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Microsoft YouthSpark Star Siwon Choi

Siwon taught himself to code in elementary school and is now CEO of a successful Korean startup.

YouthSpark Star Siwon Choi

Video Store Son Becomes Tech CEO

Surrounded by shelves of movies, Siwon Choi hit a key to install a custom-made program on the computer in his father’s video rental store. The 13-year-old had spent three years developing the program to digitally reorganize the store and held his breath to see if it would work. It hadn’t been easy to create—he bought 20 books to teach himself to write code on Microsoft DOS and spent every school break toiling on the project. He knew this was the moment of truth.

“Imagine Cup was a pure opportunity to challenge an idea, pitch in, and persuade without thinking of investment money or organization and other practical concerns.”

Siwon Choi

The Korean team won first place for creating an app that encouraged social media users to repay kindness by paying it forward.

As each file successfully transferred from the old system to the new, goose bumps raised on his arms. Siwon realized all his efforts had paid off: His first significant coding endeavor was an unequivocal success.

The win couldn’t have come at a more important time. He sold the program to other video rental stores, in order to help pay for his father’s cancer treatments. When cancer finally took his father’s life, Siwon, then 15, made a 100-mile trip to Seoul in search of ways to support his family. The teen found work at a gaming start-up and was able to send money home to his mother until she could support the family again.

“Look further and beyond. Think big. Today will never come again,” his mother told him when he first left home. Those words became his guiding philosophy as he set out on his own.

Siwon Choi teaches others to use an open source web application framework.

A few years later, Siwon headed to college and eventually earned a computer science degree from Inha University. He went on to present papers on coding at communications and information science conferences and participated twice in the world’s premier student technology competition— The Microsoft Imagine Cup —where young people from across the globe apply technology in innovative ways. Imagine Cup transformed the trajectory of his career.

“Imagine Cup was such a joyful experience,” Siwon says. “It was a pure opportunity to challenge an idea, pitch in, and persuade without thinking of investment money or organization and other practical concerns.” Imagine Cup is a program of Microsoft YouthSpark , the company’s global initiative to empower young people through creating opportunities for 21st century skills, employment, and entrepreneurship.

Siwon’s team won first place in the 2010 Imagine Cup’s Next Generation Web Award for Wanna Be Alice , a service that enabled people to repay favors by paying forward kindness through gifts and donations on social media. The young developers believed that spreading good will online, similarly to how a viral video blazes across the Internet, could make the world a better place.

The app didn’t provide a way for Siwon and the team to earn a living, but the enthusiasm and sense of possibility he felt while collaborating during Imagine Cup served as a standard for his future work. He accepted an internship at a global tech company but when he wasn’t able to write the kind of code he loved, Siwon realized that to pursue his dreams rather than labor under someone else’s vision, he must start his own business.

Today he is channeling that verve into his technology solutions business, ZOYI. He is CEO of the company he helped create three years ago and has launched products such as AdbyMe , which enables users to create their own advertisements (and was inspired by his award-winning Imagine Cup app), and Cooki, a program that allows consumers to curate a personalized magazine by clipping content from across the Internet. The company, which employs eight people, recently attracted the attention—and funding—of investors aiming to accelerate Korea’s start up culture.

Siwon and others at ZOYI are now developing a program called Walk Insights , a solution that collects data from cell phone radio waves to track consumer behavior, patterns and traffic in stores. He believes the novel application of emerging technology will open new markets and help companies better serve their customers.

“Siwon is by far the most rapidly improving person I know,” says Elly Han, his coach from Imagine Cup, who left her position at Microsoft to co-found ZOYI. “He is not only a talented engineer but a leader solving the real world's problems,” whether that means helping companies understand customer traffic in their stores or protecting the family business.

Siwon learned the importance of finding technological fixes as a child. With time, he has learned to trust himself as he balances and moves forward as if he were riding a bicycle. “You have to keep pedaling if you do not want to lose hold. If you remain motionless because you are afraid, you may end up being tripped over,” he says.

Through adversity, Siwon not only stayed upright but used Imagine Cup to change gears and speed headlong into the future. He reasons that despite the humble beginnings of his startup, he can change the world by creating technologies that are practical and transformative.

Years after he first struck out on his own, his mother’s guiding advice still rings true for Siwon. Every day he reminds himself to not be constrained by what is already established, lest he derail his dreams to make the world a better place through business. So he continues to think big and take advantage of the present.

“We should never waste our youth,” Siwon says. “I will never stop challenging myself.”