After her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2002, Im Ja Choi knew it was crucial to get her a home health aide once she was out of the hospital. But Choi was quickly frustrated by the difficulty of finding a caregiver in the Philadelphia area who spoke Korean, her mother’s native language. Choi quit her job as a bank vice president to take care of her mom until she found one—a process that took seven months.
That experience became the catalyst for Penn Asian Senior Services, a non-profit home health aide agency that Choi, now 65, launched in 2005 to serve the local immigrant community in Philadelphia. Today PASSi serves 455 clients and provides home care services in 11 languages. And with 400 workers workers on its payroll, it’s one of the largest Asian immigrant employers in the area. Annual revenue is about $10 million, and earlier this year the agency opened its first senior daycare center.
It’s an impressive outcome for someone who had never run a business. Choi, who emigrated to the U.S. from Korea after finishing college in 1971, had a 20-year career as a top real estate agent in Philadelphia. Then, after getting a master’s degree, she worked her way up to vice president at a local bank. But starting a business from scratch at age 57 was a wholly new challenge for Choi.
To cover initial operating costs, she took out took out a home equity line of credit for $55,000. “It took some convincing for my husband to agree,” says Choi. A long-time volunteer on Asian women’s issues, she used her local network to find public funding. She got a $50,000 grant from the county and won $900,000 in grants during the first three years of operation. “I had to learn how to write a grant application well, but it was my contacts in the community that really helped. I knew who the decision makers were,” says Choi.
She had enough savings to get by without salary for the first year and was able to repay her home loan within a few months of starting the business. She started drawing a small salary at the end of the first year, after budgeting for that income in her grant applications. “Every step of the way I was fighting for funding and looking for clients,” Choi says. When PASSi reached 175 clients, its revenue covered operating costs; in 2009 the agency began turning a profit.
Today Choi earns about $114,000 annually. It’s less than she pulled down as a banker but she feels much more satisfied by her work. “We provide a service that’s really needed,” she says. She saw proof of that with her mom. Despite a grim initial diagnosis, Choi’s mother lived another eight years, passing away in 2010 at age 93. Choi believes the culturally-based care she got was key to her long survival.
“I consider this job a privilege,” says Choi. “When you have a dream, you somehow make it come true. Now I feel like I am doing the things that I want to do.”
Im Ja Choi is a Purpose Prize Fellow. The Purpose Prize is a program operated by Encore.org, a non-profit organization that recognizes social entrepreneurs over 60 who are launching second acts for the greater good.