Do Won Chang sat in a crowded airport in Korea waiting on a plane to take him, his parents, and his new bride to America.
Do Won had been dreaming about this move since he was a child. His parents were desperately poor and Do Won had been working since he was old enough to ride a bike.
He did whatever he could to make money for the family.
His most recent endeavor had been delivering coffee to nearby villages. And Do Won was good at it. He was familiar with all the different types of coffee, the beans, and their flavors.
He planned on using his obsession with coffee to find his American Dream.
And there he was. At the airport. Waiting to take a journey of a lifetime.
Nobody in his family had ever been on a plane. So the 6,000 mile journey across the world was fascinating and terrifying to them all.
But they eventually landed safely in Los Angeles.
And when they landed, Do Won didn’t waste any time looking for work.
He went straight to the nearest coffee shop and applied. He got an interview immediately and despite his broken English, he managed to get hired working early mornings at the shop.
But Do Won quickly figured out that he wouldn’t be able to save for his dream of owning his own coffee shop with the $3 an hour he was getting paid.
He was taking care of his parents and he had a wife to take care of.
Affording the tiny, one-bedroom apartment they all lived in was already a stretch.
But Do Won was in America.
He believed that his dream was coming true. And he wasn’t going to complain. He understood the value of hard work — and he had passion running through his blood. He had been driven his whole life.
So he found a second job at a gas station pumping gas for the wealthy.
And when he was done for the day with his first two jobs, Do Won cleaned offices. A business he started on his own.
His days soon went from 8 hours of work to 19 hours of work. But he had a plan.
He would start a business. And he would be successful.
Every morning, Do Won would get to the coffee shop at 4am to start his day. He would prep food and do dishes. He rarely got a chance to sit.
He would leave there, go straight to the gas station where he would also be on his feet for the duration of his shift and pump gas. He would listen to the bell ring over and over — and look at all the cars pouring in to fill up.
The Mercedes and the BMW always caught his eye. He would shyly ask his customers “What do you do?”
He started noticing a pattern. The men who drove the cars he liked the best weren’t selling coffee at all. They were in the garment industry. They were selling clothes.
Do Won soon found himself leaving the gas station to get a job in retail.
Selling clothes. Just like the men he was starting to admire. And Do Won was smart. He was a hard worker. His boss loved him.
And that changed everything. His boss showed Do Won the ins and outs of running a store.
He didn’t just expect him to sell clothing like the rest of the employees. He taught him ordering and merchandising and marketing.
Do Won listened. Absorbed. Learned. And then did.
Within three years of getting to America, Do Won and his wife, Jin Sook, who was working as a hairdresser, had saved up $11,000.
An incredible feat considering how little they both made.
They found a clothing store for sale just a few blocks away from their little one bedroom apartment in Koreatown. And the owner was glad to sell it.
The business hadn’t been making more than $30,000 a year. And he was ready to get out.
Do Won stepped in with his new found understanding and love of retail and turned the store around.
But it wasn’t easy. Not one bit. He and his wife worked day and night selling clothes to other Korean Americans.
Do Won started buying closeout lots of clothes at wholesale prices — and soon, people started making the five-mile drive from LA into Koreatown to buy from this new store called Fashion 21.
Within a year they turned that little $30,000 per year business into a $700,000 powerhouse.
And that was just the start.
They changed the name of Fashion 21 to Forever 21 and within 5 years had opened up dozens of more stores. They perfected their niche, which was “fast fashion.”
Just as quick as it was coming off the runway, Do Won and his team would have a similar looking item for much less on the shelves.
It would normally take designers months to produce, but Do Won would have it created and shipping within a few days.
People started talking. And the clothes became a guilty pleasure.
You had to buy it when you found it or it wouldn’t be there when you came back for it.
It would have been replaced by something newer. Something more stylish.
That has been the core of their business. A business model they still use.
Today, Do Won and his family have over 400 stores in over 50 countries. He and Jin Sook have a net worth of over $5 billion. And they still own 100% of their business.
They built Forever 21 from the ground up as a family and decided to keep it all in the family. They also decided to keep the 900 square foot store where they grabbed the American Dream.
If you walk in today, not much has changed since they opened it in 1984. Including the carpet and the smell of sweat.
It is treated more like a museum where faithful shoppers come to look at where it all began.
It’s a timepiece. A reminder that if you work hard, you can achieve great things.
There have been no updates to the store and there are no plans for an update. There is a much larger, much brighter, much richer Forever 21 just a few miles away in the middle of Los Angeles.
After years of 19-hour days, Do Won eventually upgraded from his one bedroom apartment to a $16 million home — where he raised two daughters and sent them to the Ivy League colleges he was never fortunate enough to attend.
They also help with the daily running of Forever 21. Do Won reminds them to treat success “like a marathon. Not a 100-meter dash.”
And he is proof that the marathon is worth it.
So, the next time you are tired from your 12-hour day. The next time you are complaining that life is unfair. The next time you turn around and find yourself tired and worn down from the daily grind.
That is when it is time to put things into perspective.
“WHATEVER IT TAKES IS ALWAYS WHAT IT TAKES.”
You have to be willing to bleed, fight, cry, learn, grow, train, improve, and work obsessively in pursuit of getting to where you want to be.
There are no shortcuts. No fast forward. No escaping the struggle.
Hard work works. Stop looking for something else.