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Taking the road less traveled

Startup CEOs who value health leave corporate jobs to pursue healthy lifestyle for all

Lee Hyung-jin, CEO of My Normal, poses with bulletproof coffee (My Normal)
Lee Hyung-jin, CEO of My Normal, poses with bulletproof coffee (My Normal)

While many Koreans dream of working for major corporations, they may not be as grand as they sound.

People can pursue career goals and earn high salaries at big companies, but the heavy workload and frequent get-togethers can lead many workers to poor health. While the cultures of large companies have been changing recently, many workers are often left to choose between their careers and their personal health.

Two startup CEOs, Lee Hyung-jin and Lim Ji-young, who experienced deteriorating health while working in the corporate sector, decided to quit their stable, high-paying jobs to start businesses making healthy food for busy people.

Lee started working at SK Energy right after graduating Seoul National University. However, during the four years at SK, his health became worse and worse.

“I got a lot of stress from work back then. I had an irregular diet and ate junk food all the time. I suffered from obesity, metabolic syndrome and hair loss, stemming from frequent drinking sessions, stress and overwork,” he said. “At one point, I was a supplement addict, taking over 20 supplements a day. Although my body recovered a bit, the problem wasn’t solved at its core. It was then that I read the book ‘The Bulletproof Diet.’”

After reading the book by Dave Asprey introducing the high-fat, very low-carb ketogenic diet, Lee thought changing the way he ate was the way to maintain a healthy body. Although he was at first skeptical of the effects of a ketogenic diet, which claimed weight-loss and increased concentration, after just three months, he lost 15 kilograms and quit many of his supplement pills.
My Normal’s signature product, butter coffee, or bulletproof coffee (My Normal)
My Normal’s signature product, butter coffee, or bulletproof coffee (My Normal)

Lee went on to quit SK Energy and create My Normal, which makes ketogenic diet products. Its main product is the bulletproof coffee, or butter coffee, made by blending espresso, butter and MCT oil that can serve as a meal replacement for busy workers. The company also makes keto-allulose, a syrup that even people with diabetes can eat, and an ice cream that has no added sugar.

“My parents said to me when I left SK, ‘Why leave such a good job?’ and looking back, the job I had was indeed very good given the salary I got,” said Lee. He recalled being able to convince his parents after his mother tried the ketogenic diet, when she lost 7 kilograms and recovered from existing health issues.

With the ketogenic diet, Lee thinks that people can take care of their health even while concentrating on their careers.

“My dream is to make the ketogenic diet mainstream in Korea. Through a ketogenic diet, I hope people fulfill their dreams without disregarding their health,” said Lee.

Lim Ji-young was a lawyer at BKL, one of the biggest law firms in Korea, for eight years before quitting her job to start a homemade granola company. It was not an easy decision.

“Since the beginning, I wanted to go to law school, and I wanted to be a lawyer at a big law firm,” she said. “By driving towards that goal, I was able to achieve it and felt immense satisfaction from work. However, while skipping meals to try and meet deadlines and pulling multiple all-nighters, I felt that this wasn’t the lifestyle that I dreamed of.”

Then, she went on a life-changing study abroad program in the UK funded by the firm. There, Lim experienced the lifestyle she had dreamed of, one where she could have a healthy life with a healthy diet. When she returned after 15 months, she no longer thought being a lawyer was the only possible path in her life. It was then that she started to make granola at least once a week, to eat for breakfast with yogurt.
Lim Ji-young, CEO of Modern Guru, cooks her granola. (Modern Guru)
Lim Ji-young, CEO of Modern Guru, cooks her granola. (Modern Guru)

“I started giving out the homemade granola to my colleagues who also had the same unhealthy lifestyle, and the response was better than I imagined,” she said. “As such, I thought that since there were so many people like me who just eat unhealthy food from convenience stores for breakfast because they are too busy with work, I wanted to make a healthy, easy-to-eat breakfast replacement.”

Not a single person supported Lim’s decision to quit being a lawyer and start a granola company.

“My parents, of course, were against the decision, and my colleagues called me mad and reminded me how much effort I had put into becoming a lawyer which would all go to waste,” she said.
Lim Ji-young poses with her granola products. (Job Company)
Lim Ji-young poses with her granola products. (Job Company)

Despite the opposition, Lim was firm in realizing her new dream of providing breakfast food and launched granola company Modern Guru.

She has an iron rule when it came to her granola products: To make something healthy enough to put on her own dinner table. As such, her No. 1 rule was to use healthy ingredients. By using whole grains and maple syrup instead of processed grains and sugar, she was able to reduce the amount of refined carbohydrates. She also uses extra virgin oil instead of palm oil and adds many high-end nuts like macadamia, pecans and pistachios.

Although her granolas became pricier than other granolas through using premium ingredients, thousands of consumers have been willing to pay more for a healthier and tasty product.

“While some people seek foods that are cheap and plentiful, there are many, like me, who seek healthier food that is tasty even if it might be more expensive,” she said.

Both Lee and Lim lamented the fact that many people were pursuing career success at the expense of their health.

“Health should be a given to everyone because everyone wants to be healthy. However, being healthy is not a given anymore in today’s Korean society. If someone suffers from chronic fatigue, people say, ‘Everyone is like that. Eat a few supplements like the rest of us,’ but that should be unnatural. Suffering from a lack of sleep, tiredness and having a few minor health problems is becoming more and more normal,” said Lee.

“I knew when I went into the law firm that there would be lots of work and that my personal time would need to be compromised. I was okay with that because it was my lifelong dream. Working there, I came to realize that I value personal life and health more than my career as a lawyer,” Lim said. “I think people don’t really know what matters to them the most unless they are in that situation. I used to be certain that I value career above all, but that wasn’t the case.”

Although the first consumers of both companies’ products were mostly women in their 30s, more and more people have been seeking the products with increased online purchases and growing interest in a healthy diet in the time of the coronavirus, bringing both CEOs one step closer to their respective goals of offering healthy and tasty food to more people.

By Lim Jang-won (