Se Ung Kim has quietly toiled away for more than 30 years at his Cosmopolitan Inc., making repairs to U.S. embassies around the globe and making a name for his company in Washington while relatively few in the community where he lives knew what he did from his Columbia office.
At the same time, he has been an elder in his church and a board member of Howard County Community College and the Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute.
But Wednesday, the Korean-born engineer will join restaurateur Fernand Tersiguel, fashion designer Yolanda Voss, and the Foreign Language School of Columbia to be honored as American Successes at an inaugural awards dinner sponsored by the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), the county Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Authority.
The awards dinner is meant to be a new means of outreach to the business community, said Roy Appletree, FIRN's new executive director. The awards are recognition that is long overdue, he said.
"It seemed appropriate to recognize owners of foreign-born businesses that have been successful," he said. "The opportunity to join in with the chamber and county government [allows us] to provide a wider range and understanding of what we do."
Howard County's immigrant population has grown a lot in the past decade. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of foreign-born residents in Howard grew from 6.1 percent in 1990 to 11.3 percent in 2000. Immigrants represent 28 percent of the total increase in population, according to a report from the county Department of Planning and Zoning.
FIRN is a nonprofit assistance group that helps immigrants navigate the government, culture and sometimes language barriers. Since its founding in 1981, the group has helped more than 12,000 people from more than 80 nations become acclimated to life here.
The awards dinner, to be held from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville, will also be a fund-raiser for the group, which has an annual budget of $410,000.
"Most of the people we serve here are low-income, and that's why we get support from the county [and other groups]," Appletree said.
The dinner represents "a desire for FIRN to reach out to major institutions around the county. The things we've historically done have become even more important as this county continues to grow," he said.
An orphan of the Korean War, Kim came to the United States by way of Hawaii. He moved to the East Coast - where the climate was closer to that of his native country - to be near Washington, and chose Howard County because of its school system, he said.
Kim opened his engineering firm in 1972, and came to specialize in the repair of embassies overseas after the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was damaged by a truck bomber in 1983.
Kim said he solicited the State Department for work and was awarded a contract because he had experience, having done similar work on the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, earlier in his career.
His first project was the U.S Embassy in Uruguay. Since then, his company has completed 16 multiyear, multimillion-dollar projects, he said. Cosmopolitan has fewer than 20 employees, but Kim said that helps him to compete.
"This kind of business is for big boys," he said. "Most of our top 10 engineering firms do these overseas projects. We are the smallest but we love to compete with the big boys because we can save a lot of money from overhead."
Most important, he said, is what the business allows him to do at home.
"This is my community. I've been here over 30 years," he said. "We like to return some [of my] earnings to my country."