Soyeon Shim is a big picture entrepreneur at the School of Human Ecology

As dean of the School of Human Ecology, she's both a teacher and an entrepreneur.
Soyeon Shim
Photo by Andy Manis

When Soyeon Shim was young, she wanted to be a teacher.

“I’d come home and gather all the kids in the neighborhood and play like we were at school and I was the teacher,” she says.

For a girl growing up in South Korea, there weren’t many other options. “Teacher or nurse,” Shim says. “But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur.”

Today, as dean of the School of Human Ecology, or SoHE, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she’s both.

Shim arrived on campus in 2012 from the University of Arizona, where over the course of 22 years she helped build both an acclaimed retailing and consumer science program and a $25 million building to house it.

When Shim won the university’s inaugural faculty fundraising award in 2008, her dean, Eugene Sander — for whom the award is named — said of Shim, “She’s an absolute wonder.”

Shim’s arrival in Madison in summer 2012 coincided with the opening of Nancy Nicholas Hall, a 200,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold-certified home for UW–Madison’s School of Human Ecology.

It meant Shim could set her entrepreneurial sights elsewhere, expanding her school’s mission (and people’s perception of it), attracting collaborators and embracing data analytics.

Soyeon Shim talking to two others

Photo by James Gill

Jerry O’Brien, executive director of the Kohl’s Center for Retailing at SoHE, says Shim’s arrival was “a great example of the right person at the right time. Robin [Douthitt, the previous dean] endeared herself to a lot of people on a personal level, raised the money for this building and got people engaged in a vision of the future. Soyeon came in and had the skills to take the vision to reality, while keeping the vision going.”

SoHE recently launched the first fully online undergraduate degree program at UW–Madison — a Bachelor of Science in personal finance — and is undertaking a master’s degree program in design and innovation in collaboration with others, including the College of Engineering. They’re also creating a financial life skills course for students.

Shim resists offering a definition of human ecology in 2020. It’s too limiting. “We apply science to everything you care deeply about,” she says. “Children, families, communities, diversity.”

When Shim was born, boys were more prized in South Korea than girls. Her dad would have none of that. After two sons, he wanted a daughter. Later he told her that he’d tipped the hospital “the boy’s price” — a higher amount — after she was born. In ways large and small, he encouraged her.

“I think the impact it had on me was bigger than I’d imagined,” Shim says. “It instilled confidence in me.”

She needed it upon coming to the United States for a doctoral program at the University of Tennessee, having graduated with a Master of Science from Yonsei University in Seoul.

Shim’s first year in America remains the most difficult experience of her life. She struggled with the language and homesickness. “I used to cry every time I talked,” she says. “I remember seeing birds fly and thinking, ‘Birds can go home, and I can’t.’ ”

Yet she persevered and eventually met her husband, Christopher Choi, on campus in Knoxville. He was one of 20 or so South Korean students who came to Tennessee that year. Today Choi is a professor of biological systems engineering at UW–Madison. They have two adult children.

The couple spent four years at Colorado State University before moving on to Tucson and the University of Arizona in 1990.

Soyeon Shim

Photo by Andy Manis

By 1992, Shim was division chair of retailing and consumer sciences, faced with growing the program during a budget crunch. Thinking like an entrepreneur, she got $1,000 from her dean and held a dinner with 10 recruiters from Neiman Marcus, Macy’s West, Walmart and other big retail players. Help fund us, Shim said, and we will deliver your next generation of retailing talent. The collaboration eventually resulted in the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing at the University of Arizona.

Shim first approached Lundgren — former president, chairman and CEO of Macy’s — after reading in The Wall Street Journal that he was an Arizona graduate. She introduced herself after seeing Lundgren address a National Retail Federation convention and asked if he would come to Tucson and speak
to her students.

“He loved it,” Shim says. “Nobody [from Arizona] had asked before.”

Her friendly relationship with Lundgren led her to inquire if he would consider endowing a chair in retailing at the university — a seven-figure ask. When it didn’t happen, Shim voiced her frustration to her dean, who also knew Lundgren.

“Soyeon,” the dean said. “You didn’t listen. Did you ever ask what he wanted to do?”

“It turns out he’s a brick-and-mortar guy,” Shim says.

It was a valuable lesson. Lundgren eventually helped lead Shim’s successful effort to build the new $25-million McClelland Park, a center for retailing and consumer science at Arizona.

The hard part about coming to Madison for Shim was leaving her Arizona donors. But a fresh challenge — and having the new Nancy Nicholas Hall as a base — persuaded her. She felt her entrepreneurial skills could help broaden people’s perception of what human ecology can be.

“I’m always looking to make the pie bigger for everybody,” Shim says. “That way I get a bigger piece of the pie.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.