Social experiment ripens into career move
Yul Kwon gave up a good job at Google to spend six weeks being hungry, cold and dirty on "Survivor." But he won the million dollars, and the show provided a forum for accomplishing the things in life that matter to him.
"When Yul Kwon's parents found out he was a contestant onthe TV show, "Survivor," they were appalled.
"My parents hated the idea," he says, laughing. "They wanted to know why I compromised my career for this."
Kwon was on a parents' dream career path. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University with a B.S. degree in symbolic systems and received his law degree from Stanford University, where he served as the editor of the "Yale Law Journal," as well as the "Yale Symposium on Law & Technology."
After several jobs in law firms and as a management consultant, Kwon was a member of Google's business operations and strategy group - a job he gave up in order to spend six weeks surviving on the remote Cook Island.
As it turned out, Kwon didn't embarrass his parents by winning Season 13 of "Survivor," but he did raise their parental ire one more time when he told them he was becoming a franchisee of Red Mango.
Yul Kwon viewed "Survivor" as a social experiment.
"You went to Stanford and Yale, and (now) you're into yogurt," he says, imitating his parent's response.
And although reality TV and frozen yogurt seem unrelated, in Kwon's world they are swirled neatly together. But before a word from our sponsor, here's Kwon's television exploits.
"Survivor" execs were actively looking for Asian Americans to cast for season 13, and a friend recommended Kwon. Not someone who relishes the spotlight, Kwon says he decided to compete because Asian-Americans historically have been portrayed stereotypically on TV (ironically the producers were interested furthering that stereotype, they even asked if he'd ditch the contacts for glasses, he says). He saw the show as his chance to be a role model for Asian American men. Another driver was that he had studied social organization in school and had been a management consultant, and was curious to see if those organizational systems he preached would work on "Survivor," a "giant, expensive social experiment."
"I wanted to win without playing dirty," he says. A feat which he accomplished: In 2007 a poll by "Entertainment Weekly" found that he was the all-time favorite winner of the show due to his "strategic and honest play."
Working behind the counter at one of his Red Mango stores gives Yul Kwon a different taste of what it means to be in the yogurt business.
What he didn't know going in was that Cook Island was going to be the site of a controversial season. The producers revealed just as the game started that the tribes were to be formed along racial lines. Kwon developed a "rainbow coalition," which although a smaller tribe, worked together to "leverage our diversity."
The show is not scripted, he says, and there are no amenities provided once the cameras stop rolling - something that surprised Kwon. There were no toilets, no toothbrushes, no bedding. "We used twigs for toothbrushes and shells to scrape our tongues," he says. Sitting close around the campfires was not to get cozy, but to absorb body heat from the others. "I was hoping I'd get acclimated, but it never happened. I'd wake up and say, 'darn, I'm still here.'"
The hardest part, he says, was he was always hungry and cold. "It's hard to get used to being dirty and hungry all the time. It makes you less human," he says. Which is exactly what the producers hoped would occur.
Kwon was able to hang onto his moral compass and build consensus while he led his tribe. Apparently, his intentions to be a positive role model worked. According to a blogger on Rice Daddies Web site: "Early on, I thought that Yul Kwon was one of the best representations of the modern Asian-American male that I had seen in a long time....The guy is the ultimate Ubermensch - a rare combination of brains and brawn that would be hard to find ANYWHERE! I can't begin to express how proud I am...."
The experience has given Kwon a platform: He's been a guest lecturer at such diverse gatherings as the FBI and his alma mater, Stanford. Best of all, everything about this "elaborate social experiment" was captured on tape.
After six weeks, the players are sent home; tribe members who are voted off the island have to remain on a separate island for the duration - in living conditions only slightly better than Cook Island. The winner isn't revealed until the last episode airs, so Kwon and the others returned home with orders not to talk about the show until it aired.
Everything's in retrospect
Kwon may have been a master of strategy on the show, but his plan to get into shape before joining "Survivor" turned out to be the wrong tactic.
"On the show, they do starve you," he says. "All you think about is food."
Yul Kwon was named one of People magazine's Sexiest Men.
Kwon lost 20 pounds in six weeks during the show, and then after returning home, gained 40 in a month. "I was hungry all the time," he says, admitting he would go to Costco just to eat the samples.
Knowing the weight swing was unhealthy, he tried drinking smoothies to fill himself up, but became frustrated when he discovered the number of calories and grams of sugar each one delivered.
On a trip to visit a friend in Los Angeles, he discovered Red Mango, a tart frozen yogurt that he started using as a meal replacement. "When I went back to the Bay Area (of California), there was nothing (like that) there," he says.
And now, a word from that sponsor: Red Mango pioneered the tart, nonfat, frozen yogurt from South Korea, although Pinkberry has gotten most of the credit for popularizing it in the U.S.
"Traditional yogurt is not appealing to me, it's made from powder," which kills the live cultures or probiotics which are healthy bacteria, he says.
The Red Mango name, according to founder Daniel Kim, depicts the mango at the stage where it's "moving toward a better state of being" - ripeness. A sentiment that captures franchisees' intentions.
Kwon opened his first store in May 2008 and now has four units open, with plans to open more. "The Bay Area is a great market, but it's not immune (to the economic problems)," he says. "We were going to move quickly, now we're more selective about strong sites...in high-traffic areas."
Business, like TV stardom, provides a platform, and Kwon is using his to do charity work. Among the causes he supports, are bone marrow donor programs, childhood obesity and Second Harvest.
Featured as one of People magazine's Sexiest Men, he's also engaged to be married (sorry, ladies).
And even though his hunger has subsided, he still enjoys yogurt.
"I'm hooked on it," he says.