Lights, Camera, Advocacy: Devoted Alumnus Builds Success from Texas to Seoul
- Jan 24, 2024
- Global Engagement and Strategy
- Ellen Stader
As a notable producer of K-Pop groups, Korean dramas and successful films in South Korea and Hollywood, Sam Chi (BBA '91, MPA '93) has spent more than 20 years carving out his legacy in Seoul and Hollywood as one of the greats.
Yet he still finds ways to give back, to honor his community and country — and, always, to advocate for his beloved alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin.
“The diversity at the school is quite unique. UT finds ways to be inclusive, trying to reach out to Asian Americans, African Americans, Arab Americans. That's something we're very, very proud of.”
As a leader of the UT Austin Korean Alumni Association based in Seoul, Chi tirelessly advocates for the benefits that attending UT offers to Koreans, and the innumerable ways Korean students enhance UT’s campus and culture.
Renewed collaborations with the University and Texas Global are helping the association identify greater opportunities for connecting Korean alumni with prospective and current students, university personnel and each other.
“UT alumni association members are among the most diverse, most successful people in the world, who give back to the community,” Chi said, explaining that it’s an easy cause for him to endorse because he believes deeply in the merits of the University, its legacy of international education and its impressive global graduates.
Academics, Athletics, Global Community
Born in Seoul, Chi moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was 11 years old. He acknowledged that without much of an Asian community at the time, the city was “not the friendliest place in the world” for him to grow up. But, he added, “It didn't really bother me too much. ... I think my personality was able to overcome that relatively easily.”
This understatement reveals something about Chi’s irrepressibly affable nature, characterized by an immediate warmth and familiarity that invites people into his orbit.
When the time came for college, Chi recalled choosing UT Austin for three reasons: stellar academics, exceptional athletics and a large Korean community, which he’d missed during crucial years growing up in the United States. His family was pleased by UT’s No. 1-ranked Department of Accounting. He threw his full support behind Texas Football. And the UT Korean community helped Chi contextualize his heritage and see the range of possibilities in his future.
“I spent a lot of my time at UT learning about Texas — and learning about the Korean community, as well,” he said. “They kind of molded me, in a way, into who I am today. They really opened my eyes in terms of what I could do.”
Thirty years later, Chi said he’s most pleased by the vibrant international community he discovered at UT Austin. “The diversity at the school is quite unique,” he said. “UT finds ways to be inclusive, trying to reach out to Asian Americans, African Americans, Arab Americans. That's something we're very, very proud of.”
Building with Talent and Opportunity
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees on the Forty Acres, Chi set off on a traditional career path in finance with PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he worked as an accountant until 1995. The job was not an exact fit for his gregarious personality, he recalled.
“You can see, even after talking to me for just a couple of minutes: I love people, and I love being with people!” Chi said. “As much as I value the experience of being an accountant — the basic foundation needed in the business world — I am not made to be secluded in a small room, auditing numbers … I want to go and see what's out there. I want to meet people, and I want to work with people.”
To do that, Chi enrolled in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration in 1996. However, during the summer before his first semester started, he headed to Korea to conduct market research for “a couple of months.” He never returned to live in the U.S.
“My mother is still wondering, ‘When are you coming back? You told me you were going for two months!’ ” he laughed. “But my parents were very good at letting me make decisions about the industries where I wanted to get involved.”
The pivots in Chi’s career were just beginning. In 1998, J.P. Morgan offered him a cherished opening, where he quickly established himself as a savvy investor. He later founded the People Management Group (PMG) and several offshoots, branching into hospitality, entertainment production, biotech and pharmaceuticals. In 2002, another golden opportunity presented itself when a friend invited him to invest in a movie.
That movie — Chi’s first entertainment project — turned out to be the groundbreaking film, “Oldboy,” which won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. It became the most highly acclaimed Korean movie ever, kicking open the door for the “Korean Wave” of cinema that would come to dominate global theatrical markets.
Chi then partnered with Landmark Entertainment Group USA and shortly thereafter established Landmark Entertainment Asia in 2005. He has spent the two ensuing decades working with top producers in Korea and China — many of them responsible for huge hits, including “Suspect” and “Train to Busan” — as well as investing and partnering in global blockbusters such as the “Transformers” and “Fast & Furious” franchises.
Using Success to Give Back
After 30 years of success in business, Chi now focuses on using his resources to uplift others. Alongside production for films and K-drama series, he also works in traditional business ventures and the stewarding of natural resources, such as a current project in battery recycling and carbon capture.
“It’s important to use your position to give back,” Chi said, reaffirming a viewpoint he’s always espoused. "When I got to be older, I always wanted to be in a position where I help other people, if I can, in different places of the world.”
Viewed through that lens, his involvement with the UT Austin Korean Alumni Association makes perfect sense. With more than 3,000 Longhorns, the alumni community in Seoul comprises the largest collection of UT graduates outside the U.S., also uniting Longhorns of Korean heritage living all over the world.
“UT alumni association members are among the most diverse, most successful people in the world, who give back to the community.”
The association was extremely active before pandemic, when the former president organized golf outings and mountain climbing expeditions to bring association members together in recreational ways. But after the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2022 Halloween tragedy in Seoul, the association found itself struggling to recover its energy and refocus its efforts.
When Chi stepped into leadership, he and his staff began working to bring the membership back to its former levels of engagement and beyond. They have offered tours of film production facilities and hosted a talk with UT professor Art Markman, a cognitive scientist, popular author and co-host of the radio show, “Two Guys on Your Head.”
“The thing we're trying to do now is to fight for participation,” Chi said. "We want everyone to participate and give back to the school.”
Greater Visions for the Future
With the expansive imagination that has long characterized his professional style, Chi envisions much more — not only for the Korean Alumni Association, but also for UT Austin as a whole — and is taking bold steps to achieve his elevated goals.
Recent collaborations with Texas Global are yielding promising results in numerous areas, not only strengthening the University’s ties to partners in Korea but also guiding the association toward opening a formal Texas Exes chapter. Seoul will serve as one of three host locations worldwide for UT Austin’s new first-semester-abroad program, Take the World by the Horns.
In 2022, Chi helped Texas Global organize the first gathering of alumni in Korea since before the pandemic, also the association’s first time hosting UT leadership in more than 5 years. Vice President for Research Dan Jaffe and Senior Vice Provost of Global Engagement Sonia Feigenbaum spoke about the convergence of global engagement with the University’s strategic plan, as focused through the lens of research.
Texas Global and UT leaders will visit South Korea again in Spring 2024 to explore further opportunities for collaboration with academic partners and the alumni community.
“Sam is a strong champion for UT Austin. He has brought action and purpose to the alumni community in South Korea,” said Fiona Mazurenko, Texas Global’s director of Global Initiatives and Alumni Relations. “He is such a gracious host during visits from students, faculty and staff, and we are so grateful to him as we build relationships and deepen our engagement with Longhorns in Korea and the region, and to highlight the contributions of Korea on campus.”
Though he acknowledges that there are still obstacles to overcome with membership contributions, scholarship support and overall engagement, Chi has ambitious and specific ideas for pushing the alumni association to ask more of its members.
Chief among his priorities are increasing UT Austin’s visibility in Korea to attract international students over other universities and creating a dedicated scholarship, funded by members to support Korean students. Achieving these objectives relies on increased alumni involvement, Chi said, in addition to contributions of time, energy and money.
“You earned one of the best educations in the world,” said Chi, referring to the Longhorns for Life whom he’s working to engage not only as donors but also as volunteers, network connectors, brand ambassadors and student mentors. “It’s time for you to give back.”
Chi also said he would like to see the University continue to rise in national rankings as an elite public school to lure more prospective students from Asian countries.
“Many people in Asia just see the educational rankings,” said Chi. "Whether it's India, Korea and Japan, or countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, many make their choices only on academic rankings.”
He applauds UT Austin’s efforts to engage more actively in working with firms like Samsung and other top Korean companies with bases in Austin, Houston and Dallas to collaborate on co-research and support initiatives. As an example, he referenced Jay Lee, the chairman of Samsung, who oversees the tech giant’s current agreement with UT Austin.
“We want to help him understand the value that UT brings for Samsung,” Chi said, also noting that the support of Korean firms would make it easier to garner greater participation of both Korean alumni and the country’s government.
Sam Chi is constantly pairing his innovative and creative approach with a fervent love for his alma mater. With him leading the effort to build the lofty bridges he envisions, the UT Austin Korean Alumni Association has the potential to become not only the largest but the most active and effective group of Longhorn alumni in the world.