Ben Chin has always been one of JoinTheLeaders’s top candidates for our Follow the Leaders project. He is widely known in the community with his unique background: son of a high level diplomat, served key roles in the news media in the past two decades, ran a political campaign as a candidate and, later, shifted his career direction to corporate environments in the recent past. Ben gladly accepted our request when he was approached for an interview. On December 1st, Ben invited our interview team into his office at the Ontario Power Authority, where Ben serves as Vice-President of Communications.
Can you share your experience during your early years as a young son of a Korean ambassador to Canada?
Ben: First of all, I think I was “extremely” lucky. Korea was a very poor country at the time. I was born in 1964. The whole nation was in turmoil and Korea was not a mature country. Even though we have a 5000-year history, after 35 years of Japanese occupation and the Second World War, we were not that different from what Afghanistan or Iraq looks like today. It was a brand new country struggling to invent itself out of war and out of poverty. In this circumstance, to be born in the family of ambassador should be considered “very very” fortunate. Although obviously as a young child, you’re too immature to grasp the fact that you’re very privileged.
A rich boy
All of my brothers and my two sisters were born when my father served a lower rank role in the foreign ministry. I had the chance to come along when he was the head of the mission. Just from this fact alone, comparatively, our standard of living was much better than that of most Koreans at the time. As I recall, there were many instances during my early years where it would strike me to realize that I had so much compared to others, and it was a real eye opener for me. It was when my father was Vice minister of foreign affairs that we were stationed back in Korea. I was a little boy at the time. During that period in Seoul, there were lappers at every street corner. That’s how poor the whole country was. My father had access to a black limousine at that time and the number on his identification badge read “two” because he was second in command, after the foreign minister. He was sort of in the top echelon during Korea’s military dictatorship. Soldiers were everywhere, roads were hardly paved and you’d see all these old folks carrying a huge stack of fabrics on their backs. When they saw us they would come to our window, asking for money and/or food.
So, you grew up in a wealthy household. But your father was a target for persecution during a political scandal. Going through such an event as a child must have affected you in a big way. What was it like? And how did a crisis of that nature impact you and your family?
Ben: The strongest memory that I have during that time was when my father had gone home to visit my grandmother who was on her death bed and the government used that opportunity to arrest him. The sequence of events, how everything unfolded, was very shocking not only to the eye, but also the mind.
We moved to a small condominium in “GangNam”; at the time the neighborhood was not quite as developed as it is now. Honestly, my first impression of our new place wasn’t very good; I thought the apartment was an awful place to live. After we arrived and settled in, I returned home one day and saw my father in his under shirt, which I had never seen before. He noticed me and came to give me a hug, looking small, weak and utterly destroyed; part of him I have never seen nor experienced before. He gave me a big hug and said ‘I love you so much and I missed you so much’. I thought my father would never ever say things like that, being from such a traditional generation. The sudden change in the atmosphere and the people around me came as a big shock for me, being a mere 12 year old. I couldn’t help asking myself ‘What’s wrong with my father? What’s going on?’ I knew my life had changed forever.
“I will not define my success by the job or title”
Another thought that popped-up in my head during that time was that many ‘things’ that were happening during my life were plain old garbage; fake, bland, valueless etc. All the people who addressed my father as ‘Daesanim’ (Ambassador) and bowed before him graciously ended up going after my father’s political influence. Now that he was completely stripped of his political status, not one of these people was willing to help him. In fact, it was considered dangerous for anyone to even talk to him because of the scandal my father was supposedly involved in. I realized that my life was not real at all; just something that was destined to disappear and fade away. This was another eye opening event. My reaction to my experience as a youngster growing up was, ‘I will not do what you did. I’m not going to invest my sense of dignity for a role, for a job. I will not define my success by the job or title because for all the good that he did, it can disappear’... I also told myself not to trust anybody. As I got older, I guess the train of thought during my younger years evolved into ‘I have to make sure that I do something that I love or that I feel strongly about because even if I fail, no one can take away from the fact that I committed to something that I loved and did the very best that I could’. People or a situation can strip everything away from a person but a true hearted commitment and effort cannot be tainted or be taken away.
Let’s talk about when you were in university. I learned that you did not complete your university degree. I am thinking that considering your parents were very strict, and knowing that your brother is a professor, it must have been a very challenging experience for you.
Ben: For the longest time during my college years, I thought I was going to be a writer; therefore, an academic degree didn’t have a lot of meaning. I believe it was around January, three months left until end of my 4th year in university, that I said to myself ‘I’m going to just continue working in restaurants, drive a cab, and do whatever I do as my primary passion is writing. I don’t have time to write my book with all these assignments so I’m going to leave’. You should be able to imagine my parents’ reaction towards my decision: disappointed, disapproval and disagreement. But one of the things that I really came to appreciate about my parents was that at least with me, even though they may raise their voice and I’d raise mine, we never stopped talking. I remember saying ‘maybe I will go back to school next year, maybe I won’t or maybe you are right and all of my writings aren’t going to be successful. Then I will end up unemployed. But I need to find my own dead end. Maybe it’s true that you have lived longer and you know more. You can teach me things from your experience but I want to live it for myself. So I’m going to do this.’ After my little speech, they accepted my decision.
A few years after you got out of school, you got into the news media. It was 1989 with a City TV as a reporter. So could you share with us regarding your career in news media from 1989 to 2005?
Ben: When I told my dad that I was dropping out to pursue a career in writing, he said to me, “Why don’t you channel your writing skills into something that earn a good wage, like a journalist?” I was very ideologically pure and I refused at first, but later realized that he was right as I found myself working for CityTV two years after. It was a very exciting time at CityTV as the dynamics of a news setting really came into play. I was fascinated by the environment and I got to cover some of the incredible stories during that time: a horribly sad story like the Paul Bernardo Trial, 1992 Presidential Election in US where I got to travel with Bill Clinton, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, travelling to the Soviet Union to do stories about what was it like at that time period.
How did you get into the News Media?
Ben: It’s actually when I met my wife, who was a journalism graduate and she was the one who encouraged me for the career as she produced my demo tape and sent it to the CityTV. That was a turning point. The job at CityTV along with assignments that I took on later in my career, led me to a position at CTV for the Atlantic Bureau. Eventually, it landed me a job at CBC for The National, filling in the position as anchor for Peter Mansbridge. I had an incredible privilege of learning from the people I really admire which include Peter, Adrienne Arsenault, Mark Kelly, etc.
You explored a number of career changes from involvements with news media, political party and now in a corporate environment. What advice could you share with young people on developments of their career?
Ben: After 16 years in journalism, I felt I got a chance to explore everything I could and had the privilege to witness history as it unfolded in the world around me. Being a witness to history is great but I felt I wanted to help in shaping it. Having the opportunity to go to the Premier’s office was my opportunity - restoring public services, education, and healthcare dollars. Also, I wanted to personally serve for those in the community.
I think people are all very different. Some people know what they want to do when they are young, they will get their education in their fields of interest and use that knowledge to pursue their dreams. Many of them have very successful and lasting careers. Others have different, but unique, sets of skills that can be applied in a variety of ways. They’ll find areas that those skills can be applied and find the people that appreciate them. Regardless of where you fit, if you enjoy what you do and love it, you’re probably in good shape.
“Listen to others to become a great leader”
In your opinion, what is the single most important skill that a leader must possess?
Ben: To be able to listen- A leader doesn’t have to be the smartest person in the room but has to be there when the best idea evolves in the room; someone who can fully capture people’s ideas so that the ideas are able to grow and develop alongside the very people who brought them forward. The only way to engage people is to make sure that their ideas are respected.
To me, Dalton McGuinty was a good example: no matter how illogical or just plane stupid the advice may be, Mr. McGuinty makes people feel like they’ve made a good contribution. When everybody is busy and out of time, a leader has to have time to listen.
From an outsider perspective, good leaders need to have broad shoulders to withstand the hot seat when faced with a crisis. It is very difficult to guess who has this quality. Some people appear to have it but in a crisis, they choose to bail. If you have strong values within, it’s as if you’ve lived your life and is ready to deal with the crisis.
What is your goal? What do you want to achieve in the future?
Ben: I’ve never had any career ambition. I don’t know what I want to be after this. I have always thought that I’ll continue with my current job forever.
I do have passions and one of them is towards multiculturalism of our city of Toronto and country. The most magical thing in our city is the sharing and participation among different cultures. If all the different communities can come together to resolve issues, we can be the beacon of light.
My other passion lies on the environment. There’s selfishness to polluting and not thinking about our future generations. We have to think of a better way to live life and where the future economy is headed. This is part of the reason for my passion in the energy sector -we have a real opportunity to generate a clean source of energy that makes us independent from fossil fuels.
There is a connection between the two passions. When immigrants come to a new country, they are busy living their lives and often neglect things like their environment. There’s a bridge between my Korean and environmental friends. When I look at my environmental friends, there’s not much multiculturalism. It would be great if each of us bridge those two worlds.
Any final advice to younger generations?
Ben: No matter how accomplished we may be, as you start a career, don’t ever feel entitled to something because of certain achievements. Don’t get in a pattern of “Why am I getting this when others are getting better things?” Go out and prove your worth every day. There’s only one way to prove it, which is by working hard and showing results.
Secondly, do something you love and feel committed. If you don’t know what you love, try different things now. Don’t stay on the sideline.
Lastly, when you get into the workplace, go knock and seek advice from your industry’s most important and influential people. Talk about your career aspirations. There isn’t a person behind the important door who doesn’t feel flattered when they are asked for advice. In the workplace, students come and go. Not everyone’s going to ask. So the students that they will remember is the ones that asked. Leaving that impression is important.
About Ben Chin
Ben Chin is Vice President of Communications at the Ontario Power Authority (OPA).
The OPA is working to ensure a sustainable, reliable and cost-effective supply of electricity in Ontario through planning, conservation and generation procurement. The Power Authority designed and launched North America's first comprehensive Feed-In Tariff Program, contracting 2,500 megawatts of renewable energy projects and is currently leading Ontario’s Long-Term Energy Plan process.
Ben joined the OPA in March 2009 after 20 years of experience in communications, first as a broadcast journalist covering national, international and local Toronto news. He was a senior advisor in the Office of the Premier, as well as a private sector communications executive.
Ben was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1964 to a diplomat’s family. He grew up in Asia, Europe, North and South America and he first came to Canada when his father was posted in Ottawa as the Korean Republic’s Ambassador between 1970-74. He later returned as a visa student, living with an elder brother and sister, and received his Canadian Citizenship in 1982.
Ben and his wife Barb Ustina recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. They live in Toronto.
Interview Date : Dec. 1, 2010
Interviewers: Jooseok Lee, Solbi Hong
Photographer: Gerald Law
Editors: Phil Kim, Hyunjun Park
The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of JoinTheLeaders's opinion.