Meet Rose Lee, the First KA Woman CEO in the Fortune 1000
In January 2022, Rose Lee was elected by Honeywell International to be the newest member of their board of directors, becoming the first Korean American woman to sit on the board of a Fortune 100 company. This news came on the heels of an even more impressive achievement when, in September 2021, Rose Lee became the CEO of Cornerstone Building Brands, the building materials behemoth included in the Fortune 1000, the definitive list of the largest, most successful companies in America.
Rose Lee’s rise in corporate America has been quiet, steady, and strategic. And it may come as a surprise that, even after achieving so much professionally, she prioritizes happiness and health when it comes to the advice she gives her own daughters.
According to the latest demographic data on corporate governance, only 4.4% of the Fortune 100 board members are of Asian descent, and Rose Lee is the only Korean American female. But long before sitting on public company boards, she was an aerospace engineering student at Cornell University, later earning her MBA at MIT. Starting her career as an engineer at United Technologies, she eventually rose to the position of President of Dupont’s Water and Protection business before accepting the top job at Cornerstone earlier this year.
Amidst long work weeks and an unrelenting travel schedule, Rose Lee has always carved out time for meaningful vacations with her husband, a partner at an international law firm, and two daughters. Ever mindful of fostering a happy home life filled with fun and adventure, she and her husband even joined in the pandemic wave of people who adopted a homeless dog from a shelter.
We are dazzled by Rose Lee’s accomplishments and at the same time, we are comforted by the fact that she is just like the rest of us when it comes to her love of spicy Korean food and addictive Korean dramas.
Describe your perfect vacation.
I love to go someplace warm. Hawaii is a favorite but we also love Aruba which is closer to our home in Pennsylvania.
What’s your go-to cocktail?
An old-fashioned. I’ve become a bourbon drinker.
What do you like to splurge on and what are you most frugal about?
My husband and I are pretty frugal about most things but we’ll splurge occasionally on vacations. I think about what I remember in my 56 years on earth and it’s never about this thing or that thing. It’s about what were the most memorable experiences. We took our whole extended family to Miami to celebrate my husband’s hwangap.
My pocketbooks tend to be expensive and I’d love to get an Audi e-tron if one ever becomes available.
What’s your favorite Korean meal/restaurant?
I like really spicy Korean food like soondubu jjigae and yukgaejang. As for restaurants, there’s a small Korean restaurant we like in a strip mall in Bucks County PA, called Mirim where the owner is the chef.
What’s your favorite Korean drama or movie?
Our family got into K-Dramas during the pandemic. Mr. Sunshine got me totally hooked and we also really enjoyed Crash Landing on You. We are now subscribed to not only Netflix but other channels that have K-Dramas. There’s a terrific family drama called Uncle which is available on Viki.
What do you like to do when you visit Korea?
We do a lot of eating in Seoul. We like to stay in Gangnam – I think we stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel. I love the juxtaposition of history with the ancient palaces so close to the modern skyscrapers. You can see in one view the transformation of the country. We love going to the markets and just blending in. I’m more American than I am Korean but when I go there I feel a sense of comfort and belonging that is unique. And coming from outside of Korea I’m really able to appreciate this place that has gone through such an amazing transformation.
My daughters also intrinsically feel something. We spent the first half of our last trip in Japan and they definitely talked about the Korea portion more when we returned.
What Korean characteristics have you held close and what have you chosen to discard?
The most Korean thing about me is what Koreans call ahkchak (악착). It roughly translates to a stubborn persistence or determination and it’s a trait that many Korean immigrants share. It’s a dimension of me that has been very consistent. It’s also something that’s helpful in a lot of the difficult things one has to go through in life.
How I value relationships and connecting and communicating has evolved a lot. I think I’ve adapted to the more American ways of opening up and connecting with others. I’ve learned to invest in relationships and work to understand others. I also think there’s a way to share and express things in the right ways so that you don’t reduce the amount of impact and positive potential.
Growing up I was taught to keep quiet and be soft-spoken but I’ve learned that it’s more about sharing the totality of yourself with others.
What risky career move are you most proud of?
Accepting my job as CEO of Cornerstone was certainly not a safe choice. I could have stayed at Dupont which is a great company and a place where I had built a great team. I made the decision based on wanting to bring together all the things I had experienced and learned into a position where there is much clearer accountability. We also don’t get to work forever and I wanted to maximize the amount of impact I could have with the time I had.
You’ve spent your career working at science and engineering focused companies. What are some of the latest scientific advances that you find most fascinating?
The convergence of Big Data and analytics and artificial intelligence is at the core of all the innovation occurring right now. We’re just scratching the surface as to how that will transform our lives. Everyone talks about innovation but the application of that convergence will be so different from what we see today.
There are pluses and minuses but true innovation only comes with risk and not being afraid to fail. Elon Musk is the epitome of this massive force that pushes what is possible. This new technology will bring together different disciplines like never before and will require a different way of thinking. With my daughters and with anyone in the next generation I like to encourage them to have more expansive ways of thinking, being, and connecting.
What books have influenced you the most and why?
I recently enjoyed reading Winning Now, Winning Later by David Cote. I like the business classics like Good to Great by Jim Collins. I learned a lot from Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I’m pretty much an open book and my friends tell me I would be a terrible poker player. I’m also an introvert which surprises a lot of the people I work with.
You must travel an enormous amount for work. What are your tips for smart travel?
Because I travel so much, I’m a minimalist. Clothes are shades of black, gray, and white, and any trip under two weeks will fit in a carry-on. My other tip is to figure out how to get yourself in a place where you can get rest when you can. Unplug and create the space to rest as much as possible. I always get a full night’s sleep on my long flights to Asia. Sleep is so important and I’m lucky that I can sleep pretty much anywhere.
The other part of travel is finding a way to enjoy where you are. It’s really important to put yourself in the moment which will create more opportunities for expanding yourself. It might be a new culture and having some curiosity about the new setting will make things more meaningful.
What is your favorite form of exercise?
During the pandemic, I’ve been working with my trainer on strength. I’m proud to report that my pull-up count has gone from zero to five. The pandemic has also allowed more time for golf which is nice because it balances the amount of time I spend indoors due to work. Taking care of myself always used to come second but it’s really important. I now prioritize investing in myself and build in time for my training and leisure as an important balance.
What’s the advice you most often give to young people?
I can only speak from my own experiences and often tell young people not to be too linear in thinking about their careers. There are many different paths. Rather think of your career as a series of phases. Think about what you want to learn and what is meaningful for you. What do you want to create for yourself and for those around you? Also, is your work making you happy and enabling you to be healthy?
Once you determine the big picture, your North Star will always be there. But get there in a way that maximizes your learning and your growth as you weave and meander your way to your ultimate goals.
One thing I tell my daughters is to never forget the 5 most important things in life, and the order is important: Be happy, be healthy, be strong, be smart, and be beautiful.