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From Executive Director to Executive Coach

Caroline Kim Oh

Caroline Kim Oh was a teenager when she arrived in this country with no knowledge of the language and worked her way up to a job as head of a national nonprofit organization. Now she’s using the lessons she’s learned over the years and helping others as an Executive Coach.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?

I am an Executive Coach who works with clients who are (or want to be) leaders in the nonprofit sector. As a coach, it’s my job to provide time, space, and structure to help my clients set and achieve their goals. I’ve been doing this work full-time for about six months, but I’ve been an informal coach and advisor for most of my career.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?

Coaching has a lot of aspects – I ask questions, I really listen, I act as a brainstorming partner, and I help my clients come up with their own answers. When requested and appropriate, I also share my experiences as a nonprofit leader and a working Mom, and I give feedback on resumes and strategic plans, but it’s important to remind my clients that I’m giving my opinions, not the answers. I help my clients sort through the clutter of their everyday lives and figure out the path that makes the most sense for them.

Are there any misconceptions about your job?

I’ve heard Executive Coaching described as a cross between therapy and consulting, but that’s not quite it. I’m not there to help my clients heal or resolve their past issues, or give advice. I’m there to be a partner and make it easier for my clients to use the resources that they already have. It’s not my job to come up with the answers – they do that on their own – but I help to make it possible.

Caroline Kim Oh - FamilyWhat is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?

I’m an Asian woman and an immigrant. When I was younger, that made me very self-conscious – I wasn’t confident about my writing or my ability to speak like a native English speaker. I was definitely jealous of people who grew up here or moved to the States earlier and didn’t have the difficulties I had. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized that nobody cares if I have an accent. I no longer feel like I have to prove anything to anyone.

Being a woman has its own challenges. In the work world, I felt people often didn’t take me as seriously as I wanted because I’m a woman and I’m small and I don’t look like I’m going to be the person that has command of the room. Also, while I believe that I was born to be a Mom, I somewhat resented having to “clip my wings” to have kids. I love being a Mom more than anything else in the world, but I also love my career, and it’s impossible to balance both and feel completely satisfied in both aspects of your life, all the time. Luckily, all those experiences inform and enrich my coaching.

What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?

I came to this country from South Korea when I was in middle school, not speaking English at all. It was hard – my parents were very supportive, but they worked long hours and didn’t know how things worked in the United States, so I had to figure a lot out on my own. I was very lucky to have older cousins help me with my college applications or even take me into the city to see a movie.

While I was in college, my brother was injured, and it really made me think about the importance of having a job that makes a difference. I just couldn’t figure out how. I thought about medical school, but I hadn’t ever taken a science class, and I thought about being a public interest lawyer, but I hadn’t really prepared to go to law school, so I took a job at a nonprofit for a year. I immediately fell in love with the work and the people who do it, went back to graduate school for a degree in nonprofit management, and then landed at iMentor, where I worked for 12 years.

Caroline Kim Oh - iMentor

iMentor was perfect for me – the organization pairs working adults with young people from low-income communities to help them the way that my cousins and friends helped me when I was younger. I’d also noticed in college that a lot of other kids had opportunities I didn’t – I’d spend the summer working at my parent’s store, while they were visiting Europe or Asia or doing nice internships. iMentor helps kids like me access caring adult mentors connect them to more opportunities, skills and knowledge. I loved that.

At iMentor, I went from Program Director to Executive Director to President in a rapidly expanding organization, got married, had kids, and somehow found myself as an accidental advisor to nonprofits and nonprofit leaders. I had people calling me all the time, asking about staff development or fundraising or board development or work-life balance. Becoming an executive coach felt like a great way to focus on that part of my work and make a living doing it.

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?

I absolutely love what I do. I love the sessions – meeting with my clients and really listening to them and working with them. I love the process of developing the coaching relationship and getting to know my clients deeply. My clients have made life-altering decisions in their sessions with me and even I’m amazed at times by what we’ve been able to accomplish together.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

I often find that my clients underestimate their own strengths. They gloss over all the things that they’re good at and focus in on their weaknesses, because that’s where they want to improve. That’s important, but it’s as important to acknowledge and celebrate the areas where you are strong.

Caroline Kim Oh - sideWhat kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?

I consider myself a 40-year-old intern right now, because I’m learning by doing, and my rate reflects that. The money that I make as a coach is nowhere near the salary that I made – or could make – as an executive director. In exchange, I am able to control my work schedule, and work only 2-3 days a week, which allows me to focus on other aspects of my life, including caring for my young kids.  I’m lucky to have a dual-income household so that my income can be a supplement instead of the primary income, but the pay differential is a major consideration for someone entering this field. My income will steadily increase over the next couple of years, but it would be hard to support your family on just this.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold?

Coaches’ pay varies. I’ve heard of coaches who only charge $50 a session and others who charge as much as $500 a session. It sounds like a lot, but that pay covers not only the work I do during the sessions, but any research that I do or time that I’m available over the phone and email between sessions. Coaches also spend a lot of unpaid time on business development: networking, speaking, writing, and meeting with potential clients. Many people end up supplementing this money with consulting work or freelance work.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

Right now, I’m finding that I really love the work and I’m getting better and better at it – I’d love to become one of the best in the field , but I don’t feel a need to become a big corporation and have other coaches working for me. I’d rather use talks and articles to reach those people who I can’t coach and share the lessons I’ve learned. In all honesty, though, I have no idea where I’ll be in five years. It’s enough for me that I’m enjoying the work that I do now and that I’d like to keep doing it.


Learn more about Caroline Kim Oh on her blog, LinkedIn page, or Twitter account.

  • Akquaa

    As someone that came to this country at younger age, I can completely relate to her struggle of having to assimilate into American society. Like her, my mother had to work really long hours in order to provide for my siblings and I. I sympathized with the challenges she felt as a woman in the workforce because I too have had may incidence in my life where I wasn’t taking as seriously because of my gender. Overall this was a very powerful story and I learned a lot from her experience.

  • dowen kabula

    Reading this article gave me hope and encouraged me. As an immigrant, I can relate to a lot of things she said; like about how absent our parents are, because they are out there working and trying to provide, about the language, I was a teenager when I arrived in the US too, and I was (am still) jealous of the privilege people have to be born here (came here at a young age) and speak English.
    It was hard (still is at some level) to believe that I will become someone, realize my dreams.
    But I guess this article is one proof that I can, she did it, I also can do it.
    Thank you

  • Sebastian Zhang

    I love this story because it is so inspiring. The language barrier is such a big obstacle for all immigrants. It takes years to learn English and another few more to fully understand the slangs and references. On top of the that, you must have to learn about American culture to fit into society. I relate to your life struggles because I too was a first generation immigrant when I first came to United States; and it was difficult to jump from East Asian characters into Latin based alphabet.

    In addition, your decisions to be happy rather than pursuing wealth is also fascinating. It is very easy to fall under the illusion of percieving money as the ultimate achievement, but you chose split time between work and other things that makes you happy. Your persistance and ability to find happiness really touched me.

  • Sheilah Otieno

    Reading Caroline’s story as an immigrant myself, I always wondered if people are more interested in my accent or my actual speech. Caroline was able to overcome my worst fear which is public speaking because of my accent and went on to lead a happier more fulfilled life. She is my hero because I can relate to what she is saying more because I am also an immigrant. I came here 4 years ago and went through the whole high school experience and everyday as an immigrant I wish I would have migrated in my childhood just to be further along like most people my age. I am 18. Your patience and perseverance is admirable. Thank you for making me believe that every American immigrant can live the American dream through hard work and perseverance.

  • glmariajose

    I felt so identified when I read this story, I also came to the U.S when I was a teenager and I did not know how to properly communicate in English. Being born and raised in Mexico, and coming to the US for college was not easy. Although it was my decision, I did not realize the struggle I was going to experience until I arrived here. I had such a hard time trying to pass Composition, History, Math, and even Art classes, but I was not going to give up. I came here looking for a fresh start, looking for opportunities that my hometown could not offer. I tried my best and I succeeded. Although it was very hard trying to avoid being self-conscious about my accent and other communication skills, I did it. I graduated from UTSA in Communication Studies. I am trying to go for the Master’s program and I know I still have a lot to do to get to the top. I need to continue my education in order to be a professional and to succeed; to be someone in this world.
    Caroline is such an inspiration for me and for many others that haven’t had it easy in the US. She is the perfect example of success through hard work and consistency.

  • LetMeBeGreat

    I’m glad you followed your heart Caroline. I can only imagine how hard the transition must have been for you. I also came to this country at a very young age and it is extremely difficult.

    For starters, I came here from the Caribbean so I had to adjust to the ever changing weather, and even though I speak fluent English, I always find myself reverting to my native language.

    Like your parents, dad also works long hours and he is very supportive, but he can only do so much. I am still trying figure a lot out on my own too and it is very frustrating sometimes because I have to learn from my own experiences

  • Nelly Waribe

    Here is an enriching story of an immigrant woman that arose from unfavorable circumstances so that she may live a fulfilling life. Caroline Kim defied all odds stacked against her and continue to do so in a noteworthy way. It instills in me immeasurable hope that I also can be a Caroline Kim. A woman full of zeal and diligence. A woman that knows
    her worth and doesn’t settle for less. Doesn’t settle for mediocrity. Doesn’t settle for an unpassionate career. A woman that wasn’t born in this country yet thrived here. A woman that belongs in the minority group yet there is nothing minor about her. In all that she is and does, she generates significance. I,also, can be that woman.

    I was born in Kenya, Africa but migrated to the United States when I was nine years old. Although I came here knowing how to speak/write in English, it was minimal so I had to be placed in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Similar to Kim, I did not feel
    confident in my ability to speak or write like a native English speaker. This fear operated throughout elementary school so much so that I never raised my hand in class. Gladly, I have outgrown this fear as a college student but it took years to overcome it.

    Growing up as an immigrant child, I have seen my parents struggle and work extremely hard to enable my siblings and I to have a better life while also supporting extended family members in Kenya. All of this has ignited a fire in me to be all that I can be. I cannot and will not let my parents, my community, my nation, or myself down. I will uphold the high
    standards I have for myself and even supersede them. I want to make a major difference
    in the world around me enjoying what I do. Like Kim, I want to pursue and furthermore take a hold of my dreams, not being afraid to steer into a different course so long as it leads me to where I want to be. I can be that woman.

  • Carlos

    I too came to the U.S. as an immigrant. although I did not struggle with language or writing because i came at very early age, I did struggle because i was raised in a different culture and i was not to confident with myself. reading this article gave me a lot of inspiration to becoming who i want to be.

  • Dilnoza Inoyatova

    Reading this article really brought me back to 10 years ago. My family moved to Omaha, Nebraska from Uzbekistan. I was only 9 years old. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t know the culture, and I didn’t know how I would adapt. As I started my journey in America, I was learning English, making friends, memories, and I was finally adapting to this new life. I felt so alone, stupid, and felt like a loser. Instead of staying negative, I decided to make something of myself.

    I studied everyday, perfected my English, got involved, made a lot of new friends. By the time I got to high school, I was already involved in student council. From there, I joined many clubs and organizations. By my senior year, I had been a President of 2 clubs, VP of 2, Treasurer of 1, and I started my own club(Warriors Assisting the Community) my junior year. Started working with Special Olympics, Ronald McDonald House, the local Hospitals. I ended up with over 500 hours of service hours. All the people, and things that were obstacles for me, I got rid of. I decided to only remain positive. Living a positive life has provided me with many opportunities that I wouldn’t have received.

    Now, I am going off to the University of Arizona in a month. I will be studying Neuroscience with a cognitive emphasis, and I am so excited to prove everyone who thought I could not do it wrong. If you work hard, and believe in yourself, you can achieve everything.

  • Claudia Mendoza

    I too came here as an immigrant when I was younger, I am now 19 years old and in college. I connected with your story in the sense that I too know what it feels like to struggle to learn a new language and fit in. My parents also had to work long hours while I was growing up and just like you I learned much of the American ways on my own.

    You tell your story with such a passion that I couldn’t help myself but be captivated as I read. I hope that someday I can be able to talk about my job like you talk about yours. I am currently pursuing a degree in Biology and hope to gain acceptance into Medical School. Your story gives me hope that someday I can be as successful and as driven as you no matter where I came from.

  • Art

    Reading this question-answer article, I couldn’t help but notice how alone Caroline must have been when she arrived here due to her lingual skills.

    She worked hard, studied, and before she knew it, she was working a job she loved. This genuine person sparked in me what I thought was a life everyone is bound to have, but I was wrong; no, the spark meant something else: persistence.

    I can imagine Caroline being a very persistent girl and having an awareness of opinions. Her thought process was that of not many, but still quite alot of people in this country. That’s why she is where she is. Through getting there, she received alot of help which reminded me why I was here – I need help. And so do the thousands of others who are commenting here. We’re all in need of help, or so we think.

    • Caroline

      Art- thank you for your wonderful comment. In looking back, it all seems to make sense and planned out, but honestly, it wasn’t like I had carefully mapped out my career. As I got older, however, I became less worried about how I appeared to others, and less ashamed to ask for help when I needed it. I think that helped me connect to lots of people who supported me, mentored me, and opened doors for me. Best of luck to you!

  • Enok Kim

    When i read this article, two words circled my mind : hard work and patience. This article represents how anyone can become someone impaction.

    Caroline’s life story definitely shares my experience. First of all, I saw my myself when Caroline said that she was not confident in her writing. When it comes to writing papers or even writing small comments online, I still frighted. Regardless, how much i try, I feel like i am a horrible writer. But reading this article encouraged me to step up and not care about others. Yes, my writing can be bad, but I have other ways to deliver my ideas and strengths in other areas.

    In addition, similar to Caroline, my life is immigrant journey. I moved to Kazakhstan when i was seven. Grew up as a foreigner in the worst neighborhood in Kazakhstan, I had numerous incidences to end my life. Learning Russian, adapting its culture was difficult. In addition to such different lifestyle, I moved to California for college. Being alone in United States and knowing very little about the culture and the language, i had to go through the similar challenges as well. I also used to question, “why can’t i grow up in one place and learn the language easily, speak fluently without any accent.”

    Seeing Caoline’s life story, I realized that I too can achieve my dreams. If a man is will to put hard work and be patient, no language or cultural obstacles cannot stop a man’s dream.

    • Caroline

      Wow Enok, what an amazing story.. Just from this bit, I can see that you are a strong, thoughtful and intelligent person who will be successful in whatever you choose to do. And your accent can make you more memorable and interesting. 😉 And remember- we will get better and better at writing more we write, and we can always ask for help from someone who’s been at it longer than us! 😉

  • Justin Juarez

    I love her story and how she went from nothing to something. Being that my family is from from Mexico, my grandparents and parents know a little bit of the struggle that she had to go through. That whole idea is what caught my eye, and it is also what has inspired me to be the best at life that I possibly can. Making the most out of the worst situations, and putting in hard work to achieve my dreams.

    • Caroline

      Thank you so much Justin. Wishing you and your family the very best!

  • luis martinez

    good job Kim, keep it up 😉

    • Caroline

      Thanks Luis. 🙂

  • Congratulations Caroline on following your heart and making it work, well done!!

    • Caroline

      Thank you so much!

      • tara linh leaman

        CC!–the way you connect the dots of your personal and professional
        journeys resonates deeply…we all have a story, and yours is
        one that affirms that while life can be unfair, it can still be very good…the Goddesses were with you, yes; AND you put in a whole lotta of
        damn hard work(s), indeedy…kudos and write on–tara linh leaman

  • ceze101

    “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”― Maya Angelou.

    That is the quote that came to mind when I read your story. Caroline, Your story is really inspiring. It’s amazing how you’re impacting these kids and change their lives for the better. Students from low-income may have their downfall because they may not be able to control all the events that happen in their lives. But knowing that they have a mentor that cares about their future is the greatest feeling. Being part of something so big like an imentor is wonderful. You’re surely a hero. I really admire what you’re doing and standing for.

    I myself arrived to the country with no knowledge of the language. I was born and raised in Haiti. I was 13 years old when I came to the States. Now, I’m 20 years old and I will be a senior at Florida Gulf Coast University in less than 2 weeks. My goal is to become a physical therapy. I absolutely love the field and I like the idea of making a difference in people’s life .I’m first generation student and live with a single parent.
    My mother was also working long hours and she was supportive just like your parents. I also had to figure a lot out on my own too. I had to learn from my own experience. It was frustrated at first because I did not have a mentor or someone to look up to.

    That is why I think the work you’re doing is really great. I like how you said you’d rather use talks and articles to reach those people who you can’t coach and share the lessons you’ve learned. I was fortunate enough with a computer and internet that how I learn about colleges and opportunities. Reading your story also made me realize how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate the areas where I am strong. I’m always focusing on my weaknesses and always want to improve them.
    Thank you Caroline Kim Oh.

    • Caroline

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. I loved reading this comment, and loved that we have so many similarities. 🙂 I was also 13 years old when I first arrived in this country, and I also LOVE Maya Angelou, ever since I discovered “I know Why Caged Bird Sings” in my public library. Congratulations on your well deserved success, and wishing you and your family continued success!

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