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Taek-Geun Kwon '96: Executive 'Heals for Good'




A look at the staff directory at Zinnia Health speaks volumes about how Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Founder Taek-Geun Kwon feels about the value of hiring Cornell alumni, and especially wrestlers.

The rapidly growing company features Class of 2022 graduates Daniel Koll (Data Analytics) and Drew Flynn (Business Development). Rami Palumbi '20 is the Lead Software Engineer, with Michael Russo '20 and Chas Tucker '20 on the software engineering team. A pair of Class of 2019 grads, Derek Krajewski (Senior Project Manager) and Ben Honis (Mergers and Acquisitions Associate) are at Zinnia, joined by current undergrads doing summer internships such as Jon Loew, Colton Yapoujian, and Brendan Furman, along with several other current Cornellians not on the wrestling squad.

"I'm a die-hard loyalist to Cornell and I preferentially recruit from the school," Kwon said. "A lot of my previous jobs were in finance - private equity, hedge funds - and I wasn't in a position to hire a lot of people or provide internships. I feel like I'm making up for lost time and the results have been great."

Kwon's results have been more than great throughout his distinguished career. After graduating from Cornell with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1996, he began his first job for a Cornell wrestler, Kevin Kilgore.

"Kevin hired me at a boutique technology consulting firm Winmill," Kwon said. "He got me into technology. I'm so grateful to him - he started a whole chain of events that have made my professional career what it is today."

After working at Winmill, Kwon moved to Silicon Valley and served as an early executive of CommerceBid, an online business to business marketplace; Hotwire.com, an online travel agency acquired by Expedia; IAC, a conglomerate of leading online businesses; and Friendster, the first social network.

He then switched gears to the investment world as managing director, operating partner, and senior advisor at TPG Capital, a private equity firm. Kwon next founded and served as managing partner of Toro Investment Partners, a high achieving hedge fund.

But life changes emerged, and Kwon said he found himself at a crossroads. Retirement was a possibility, but he still felt like he had a lot to offer. He decided he wanted to do something new - something with a different purpose.

"I spent two years looking at sectors I didn't have a lot of experience in, like crypto, consumer packaged goods, energy, and health care. My heart felt a connection to health care. I believe a lot of our country's issues are due to poor health and healthcare. We spend a large percentage of GDP on healthcare, but our outcomes are among the worst. I knew I had a skillset with technology and finance and wanted to apply it to the highest purpose - saving lives."

And so, a few years ago, he began work on Zinnia Health.

"It's a mission to sink my teeth into," he said. "For the first time, I proudly talk to my kids about what I do and it resonates with them."

According to Kwon, Zinnia has acquired a number of facilities around the country and treats highly acute behavioral and mental health cases, in areas such as PTSD, trauma, substance abuse, and eating disorders. As the company website states, "we combine accessible care with unlimited compassion."

"We want to innovate our way to creating the standard for the health care industry," Kwon said. "We're effectively allocating health care in the manner we believe the country should."

According to Kwon, Zinnia has been doubling scale every year, with many Cornellians in leadership positions. Zinnia is already a top four player and there's a "thrill of success and quick success".

But most importantly, Kwon feels that his company is fulfilling its mission to "heal for good."

When Kwon heard Cornell's campaign to "Do the greatest good", it was yet another instance of perfect alignment with his alma mater.

Born in South Korea, Kwon lived primarily in the Canary Islands of Spain until age 12. At 13, he came to the United States and attended high school at Phillips Andover Academy. He started wrestling there and did well in the Massachusetts Prep League. He wanted to compete in the sport in college and his decision came down to Cornell or Princeton. After making visits to both, his answer was clear.

"I had visions of being an Olympic athlete even though I was a latecomer to wrestling. When I got to Cornell, it was a rude awakening from that perspective," he said. "David Hirsch, Mark Fergeson, and Jon Bove were in the room in the lightweights. I was literally the second worst person on the team. I could only beat one other guy, but with my hard work, I did finish first or second in most of the runs."

Nonetheless, Kwon said he is thankful for his Big Red wrestling experience. (He also played sprint football and worked jobs, including washing dishes in the dining halls and as an administrative assistant at Olin Library, among others while in Ithaca).

"Cornell wrestling did so much for me," he said. "I learned what excellence looks like. I learned humility. I learned how to work really, really hard and not expect immediate results. I learned to be patient, looking for 1% progress each day. It shaped who I was. Cutting weight, getting beaten up by David Hirsch, studying hard with really intelligent people. My experiences prepared me for life in ways I never knew I needed."

His love for the sport continues, as he calls himself "a wrestling nerd".

"I don’t watch any other sports - just amateur wrestling," he said. "To see my alma mater continue to rise, despite the academic standards and so many other obstacles Ivy schools face, it's amazing. I'm happy to be involved and I want to continue to create more differentiation for Cornell."

What does he mean?

"An example is the condensed finance training Jon Loew has been doing," he said. "He's doing modeling like I was after a few years of work. It's like having the equivalent of two years professional experience - doing work almost never available to undergraduates. Offering a career path while still in school is something that can set Cornell wrestling apart even more."

After all, he's well aware of articles in prominent publications that have stated that wrestlers make standout employees and significantly surpass expectations. He's seen it himself as well.

"The grit and the lessons wrestlers learn on the mat are helping me row the boat in the right direction with my company and make me really proud," he said. "When I hire a Cornell wrestler I know the kind of program, culture, and camaraderie they've been a part of. I'm getting a differentiated employee. I love the success we're having at Zinnia and the mission alignment with Cornell. My life wouldn't be where it is today and I wouldn't be who I am without Cornell and Cornell wrestling. I'm very passionate and it's so important to me to give back."


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