That ANTrepreneurial Spirit
UCI Alums Help the Next Generation Follow Their DreamsBy Rosemary McClure
Carol and Eugene Choi are the ultimate UCI couple.
They met as undergrads at a campus club, went on their first date at the old Bob’s Big Boy restaurant – once a happening place in Campus Plaza – got married three years after graduation and went on to become successful entrepreneurs.
Now, 30 years later, the couple live five minutes from campus, manage their own international consumer merchandising firm and find time to help current UCI students become entrepreneurs too.
One of their favorite philanthropies is the university’s ANTrepreneur Center, which they have supported financially since its launch in 2014.
Designed to help students turn their dreams of starting a business into reality, the center provides education and fosters networking. Its long-range goal is to promote student and faculty ideas, research discoveries and technological breakthroughs.
The ANTrepreneur Center is “an awesome opportunity for students,” says Carol Choi, who earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology in 1985. “Everyone at UCI comes from a different background,” she says. “Many are first-generation Americans whose families don’t have business experience here.”
But students who utilize the center, she says, “learn the direction they want to go after graduation. … They can take the things they learn back to their communities. Maybe they’ll be able to help make the family business more successful. Maybe they’ll go on to found their own business.”
Carol and Eugene Choi know just how tough that is. After graduating from UCI, Carol Choi earned her master’s degree in business administration and public health from USC in 1987, and then began working in hospital administration. But she hated the long hours.
“I’d get off work every night at 10 and then was on standby,” she recalls. “We’d just married, and my life wasn’t in balance. So I left in ’93 and started a sales and marketing organization specializing in consumer packaged goods.”
That wasn’t easy either: She spent her time working alone in a small office making cold calls promoting toothpaste to retailers and grocers.
Meanwhile, Eugene Choi, who had received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UCI in 1986, got an advanced computer engineering degree at USC and worked for several high-tech Fortune 500 businesses. In essence, he was supporting them while Carol Choi tried to grow her company.
He was also learning a lot about business ventures along the way. In 2001, he earned an Executive MBA at UCI and joined his wife’s firm.
“When I finished school, I decided to take a chance on making a career move,” he says. “I started my second career in startup mode.”
It was risky.
“We gambled everything,” Eugene Choi remembers. “We took out multiple credit cards, raided my 401K and savings from work, and raised more than $100,000. Our daughter, Sarah, was 2 at the time, and we didn’t want to ask our parents for money. We wanted to do it ourselves.”
The skills he’d picked up at the larger organizations he’d worked for helped him develop the infrastructure of their company, United Exchange Corp., which distributes healthcare and personal care products.
“Everyone at UCI comes from a different background. Many are first-generation Americans whose families don’t have business experience here.”
As president and CEO, he grew UEC from a startup to a midsized business within 10 years, establishing teams in sales, marketing, operations, accounting, purchasing, information technology, customer service and warehousing while expanding the customer base to national retail companies such as Walmart, Target, CVS, Walgreens and Dollar General.
UEC, headquartered in Cypress, California, now has distribution centers in the Inland Empire and Mississippi totaling 300,000 square feet plus an office in South Korea.
“And we’re still together,” Eugene Choi says, laughing. Their daughter is currently a third-year law student at UCI, and their son, Aaron, is a sophomore at St. Edward’s University in Texas.
The couple, both of whom were recently appointed as two of 10 new UCI Foundation trustees, believe they should share their good fortune with others.
“We always wanted to be able to give back to our community,” Carol Choi says. “We both immigrated with our parents and received a really good education here. We’ve been blessed and are very grateful.”
When they heard about plans for the ANTrepreneur Center, it seemed like a perfect match.
“There was momentum,” Carol Choi says of the center’s launch. “It wasn’t going to be a class where students would be judged by a grade. It would be a safe place where every idea would be considered a great idea. Students would have mentors, and it wouldn’t matter if you were a history major or an arts major. Everyone would collaborate.”
More than three years later, that’s exactly how the ANTrepreneur Center works. And the Chois have been major contributors to its success.
“They’ve been philanthropic anchors and also have provided the wisdom to help us launch and continue to navigate the ANTrepreneur Center,” says David Ochi, its executive director. “Without their vision and support, our services would not be available to the entire campus community of students, faculty, staff and alumni. The Chois embody the Anteater spirit of always giving back and paying it forward.”
The Chois are happy they’ve been able to encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs.
“There’s nothing like this country,” Eugene Choi says. “If you have a work ethic, grit and determination to succeed, this country will give you the opportunity.”