"The minute you start thinking like a millionaire is the moment you begin to achieve it," says millionaire entrepreneur James Sun. And he speaks from experience. In 1980-at the age of three-Sun immigrated to the United States from Seoul, Korea, unable to speak English. By the time he graduated from the University of Washington in 1999, he had parlayed $5,000 into $2.3 million!
Sun’s family lived in poverty for years. Discrimination against his race and his family’s financial situation sparked a fiery passion inside him from a young age. He learned to endure the taunts and became fiercely dedicated to rising above the challenges in front of him.
At 11, Sun experienced his first entrepreneurial venture when he noticed that the man selling window cleaning services door-to-door in his Texas town was getting nowhere. Sun pitched a different approach: "Why don’t you let me do it? Nobody slams the door on me because I’m a kid!" He gathered some friends as business partners, signed contracts with local cleaning companies, and successfully sold the services to homeowners, earning a commission on each sale. "That’s how I started getting a sense of what it really takes to run a business," Sun says.
At 13, he started tracking stocks in The Wall Street Journal to get a grip on the fundamentals of business and market trends. The knowledge gained prompted him to begin investing in the market at age 18. He initially invested $4,000 in eBay stocks which delivered a return of about 1,000 percent.
Sun considered postponing college because he thought those four years would cost him-not only in tuition but also in lost time that he could spend cultivating his career vision. All of his family members had earned doctorate degrees, so he ultimately chose college but kept his business dreams alive during those four years. As a college freshman, Sun took his $5,000 savings and created an investment fund. Through hard work-50 to 60 hours a week in addition to his schooling-he built a portfolio worth $2.3 million by the time he graduated.
Last year, he made it within one spot of winning Donald Trump’s "The Apprentice," having been chosen from thousands of applicants nationwide to compete on the hit reality show. While that experience and exposure certainly boosted his notoriety, Sun was already a millionaire when he appeared on the show, so he had nothing to prove and nothing to gain. During the season, he followed the strategy that had delivered for him in the past: work extremely hard, be a great team player, and do it with integrity. In the end, he bested 16 other strong competitors to be one of just two people still seated in Trump’s boardroom.
Sun didn’t need the victory. Now 30 and living in Seattle-often considered America’s entrepreneurial hub-Sun is the founder and CEO of Zoodango.com, a Web 2.0 site that offers a social search engine to help people connect, both online and offline. He is a successful businessman and speaker with a positive attitude and the drive to seize opportunities. With Zoodango.com, Sun bridges social capital and human capital online. Social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn are limited to online interaction. Sun’s research showed that his target audience of Generation Y-comprised of 80 million people in the U.S. born since 1980-want to step outside the Web world and get together for face-to-face encounters. "They love getting together but they want to use cool online solutions to make that happen," he says.
Although Sun is technically a member of Generation X, he is perched on the cusp of Gen Y and has a razor sharp sense of their character traits. He has made a career out of addressing the needs and interests of this market. In fact, many of his speaking engagements focus on explaining Gen Y to older corporate types. "I was the youngest person at a CEO-to-CEO event and realized I wasn’t going to teach these guys how to run a business when they had 30 years on me. Instead, I talked about recruiting, training, and managing Gen Y. It was a hit because this is a powerful need in corporate America today."
Sun is a hard-working individual with a light heart. Driven to achieve his goals, he has not blocked out the need to give back. He says one of the triggers for success is based in networking but adds that it’s not about getting-it’s about giving.
"A lot of people who are trying to build a network are first looking for what they can get. My advice to them is to give first. The Gen Yer might say, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to give a millionaire.’ My answer to that is, ‘Yes, you do!’ Give value. Give back to the community."
Sun has joined the local Boy Scouts and the Washington Software Alliance, and he works with the United Way. "You volunteer for the good of it, but you’ll end up meeting other good people, and those connections will broaden your network."
Sun learned long ago that young entrepreneurs need to take calculated risks to reap rewards. He is smart enough to invest wisely, looking for a 300 percent return on every dollar he spends. But he also knows that success isn’t measured in dollars.
"It’s not a monetary thing," says Sun with sincerity. "Success is waking up in the morning and feeling passionate about what you do."
Bea Fields is the owner and president of Bea Fields Companies, Inc. She is the author of "Millennial Leaders: Success Stories from Today’s Most Brilliant Generation Y Leaders."