Koheun Lee ’11 works for 17 Triggers, a promotion and marketing company that “specializes in good causes.” She’s currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, splitting time between fieldwork and the office. We had a chance to connect with her via email about her Calvin experiences, vocational direction, spiritual walk and what she’s learning on her journey.

Q: Tell us about your Calvin experience.

I grew up as a missionary kid in Kenya, and when the time came to apply for colleges, the biggest determining factor was a school that would give me as much financial aid and scholarships as possible. As an international student, the profile for such schools were generally private, Christian institutions. My parents knew of Calvin through a friend of theirs and encouraged me to apply.

I went to Calvin not knowing what to study. Eventually, I declared a double-major in business communications and studio art as well as a minor in ESL. I really enjoyed the communications and linguistics courses at Calvin for providing me the opportunity to better understand my own worldview by engaging in dialogue with students who had completely different backgrounds than myself. I also loved photography and visual communication courses for challenging me to be creative and also providing opportunities to be hands on with projects. I found the combination of majors valuable for stimulating and fostering skills in different, perhaps even opposing areas. 

At Calvin, the most important things I learned that prepared me for work were problem-solving skills, self-discipline and confidence. I feel like Calvin provided an environment where students were free to make their own choices about their academic career. No one babies you through the process. Help is there when you need it, but you need to take initiative in pursuing success and that taught me a lot of self-discipline and responsibility.

Q: What did you do after graduation? How did that lead to what you are doing now?

During my last semester of college when I was maxed out on credits, working on campus and taking on freelance design gigs, I signed up for a finishing school called The Polishing Center that I was connected to through my communication design professor. This opened up doors for me to meet with and learn from advertising and marketing professionals in Grand Rapids. It was the networks I was able to form through The Polishing Center that connected me to where I am today. 

I had the opportunity to work part-time at Hyde Creative, a small agency in Grand Rapids started by a Calvin alum, and also work on the marketing department of a much larger company called GFT Forex as a graphic designer. My coach at The Polishing Center linked us to a “Ted-x” talk given by Mike Rios, a Polishing Center alum in Cambodia. I got in touch with Mike shortly after saying something along the lines of "This is my dream job! Hire me!" This led to that, and I ended up in Cambodia a year and a half later.

Q: What do you do at 17 Triggers?

It's hard to describe what 17 Triggers does in a sentence. We're not a traditional consulting firm, but a cross between a development company, a marketing agency and a design shop. We specialize in good causes—health, education, microfinance, migration, environment, water, sanitation and hygiene promotion and human rights. Our clients include governments, multinational foundations, NGOs and the private sector. Whether it's triggering Cambodian farmers to triple their crop yields, Zambian children to finish school or rural Indians to access health care with micro-insurance, we help the project be more effective. 

Koheun Lee

Read more about 17 Triggers and their team.

We're where development meets marketing. This is exciting because we know how to adapt an NGO’s goals into a print campaign that works, we know how to translate academic concepts into accessible curriculum and we inspire the poor to invest 10% of their annual income into a latrine to improve their family's health. 

I first joined in June 2013 as a junior art director on the design team. Since then, I've transitioned into the strategy and innovations side of the company as a project manager. Around half of my time is spent in the office, the other half is spent in the field doing research, testing and facilitating workshops. 

Q: How does your faith come into play with your work and life?

This is something I've been grappling a lot with during my time here. It's actually the first time in my life that I've been outside of a Christian bubble. It's made me far more conscious of my faith and whether the way I talk, act and respond to situations reflects Christ. 

I'm the only Christian in our office, but I'm surrounded by a team of likeminded do-gooders who are dedicated to bringing about positive change in the world. And that has pushed me in the past year to live out my faith. It has forced me to seek out what my faith means to me and try to find a language to talk about it with other people. It's been an interesting journey.

Q: Do you feel like you are being an “agent of renewal” for God’s Kingdom?

There are many interesting stories and case studies that come out of our work here. It's always cool to see that the work you are doing is having an impact in the world and changing peoples’ lives for the better. 

It's interesting though; I can't say I've quite figured out how to come to terms with working on projects for trying to change the lives of the poorest of the poor, but coming home to the comforts of my own life. It puts into perspective some of the things I complain about or think are important. 

Growing up between the developing and developed world, I was always interested in development and justice. I believe it was my upbringing that that led me to where I am today and affects the type of life and career I choose to pursue. My parents were called at a young age to become missionaries in Africa. Though I don't share the same calling to be a missionary, I believe everyone is called to seek God and commit to live a life that reflects Him. It reduces some anxiety about the future knowing that the future’s controlled by someone much bigger than I am. I trust that as long as I'm actively seeking God out in the decisions I make in life that He will work everything through.

Q: What have you learned in your work and about Cambodia?

One major thing I learned through work that has seeped into the rest of my life is how much expectations affect the outcome of something. The way you frame things for someone else or the attitude you have going in to something can completely change what you get out of the experience. I learned that you can very much influence the outcome of a situation by setting correct expectations at the beginning.

I've also learned a lot about maintaining a positive attitude and how to continually be searching for solutions instead of giving up or complaining when things don't work out. You just need to remember that the people you are working with are people as well. And being positive, but also open and honest, are the keys to maintaining healthy relationships with people and becoming someone that is delightful to work with and be around. 

Cambodia is a place with a tragic recent history, but you wouldn't be able to tell from living in Phnom Penh today. The city is rapidly developing and has changed noticeably even in the past year and a half I've been here. It's an interesting dynamic between the booming expat community and local Cambodian communities. I can say it makes me question development around the world and if it is, in fact, always for the good of the world.