American Free Enterprise Day Medalist Y. Michele Kang has spent her life defying expectations.
Kang emigrated from Korea as a single woman, attended college in the United States, worked her way up to an executive role in a Fortune 500 company and then built Cognosante, her own health information technology firm from scratch during the recession.
“This is an especially powerful moment for me, because based on my background, I was never supposed to be here,” Kang told the crowd in the packed Rubin Arena.
When Kang was growing up, opportunities for young women in Korea were profoundly limited, she said. Women went to college and then filled administrative roles — but only until they married. There were no business or executive career paths for women, Kang said.
“The problem is that I’ve never been very good about accepting what I can or cannot do,” Kang said to applause and cheers.
Kang asked her parents to borrow money that they would otherwise use to pay for a wedding and used it pay for her first year of tuition in America. She promised to pay them back when she was successful.
She counts that as her first business deal and credits all of her successes as flowing from that one. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in public and private management from the Yale School of Management.
Before founding Cognosante, she served as vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s Health Solutions division and as a strategy consultant for global information, technology and telecommunications companies.
Her lifelong goal was to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Instead, she founded her own business.
“Starting a company was not part of my original plan,” Kang said. “To be honest, I was a bit anxious. What if I failed and lost everything?”
She had three contingency plans: waiting tables at a 3-star Michelin restaurant in New York, working as a freelance graphic designer for PowerPoint presentations or assembling IKEA furniture — or maybe a combination of the three.
Despite the recession, she threw herself into launching Cognosante. She worried about making payroll in the beginning. She had the loyalty of a diverse group of employees who were willing to take a risk with her.
The company now directly or indirectly touches between 170 million and 180 million Americans. Last year, Cognosante acquired J.Lodge, a company that supports alternative work environments and flexible schedules. J.Lodge employs people who are unable to work a typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job because they are disabled, injured veterans, caregivers, and/or spouses of service members.
J.Lodge allows employees to work eight hours on their own schedules. J.Lodge employees get the same health insurance benefits as Cognosante employees, freeing them from reliance on government benefits.
“We want disabled Americans to be able to reassert the dignity of work,” Kang said.
KangKang made it clear that J.Lodge is not a charity or a non-profit. It is a successful, for-profit company. She said she wants to prove to large and small business owners that they need to do their fair share to employ disabled people rather than criticizing them for using a government safety net.
Kang said that despite attacks, capitalism is the best economic system — although one that needs to be improved to make it fairer. Free enterprise has allowed so many people around the world to flourish, she said.
“It is a mechanism for creating value and being rewarded for it,” Kang said.
One’s goal should not be money or fame but a sense of purpose and achievement based on his or her unique interests, she said.
“My hope today is that by hearing my story, you create your own.”
In addition to Kang, the University honored four companion medalists: Robert W. “Chip” Lafferty, CEO of Hill York Air Conditioning Services & Energy Solutions; Beth Neuhoff, CEO of Neuhoff Communications; Geoff Seiber, president and CEO of FranFund and Carlos Vidueira, president of the Rybovich SuperYacht Marina & Service Center.
The University has hosted American Free Enterprise Day since 1984. The celebration honors individuals whose hard work and achievement exemplify the best of the American free enterprise system.