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 started getting invites from Asian Student Associations and Social Justice Societies to to speak at their Universities.
Jason: So every Friday night or Saturday, we would be at the big Asian Students Association or social justice conference saying that you should pursue your dream, pursue whatever it is that your heart is calling you to, and do it for a greater purpose. And then every Monday morning, I'd be back in my cubicle crying, saying I'm a failure. I got to the point where I started to realize that I can't just say these things to young people; I have to really live it out. I didn't want my life to pass by and start to recognize that I only had one opportunity and one life to kind of practice what I preached and and take courage in that way.
Lucia: So Jason, Eddie, and Eric all decided to quit their jobs all within the same week to pursue their non-profit venture. They worked together for 6 years producing hundreds of videos, many of which have gone viral. Videos like This Time, featuring Korean American Actor Ki Hong Lee, who went on to star in the movie trilogy, The Maze Runner; Blind Devotion, an 8-minute short about a marriage between a man and a woman who eventually goes blind. The video has received 23.8M views to date. At its peak, the Jubilee Project was commissioned to create a documentary on sex trafficking in Korea.
Jason: It was an exciting time where we were just trying to learn and grow as much as we could. Saying yes to as many opportunities as we could. During that time we ended up getting an email from a pastor in Korea who said, "Hey, love what you guys are working on. I would love for you to work on a documentary for us on sex trafficking in Korea." So we said sure that sounds good, because he was willing to pay to fly us out. When we got there, we started to learn about this issue and ended up shooting about 500 hours of footage, which is a crazy amount. We got back and I had this determination. I realized that a lot of people din't know about this issue and I thought, why not show the world. So for the next two years I ended up directing and helping to oversee an edit for Save My Seoul, which was the documentary feature.
Lucia: This was the team’s first foray into long form film and their first time doing a documentary in a foreign language. The film took four years to complete and the team raised $40K from a kickstarter campaign to fund post-production costs. The documentary premiered at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival on April 29th, 2017. It won the Grand Jury award for documentaries and went on tour with the Polaris Project, a leading organization in the global fight to eradicate human trafficking.
But while Jubilee gained momentum, a few things changed within the team. Jason’s brother Eddie got married and went on to do other work. Jason’s best friend Eric decided to back to med school leaving Jason on his own.
Jason: That was actually a really tough time for me because as scary as it was for me to take the leap of faith and leave my job previously, I had the guys with me then. It was actually incredibly easy. I didn't feel like I was taking that much of a risk.
But when I was the last man standing with Jubilee, that's when I think it got really scary for me because suddenly I was running a nonprofit organization and we were doing some really interesting work, but I started looking around and thinking to myself, "Is this what I want to dedicate the next couple of years of my life doing?" And it wasn't that I didn't enjoy it anymore. I just wasn't sure if I had chosen the right strategy or approach.
Transitioning and Reinventing Jubilee Media
Lucia: Jason spent a year thinking through what he wanted to do next. Continue with Jubilee or do something different. Without the support of his brother and his best friend, Jason started having doubts about his future as a storyteller. He even thought about going back to business school.
Jason: It was around the time that all of my friends who I graduated with from Penn and from Bain were all going to business school. And my mom was in my ear saying, "You know, you don't have to go back to consulting. But why don't you just go to business school? Like you can easily go to business school and then you'll find all these other opportunities..." And there was a part of me that thought, "This is a way for me to course-correct if I want."
Seeing all of my friends go to these great business schools and having an amazing time, I was really envious because it felt like they kind of had a very clear path to the rest of their life, a very clear path to success. Meanwhile, I felt like I was just in the middle of the wilderness, the middle of the forest and there was literally no trail around me. But if I were to move forward, I would have to hack my own way through.
So it's something I really considered. I actually considered taking the GMAT and applying somewhere again. But ultimately there was this constant desire or saying that kind of rang in my mind. It's whht ultimately led me to leave consulting in the first place.
"I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself and not one that others expected of me."
And I had lived so much of my life according to those expectations that again I said, no, I want to have the courage to not go back to that that kind of very clear path, but by my own way.
Lucia: “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself and not one that others expected of me”. Jason talks about this quote a lot. It was first written about by Bonnie Ware, a palliative care professional, who surveyed her patients' biggest regrets as they were about to die. Surprisingly, this was the number one regret. Jason didn’t want to have this regret. Something inside him kept nagging him to push forward.
Jason: I realized that I still want to be telling great stories online and building a movement, but I don't think I would want to be doing it as a non-profit. My theory of change had evolved a little bit. So I didn't want to be raising money and awareness for organizations; rather, I wanted to be facilitating a nice toast or a lifestyle of empathy and kindness and love.
What scared me the most at that time was this idea of trying to do it as a for-profit because at least when you're doing it as a non-profit if you fail, you can say I'm doing this for good.
But suddenly when you make this an enterprise and you raise capital or you think about it in a free economy, it felt like the stakes were way higher. That's what scared me the most about it. But that's also why I realized this is actually what I want to do.
Lucia: So Jason turned Jubilee Project, a non-profit entity, into Jubilee Media, a for-profit startup right around the time of the launch for Save My Seoul. In April 2017, he released a video on YouTube with a preview of what’s to come.
Jason: I realized that the best way for me to make an impact is not by changing the world myself, but by inspiring others to be able to do it better than me. I think that's reflected in the vision statement of Jubilee.
Our vision is that we want to create a movement of change makers for human good. That's one of the reasons why we create content mostly for Millennials and Gen Z. The thinking is that if we can inspire a couple of people to become incredible leaders in their space and their own profession or location, that will be a tremendous success.
So I hope that in a lot of ways we're able to do that with Jubilee and that my life and my journey can give encouragement and courage to others to believe that they can do it, to ask why not me?
Jason’s Advice for the Asian American Community
Lucia: Why not us? Lynne & I asked ourselves that question when starting Rock The Boat. There are only one or two network podcasts that feature Asian American hosts. There are no mainstream network podcasts that feature Asian American topics or culture. Every time we applied to a women of color podcast incubator or media accelerator, our applications were rejected.
So we thought, why not start it on our own and record the first episodes on our cell phones? In many ways, that’s how Jason started Jubilee Media, right on his flip camera. That’s how actors like Ki Hong Lee got his breakout roles by starring in roles on YouTube. That’s how Michelle Phan broke into the makeup and beauty industry.
Why not us is an important question to ask, especially if you’re unhappy at your job or have that nagging feeling to do something that’s a bit bigger than yourself. I challenge all of you who are listening to Rock The Boat to ask yourself that question, “Why not me?”
Jason: I think one of the amazing things for the Asian American Community is that we're about to enter into what I would call like our golden time, our golden era - and there's such an amazing crop of talent coming out whether it's storytellers, writers, filmmakers, creatives. But also people are starting to understand and recognize how important it is for the culture.
For a long time, even though there were Asian films or Asian characters, people wouldn't buy. Our community wouldn't act and and purchase but now I think people are starting to see and celebrate Asian excellence and things like that.
Everything that I'm seeing is pointing to our community kind of coalescing and really believing in this idea of representation because we're hearing about all sorts of different projects and people who are working on exciting things that I think in a couple of years from now, we're going to see the fruits of all the labor of decades of people trying really hard to advocate for community.
Lucia: Undoubtedly, Jason is part of the wave of Asian Americans who are paving a path for the next generation. He’s tackling an industry plagued with accusations of gender and racial homogeneity. Not only that, he’s tackling much larger societal issues with shows like Middle Ground to show how people with dissenting views are capable of coming together to find common experiences.
Jason: It's rarely our successes that bond us together. Most of the time it's our brokenness and our failures.
At Jubilee, something that we focus a lot on with our digital content is creating a safe space where people can be authentic, where there is no judgment, where people can disagree - but also ultimately realize we are far more alike than you might think.
We also do a dating series that has people swiping and all these things are meant to in some ways, a look into the human condition and society and how we are all related. In that way, the dating series is supposed to subvert. You know, we don't talk about the purpose of it but the point is to kind of subvert what is online dating right now? And how is it that we treat each other online? And making that very apparent in almost a comedic way, but a cause of introspection and discussion.
At the end of the day, we want to move people and we want people to see our content and reflect and recognize that there is more meaning. And that we're really inspiring people to live deeper.
Lucia: Jason’s aspirations for Jubilee is to inspire just a little more good and love in the world. He hopes to empower those who view his content to become a changemaker within their own communities.
Jason: Each of us are capable of incredible good but also terrible evil. The decisions that we make every day is whether we want to be good or bad. And if with our content we are able to encourage just a little bit more goodness, I would say that's a success for us.
Lucia: For Jason, the road ahead is a long one. Each step forward brings new challenges. If you haven’t heard in the news lately, media businesses like Buzzfeed, Vice, Verizon, and Gannett shed over 2,200 jobs at the beginning of this year. Still, Jason’s forging forward to achieve his dream. He’s not quite a police officer or a dinosaur, but he’s indirectly fighting against the things that bring humanity apart, by creating a safe space for everyone’s voices to be heard.
Jason: Rock the boat means having the courage to live your most authentic life. What I mean by that is to have the courage to be who it is that you want to be, as well as pursue the things that you are interested in doing and not make decisions based on judgment of other people, expectation of our parents or society or fear of failure or for us to rock the boat. It's about living deeper with courage and love in every possible way that I've seen I've always seen people be rewarded for that.
Thank you Jason for sharing your journey to choosing to live a life true to yourself and not one that others expected of you. We’ve included a few of our favorite Jubilee Media videos in our show notes. There, you can also find a link to Jason’s full TED Talk at UC Irvine.
Save My Seoul is available on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play along with a few other video streaming companies.