If you ask Song Woo, he might tell you that it happened by accident.
He might tell you that his foray into the staffing and recruiting field was a fluke. He might tell you that he ended up at Saint Mary’s because he reads the business section as well as the sports section. He might tell you that the 5,000 square foot Julia Morgan mansion-turned-office where he now works came onto the market at precisely the right time.
But there’s more to the story of the President and Founder of Lighthouse Management Group, a man who was recognized by the San Jose Business Journal as one of the “40 under 40,” a list of high performing executives, and the leader of the fastest growing private company in Silicon Valley.
The truth is, very little about him seems accidental.
The American Dream and a Persistent Voice
Woo is a first generation immigrant; his parents left behind a career in military intelligence in Korea for rows of carnations in Salinas. Song remembers a childhood chasing pets and living in a trailer while the rest of his family worked in the fields. As a child, he knew only vaguely how difficult things were for his family.
“My parents started in the U.S. with basically nothing. They took the only work they could get in the carnation fields. They didn’t speak any English; they had left their whole lives back home for the American Dream,” Woo says.
“I didn’t know how tough it was back then because I was still very young.”
It got tougher. Woo was 12 when his father died, and with his siblings grown and absent, responsibilities were pushed onto him.
“It was just me and my mom for a while,” he says. “She was the conduit for everything though, whether it was her pushing me to get my education or me translating important conversations for her. I had to take on a leadership role, but she always told me that I could do better.”
This refrain would become a mantra, and while Woo worked hard in school, his mother was persistent and pushed him not to become complacent, not to settle.
“She told me that she had talked with her friends, how they told her that their children were doing well in school, how they had higher GPAs than I did,” Woo says with a smile. “She was always trying to motivate me. There were times when I didn’t like it because it seemed like nothing I did was ever good enough, but I understand now that she was doing it for a reason.”
“Even now, I own my own business, but there are times when I feel lazy or I don’t want to do something. Whenever I feel that way I hear her voice.”
Right Place, Right Time
“To be honest, I never thought I was going to start my own business,” Woo says, which is a little hard to believe in the pristine mahogany conference room of Lighthouse Management office. Lighthouse is the recruiting and staffing company Woo created in 2005—the name a carry-over from a group project he worked while in the Executive MBA Program. In the eight years since, the company has opened offices in San Ramon and Newport Beach, and both Woo and the organization have been recognized as industry leaders.
“I started my career at Robert Half International. I actually was a candidate for a job for one of their clients. At the time I was planning to go to law school. I wanted to be a sports agent like Jerry Maguire. I really thought that was going to be my path,” he says with a laugh.
“Once I was in contact with Robert Half they told me they thought my profile was ideal for the kind of work they do in recruiting in the accounting and finance world. So I gave it a shot and I fell in love with it. It was an accident, but I’ve been in the industry ever since.”
Woo describes enrolling in Saint Mary’s Executive MBA Program in a similar manner.
“I saw an ad for an MBA open house in Santa Clara while I was reading the sports pages. I had a business meeting literally right across the street from it, and I realized that I could walk over after my meeting. Once I was there I fell I love with the design of the program—the lock-step cohort system—and what I saw in the presentation showed me that I would learn more real-world situations, things that would be more useful than just theoretical information,” he says.
Joining the Executive MBA Program at Saint Mary’s was primarily about feel, Woo says. There wasn’t a metric or a qualitative analysis, it was—appropriate for a leader in the staffing industry—about landing in a place that had the right fit. At Saint Mary’s he felt at home.
“When I was in the program, it was like a light bulb went on in my head. I realized that I could contribute more to society and the business world be establishing something of my own,” he says. “I was immersed in the program. I learned different aspects of the business, and I gained more confidence in starting a company. Had I not gone through the Saint Mary’s program, I would never have made the leap.”
Life after the leap has been good for Woo. He admits that his company being named to the fastest growing list by the San Jose Business Journal was a goal, and he’s proud that he and his team were able to accomplish it. He writes a monthly advice column in The Epoch Times, offering tips on how to succeed—his mother featured regularly in his words. The business he built continues to thrive and the team he put together to run his company with him is still largely intact. Over time, co-workers have become family. During the recession that ravaged the economy, Woo was able to keep his staff whole, never laying off an employee due to the economic hardship.
“I think we have something special here. We try to have a lot of fun. We used to have video games at the office, but everyone got upset because I kept beating them,” he says with a laugh. “I think the relationships we’ve built here have lasted because of the family atmosphere and the bond we’ve made. It’s hard to break.”
He hasn’t forgotten about Saint Mary’s either. Woo serves on the Board of Regents and the Advisory Board for the School of Economics and Business Administration. He created the Lighthouse Scholarship for Diversity to support a student in the Professional or Executive MBA Program and he invites SEBA to interview prospective students in his office in San Jose.
“I love Saint Mary’s,” says Woo. “I know that my experience and the things I learned at Saint Mary’s helped propel me to where I am today. I’m so grateful for my time there; this is just a small way that I can give back.”