Suji Park is the founder and chief executive officer of Suji’s Restaurant Group and Food Dreams Made Real (FDMR), which does business as Suji’s Korean Cuisine.
Through her companies, Park operates multiple restaurants outside the United States ― in Seoul and Tokyo. In addition, Seattle-based FDMR sells Suji’s Korean Cuisine-branded food products through major retailers in the United States, including frozen entrees and heat-and-eat meals ― such as Korean-style ramen spicy chicken, garlic beef and fried chicken bento.
Her company’s products can be found at major U.S. retailers/grocers such as Costco, Target, Kroger and Whole Foods. Park, who was born in Seoul, is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). She launched her first restaurant in Seoul about 15 years ago and established Suji’s Korean Cuisine in Seattle in 2013 with the goal of providing restaurant-quality, authentic Korean flavors to the U.S. consumers.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated? When I think about the characteristics of a good leader, I often relate them to the captain of a fishing boat. Every good captain must have a map to guide them, a crew they trust and the proper tools to catch the right fish. Similarly, a good business leader must have a vision and achievable goals to guide their team, the talent to hire the right team members and, most importantly, the ability to trust and support their team to do their job. This will always result in the ship coming to port with an abundance of fish.
Over the years, I’ve learned it’s very important for leaders to foster a work culture where people feel heard and trusted to do their job. Encouraging leadership at any career level, and offering a platform where team members feel safe and comfortable sharing their ideas, suggestions or feedback, is integral to being a good leader. At Suji’s Korean Cuisine, we are a lean team, but a passionate one, and everyone feels accountable to each other to do their best every day. It is a very collaborative culture, and I’m very proud of that.
I hands-down believe charisma is an overrated trait. Nowadays, leaders can’t just win people over by charm. They need to be human, have emotions, empathy and express kindness. It’s about being authentic. Today’s leaders, more than ever, need to be who they truly are ― authentic.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader? I think the most significant barrier is the perspectives or viewpoints of others. When I see a female business leader, my opinion of her is not based on gender, but rather on how a person leads and how they handle difficult situations. This, unfortunately, is not the way everyone thinks.
The challenge is getting more people to have a nongendered view of leadership and to base their opinions on expertise, period. I do see this happening more and more, though, especially as a leader of a minority-owned, global CPG company in an industry that is male-dominated. I don’t perceive that I am being looked at as a female, but more so as a leader and an expert in my industry.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? I believe that women and every aspiring leader can achieve more prominent roles in their organization through self-confidence, goal-setting, and continued education. By keeping the focus on an individual’s talent, rather than a gender, we are eliminating perspectives that don’t matter in trusting a leader’s ability to shine and break through.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders? Own your instinctual skills. Always be authentic to who you are. Understanding how to read people’s emotions and how to communicate effectively are essential business-leadership skills to help navigate challenging situations. I often find myself opening up to business partners about both work and personal life. This type of exchange has helped to build lasting relationships and open new opportunities within my business and beyond. As women, we should use these skills to our advantage. I also want to advise future leaders to always be prepared, because with preparation comes confidence and earned respect.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts? In my opinion, networking is extremely important; however, my views of networking are not in the traditional sense. I don’t usually attend business networking events and hand out my card or have goals to meet a certain number of people. I am actually the person who is a bit of a wallflower at these types of engagements.
When I think of networking, I think about it in the sense of expanding my social circle. I like to meet new people in a comfortable environment, like exercise classes or at the coffee shop. In this way, I am continually learning something new from people of every walk of life. I even met my new R&D director of culinary innovation in swimming class! For me, business is synonymous with relationships, so creating the relationship first and then learning how you might support or help one another will follow.
What would you do differently in your career? If I could go back in time, I would have tried to take on additional mentors or listened more intently to the advice of the ones I had. I was definitely headstrong when starting out, as many entrepreneurs are, but now I know the importance of listening to others and learning from the experiences of those around me.
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon? You will probably find me swimming, practicing yoga, relaxing in the jacuzzi or getting acupuncture. My goal is to not work on Saturdays and to use that day to recharge myself. This also means you may also find me reading last week’s Sunday Times at a coffee shop with my puppy Aki because I don’t typically have time to sit and read the paper on Sundays.
We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire.
Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.