James Hong (’05) has had an entrepreneurial spirit since he was a teenager when he began building and selling computers. As an 18-year-old freshman football player at UH, he and teammate Jaron Barganier (’04) founded Be A Champion Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides community outreach programs to schoolchildren. Less than a decade later, in 2010, Hong started his own financial services company.
A first-generation American, Hong is the son of immigrant parents from Seoul, South Korea. Forced to take on a lion’s share of familial responsibilities in the seventh grade with the passing of his father, a hard-working mechanic who was the family’s sole breadwinner, Hong recalled childhood hardships. “My mom didn’t know how to write a check at that point, or pay bills. So, I kind of had to learn how to do that stuff. I valued money very differently at an early age, because when you don’t have much, you appreciate things differently.”
As a youth with a newfound load of responsibility, he began to develop an interest in investment and saving money, which led him to major in finance and management at the C. T Bauer College of Business while also earning an entrepreneurship certificate. As a walk-on member of the UH football team, he earned a scholarship for his junior season.
The nonprofit he helped found in 2001 and of which he remains chief operating officer and vice chairman of the board, Be A Champion Inc., grew to include the Little Coogs outreach program in 2002, providing access to a college campus and the football gameday experience. The first year, fewer than 50 kids attended each game. Currently, the program averages more than 2,400 kids per game at TDECU Stadium. Additionally, Be A Champion provides in-school and after-school programs along with the Champion Fuel Food Program, providing nutritious snacks and meals to students in enrichment programs across Texas.
“We had six kids in our first summer camp in 2002,” he said. “Now, we serve more than 12,000 kids per day in our after-school and enrichment programs.”
As Be A Champion grew, Hong was growing professionally. After graduation, he spent five years working in the financial services industry with Mass Mutual Financial Group. “I graduated in 2005 and wanted to get into financial services, because I was a finance major and didn’t want to go into banking or accounting. I knew a lot of people who were financial advisors who were kind of mentors to me growing up.” Hong noted his motivation to learn about investment and saving at a young age. “When I graduated, I wanted to do the same thing, except helping other people do what I was doing.”
In 2010, Hong struck out on his own and started Hong Financial, an independent insurance brokerage firm providing insurance, retirement, benefits and executive planning services to small and medium-sized businesses and individuals.
All the while, he has maintained an extremely close relationship with the UH community.
He is a Life Member of the UH Alumni Association, a past president of the Bauer College Alumni Association, current president of the H Association, secretary of the Houston Cougar Foundation and, since 2012, he has taught a class at Bauer College on life insurance and annuities.
An informal meeting with Dan Jones, executive professor in the department of finance, led Hong to agree to teach at Bauer for a semester to see whether it was something he enjoyed. Hong recalled sitting down with Jones at the end of the semester and saying, “It wasn’t too bad. It was a little tough on my schedule, but other than that, I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed teaching the students.” His statement elicited a response from Jones along the lines of “Good. I’ve got you on the schedule for the spring.” Hong has been teaching every semester since.
In addition to teaching, he was one of the driving forces behind bringing Pink’s Pizza to Calhoun Street. Normally just a pizza joint with no televisions and no alcohol, Hong envisioned a sports bar atmosphere that was accessible to the entire UH community, from the students to alumni, faculty and staff.
It’s clear any time you speak with Hong that he is a committed alumnus, donor and fan. He is ever-present at UH sporting events and spent some time discussing the importance of alumni to the University. “It’s a special time right now, with what we’re witnessing.” He urged alumni of all ages to find a way to be involved. “If somebody like me can do it, anybody can do what I’m doing. Maybe not the level of involvement with numerous organizations, but choose one thing. Make it important for you, because at the end of the day, it’s going to benefit generations of Cougars to come.”