Webtoon may be a name unfamiliar to most, but to its users, it’s absolutely everything. The publishing portal, launched by parent company Naver in South Korea in 2004, is the home for easily read, quickly digested, vertically scrolling webcomics (think comics made for smartphone storytelling).
Webtoon has become a cultural phenomenon, averaging more than ten million monthly users in the United States and more than sixty-five million monthly users globally. It serves as a platform both for creators to display their work and committed readers to find new stories of misfits, outsiders, and complex individuals encountering hardship. It’s a theme that’s present in virtually every series on the app.
The home for outsiders is, appropriately, also the home for General Counsel Eugene Kim, who is the definition of the word in every sense. Kim was born in the United States, raised in South Korea, and later moved back to the States, then back to Korea, then back to the States. Not to mention that he earned his law degree in Toronto.
“This may be a little hard to follow, so stay with me,” Kim says, laughing, as he attempts to explain his journey. He’s told the story again and again over the years. Everywhere Kim has lived, he’s been “from somewhere else.” But at Webtoon, so is everyone else.
There and Back Again
Kim spent his first six years in California before his parents moved back to South Korea. His schooling from kindergarten to fifth grade was entirely Korean based. He was then sent to live with an aunt in Orange County in the States for sixth grade, but because she was already taking care of three children of her own as well as Kim’s older brother, it was decided Kim should return to Korea.
“So after suddenly going from a purely Korean school in fifth grade to classes in English in the States, now I was returning to Korea to attend an international (English) school,” Kim remembers. “It was mostly Korean Americans living in Korea, and it was such a weird dynamic. We were living in Korea but attending a US-based English school, and, to the larger society, we were considered foreigners.” By the time Kim was in eighth grade, the Kim family decided to move back to the States for good.
“In every one of those pockets, I didn’t quite fit in,” Kim says. “Moving back and forth and encountering all these different subcultures shaped me to be kind of a misfit. But it also allowed me to develop the skill set of being able to bridge cultures and quickly adapt to changing circumstances.”
That adaptation would be further put to the test when, after completing school at UCLA, Kim moved with his soon-to-be wife back to her home country of Canada. Subsequently, he pursued his legal degree at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. “When we moved back to the States after law school, I felt like an outsider yet again, because in the California legal community, my contacts, the school I went to, and the firm I worked in were off everyone’s radar,” Kim says.
A New Toon
Kim’s first in-house legal experience came at a Fortune 100 company, a massive information technology distributor where Kim was part of a large legal team. “I was extremely fortunate to land this opportunity where I got to work on high-stakes matters as a junior attorney, and I had great mentors who taught me how to do things the right way. It was truly the best of the best places to learn,” Kim says. “I learned so much, but there were also some things about working at such a large company that were challenging.”
For one, Kim would often be working on such large-scale global projects that it was difficult to see the full picture of what he was working on.
“As a junior lawyer, you’re often given a very small piece of the larger pie,” Kim explains. “You don’t always get to see how your work is contributing to the larger goals of the company, nor do you always get to see projects through to their completion.” For his next role, Kim hoped he could take on more responsibilities, such as managing deals from start to finish and interacting with opposing counsel.
What Kim wasn’t looking for was a company where he would lead with his Korean heritage. But then the Webtoon position came on Kim’s radar.
“I was looking to be part of a smaller company with maybe a single lawyer position, and this fit that opportunity,” Kim says. “I also thought that because of my experience living in Korea, I had a unique understanding of the culture and could understand the cultural nuances of communication that might otherwise be misinterpreted.” The position was Kim’s, but he didn’t know exactly just how much of a new challenge he had bitten off.
Sink or Swim
The characteristic that has made Kim a unique and ideally suited candidate for his role at Webtoon is not one someone might expect to hear from a successful GC. “I would generally describe myself as an easygoing, go-with-the-flow type of person,” Kim says. “I don’t tend to seek change, I think, because of having gone through so many changes and transitions for so long.”
The paradox, though, is that in change, Kim tends to thrive. His adaptation, well-honed by years of constant nation hopping, relies on instincts that the GC may not love to employ but are there just the same. And they helped a first-time GC take on a job that, with reflection, he’s not sure he ever would have truly been ready for.
“I’ve learned more in the last two years than ever before,” Kim says. “I’ve just had to roll up my sleeves and make decisions, because I don’t have a legal boss to rely on or report to. I’ve had to learn to trust my instinct and provide the best possible advice, and it’s given me the confidence to rely on my skills from the past seven or eight years.”
“I am so thankful that Thomson Reuters has played a part in Eugene’s journey,” says Travis Nelson, an account executive at Thomson Reuters. “Eugene is a problem-solver and has worked to build strategic best practices to ease his day-to-day. We’re glad he’s found our legal solutions to be part of the necessary tools to make quick, confident decisions.”
Since Kim started with Webtoon in the fall of 2018, his legal team has grown from a team of one to a team of four. His responsibilities continue to expand, as Naver is currently in the process of reorganizing the global Webtoon business. The restructure will make Kim’s US office the new global headquarters as the company plans to expand into more countries throughout Europe and Latin America.
Kim says his approach and steep learning curve have been aided by the culture at Webtoon. “The people who work here find a unique culture and community that’s built into the DNA of the company,” Kim says. “On our platform, you’ll find so many stories that may not fit the traditional mainstream norms, and I think the same is true of our staff. Many of us have spent parts of our lives not really feeling like we fit in, and our company embraces that.”
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