Episode 10: Jason Y. Lee | A Life of Courage and Authenticity
I had lived so much of my life according to certain expectations that I said, "No, I want to have the courage to not go back to that very clear path, but pave my own way."
Below is the audio transcript for Episode 10, lightly edited for clarity.
Hi listeners, it's Lucia.
This week I speak with Jason Y. Lee, the founder of Jubilee Media: a media company for positive, purpose-driven millennials. Jason describes Jubilee as Buzzfeed’s older brother and Vice’s kind best friend.
Prior to Jubilee Media, Jason was a consultant at Bain, one of the top consulting firms in the country. He quit his job to start Jubilee Project, a non-profit media company with his older brother Eddie, and his best friend Eric. Jubilee Project partnered with organizations to help raise funds for important causes such as Hepatitis B awareness, the Haiti earthquake, refugees in North Korea, and human rights organizations.
Jason and I met through student government at the University of Pennsylvania, or Penn as we call it. Jason has the boyish, guy next door look. He’s tall, lean, has a perfect smile, and looks like the epitome of an honor student.
Jason lives in Los Angeles now and I reconnected with him over the phone.
Jason: My name is Jason Y. Lee . I'm the founder and CEO of Jubilee Media. We’re a digital media company that creates content for human good, Our belief is that as the world gets more and more divided, we want to be the company that brings people together, that inspires empathy, and that inspires love.
Lucia: In this episode I speak with Jason about:
• What it means to live a life true to yourself and not what others expected of you ,
• Working for the Obama presidential campaign and how that inspired him ,
• How he was able to pursue his childhood dream of storytelling ,
• The challenges he faced building Jubilee Media ,
• And his aspirations for creating the next wave of changemakers.
Jason grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, an all-American town smack dab in the middle of the country. It’s considered part of the Kansas City metropolitan area where the city is known for its barbeque and jazz -- not for its cultural diversity.
Jason: Whenever I tell people I'm from Kansas people are usually shocked and alarmed because very few of us make it out first of all, but secondly, there are very few Asian Americans in Kansas. In high school, for example, I was one of maybe four Asians in a class of 400 and several of them had been adopted. So I was very cognizant of my identity and recognized that I was different in some ways.
Lucia: Jason is the younger son of two Korean immigrant parents, who are both professors. They instilled two things early on in Jason’s childhood: the importance of education, and a sense of civic duty to do good in the world. The desire to serve a larger purpose in the world would later sow the seeds for Jubilee.
Jason: My parents would drop me and my older brother off at the public library to volunteer for literally eight hours a day every day for the summer. Part of it was that they didn't want to pay for babysitters but another part of it was that they wanted to instill in us this idea of civic duty. And that we are a part of a larger society and wanting to give back in some small way. So I think my journey my entire way starting from high school through college and the different things I tried to do was either one, in an effort for me to achieve the very best and grow or two, to find an opportunity to serve a much larger purpose.
Lucia: In a TEDx Talk he gave at UC Irvine, Jason recounts a story from his childhood when he shared eagerly with his kindergarten teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Excerpt from Jason's TEDx talk:
Jason: You know, you've got all these dreams when you're growing up. I knew exactly what I wanted to be. So I ran home. I remember I couldn't sleep as I was so excited to share with Mrs. Price and all my new friends what I wanted to be when I grew up. So, I ran back to school the next day.
Finally it's my turn. And Mrs. Price said, "Thank you Jason for waiting patiently". And I had my hand up. She said, "No, you don't have to put your hand up now. It's your turn."
And I said, "Well, when I grow up there are two things I really want to be."
"Awesome. You can be whatever it is that you want."
"Why don't you share with us?"
"Well, I've been thinking for a really long time and I was really trying to decide between these two, but I think this is the thing I really really want to be."
"Okay Jason. What is it that you'd like to be when you grow up?
"When I grow up, I want to be a dinosaur!"
Lucia: All jokes aside, Jason actually wanted to be a police officer. He wanted to fight crime and uphold justice, and serve his community. His teacher thought it was a noble profession and Jason happily went home to tell his parents.
Jason: I run home and we're having dinner. My Dad looks at me and says, "Jason, how's school? I said, "So good!" He said, "What did you learn?"
He then asked, "What is it that you want to be?" And I said, "Well, when I grow up I want to be a policeman. And there's silence. It was almost as though I had said I wanted to be a dinosaur when I grew up. There was silence and my dad took his spoon and set it down. He looked at me and says, “Jason. You know, I love you. When you grow up, you're not going to be a policeman.” I said, "Why not?" He said, "I want you to have a good career. I want you to have a respectable career where you make a lot of money and you're very secure so that you can take care of your family. "
I don't think my dad's intention that day was to crush my dreams, but it was so weird to hear him say that because all of this time I'd heard over and over and over again, "You can be whatever you want when you grow up!". But here was my hero, my father, who I love dearly and he was saying no you can't. It wasn't at that moment, but I think it was a couple years later when I started to realize there were actually only a couple of things that I could be when I grew up.
Lucia: Jason quickly realized that there was only a small pool of professions he could truly choose from that would satisfy his parents. Professions that would enable him to to have a respectable career where he could make a lot of money and take care of his family. Those were to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, or a businessman. And it was then that he learned about the secret of success:
Do really well in school. Get into a really really good college. Preferably an Ivy League, preferably Harvard. Get a good job. Make a lot of money. Marry a beautiful girl or boy, have a family, retire then you will be happy - right?
Lucia: So, Jason followed that path. He got straight As in school, he was part of the math club, the swim team, the chess club, and he was editor of the school newspaper.
Jason: When I was a freshman in high school, I was the kid that was super nerdy, walking around with SAT flashcards. All of my friends thought I was ludicrous. So in high school, generally, I found the academics not too difficult being in Kansas, but I also knew that I wanted to do a lot of activities because I had heard that that's makes you a great applicant for college. So I found purpose in those activities, but honestly early on it was all about all the various things that I could do that would make me look impressive as a high school student.
Lucia: His brother Eddie was one year ahead of him and he had gotten into Harvard. So when it was time for Jason to apply to schools, he thought he would get admitted to the same schools as his brother.
Jason: He actually got into the majority of the schools that he applied to, so when it came time for me to apply. To be honest, I just assumed that I would also get into most of the same schools. I applied to the same schools because I had the same SAT score. I literally had the same GPA at all of these different things and even many of the similar activities but when my time came for whatever reason, I didn't get into most of the schools that I applied to. Penn was one of the few Ivy Leagues that I got into and I was like, okay, that's really interesting. I felt pretty happy obviously getting into Penn but I was very disappointed that I hadn't gotten into some of the other schools.
I think that was the first time that I started to realize that just because you follow the path that someone else has set forth, or that everyone else thinks is successful, doesn't mean that that's a guarantee of success for yourself. Only I can find my own path.
Lucia: Despite this setback, Penn turned out to be a great choice for Jason. He likens it to going to Hogwarts.
Jason: I got into the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, and the day that that letter came in I was ecstatic. You should have seen me on the first day of school. I looked like I thought I was going to Hogwarts or something because I felt like this place was magic. The very first day, I remember sitting in the grass. Simply because I had seen so many photos of kids sitting in the grass.
Lucia: Funny side note here - like Hogwarts, Penn has 4 schools, the College of Arts and Sciences which is where I went, Engineering, Nursing and Wharton, the undergraduate business school, which is where Jason went. There’s a funny internet meme that assigned houses to each of the undergraduate schools at Penn.
The college was Gryffindor, Engineering was Ravenclaw, Nursing was Hufflepuff, and Wharton (which was Jason’s school) was Slytherin. It definitely does not produce police officers.
Lucia: At Penn, Jason found that he did well in classes and got straight As, which boosted his confidence. He continued to take part in student organizations like student government and swing dancing. He thought he would go into finance, so he took a job working for the Fed in DC during the summer of his sophomore year. The job was boring so when his brother Eddie called to ask him to join a political campaign, Jason jumped at the chance.
Jason: My brother was working on a campaign in New Hampshire and he said hey, you should come to New Hampshire if you're not enjoying your job. There's something very special happening. We think we're going to win. And lo and behold at the time, he had just joined the Barack Obama presidential campaign.
So this was in 2007 before people even knew who Senator Barack Obama was. We were literally going door to door saying "Hey, have you heard of Senator Obama" and I saw for the first time groups of 100 people turn into groups of 1000 turn into a group of 10,000 people.
I saw what it looked like to create a movement and what it looks like for young people to really get behind an idea and really want to change the world. So that was the first seed planted in me.
Lucia: Despite the exhilaration of working on the Obama Campaign and being given an offer to stay on the campaign, Jason took the safe route. He still believed that the correct way to succeed in life was to find a high-paying respectable job. So, he interviewed for investment banking and management consulting jobs. He didn’t enjoy the finance interviews, but he excelled at the management consulting cases and received a coveted offer from Bain & Company, one of the Big Three management consulting firms. Jason knew he had made it. He graduated from a prestigious Ivy League school with honors and he was now going to work at a top management consulting company to build his respectable career. Then right before graduation, the financial crisis of 2008 hit.
Jason: I think a blessing and a curse was that I graduated in 2008. This was the height of the recession. So even though I was going to work at Bain, they actually emailed everyone saying "Hey, we're not able to take everyone on. Does anyone want to take some time off to either learn a language or travel? I said absolutely especially if they were paying for it. So that was when I started doing some stuff in Social Enterprise work, I spent some time in Shanghai. But even when I got back and started working in January after I graduated, there wasn't very much work to be done.
My 22nd birthday ended up coinciding with the Haiti earthquake. And that was when I decided to go and busk at a New York subway stop to raise money and sing for Haiti and that was really what set off this whole journey that became Jubilee.
Lucia: Jason posted the video on YouTube with the initial hope of raising $80 for Haiti. But the little video he made using his flip camera reached 8,000 views in the span of just one week and he ended up raising hundreds of dollars for the cause. That’s when Jason realized that stories and media could change the world. He recruited his brother Eddie and his best friend Eric to help him make more videos.
Jason: It was something we were just extremely passionate about. So every night and on weekends, while I was in New York, my brother Eddie was at the White House in DC, and Eric was at med school at Harvard, we would be shipping hard drives back and forth editing late into the night. I was the kid as a first-year associate, you know, editing and sending videos out to the my entire office. People were saying what are you doing? You know, I was okay at my job, but you could tell that my attention and my passion lay elsewhere.
Lucia: Then one day, Jason was tasked to write a simple story for their next short film. While on the subway, he sat next to a girl who was wearing a pair of headphones. He really wanted to ask her what she was listening to but felt uncomfortable interrupting her and that’s when inspiration hit. Jason wrote the script for Love Language, a short film about two people who meet on a park bench.
The story goes like this: A boy notices a girl wearing a pair of headphones and reading on a park bench. The boy sits next to her and asks to borrow a pen. She lends him one despite still not speaking to him. Everyday they meet at the park bench and instead of speaking to each other, they pass notes back in forth written on pieces of post-it notes. Then one day, the girl asks the boy if he wanted to listen to her song and he says yes. She hands him her headphones tentatively and he eagerly puts them on, but to his surprise, he doesn’t hear anything. She then looks at him and gestures in sign language “I’m deaf”. Jason and his crew created this video to raise support and awareness for the American Society of Deaf Children. The video immediately went viral and by the end of one week, it had over 1 million views.
Today, the video has about 3.8M views on YouTube. After the video, Jason st