One of the first things that stand out about Jinsoo Terry is her smile: It’s constantly on the verge of an impish giggle or an outburst of laughter, always seeming to hint at the secret to happiness.
“The most important thing is to have self-confidence,” said Terry, a Berkeley resident whose success story has earned her the U.S. Department of Commerce Western Region’s Minority Business Advocate of the Year award. “The second is being able to communicate effectively, to be able to sell yourself.”
Such advice may sound like the standard “formula-for-success” fare churned out by motivational speakers everywhere. But Terry’s sparkle is not so much in her words. It’s in an infectious attitude that seems to say striving for success in business is just a game, and that the only reason to do so is for the sheer fun of it all.
“I have a rap song. I’m a rapper,” she said gleefully, handing me a CD with a picture of her head atop a business-suited cartoon body with arms raised and flexed. “At first, I would just have the rappers perform when I was speaking to African American teenagers, but then I realized what they were saying had nothing to do with what I was trying to get across. So I decided, why not just make my own rap song.”
One song puts her mantra to a catchy beat: “If Jinsoo can do it, you can do it too.” In another, Terry urges women to “come to me” so that she can share with them her secret to success. “We are the ladies, we are the girls,” she proclaims. “We are tough, we are strong, we make success, we make happiness!”
Encouraging young women is especially important to Terry, who was discouraged from pursuing a master’s degree in engineering at a prestigious university in South Korea. “I was the only woman in the class. I had to fight,” she said. “People would say, you should stay home and have a baby. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to do engineering because it was challenging, and I wanted to prove that women could do it too.”
Even after she earned the degree, she was locked out of the highest positions, still getting paid the same as men who were less educated. Partly due having an unusually independent mother who strongly encouraged her daughter to pursue her education and career goals, and partly due to her own inborn chutzpah, Terry eventually broke through the glass ceiling. At the age of 28—months away from obtaining a Ph.D.—she was promoted to the head of Research and Development at one of the country’s largest yarn-dyeing companies.
Soon after that promotion, Terry set out with her new husband for the United States, where another uphill battle awaited her. She first took a job at a restaurant in Alameda, then as a factory worker at a medical equipment company in San Francisco. “I thought if I worked very hard on the assembly line, then I would be promoted, but that didn’t happen,” she said.
Terry eventually learned enough English in order to land a job as a supervisor at a leather belt company, where she often worked six and seven days a week. But after seven years she was still not satisfied with the pace of her progress. “I wanted to be production manager,” she said. “When they didn’t promote me, I quit.”
Terry said she set out to obtain an MBA, believing it was her lack of education that was holding her back. But, Terry says, the real breakthrough came when she joined Toastmasters International, an organization that gives members a chance to practice public speaking.
“Before I connected with the people at Toastmasters, I was depressed. I thought I wasn’t getting ahead because I was Korean, or because I was a woman. I thought white folks were discriminating against me, African-American folks were discriminating against me,” she said. “But I started to realize the real problem was me. I needed to learn the language better, how to deliver my ideas, and how to be confident. I needed to be able to communicate with people of different backgrounds.”
Terry soon founded her own Toastmasters Club—the Rhinoceros Business Club—which she says is devoted specifically to teaching immigrants and minorities communication skills and in providing opportunities for business networking.
Terry is now vice-president of Cut Loose Clothing, a women’s apparel company located in the Bayshore neighborhood of San Francisco. On top of that, Terry co-owns a Berkeley-based mosquito net company with her husband Sam, writes a business advice column for the Korea Times, and is a paid motivational speaker.
Being a professional speaker is particularly satisfying for Terry. “I see the young people and the teenagers in the Bayshore neighborhood, and they have a lot of creativity and they are really serious,” she said. “But a lot of them don’t know where the resources are, like the Small Business Association, or the Women’s Entrepreneur Center. And they don’t have the confidence. “That’s why I want to encourage them, to say if I can do it, if I can come to this country speaking no English and be a success, then you can too.”
Williard Houston, business development specialist for the United States Chamber of Commerce, said Terry “is a dynamic personality and is very committed to helping people in the community. She has tons of awards to attest to that.”
Her latest honor, the Minority Business Advocate award, was recently presented to her at a ceremony attended by Mayor Willie Brown, who two years ago declared July 10 Jinsoo Terry Day.
Terry said being named minority business advocate will bolster her efforts to bring more minorities into the mainstream of business culture. “Many immigrants, even if they have their own business, will stay within their own communities,” she said. “But when they do that, they miss out on a lot of benefit. We have to come together and be open to each other.”