Four years ago, Grace Kim’s 14-year-old son, Dragon, died instantly after a massive tree branch fell on his tent during a family camping trip to Yosemite National Park. At the funeral home, Kim and her husband, Daniel, pledged to honor their son’s memory and his love of life. Shortly after, the Dragon Kim Foundation was born.
Now, Kim, a former marketing executive who’s managed multimillion-dollar marketing budgets of billion-dollar brands, has dedicated herself to the nonprofit full time. The program funds service projects designed by California high schoolers based on their interests and passions. Teams have led a robot-coding workshop at a children’s hospital and curated an art show for a woman who survived the Holocaust. The top three projects compete in the Dragon Challenge — Kim’s version of the TV show Shark Tank — for a chance to win an additional $5,000.
How did you make your way to Stanford GSB?
Before business school, I spent some time working as a consultant. It was great to learn about different fields, but I knew I wanted to focus on marketing. So I studied marketing at Stanford GSB, then spent 15-plus years in consumer marketing. Sometimes I feel like a creative person living in an MBA body. I’m a photographer and a writer, and marketing has been a great way to combine creative skills with more straitlaced business skills. I started at Yahoo in the Bay Area, then moved to Allergan, where I ran a multimillion-dollar consumer marketing budget. I created TV, print, and online ad campaigns and did shoots with celebrities like Virginia Madsen. I loved it.
Everything changed in 2015 during a trip to Yosemite. What happened?
It was August 2015. Dragon was 14 and our daughter, Hannah, was 13. Yosemite has always been a place our family has vacationed. That summer, we had planned to go camping at the end of summer and told Dragon he could bring a friend along. My husband, Hannah, and I were in one tent, and Dragon and his friend Justin were in another. In the middle of the night, I heard this thunderous crash. I knew a tree had fallen and it sounded like a really big one. I remember running out of the tent and grabbing my glasses and tennis shoes to check on the boys to make sure they were OK. The tree branch was several stories high, and the boys were killed instantly. It’s been devastating.
When and how did the Dragon Kim Fellowship Program take shape?
We were in the funeral home. It’s surreal when you’re being asked to choose a coffin for your son. It’s a really traumatic experience. A friend of ours who was with us said, “You have your whole life to mourn Dragon. Now would be a good time to honor him.” Dragon loved math and science. He also played water polo and the trombone — he really loved music. At first we thought, what if the foundation focused on helping other kids find a love of music? But then, we took a step back. We always told our children that our job was to expose them to a lot of different things, and their job was to find what they love to do and to pursue it with gusto. So we decided to focus on helping other kids pursue their passions. It’s an Asian tradition to give money at weddings and funerals. People had given us money at his funeral, and with the money, we established the Dragon Kim Foundation.
What was the first project the foundation funded?
Before Dragon died, he started planning a project to provide free music classes to underserved elementary school kids in the Santa Ana Unified School District as part of their after-school programming. The foundation’s first project was to bring that dream to life. Now, we have high school kids volunteering as the music teachers. That was always Dragon’s intention. The program is ongoing, and we’ve expanded it to two sites serving almost 200 students a year.
How did the foundation evolve from there?
After that, we funded scholarships for high-performing high schoolers. As part of the interview process, we asked kids, “If you didn’t have to worry about money, what project would you pursue?” We got amazing answers. High schoolers have this fire in their belly. We thought that if we could step in and give them training to create a project, there would be a multiplier effect, in that we could help activate these high schoolers, and they would then go on to help others. We launched the fellowships in 2017. Last year, our third year of the fellowship program, we sponsored 20 project teams of 41 Dragon Fellows.
How do the fellowships work?
Winning teams — of one to three members — get three full weekends of leadership training in the spring and up to $5,000 to put toward their project, which they execute in the summer. They have to give us a project budget, and we connect each team with a business mentor.
What’s your favorite part of running the foundation?
Being able to work with the students. I needed a place to put all of the energy and love that I had for Dragon. It’s been so rewarding working with these other dragons, as we call them, to guide them, mentor them, and make their dreams come true.
What are some projects that stand out?
I love that we’re enabling students to tell stories that have gone untold. Holocaust survivor Trudie Strobel made these amazing tapestries, but they hadn’t been seen by the world. Two Dragon Fellows, Maya and Lila, got to know her as part of their bat mitzvah project and wanted to mount an exhibit for her tapestries, which remind us of the Holocaust and the consequences of giving in to hate. As another example, two other teens, sisters Isabella and Sophia, are Native American girls from the Cahuilla tribe. In the indigenous community, a large number of women and girls go missing — 10 times the national average — and Isabella and Sophia thought it was important to bring this issue to light. They wanted to tell the story of missing indigenous women, so they produced a play, which they’ve performed half a dozen times, to almost a thousand people. Isabella was invited last fall to share about her project, their play, and this issue on the Today show and at the United Nations.
We also have several Dragon Fellows and scholarship recipients who are now students at Stanford. Some of them are first-generation college students, and to have played a role in their being at Stanford — a place so close to my heart, and Dragon’s dream school — has made me immensely happy.
How are you applying lessons learned at Stanford to your current work?
One thing Stanford GSB is very good at is teaching interpersonal dynamics — having people understand their personal leadership style. That’s one of the things we do with our students. On the first day, we talk about emotional intelligence, and on the second day it’s “MBA-in-a-box”: how to create a budget, develop a business plan, and market your project. We’re basically giving them MBA skills and helping them get to know themselves. We show them how to present their project in a more compelling way so people will want to help them. These are lessons I learned in business school.
What have you heard from students about the program, and what do you think Dragon would say if he could see what you’ve accomplished?
The thing I hear most from students is that we’re creating a community for them of other high schoolers who want to do good. We believe in them, and they’re turning around and helping other people. It’s almost like we’re helping to create this culture of doing good. It’s hard running some of the sessions, because I know Dragon would have loved them. He would have been thrilled to see us enabling these other high schoolers to pursue their hopes and dreams.
Where do you go from here?
We’re still a small organization, but we’re growing. Our money comes from grants, individual donors, and generous corporate sponsors like the Disney Foundation and the Wells Fargo Foundation. This year, we were able to open up the fellowship to all of California. Our goal is to expand to the whole country, offering 100 fellowships every year.
Photos by Cara Robbins