feel that I had a connection with the Korean community for a long period of time. But after my wife got sick and after you age, you have a different perspective in life. I came to the conclusion that if I’m going to give, I might as well be strategic and help my own immigrant community to have the biggest impact. That’s why I wanted to focus on the Korean American community.

Find Out More About Dow Kim’s Favorite Korean American Non-Profits:

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