Exclusive, unique, and dominant. That is how industry experts describe David Chun’s Equilar, the largest provider of executive compensation information in the country. As the man behind the company, David Chun is the Korean American entrepreneur who created this enterprise back in the year 2000 when no such industry existed. In an ever growing race for talent, a vast number of Fortune 500 companies, investment banks, and tech unicorns rely on Equilar for essential benchmarking data on compensation packages that have become increasingly more complex in the past decades.
In addition to executive compensation, David Chun has led Equilar into a diverse portfolio of other business lines, including data necessary to identify and recruit diverse executives and board members, and recently announced a strategic partnership with Nasdaq to help companies with board composition.
David Chun may be a genius entrepreneur but he started out as a regular guy, jumping from consulting to engineering to investment banking, initially unsure of exactly what he wanted to do in life. Here he shares with us his perspectives on life, career, and the intestinal fortitude it takes to be successful in the big leagues.
PL: What was the first big break in your career and who helped you get there?
DC: There’s so many to choose from that it’s hard to pick one. For Equilar, it’s our first media mention in Reuters in 2002 when we were cited for the pay of Tyco’s CFO Mark Schwartz. I still remember the call from Tim McLaughlin at Reuters. That first mention in a respected media publication put us on the map and gave us the credibility we needed. We’re fortunate that we get exposure with trusted brands like CNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others each week at virtually little cost to us.
What are the industries with the highest paid executives?
Media and Technology. Teach your kids how to code. With every industry getting disrupted, a solid understanding of technology is invaluable. As in the words of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, you want to skate to where the puck is headed and not where it is now.
What’s the one trait that has contributed most to your success?
Stubbornness. As an entrepreneur, one has to be gritty and overcome obstacles when building something that no one has done before. In hindsight, everything looks obvious. But at the outset, it’s a fine balance between determination and recklessness when launching a new initiative.
What do you wish you had learned earlier in your life?
You don’t know what you don’t know. At a young age, we think we know everything and are invincible. However, as your career progresses, you quickly realize that there’s so much that you don’t know. What keeps me excited are the opportunities to learn each day and meet amazing people along the way.
What was a low point in Equilar’s journey and how did you get through it?
The first three years. We started in March 2000 just before the Dot Com bubble burst. It was an incredibly challenging time and feel very fortunate and blessed that we somehow made it through the wilderness.
What 2 things helped you get through the pandemic?
Our home gym and streaming subscriptions. I was able to catch up on my backlog of movies and became a documentary junkie. If I had to pick one, go with the Bee Gees on HBO Max. An amazing story of how they evolved over the years and their resiliency and incredible staying power.
What’s your go-to drink at a cocktail party and how did you come upon it?
Sorry to disappoint everyone but it’s club soda. Please, no groans. I get red way too easily! And on those special occasions, I’ll add cranberry juice with a twist of lime.
What’s your favorite Korean comfort food?
Seolleongtang. I’m so bummed that Gam Mi Ok shut down on 32nd Street in K-Town in NYC. So many fond memories from the 90s of 2 AM visits after the Crane Club and then watching fights break out. K-Town was very different back then. Now that we’re in California, I always made it a point to include a visit on my trips to NYC. Thankfully, the one in Fort Lee is still open.
What’s your favorite vacation spot?
Carmel. Even though we’ve been there hundreds of times, it’s so beautiful and peaceful that it never gets boring. We’re very fortunate to be living in Northern CA with beautiful destinations within a short drive of our home.
What books have influenced your life the most and why?
The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. It helped me better understand what kind of intestinal fortitude it takes to be an entrepreneur and founder. It’s a roller coaster of a journey and recognizing that every entrepreneur has similar feelings of despair on those bad days.
I’d also recommend the audiobook of How to Lead by David Rubenstein, the Co-Founder of The Carlyle Group. It’s a series of interviews with leaders who share their journeys and life lessons. The audiobook includes the actual interviews and you can listen to Jeff Bezos, Phil Knight, Jamie Dimon, Colin Powell and others.
Korean Americans often get stuck in middle management. What are some ways they can break through the barrier to the top paying jobs in America?
Build your networks. As we often hear, it’s often who you know and not what you know. Our kids are fortunate that their parents and their friends are in leadership roles across America and can help mentor the next generation. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how close we are to great mentors and opportunities in our networks. And with CKA and other groups bringing our networks together, we’ll be stronger together and help pay it forward for the next generation.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I read the NY Post every day but it’s for the sports. Never Page Six. Well, once in a while the clickbait gets me.
Are you an obsessive person and, if so, what are your biggest obsessions?
Yeah, like many founders, we tend to be obsessive about our businesses. For better or for worse, I’m always thinking of ways to make our business stronger. A lot of mental gymnastics thinking through scenarios.
Where do you like to splurge and where are you the most frugal?
I let Lillian do the splurging. Let’s just say it’s one of her gifts. I excel at frugal. She’s yin and I’m yang. Free is for me.
You’ve been married for 25 years. What advice do you have for young people in finding a life partner?
Every marriage will have its ups and downs and bumps and bruises. Relationships will get tested and put through extremes. You never know what curves life will throw at you each day. It’s how we as a couple work together as a team through these tough times.
What’s your favorite method to relax and recharge your batteries?
Anything physically active. It can be golf, a hike, a walk, basketball, any sport. Always keep moving! When I pass away, I’ll have plenty of time to relax afterwards.
Q&A is a Best of Korea special interview series done in collaboration with the Council of Korean Americans. For more on David Chun, check out the CKA podcast where Abraham Kim interviews David Chun on his life and his career.