Advice from International Alumni: Seikh Imtiaz Ali

The KAIST Herald interviewed KAIST international alumni about their experiences as students in KAIST and how these experiences have helped them in their current careers. This interview series was conducted in collaboration with International Scholar and Student Services (ISSS).  


Please introduce yourself.

My name is Abraham Lee, but people call me Ali. I entered KAIST in 2004 and graduated in 2010 with a PhD from the Department of Chemistry, though my research was on biology. That was a long time ago, almost 11 years ago! Right now, I am the managing director and acting  CEO for the South-West Asia subsidiary of a Korean company, Atomy India.

What is your favorite memory in KAIST?

It’s difficult to choose a favorite memory, but I like to remember the times I spent with many other KAIST students, like at international festivals and events. One time, I had the privilege of showcasing a drama based on international students’ life and the president of KAIST at the time, Dr. [Robert] Laughlin, was there. Afterwards, he came to me and said, “Oh, it’s very difficult for you to survive.” Later on, the Dean of Student Affairs called me to ask about the problems of international students. It was a proud moment for me when the monthly allowance was raised from 300,000 KRW to 350,000 KRW, which was one of my requests. It felt great that my voice and the voices of international students were heard.


What were the challenges you faced while studying in KAIST, and how did you overcome them?

During our time, there weren’t many people who could speak English. It was very difficult for any international student to communicate with Koreans, so there was a big gap between the two. But I took that challenge as an opportunity. I thought, what can I do to improve the acceptance of international students in the community? So I came up with the idea of an English speech contest for the first time, open to all students — undergraduate or graduate, Korean or international — and we all had an amazing time. To me, I used the challenge to evolve and help improve the KAIST community, and I felt really happy about that.


Did your view of KAIST change from when you were studying in KAIST compared to after you graduated? In what ways?

Actually, before going to KAIST, I was also admitted to Harvard and other universities. But one of the Indian professors at Harvard was asking me to marry his daughter first, so my dad and I decided to go for a university in Asia instead — and KAIST was number one at the time. I wasn’t even familiar with the school or the country, but I ended up with a wonderful professor, Dr. Byong-Seok Choi, who just retired last year, and he’s one of the best, most humble professors I’ve ever met in my life. Now that I’ve graduated, I am proud of KAIST. Not just because of the world-class technology and research, but also because of the mentality to contribute to society. It has a unique culture where we can grow as individuals. I have returned to KAIST several times since I graduated, and I would say it has improved dramatically, especially for international students. I would see international students interacting more, having discussions and exchanging ideas, like in American universities. Not only that, a lot more buildings have popped up, too — there are more cafeterias with lower prices, and the library has been extended. In our time, it wasn’t like that.


How did you first choose your career? How did KAIST help in your career choices?

When I was studying at KAIST, I was conducting a lot of leadership and communications workshops. I was frequently invited to different companies, churches, and communities. One time, I was approached by LG Life Sciences to give such a workshop for their R&D department. There were hundreds of audiences, but one of them came up to me and asked what I did. I said I was a student who was graduating that year, so he offered me a job. It wasn’t even my intention. That’s how I ended up working for LG, then I moved to Samsung until I came back to India for my current job. It’s not a coincidence that I got this job. I usually write down my goal for the next 10 years, and my target at the time was to head a Korean company in India by 2020. I was fortunate enough to reach that in 2018. And it all started with KAIST, when I made all those small contributions to different communities — now it all paid off. I just wanted to give to others, but the world gave more back to me.


What classes or activities did you pursue in KAIST that helped you in your career?

I have some advice for students who are going to graduate. Whatever we learn in class, we’ll probably use less than two percent in our professional life. Of course, we should study hard, but we shouldn’t ignore the important parts like interpersonal relationships and critical thinking. Those are probably the best things I learn at KAIST. Critical thinking, finding the best out of a limited resource, making decisions, interpersonal relationships, effective communication, how to handle a group of people. KAIST gave me a lot of opportunities to improve myself in these things. My experience as president of KISA especially helped me with decision-making. Back then, we would have to make maybe two or three decisions a week, which was difficult. Now, in my company, I make 10 to 20 decisions a day.


What advice can you give to current KAIST international students?

KAIST is full of opportunity — find them. Back then, I would go to different cafeterias and other departments and look at the notice boards to find out if I could be involved in some group or club, if I could contribute to a small event or gathering, if I could learn something new. Even outside the campus, like in churches, I would help collect old clothes to sell at the flea market. I also used to go to KI House and volunteer to emcee for different programs. Whatever community there is, I try to contribute. So don’t restrict yourselves. If you’re a physics major but you’re interested in a computer science project, go for it. Opportunity will not come to us; we have to explore in every possible way. It’s you who can make it happen.


Why did you choose to work for a Korean company? 

Because I studied at KAIST, and the Korean government supported me the whole time, I wanted to give that contribution back to Korea. But India has also prepared me and contributed to me until now, so I wanted to bring the advanced concepts and technology in Korea to India. These two countries helped me reach where I am today. For me, working for a Korean company in India is the best way to do this. I get to stay with my parents here in India without forgetting about Korea.


What are the hardships/challenges that you face as a non-Korean working for a Korean company?

Enormous. In a Korean company, the possibility of someone becoming a leader is one percent. For a non-Korean, that possibility is one out of 100,000. It was difficult because I needed to prove that I was ahead of my Korean competitors and come up with better solutions than them. To do that, I needed to be fluent in Korean. I studied Korean language and the reasons behind cultural norms to get into the mentality and philosophy of the Korean community. That takes time. It’s not one year or two years, or even five years. Like I said, I was preparing for 10 years. But if I could do it, anybody could do it. We all can do it, if we have that long patience.


What advice would you give to international students wanting to have a job at a Korean company?

First of all, you need to decide which particular company you want. Do the research on that company. Its history, background, culture — find out everything before going for an interview. You also have to know in advance what you want to contribute to the company. When you come up with a proposal, they’ll see that you know how to look ahead. You need to be prepared. Think about how much preparation you do before taking the SAT. You continuously read and practice every day before sitting for the exam. So how much should you prepare for an interview?


Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Whenever possible, try to put yourself through difficulties. For example, we exercise even if it is not easy, right? We do our most difficult practice before the SAT. Whether physically, mentally, or intellectually, challenge yourself. If the environment is not giving you difficulty, try to find it. You will evolve into a different person every time, a new butterfly after the cocoon.