She had studied psychology in college and admits she’d be an architect or perhaps a fashion designer if she could do it all over again. She attributes her success not to any Warren Buffett-esque financial acumen, but to working hard and, just as importantly, paying attention.

“Understanding your surroundings is paramount to building a successful business,” she said. “To do business in a community, you need to know that community. You have to study how others are doing. Some people focus only on their job, but you have to look up.”

After 40 years, she said she knows Los Angeles better than she ever knew Korea. Most of her family – including her mother and all but one of her seven siblings – is in Southern California, but Kim still goes back to Korea about once a year.

When she does visit, it looks nothing like the country she remembers. When she was a child, the country was still recovering from the Korean War and a recipient of U.S. aid; now it’s one of the most modern on the planet.

“Even 80-year-old grandmothers have cellphones,” she said. “Korean culture has radically changed since I lived there, so much so I almost feel like a foreigner when I visit.”

– James Rufus Koren