Linda Choi’s colleagues and business associates know her as the confident yet compassionate Chief Operating Officer of Kabouter, a multi-billion-dollar minority-owned investment adviser based in Chicago. Most are unaware of the incredible immigration journey that led her here.
“Being a daughter of immigrants who sacrificed everything and literally shed blood, sweat, and tears has taught me to have grit, a strong work ethic, and to always give back.”
Shortly after the passage of the 1965 Immigration & Nationality Act, which reversed America’s longstanding exclusion of Asian-Americans, Linda’s parents immigrated to Chicago from Korea with her older sister. They left Linda behind.
“For financial reasons, I stayed in Korea with my grandmother and came to the US a few years later,” Linda recalls. “My parents tell me when I arrived in Chicago, I didn’t even recognize them and told them to go away. As a mother today, I cannot imagine how heartbreaking those words were to my mom. Lots of immigrant families have similar stories of the sacrifices our families make to achieve the American Dream.”
Linda comes from a family of strong, entrepreneurial, and philanthropic women. Her grandmother provided food, clothes, and schoolbooks, when resources were scarce in Korea, to families in her village outside of Seoul, where she is still admired and revered her for her extensive philanthropy. On top of that, her grandmother also ran a thriving taxicab business while Linda’s mom started a successful optical store in Chicago. Her sister runs her own business immigration law firm and led an effort to start Passages Charter School for immigrant and refugee families on the Northside of Chicago. Its library was dedicated to Linda’s grandmother in recognition of her contributions to school children.
Linda attributes her and her sister’s success to their parents’ sacrifices. “Growing up, we were always told the story of how they arrived in the US with $250 and one suitcase. They even had to use a telephone book as a pillow.”
As the only Asian kids growing up in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood in the 1970s, Linda and her sister always felt like outsiders, and even encountered outright hatred. Their childhood home was vandalized regularly, and they were taunted and teased relentlessly for being “different.”
“Our Korean church in Elmhurst was burned down – the neighbors didn’t like having Asians there. We were told we didn’t belong and to go home.”
Linda navigated these challenges with the help of strong role models, many of whom were successful women of color in her community. One such role model was the principal at her school – the first Black woman to hold the position.
“My most memorable teachers were women of color,” says Linda. “I think being a woman of color, you have to have grit and work hard because nothing gets handed to you. So many of us are from immigrant families where we had to be scrappy and resourceful all of our lives.”
Linda’s mom also served as an important role model. When Linda was ten years old, her mom opened an optical store called New Seoul Optical on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago’s Korea Town.
“At the time, she was one of the few women small business owners in Chicago. She ran that business successfully for more than 20 years, before selling the shop when my daughter was born,” says Linda. “My sister and I worked there every Saturday while growing up and were paid $5 for the entire day.”
Working for her mom, Linda quickly learned about profit margins, how to work with customers and suppliers, and the art of managing employees. She had to do everything from clean the glasses cases, to vacuuming, filing, waiting on customers, and translating their eye exams from English to Korean.
These were important lessons for the future COO, who now leads Kabouter’s operations, which includes accounting, compliance/legal, human resources, investor relations and client services, technology, trading, and quantitative analysis.
“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit and knew I wanted to run a business someday. Since my mother ran her own store, I never questioned if it was possible. It was always clear to me that as a woman of color, you should aim high and work harder than anyone else.”
In Linda’s last year of high school, her parents bought a laundromat where Linda managed all aspects of the business, including bookkeeping, cleaning, overseeing the employees, and customer service.
“I hated every minute of it then,” she says. “But looking back, once again, I see how that experience taught me tenacity, perseverance, and how to run an operation.”
When it came time to choose a career, Linda knew she wanted to do something that would give her financial independence, so business was a natural choice.
“Of course, my traditional immigrant parents wanted me to pursue a career in medicine or law, so they were disappointed when I chose business school after college. My mother cried (not out of happiness) when I told her I was going to business school.”
After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and earning an M.B.A in Finance and Accounting from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Linda held various leadership roles in operations, program development, and marketing at the University of Chicago. She spent ten years in strategic consulting, banking, and venture capital at Accenture, First National Bank of Chicago, and Korea Technology Banking Corporation, before joining Kabouter 2009.
Her journey from immigrant to COO has given her unique insights, which she eagerly shares with other women of color who are looking to advance their careers.
“What have I learned? It’s okay to not know what you want to be when you grow up, and to try different things and pursue different paths. Take some risks and good things may come.”
5 lessons from Kabouter COO Linda Choi
1. Find people who believe in you, and always believe in yourself.
“When my brother-in-law, Peter Zaldivar (one of the founders and Senior Portfolio Managers of Kabouter), asked me to join him when he started the firm back in 2003, I said no. I remember telling him that I had never been the Chief Operating Officer at an investment management firm.”
“Peter reminded me that I had worked in venture capital, had been a financial analyst at a telecommunications company, had done strategic work as a consultant, and had led large teams at U of C.”
“What’s interesting and somewhat sad is that I immediately thought I wasn’t qualified because I had never held that COO title, even though I had all the prerequisites and skills. Long story short, in 2009, Peter asked me once again to join and I thought it was time for me to take a leap of faith in myself and take this opportunity. Fast forward to today, and we’ve built a successful firm I am incredibly proud of.”
“The next time you come across a job that you think you’re not qualified for, most certainly you will be qualified!”
2. It’s okay to fail and admit what you don’t know.
“I think it’s important to admit what you don’t know so you focus on learning and growing. You want to be constantly questioning how things are done, try new things, and make mistakes. Without a focus on forging ahead, you’ll get stuck in the status quo.”
3. Too many times women don’t speak up because they don’t think what they will say is important.
“Everything we say doesn’t have to be perfectly outlined or structured. Share your ideas and opinions and ask questions even if it makes you uncomfortable. Too many times in my career I doubted myself and didn’t speak up. But I was lucky to find mentors who valued my contributions and gave me the confidence to charge ahead. It’s critical to find advocates and an environment that allows you to be you.”
4. Mentor others and build a pipeline of talent.
“It is so critical to give back to our communities. The only way we will see changes is if we support young women of color. Be intentional with your hiring and continue to strive for awareness, visibility, and equity.”
“I feel incredibly fortunate to lead a Latino-owned firm where our staff is currently 75% women and people of color and speaks over a dozen languages. Most of the investment team members come from immigrant families. This is so rare in this industry—I know we are an outlier as a firm. This diversity of experience and thought is actually one of our competitive advantages.”
Under Linda’s leadership, Kabouter launched an informal Women’s Mentoring Program in 2020 as a way to build a sense of community and connection for its female employees. The goals of the program include deepening members’ industry knowledge and skillset, encouraging professional development and supporting growth, and providing a safe space to share ideas and discuss challenges.
5. Take credit for your work and be your own best advocate. Celebrate your accomplishments!
“When a peer in the industry reached out and suggested that I should be nominated for a Crain’s Notable Executives of Color in Finance award, I felt really uncomfortable. It seemed too boastful. Then I wondered why women tend to be afraid of recognition. The lesson I learned is that we should celebrate our achievements and do our best to help others along the way.”
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