Cathy Choi '93 used her major in theater as training for running a business

By: Linda B. Glaser,  Ezra Update
January 1, 2014

Cathy Choi '93 entered Cornell with numbers on her mind. But an English class cross-listed with theater turned Choi away from her planned math major. "I had never read a play before in my life, but I got bitten by the bug and really fell in love," says Choi. "I ended up as a theater major."

Cornell theater productions proved invaluable training for Choi's current career as president of a company, she says, although she didn't recognize it at the time. "We had to learn everything from how to direct to how to work the lights, and how to deal with a variety of people including students, professional actors and professors," she says. "Those skills have come in really handy in running a business. I kind of view running a business as a lifelong production."

Choi says she's never forgotten the "gestus" that then-artistic director David Feldshuh often spoke about. "It has to do with making sure your physical being matches what you're trying to communicate. I see that all the time in my own company. When you're trying to explain something, your physical presence has a great impact on how you can effectively communicate," such as during board meetings or presentations, she says.

While at Cornell, Choi met her future husband, Ung-Joo Scott Lee '93, a nutritional science major. Now a senior architect at Morphosis in New York City, he is serving as project manager for Cornell's Gates Hall project. "That's the great thing about Cornell," says Choi. "There are so many different classes and schools to which you're exposed. There's nowhere else you can get that diversity."

Following graduation, Choi worked with the Cornell Interactive Theater Ensemble (CITE), which offers diversity training on campus and to companies. After a year with the ensemble, Choi came across a New York University MBA program that brought her full circle, back to math.

"The program was specifically recruiting liberal arts majors who did not have an accounting background. We worked during the day at one of the Big Six accounting firms and went to school at night," says Choi. "One of the program's goals was to bring people with different educational backgrounds together, in the hopes of gaining a different perspective. For example, the liberal arts majors would often ask clients really basic questions that others might not have. Sometimes, the answer was, 'because that's the way it's always been done,' but usually the conversations unraveled a better way of doing things."

Even with an MBA, theater still beckoned. Choi followed its call to Hollywood, where she started as an assistant to producer Cary Woods and ended up director of finance and operations for his company, Independent Pictures. In 2001 Choi left California to join her family's New Jersey company, Bulbrite, a leading manufacturer and supplier of energy-efficient lighting solutions. She became president in 2009.

The new energy-efficient standards for light bulbs that go into effect in 2012 represent a great opportunity for Bulbrite, says Choi -- and not only in potential sales. One of the core company values is education, and Choi is enthusiastic about the opportunities for outreach arising from the new standards.

Not everyone would be excited about working closely with family members, but Choi says she looks forward to coming to work every day. "It's fun, because we're a very close family. I'm fortunate that way."

Choi believes in giving back and helping others, and she did both in 2006 when she helped found the Cornell Korean Alumni Association and was one of its officers. "There's a huge community of Cornellians who are Korean," says Choi. "We want to engage all of them in staying connected to Cornell."

This story first appeared in Ezra Update.

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