When Steven Lee decided to leave his job as a federal government consultant, he faced an uncertain future.
The Annandale High School and Virginia Tech graduate had always dreamed of starting his own business, but he knew it was a risky venture, especially since he had a family with two children to support.
Fortunately, thanks to some advice from a former colleague, Lee eventually found his footing and launched GINIA, an information technology consulting firm, in 2002.
More than 15 years later, the Alexandria-based Ginia has found success as a government contractor, and Lee still serves as the company’s CEO.
That success might have been more difficult to come by, though, if he were not in Fairfax County.
“We’re basically supporting the U.S. government within the Beltway, and it’s in a prime location,” Lee said. “In the contracting world, there are so many opportunities to start up a company…There are a lot of opportunities, so I think it’s definitely a great place to be in, not just for ourselves, but for future Korean Americans who want to create a business.”
Though Lee says, perhaps jokingly, that he might be biased since he has spent most of his life in the county, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Fairfax County has become home to a significant, flourishing Korean American community over the past several decades.
According to Fairfax County Economic Development Authority president and CEO Gerald Gordon, 60 percent of all Koreans in Virginia reside in Fairfax County, nearly 25 percent of who are located in Annandale and Centreville, as of the 2010 U.S. Census.
The establishment of that local Korean community has brought economic success not only for individual businesses or residents, but also for the county as a whole.
Of the roughly 48,000 minority-owned businesses in Fairfax County, which has the highest percentage of minority-owned businesses in Virginia, 25,000 belong to Asian business owners, and 58 of them are run by Korean or Korean American owners, Gordon says in a column for The Korea Times.
“These businesses make significant contributions and play an important role in Fairfax County’s economic growth and prosperity,” Gordon wrote in the January column.
The growth of Fairfax County’s Korean American community did not happen by accident.
A Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) signed in 2007 and enacted in 2012 eliminated tariffs on nearly all imports and exports between the two countries, resulting in goods and services trades valued at an estimated $144.6 billion in 2016, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
Even before the U.S. and Korea created that trade alliance, however, Fairfax County established its own relations with South Korea when the Economic Development Authority (EDA) opened an office in Seoul in 2005.
The EDA has similar offices in England, Germany, India, and Israel, but the Seoul office tends to be the most successful in terms of convincing overseas companies to locate in Fairfax County.
“Foreign-owned businesses increase the diversity in Fairfax County so that we’re not overly dependent on one particular industry, being the federal government,” Gordon said. “…When you have a company from Korea and they meet people here, then they may engage in not only bringing jobs to Fairfax County, but also bringing imports to Fairfax County and exports to their home countries as well.”
The 400-plus foreign-owned firms in the county range from major corporations like Samsung to smaller companies like Design Be Art, an architectural scale model maker with a location in Vienna.
Design Be Art general business director Jin-man Kim says that the company expanded into Fairfax County in part because the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is home to an abundance of construction companies and developers’ offices.
“In the beginning of [our] establishment in the USA, Fairfax County helped a lot in many ways to adapt ourselves here by providing matching events, useful information, introducing people, and so on,” Kim said by email.
In addition to bringing in companies and jobs from overseas, Fairfax County’s relationship with South Korea has benefits for local businesses like Ginia.
Lee says that he frequently travels to Korea in order to learn from their technology companies and to find new products that his company could potentially introduce to the U.S.
Language on Demand, a translation and interpretation company headquartered in Annandale, serves as a contractor with the U.S. federal government to provide language instruction and cultural training to American armed forces stationed in Korea.
Born and raised in Korea, Language on Demand CEO Seung Rowe later moved to Fairfax County with his parents and started the company by himself in his basement in 2008.
After entering into government contracting in 2011, Language on Demand now serves more than 14 different agencies and has 29 full-time employees.
Both Lee and Rowe observe that the Korean American business community has seen a shift within the past couple of decades, as a new generation enters adulthood and starts their own careers.
Where first-generation immigrants tended to start community-oriented businesses like grocery stores and dry-cleaners, their American-born children gravitate more toward professional service fields, such as consulting, information technology, or finance, according to Lee.
Like any other workers or entrepreneurs, Korean American business owners need a supportive community that makes opportunities available to succeed regardless of what type of business they operate.
“Without a supportive environment, hard work alone would not be sufficient,” Rowe said. “There must be a healthy business environment that they feel so they can excel in their areas.”
While Fairfax County continues to make an effort to recruit and support both foreign and local minority-owned businesses, tensions in the U.S. around immigration could pose a barrier for companies looking to locate here.
Gordon says that the EDA has not heard yet from any companies that decided not to move to Fairfax County as a result of federal actions that discourage immigration, such as a travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries and the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The EDA president anticipates that large companies will feel the greatest impact from these policy changes, since it might affect many of their employees.
“I think the companies overseas are looking for some consistency in American policymaking and American markets,” Gordon said. “But right now, we have not yet seen a slowdown in the number of companies that are expressing interest from those markets.”
Though they may not yet have reached the business world, the effects of the White House’s current anti-immigration rhetoric and policies have already had a noticeable impact on tourism and the American education system, according to Sen. Tim Kaine, who hosted a round table discussion with Korean American community members in Annandale on Jan. 31.
According to CNN, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) projected on Jan. 15 that travel to the U.S. declined by 4 percent in 2017 despite a 7 percent uptick in international trips overall.
Foreign student applications to American universities and colleges started to flatten in fall 2016 and declined by 7 percent on average in fall 2017, according to Inside Higher Ed.
Inside Higher Ed reported that 68 percent of the institutions that responded to the annual “Open Doors” survey cited visa issues, and 57 percent cited the U.S. social and political environment as reasons for the drops in new international student enrollment.
“I think people are worried a little about whether or not they’re going to be welcome,” Kaine said. “I hope what we can do in the Senate is send more of a message that of course they’re welcome, because our immigrant communities have been a big reason for Virginia’s success.”
Despite this uncertainty, the Korean American business owners interviewed for this article expressed optimism about their community’s future in Fairfax County.
“I think there’s a bright future for Korean Americans who grew up with their parents pursuing their so-called American dream, and they witness those dreams being fulfilled,” Rowe said. “…The county has a business-friendly environment overall, and the hard work that generations put out will continue to be like this.”