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From Executive Director to Executive Coach

Caroline Kim Oh

Caroline Kim Oh was a teenager when she arrived in this country with no knowledge of the language and worked her way up to a job as head of a national nonprofit organization. Now she’s using the lessons she’s learned over the years and helping others as an Executive Coach.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?

I am an Executive Coach who works with clients who are (or want to be) leaders in the nonprofit sector. As a coach, it’s my job to provide time, space, and structure to help my clients set and achieve their goals. I’ve been doing this work full-time for about six months, but I’ve been an informal coach and advisor for most of my career.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?

Coaching has a lot of aspects – I ask questions, I really listen, I act as a brainstorming partner, and I help my clients come up with their own answers. When requested and appropriate, I also share my experiences as a nonprofit leader and a working Mom, and I give feedback on resumes and strategic plans, but it’s important to remind my clients that I’m giving my opinions, not the answers. I help my clients sort through the clutter of their everyday lives and figure out the path that makes the most sense for them.

Are there any misconceptions about your job?

I’ve heard Executive Coaching described as a cross between therapy and consulting, but that’s not quite it. I’m not there to help my clients heal or resolve their past issues, or give advice. I’m there to be a partner and make it easier for my clients to use the resources that they already have. It’s not my job to come up with the answers – they do that on their own – but I help to make it possible.

Caroline Kim Oh - FamilyWhat is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?

I’m an Asian woman and an immigrant. When I was younger, that made me very self-conscious – I wasn’t confident about my writing or my ability to speak like a native English speaker. I was definitely jealous of people who grew up here or moved to the States earlier and didn’t have the difficulties I had. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized that nobody cares if I have an accent. I no longer feel like I have to prove anything to anyone.

Being a woman has its own challenges. In the work world, I felt people often didn’t take me as seriously as I wanted because I’m a woman and I’m small and I don’t look like I’m going to be the person that has command of the room. Also, while I believe that I was born to be a Mom, I somewhat resented having to “clip my wings” to have kids. I love being a Mom more than anything else in the world, but I also love my career, and it’s impossible to balance both and feel completely satisfied in both aspects of your life, all the time. Luckily, all those experiences inform and enrich my coaching.

What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?

I came to this country from South Korea when I was in middle school, not speaking English at all. It was hard – my parents were very supportive, but they worked long hours and didn’t know how things worked in the United States, so I had to figure a lot out on my own. I was very lucky to have older cousins help me with my college applications or even take me into the city to see a movie.

While I was in college, my brother was injured, and it really made me think about the importance of having a job that makes a difference. I just couldn’t figure out how. I thought about medical school, but I hadn’t ever taken a science class, and I thought about being a public interest lawyer, but I hadn’t really prepared to go to law school, so I took a job at a nonprofit for a year. I immediately fell in love with the work and the people who do it, went back to graduate school for a degree in nonprofit management, and then landed at iMentor, where I worked for 12 years.

Caroline Kim Oh - iMentor

iMentor was perfect for me – the organization pairs working adults with young people from low-income communities to help them the way that my cousins and friends helped me when I was younger. I’d also noticed in college that a lot of other kids had opportunities I didn’t – I’d spend the summer working at my parent’s store, while they were visiting Europe or Asia or doing nice internships. iMentor helps kids like me access caring adult mentors connect them to more opportunities, skills and knowledge. I loved that.

At iMentor, I went from Program Director to Executive Director to President in a rapidly expanding organization, got married, had kids, and somehow found myself as an accidental advisor to nonprofits and nonprofit leaders. I had people calling me all the time, asking about staff development or fundraising or board development or work-life balance. Becoming an executive coach felt like a great way to focus on that part of my work and make a living doing it.

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?

I absolutely love what I do. I love the sessions – meeting with my clients and really listening to them and working with them. I love the process of developing the coaching relationship and getting to know my clients deeply. My clients have made life-altering decisions in their sessions with me and even I’m amazed at times by what we’ve been able to accomplish together.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

I often find that my clients underestimate their own strengths. They gloss over all the things that they’re good at and focus in on their weaknesses, because that’s where they want to improve. That’s important, but it’s as important to acknowledge and celebrate the areas where you are strong.

Caroline Kim Oh - sideWhat kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?

I consider myself a 40-year-old intern right now, because I’m learning by doing, and my rate reflects that. The money that I make as a coach is nowhere near the salary that I made – or could make – as an executive director. In exchange, I am able to control my work schedule, and work only 2-3 days a week, which allows me to focus on other aspects of my life, including caring for my young kids.  I’m lucky to have a dual-income household so that my income can be a supplement instead of the primary income, but the pay differential is a major consideration for someone entering this field. My income will steadily increase over the next couple of years, but it would be hard to support your family on just this.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold?

Coaches’ pay varies. I’ve heard of coaches who only charge $50 a session and others who charge as much as $500 a session. It sounds like a lot, but that pay covers not only the work I do during the sessions, but any research that I do or time that I’m available over the phone and email between sessions. Coaches also spend a lot of unpaid time on business development: networking, speaking, writing, and meeting with potential clients. Many people end up supplementing this money with consulting work or freelance work.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

Right now, I’m finding that I really love the work and I’m getting better and better at it – I’d love to become one of the best in the field , but I don’t feel a need to become a big corporation and have other coaches working for me. I’d rather use talks and articles to reach those people who I can’t coach and share the lessons I’ve learned. In all honesty, though, I have no idea where I’ll be in five years. It’s enough for me that I’m enjoying the work that I do now and that I’d like to keep doing it.


Learn more about Caroline Kim Oh on her blog, LinkedIn page, or Twitter account.

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  • Growing up, I was doing a lot of things that my parents or grandparents had never done. My grandparents had immigrated from Mexico, so they had no knowledge of the process of higher education. My mom had me at a young age, and with the loss of my father, was not able to finish school. So, applying to colleges, for scholarships, navigating a college campus, along with other things became a lot of trial and error for everyone, including my family. As a first generation student, Caroline’s lack of experience hit home for me. Learning as you go became the name of the game.

    I think learning as I went was an important lesson for me. It taught me that there is always more to learn, and there are plenty of ways to better yourself in every aspect of your life.

    I like Caroline’s story because it mirrors something I currently do and want to continue doing. I currently coach high school track. I have been a long-time fan of the sport. Being a coach has allowed me to grow as an athlete, a teacher, a mentor, role model, and cheerleader. Like Caroline, I love the process of learning about an athlete and how they are best coached. Seeing this translate onto the track is something very special and the ultimate payoff. As she points out, it is never really about the monetary gain, but the real-life change you get to make in another person’s life.

    As a result, I decided to study Sport Psychology to be able to tailor the way I coach and work with athletes. Sport and Performance Psychology opens doors to working with the military, corporations, and professional sports teams. My ultimate goal is to maintain the same mindset as Caroline, no matter what my final destination in the field may be.

    Thank you, Caroline, for the differences you make in others’ lives and career goals, and also for the lives you are touching with your post.

  • Amazing story Caroline, although I was born and raised in this country, I can relate to your story because I come from a Spanish, Italian, Polish family, My grandmother spoke of stories when her parents migrated to this country not speaking a word of English and how they would listen to radio shows and copy what they were saying. Growing up in a close culturally driven family provided me with the foundation to be compassionate to those who didn’t speak English and provide a safe friendship. One friend growing up spoke only Chinese, we had so much fun together that the language wasn’t a barrier between us. It always fills my heart with joy when someone can change the lives of children with just dedication, work and kind words! Great job Caroline.

  • Caroline’s story is truly inspiring, and especially touching when I think of how she can easily speak out her past struggles so confidently and honestly now.

    In addition to linguistic barrier, experiencing the social and cultural shock is definitely a major obstacles for many new comers like us. In this process of adaptation and learning, some of us have the privilege and luck to have friends and family to support us and guide us through, and it is important for people who have struggled through to pass on their faith and experiences to others on a similar path — for the difficulty can only be understood by those we have experienced it. Therefore, I admire Caroline a lot for her dedication in this career of coaching; whether it is specific to transiting into a new environment or not, she is using her past experience of struggles to understand and help the others wandering in confusion and uncertainty. A spark can only be kindled by another source of fire, I believe Caroline’s story and career did light up and encourage some of us here.

    For me personally, the obstacle I identify the most with her would be how she feels a short Asian woman is usually not taken seriously. As I have experienced in team work training and leadership programs, being a short East Asian female, in addition to my non-native accent, I am usually not the more noticeable one in the beginning, or even can be labeled as being ‘weaker’ and ‘unimportant’ from the beginning. However unfortunate this reality is, it is utterly comforting to see Caroline embarking on her career and being able to coach others on life decisions — because it means people trust her and believe in her; she is an empowered woman after years of working hard and establishing her career. Therefore, this interview made me realize that no matter how people perceive you in the first place, you cannot use it as an excuse even though it is a legitimate difficulty; the only way out is to know what you want to achieve, and work hard for it.

    I am glad to have read this piece of interview with Caroline, as it is comforting and encouraging to know someone that has successfully tackled the same struggle I am having right now. Most importantly, her honesty and willingness to share have truly motivated me to hold a positive attitude to whatever comes in the way. Thank you Caroline and the team for such a fantastic interview!

  • She inspires me a lot. As an asian girl who came to the USA to study at her age of 20s, I think my accent is still a barrier to communicate others who speak fluent in English. After reading her story, I realized that this is my uniqueness. There is no reason to shame of it.

    I’m glad she found her passionate job. It’s important that people need to do their passionate job and they have to do what they want to do. Everybody deserves happiness. Unfortunately, not everyone can do the job they wanted. However, the organization that Caroline works helps the individuals who has issues to access education and more opportunities. This would be a bridge for young adults to achieve their goals for their bright future.

    After I decided to come to the USA, I was still not sure that I made the right decision. I had lot of nights with tears, missing my families and friends. However, discovering about individuals like Caroline who is hard worker, brave and passionate about her dream is building my confidence more. Life is full of adventure.

  • Caroline, your story touched me so much. In a lot of ways, I see myself in you. I too came to the United States as a teenager. The only difference is that I moved here on my own, which had its own challenges. I am still in school and reading your story made me believe that I can make it too. All the work will be worth it.

    I moved to the US as a 17-year-old and went to high school in NY. Learning the language while in high school, and competing with students who have been speaking the language all their lives was by far the hardest thing I had to do. I took AP classes, spent 3+ hours every night finishing homework that took other students an hour or less. I eventually flourished, got into college and studied Biology and Neuroscience. Because I was here on my own, I had to work while in school so that I can provide for myself. I had many instances when giving up felt easier than working harder. But I kept going, graduated college with a BA with honors in Biology and Neuroscience and I am now on my way to get an MS in Bioengineering.

    Reading your story made me feel like I am not alone. Working through the struggles that come from being an immigrant and a woman makes us stronger. ‘Learning by doing’ has also been my motto for some time now. I implemented it through every new challenge I faced. For example, Learning how to do taxes, getting health insurance, apartment hunting etc. The fact that you chose a line of work that helps others is even more inspiring. Good luck on your journey Caroline.

  • As someone that came to this country at younger age, I can completely relate to her struggle of having to assimilate into American society. Like her, my mother had to work really long hours in order to provide for my siblings and I. I sympathized with the challenges she felt as a woman in the workforce because I too have had may incidence in my life where I wasn’t taking as seriously because of my gender. Overall this was a very powerful story and I learned a lot from her experience.

  • Reading this article gave me hope and encouraged me. As an immigrant, I can relate to a lot of things she said; like about how absent our parents are, because they are out there working and trying to provide, about the language, I was a teenager when I arrived in the US too, and I was (am still) jealous of the privilege people have to be born here (came here at a young age) and speak English.
    It was hard (still is at some level) to believe that I will become someone, realize my dreams.
    But I guess this article is one proof that I can, she did it, I also can do it.
    Thank you

  • I love this story because it is so inspiring. The language barrier is such a big obstacle for all immigrants. It takes years to learn English and another few more to fully understand the slangs and references. On top of the that, you must have to learn about American culture to fit into society. I relate to your life struggles because I too was a first generation immigrant when I first came to United States; and it was difficult to jump from East Asian characters into Latin based alphabet.

    In addition, your decisions to be happy rather than pursuing wealth is also fascinating. It is very easy to fall under the illusion of percieving money as the ultimate achievement, but you chose split time between work and other things that makes you happy. Your persistance and ability to find happiness really touched me.

  • Reading Caroline’s story as an immigrant myself, I always wondered if people are more interested in my accent or my actual speech. Caroline was able to overcome my worst fear which is public speaking because of my accent and went on to lead a happier more fulfilled life. She is my hero because I can relate to what she is saying more because I am also an immigrant. I came here 4 years ago and went through the whole high school experience and everyday as an immigrant I wish I would have migrated in my childhood just to be further along like most people my age. I am 18. Your patience and perseverance is admirable. Thank you for making me believe that every American immigrant can live the American dream through hard work and perseverance.

  • I felt so identified when I read this story, I also came to the U.S when I was a teenager and I did not know how to properly communicate in English. Being born and raised in Mexico, and coming to the US for college was not easy. Although it was my decision, I did not realize the struggle I was going to experience until I arrived here. I had such a hard time trying to pass Composition, History, Math, and even Art classes, but I was not going to give up. I came here looking for a fresh start, looking for opportunities that my hometown could not offer. I tried my best and I succeeded. Although it was very hard trying to avoid being self-conscious about my accent and other communication skills, I did it. I graduated from UTSA in Communication Studies. I am trying to go for the Master’s program and I know I still have a lot to do to get to the top. I need to continue my education in order to be a professional and to succeed; to be someone in this world.
    Caroline is such an inspiration for me and for many others that haven’t had it easy in the US. She is the perfect example of success through hard work and consistency.