BY Abby Ellin
NAME: Saeju Jeong
TITLE AND COMPANY: CEO and cofounder, Noom
Saeju Jeong was supposed to be a doctor. His father was a physician, as are his two sisters and countless aunts, uncles, and cousins. “We have 29 doctors in my family,” says Jeong, who grew up in Yeosu, South Korea. “We’re like the doctor mafia in Korea.”
There was just one problem: He didn’t get into medical school. “I tried hard, but I couldn’t make it,” says Jeong, 39. His father was a highly regarded physician and the CEO of a hospital, and his son couldn’t hack it? It was mortifying.
Jeong, who was “passionate” about heavy metal music, founded a record label at 19 and studied engineering. But “as soon as I got into school, I got lost,” he says. He ended up dropping out of university and focusing on his music.
One day in 2005, the phone rang. Instinctively, Jeong knew something was wrong, and it was. His father, who had never smoked a cigarette in his life, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Before he died, less than a year later, Jeong’s father imparted some wisdom.
“He told me that being a doctor was a great job and he was proud of his service, but that it was ‘highly paid manual labor,’” Jeong says. “Rather than being an expert in healthcare, he was a ‘sick care expert.’ He felt powerless and hopeless. Disease prevention was so difficult to manage, and he wondered why.” His father thought that technology was the answer. That it could help save lives.
He also told his son to go abroad rather than spend his life in South Korea, as he had done.
Helping People Manage Weight by Changing Behavior
The conversation “helped me to prioritize what’s important in my life and follow what I believe,” says Jeong. After his father’s death, Jeong moved to New York City. He hustled to learn English and pay his rent. He thought about the sort of company he could create to help people change their lives and prevent disease. It finally hit him: weight management.