Pictet North America Advisors SA

Kyungsun Chung - Forging a new path and building a long-term legacy

Kyungsun Chung - Forging a new path and building a long-term legacy

Instead of following the more traditional route, the scion of the Hyundai family has dedicated his career to impact investing and creating positive change for the world. Yet the apple never falls too far from the tree.
play video

Looking back on where his own core values come from, Kyungsun Chung reflects on some- thing his grandfather used to tell him. “He said, ‘If you own USD 10 million, yes, it’s yours. But if you own more than USD 100 million, then you are the shepherd of public wealth,’” says Kyungsun. “So in a way, the concept of ‘giving back’ didn’t make sense to him, because technically the money isn’t yours; you are only managing something that belongs to everyone.”

Kyungsun’s grandfather wasn’t any regular wise elderly relative. He was Chung Juyung, who started out with a car-repair shop in Seoul in the 1940s and built it into the Hyundai Group, which is today South Korea’s second-largest conglomerate behind Samsung. Growing up as one of the third generation of the Hyundai family, Kyungsun was aware of his grandfather’s influence from early on. “He was a very famous person in Korea,” he says. “When I was in kindergarten, he ran for president.”

However, it was his grandfather’s values that imprinted most on the young Kyungsun. “He understood the complicated, intertwined nature of how business is influenced by society, by government and everything,” he recalls. “You have to have a community mindset, because you only exist on the platform of society.” Kyungsun feels he can trace his sense of duty, his desire to fix the ills of society, back to this strong conviction of his grandfather’s. “Today I have more of a stakeholder-capitalism mindset than a shareholder-capitalism mindset,” he explains.

It’s possible that a little more rubbed off on Kyungsun from his grandfather, too – for instance, his will to forge his own path and prove himself. In 2011, having completed a Bachelor’s in Business Administration at Korea University, Kyungsun leaned into his desire to solve some of the societal problems he was seeing and joined his family’s foundation. But this didn’t last long. “I was very young, I was 26 at this time, and I had much more ambition,” he says. “I wanted to do something different and a family foundation bearing my grandfather’s name was too big of an organisation to do anything crazy.” So, the following year, instead of following in the footsteps of other heirs in South Korea, who tend to go into investment banking or consulting, he did something highly unusual: he launched his own non-profit, Root Impact, which provides support and infrastructure to the social-innovation sector in Korea.

“You have to have a community mindset, because you only exist on the platform of society.”

Today, when he looks back on this “righteous rebellion” of his, the 37-year-old Kyungsun is more measured. “I was very millennial at the time,” he says with a smile. “I felt, ‘I can do anything I want and I don’t want to be defined in my identity by our family business.’ Now, 11 years on, I actually see this as a sign that I was too obsessed with my family identity.”

Either way, from that point onwards, Kyungsun never looked back. Root Impact is still running, but he is today involved in a range of different businesses and non- profits, from the Holistic Growth Initiative (Hgi), a venture capital firm that focuses on businesses with a social purpose, where he was CEO from 2014 to 2020 and where he is now Non-Executive Chairman, to Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, an organisation that advises on and manages hundreds of millions of dollars in annual giving, where he is a board member. What connects all of these facets of his work is what he calls a process of building “impact ecosystems”.

Then in 2020, after earning an MBA from Columbia University in the US, Kyungsun teamed up with his one-time classmate Scott Jeun and founded The Sylvan Group, a private-equity firm based in Singapore that specialises in impact investing. In New York, he had met lots of people working in private equity and had realised its effectiveness. “Sometimes you can grow a business from within the company, but sometimes it’s much more efficient to acquire the business outside of your platform,” he says. “Then, providing efficiency to their operations can lead to both high impact and high commercial returns at the same time.”

Kyungsun describes The Sylvan Group’s mission as being “all about supporting entrepreneurs and activists who are trying to create positive change for the world and society”.

He and his co-founder have shown a particular interest in healthcare and, in 2022, bought majority stakes in four healthcare and pharmaceutical firms, specialising in everything from gene therapy to radiology and imaging services. From an impact perspective, these investments were focused on “increasing the affordability and accessibility of healthcare,” says Kyungsun, and helping to solve the healthcare burden, “one of the biggest problems of the future”.

Yet, alongside all of this, Kyungsun is still, as he describes it, “heavily involved in the family business”. And through his deep, lifelong understanding of the Hyundai Group, he also has a clear sense of how family companies can succeed and where they often fail, particularly when it comes to families that want to pass their businesses down through the generations.

Of course, where family firms have the edge is in their long-term thinking and in the solid relationships they are built upon. “A short- term growth mindset might not be the best solution for the long term,” says Kyungsun. “You have to focus on being antifragile, resilient and sustainable, and you have to have a long-term mindset. Then, in order to achieve your long-term goals, you need great relation- ships with and trust in the people around you.” However, nestled within this positive statement is a warning as well. Occasionally, those secure relationships become a problem for family businesses, when they lead to a lack of innovation, a lack of experimentation. “Once you have those relationships, you don’t want to ruin them, and therefore you cannot try anything new,” says Kyungsun.

“You have to focus on being antifragile, resilient and sustainable, and you have to have a long-term mindset.”

Another common pitfall that Kyungsun sees in family businesses – including his own, he notes – is succession planning, and there’s a simple truth at the heart of this. “Being a great entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a great father or a great teacher or even a great mentor,” he says. A healthy relation- ship between a founder and their successor is really difficult to cultivate. “You have to help them be ready, but also your successor cannot think, ‘All of this is mine now; I can do what- ever I want.’”

As someone who chose to go down a different path and decided not to follow the rest of his generation into the family business, Kyungsun is grateful that he was given the freedom to strike out on his own. “My father trusted me and took a risk with me not joining the company right away, or even more, he let me do something that he doesn’t fully under- stand,” he says, adding that this is incredibly rare in Korea. “I’m extremely grateful for that.” This is perhaps the first and last piece of advice that Kyungsun would leave with any entrepreneur who is lucky and successful enough to have built a company that is large and robust enough to be passed down to the next generation. “The first thing everyone should embrace, especially the parents within a family business, is that they cannot control their children or their future,” he says. Kyungsun is living proof that a family’s values can be expressed in a variety of ways, and that a bit of extra freedom can lead to independent- minded children building impactful legacies of their own.