Alumnus Gene Hong graduated from Woodbury in 2000 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design and a minor in Fashion Marketing. He has spent the bulk of his 18-year career working in the fashion industry, with strategic detours as an entrepreneur and adviser for startups in the technology and e-commerce spaces. Over the past three years, Gene has led an initiative for Target from Seoul, South Korea, focusing on developing and executing faster operating models for its Product Design & Development (PD&D) unit. Working with Target’s global vendor base, PD&D is tasked with expediting delivery of brand-right products to market capabilities across apparel and accessories. Gene is now in the process of repatriating back to the U.S. in his current role as Target’s director of PD&D Trend.
We caught up with Gene and asked him about his time at Woodbury — and how it shaped his career in design.
The question about where one is from is the secret sauce that flavors who we can become. I was born in Iran in 1978, the same year as the Iranian revolution. My parents were working as expats; just after I was born, we had to get out of the county ASAP. We went to Seoul for less than a year, then moved to Sudan, where we were expats once again. We eventually immigrated to the U.S., settling in San Diego around the time I turned five. I grew up there before heading off to L.A. to attend Woodbury.
Attending Woodbury was the ideal move at that time, L.A. being such a large, diverse, tough and amazing city of transplants. That, in combination with the intimacy of our university, was the right mix for me. I majored in Graphic Design with a minor in Fashion Marketing. I was equally moved by studio classes and marketing courses.
One of the instructors who inspired and challenged me was Dan Hoy, who still teaches at Woodbury! Dan understood how to teach and motivate while letting us make mistakes and develop our voices. Being at Woodbury was equally about the students — developing relationships, inspiring and challenging each other, learning how to “swim” together and alone.
I knew coming out of Woodbury that, to compete, I’d have to work harder than I’d ever worked before, not because I didn’t feel I was talented enough, but because that was my self-expectation. I wanted to have an amazing life and career — and the only way to get that was to work hard and push myself. I felt that having my degree and my portfolio was like being on a waiting list to receive a general admission ticket, at best. I expected much more out of myself.
Once I graduated, I spent a great deal of time creating marketing materials aimed at the top 25 companies I wanted to work for at the time. I got offers from two of them, but I declined and joined a marketing/PR startup instead. From there, I worked for an entertainment advertising agency and moved closer to the fashion industry, which is my passion. I pursued companies like DrunknMunky, Roca Wear, Blue Marlin and Warnaco, among others. I went on to lead the development and launch of Wiliam Rast, Justin Timberlake’s clothing line.
All of this led to Target, which at the time felt like a huge risk, since it meant leaving my beloved L.A. and moving our family to Minneapolis. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and learn what I could from a $70 billion organization. My time at Target has enabled me to experience life as an expat, just as my father had before me. Very full circle.
I’ve also had the privilege of being in an advisory role at two startups, Metaverse Makeovers — which is focused on wearables, AR/VR, holograms and mobile – and Ash & Erie, a direct-to-consumer e-commerce brand that focuses on clothing for men 5’8” and under, and which was recently featured on Shark Tank (and which received an offer from Mark Cuban.) More recently, through a rigorous screening process, I was selected to participate in Hack Horizon, the world’s first in-flight travel tech hackathon. I’m among 32 entrepreneurs, engineers and designers on a public flight from Hong Kong to London, with the goal of redefining the international travel industry.
Projects that have no solution in sight. Projects that make you a bit nervous, because there is the risk of failing. But with that risk comes the opportunity for so much more growth, learning, expanding your skill set, building relationships, leading, innovating.
I am very lucky. My role as an expat is unique. In hindsight, I believe that it was all about opportunity and timing. For anyone interested in something like this, the best advice I can give is to be as ready as possible so if the opportunity arises, you can grab it. Focus on developing yourself and work extremely hard to be as good as you can be, so that you’ll know you deserve it. Stay curious, find a way to bring passion into your life and your work, be willing to fail and then learn, and keep moving forward. The path will reveal itself to you if you have alignment with your goals, your vision, your passion and your work ethic. Luck plays a part, too.
What can I say? Life is beautiful. The state of our world is difficult today, but that does not mean things can’t improve and evolve, and they most definitely will change. Change may not be something that everyone enjoys, but it’s constant. Get used to it, embrace it, learn to at least like it. See change as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Work hard, stay humble, have passion, be nice.
I believe with all of that, you’ll get to where you deserve to go. Good luck and enjoy the ride!