Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities, a chat with Carol Choi

A professional photo of Carol Choi smiling in front of a grey background
A professional photo of Carol Choi smiling in front of a grey background

In this episode of “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, interviews Carol Choi, founder of United Exchange Corporation, about her career and Anteater experience.

Miller (0:07–0:43): Welcome to “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities.” Over coffee. I’m Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities. I am so pleased to be joined by Carol Choi. Carol is the founder of United Exchange Corporation, which markets and distributes a wide range of consumer-packaged goods all over the world. She’s an entrepreneur, business leader and philanthropist. She’s also a UCI Foundation trustee and UCI alumna. Thanks for joining me, Carol.

Carol Choi (0:44–0:49): Thanks so much for having me, Tyrus. I’m excited to be here and to share my story with all of you.

Miller (0:50–1:08): Happy to have a chance to talk. So let’s start with your company United Exchange Corporation. It dates back to 1993. Tell us a little bit about the start of this company. What made you think of starting it? Was your vision at the time different than what the company looks now? Almost three decades later?

Choi (1:10–3:45): Wow three decades. It’s been a long time. So it all started with LG. LG everybody thinks is more of a cell phone company but LG Data back in Korea was the first manufacturer for toothpaste. And so when LG came to me at a show, which is called PLMA, which is Private Label Manufacturing Association show. And I met them there and they came to me and said would you be interested in selling toothpaste? Toothpaste is a very interesting item. Once you develop a palette and the texture, people stick with it. So if you’re a Colgate user, you’ll be using Colgate. If you like Crest, you’ll use Crest.

So they came to me and said would you be interested in marketing and selling toothpaste in America for us? So I looked and I observed and I said “Wow, that’s really interesting” and I, going back, if I like what Toms of Maine that’s all I will use no matter what people bring. And so I decided yes, I will look into this. Then I went to ADA, which is American Dental Association, and went through the testing procedures and went to Fedco which is one of the retailers and I started to market toothpaste.

And I didn’t have any retail experience at all. But I wasn’t afraid to go ahead and make cold calls because back then there was no computer, there was nothing. So went through the yellow pages and decided to go ahead and find out who the buyer was and then make cold calls and asked if you would like to make an appointment and did the same thing. And one led after another. And I started to bring in toothpaste through LG. At most we brought in over a hundred containers a month just on toothpaste on LG. I did private label for them. So that’s how we got started.

And when we named the company United Exchange, a lot of people thought it was more like a currency exchange company but United Exchange represents how the world is interconnected and it’s constantly an exchange. For us we’re exchanging CPG goods. We’re buying and selling goods, which is ultimately uniting people. Has my vision changed from then? No, not really. Our vision back then was pretty much aligned with what we are today. We grew and we’re in different categories but the vision of exchange and international trade is still the same.

I never imagined we would scale to where we are today. But I love the constant challenge and still think you’ll see there’s much more room for growth.

Miller (3:57–4:12): Thank you. I have a feeling we might need to provide a footnote on the yellow pages for our generation. Very interesting to hear that again. So you studied biology and psychology at UCI and I know your husband Eugene attended UCI as well. How did you meet and what were some of your favorite activities and classes at UCI at the time?

Choi (4:12–5:39): Eugene majored in electrical engineering and minored in computer science at UCI. We were not in the same department or classes at all but we actually met through our on campus organization. For my senior year at UCI, I was the vice president of the Korean American Student Organization and Eugene was in charge of Cross Culture Center. And what Cross Culture Center is, they were trying to always give funding to the different clubs and the organization. And we at Korean American Student Association were trying to raise funds. So I had to go to Eugene to ask for money so that we could get funds raised for our club and to make a long story short, the rest is history.

And I still ask Eugene for money at this time as well too. And one of my favorite thing that I did was I was a TA at social psychology and that was really engaging with the students’ participation with all different backgrounds. I enjoyed getting to know them, getting to know the backgrounds of them, and I really enjoyed, I was working through all my college. I was a note taker. I was a TA and there was a café there and I also worked part time job because it was important for me to not just to make money but to go ahead and for my parents to learn and to learn to be engaged with people and appreciate what we have in America.

Miller (5:40–6:21): You’ve really from the outset been engaged with UCI and you’ve stayed very engaged in new roles as well. I wanted to ask. You’ve had a remarkably successful career and I think everybody would kind of think of you as highly successful. Sometimes that success can obscure the struggles and the risks that lay behind that success. I wonder if you have a story that you might like to share with us about a time that you either had to take a big risk where success was uncertain or a kind of leap of faith and how you thought about that, how you faced that?

Choi (6:22–10:39): Well, everyone goes through a different ups and downs and struggles. Anybody that has run business or anything, there’s decisions that need to be made constantly. And whether that decision is the right decision or wrong decision, we really never know unless you take that leap of faith. And then I have to share with you a story that’s probably the most recent struggle that I had to overcome and that struggle actually got me where we are today with this COVID.

One of the struggles that I had was back in 2018. UEC decided to go into a food category and that was a brand new category that UEC was dealing with and so what we decided to do was launch Tapatío ramen in 2018. I was looking for various opportunities in the food industry that could blend and unite different cultures. It was natural for me to bring ramen into the mix as South Koreans consume the most ramen noodles in the world. I wanted to shake up the ramen industry, to do something different. Cause there’s only Top Ramen There was only like Nissin, Maruchan, Nongshim and that was it. So I wanted to be a disruptor.

I ended up reaching out to the Saavedra family to see if they would be interested in partnering up to create a Tapatío ramen. They have the legendary Tapatío hot sauce. And we had the connection to the factories to create a Tapatío ramen. So it was like basically, it was kind of a match made in heaven. We were both Los Angeles based family run business and we’re both very excited to develop a new fusion inspired product mashup.

So let’s talk about one of the most challenged things that we faced with Tapatío ramen. And this is all a learning process for me. That first winter, which is 2018, we launched the ramen and one of this buyers asked me to go ahead and bring in 30 truckloads of the ramen. So we got real excited and said, “Yes, we will.” And that was all done in the email form and said I will go ahead and send you out a PO, so here’s my commitment to you. So we brought the ramen in, but she had left on maternity leave, and the new buyer that came in says that I’m not gonna go ahead and do, that was a past buyer. So I had stuck with 30 truckloads of ramen and in the ramen business, their shelf life has an expiration date of one year. So anything below six months it’s called short dated and you have to buy it for 50 to 60% less. And that means now that is, I had a million bowls of ramen and if I did that, then my price structure would be broken. And that would be devastating because I wouldn’t be able to go in back into the ramen business again cause I just launched it.

So I took a great, deep breath. A million bowls of ramen sitting in my warehouse and I need to go ahead and ship this out. So I decided to go ahead and donate so that I do not break my price structure. So I donated to the food shelters and I donated to colleges. I donated to all over the place. And at the end of the day, all those people — I decided I’m going to use this as my marketing fund. And everybody tasted it and everybody came back and said it was amazing because now they wanted to know where they could buy the ramen.

So through the whole U.S. there was Tapatio ramen that was donated to like I said to the missionaries, colleges, churches, homeless people, food based shelters, everywhere that I was just donating ramen to. But that was a big leap of faith when you bring in 30 truckloads all at once. And that’s a lot of funds that we had to do, that we had to go ahead and do. But those are the decisions that we all have to make and there are choices that we have to make but I didn’t have a choice. But actually that leap of faith got me where we are today.

Miller (10:40–10:42): You gave a lot of people a good meal.

Choi (10:42–11:14): Well, and it feels good because I didn’t want to break the price structure because a lot of the buyers did come to me and say, “We’ll take it off. Just give it to us at 50, 60% off.” And I said, “Wait a minute. That means I could never get into this business again.” So we went the other way but those decisions had to be made within only a few days. It’s not like I had months to make these decisions because the shelf life thing was going down and going over.

Miller (11:16–11:40): So I’d like to ask you also about your involvement with UCI, you are foundation trustees and you’re actively involved across the campus. So as a trustee and as a supporter of UCI what would you say to listeners who are considering investing their time or wanting to do philanthropic support, charitable giving at UCI?

Choi (11:42–13:12): So investing in our future is critical. At UCI, with all the research that we do, we all really are investing into the future of our community and the world. I believe cross collaboration is also very important. And Eugene and I are both immigrants. We came from Korea and our parents worked hard to put food on the table so we could have the opportunity to get our education. Now is the time we want to pay it forward. Our parents didn’t have an American education. They went to college in Korea. They didn’t know what to do with us kids, so we had to work hard to do the research ourselves on how to get into college. We had to do it on our, there was no…We didn’t go into after-school programs or there was just none back then. No, none of these college prep places that everybody goes to, no SAT prep. Nothing like that was available for us. But we really had to learn to do and navigate on our own. And we really are very grateful for where we are now.

So I think it is our duty to invest in our community and other’s futures as well. And I think it’s just basically paying forward because we are given this opportunity. It’s not just about my kids but it’s about our kids and it’s about the community and we need to go ahead and pay forward for what we have been given, this privilege.

Miller (13:14–14:13): Well, I know that you both have been very strong advocates and invested your time and your resources in supporting the university. We’re very grateful for that. You also, as you know, we have in the School of Humanities a Center for Critical Korean Studies, which is a kind of hub of scholarly and public activity and student support for the area of Korean studies at UCI. We’re very pleased that you’ve joined our centers’ leadership council to help us expand the impact and ensure its long-term visibility. Why do you think that it’s important to have a center for Korean studies at UCI? What do you think is most distinctive about what we’re doing and the importance of that for the UCI community? Not just on campus but broader within the Southern California community?

Choi (14:14–15:35): Well for me, I’m Korean and being Korean, I feel that our heritage and culture and roots and traditions are very important for people to learn and especially the next generation of our kids as well cause they were all born here. So to learn about their motherland, to learn about the roots and the heritage, I think is very important.

A lot of people still don’t know the difference between North and South Korea. I get asked more than often than you think if I’m from North or South Korea. So it’s still very not clear and it still needs a lot of education. A lot of people just don’t know. So to be able to share our history with students and our community is critical. It’s building the future.

Korea is our motherland and Eugene and I are passionate about our roots and we want to continue to share with others. OC and UCI have a very large Korean population. But I don’t think you have to be a Korean to learn about our nationality. UCI is a very unique position because of the location of the school and the surrounding community. UCI center is surrounded by a strong Korean community and a great Korean professor on campus as well. This is definitely something that makes our center stand out, the surrounding community and the support it can tap into.

Miller (15:37–16:22): Thank you, well I want to conclude our conversation with just a few more personal questions maybe on a little bit lighter note. I know, as someone who is involved in international business and I’m sure really also as part of your life more generally, you do a lot of traveling. I think probably it’s the case that the COVID-19 situation has curtailed at least some of that. Do you have a destination that you haven’t been able to go to during this time that you’re really as soon as it’s possible to really get on a back on a plane with that ease that you would like to go to?

Choi (16:23–16:58): I have to go back to Korea and Vietnam. There’s a lot of business that’s happening there and I’m not able to go because you have to be quarantined 14 days if you’re coming from the States and what I’m hearing from my friends that have been there are saying basically they don’t wanna see us after even the 14 days quarantined. They still want to just talk over the phone and Zoom. Just because everyone is just so afraid of what’s going on with the numbers that’s expanding in here, in the U S. So I’ve got to go back as soon as the quarantine is over. I have to go back to Korea and Vietnam for a visit.

Miller (16:58–17:18): And I know that you’re appreciative of the arts. Do you have a particular instance of arts either in music or visual arts or theater that you’d like to mention as kind of a standout for you?

Choi (17:19–18:10): For me I love, one of the artists, he’s Korean American artist and I would love to bring his — it’s at LACMA too — his name is Young-II Ahn and he paints waters and he’s a real good family friend of mine. Read his book and he tells you about the storms that he was in throughout his lifetime and where he is now. And it’s kind of sad right now just because of the COVID and he’s 88 years old and he’s not able to go ahead and paint the way he used to paint but he is an artist that I would love everybody to get to meet and know. His art is just, it’s very well known. It’s called the Water Series and he’s somebody that I would love to go ahead and have him connected with Kim as well.

Miller (18:10–18:20): We’ll ask people to look him up and find out more about his work. Next question, what are you reading right now?

Choi (18:20–18:22): Tuesdays with Morrie.

Miller (18:22–18:24): You wanna tell us a little bit.

Choi (18:24–19:47): Tuesdays with Morrie — it’s a fabulous story and I’ve been reading this to reflect, especially with COVID, with our just daily life. It’s, we take so much things for granted, yet things happen like look at the number of deaths that we’re facing right now. How do we end our lives? What are the values and just being able to deeply reflect? How do I want to end my life? When that time comes and no one knows when that time is but how do I want to exist? How do I want to go ahead and have other people remember me? I want to be able to go ahead and say thank you to everybody for being part of my life. And that’s what this whole Tuesdays with Morrie, it’s very sentimental, it’s very philosophical, but it’s something that makes you rethink what you do with the choices you make today does make a huge difference and impact on everybody. So while we’re given these moments of truth, and moments of how we are reflecting on our lives, I think it makes us become a little bit more humble and wiser so that every day is a gift. That it’s just not just a day, but it’s a gift that we’re still here today.

Miller (19:46–20:11): That’s wonderful and a hopeful note to end our conversation. I wanna really thank you for sharing your time and your thoughts with us, Carol. And I also want to thank our viewers for tuning in. I hope that everyone will join us with coffee cup in hand for our next episode of “Over Coffee.” Thanks so much, Carol.

Choi (20:11–20:29): Thank you Tyrus. I hope everyone was able to go ahead and enjoy our conversation today and thank you for all your leadership and thank you for everything that you do and I really wanna go ahead and be able to have everybody be aware of our CCKS and it’s very important for our community.

Miller (20:29–20:30): Thank you.

Choi (20:30–20:31): Thanks.

Watch all episodes of “Over Coffee” here.

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