Nineteen years after graduating from Flintridge Prep, Stephen Kim ’04 has made an endowment gift in memory of classmate Greg Mehdi ’03 to ensure that future students receive the same educational experience that prepared him to successfully navigate life’s challenges and live a good life.
Stephen Kim approaches each experience with a sense of curiosity. He believes education is indispensable for making a better world. He also believes that one cannot learn or achieve their goals alone— being part of a community makes the work worthwhile and important. And finally, he believes that if you are motivated and work hard, you will persevere in the end. All these ideas—and how they were lived out by his classmates and teachers— factored into Stephen’s decision to make a gift that will be a perpetual source of funding to support Flintridge Prep’s academic vision.
Stephen talks with ease about the teachers and classmates who pushed him, and although he affectionately references the nerdiness of his friend group, he would not have it any other way. Stephen thrived on the intellectual dialogues he had with classmates, including Greg Mehdi, and he relied on those conversations as he continued into adulthood.“
The kids sitting to the left and the right of you will make you better.” — Stephen Kim ’04
“Greg and I would argue with each other over important points” in their readings. “It was really meaningful,” he says, adding, “it goes without saying that the peer group we had was phenomenal. I am still very close with several alumni, including from Greg’s class,” he shares. “We’ve all remained good friends, and I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to have a great peer group.
“I learned a lot about grit from [AP U.S. History teacher and cross country coach] Ingrid Herskind— she’s one of the most determined people I have ever met.”
Stephen learned the value of stamina from other teachers as well. From English teacher Peter Vaughn, he learned the power of hard work, and from Spanish teacher Manuel Nuñez, he learned to push his passion for the Spanish language. At Sr. Nuñez’s urging, he participated in a program in Salamanca, Spain, the summer before his senior of high school. The program helped him develop both his confidence and competency with the language, which he hoped would serve him in his career goal to work in foreign service. Stephen attended the Georgetown University School for Foreign Service and set out to get privatesector job experience before taking his next steps in that field. The Great Recession of 2008 limited job prospects, and Stephen found himself in the tech startup world, strategizing and implementing business plans.
“Effectively, I was an internal management consultant. I realized that I enjoyed solving difficult problems,” he explains. Then, in relatively quick succession, several important and lifealtering events occurred. In 2014, Greg Mehdi died in a car accident. In 2015, Kim began an MBA program at Columbia Business School and completed his degree in 2017. He was married by then and looking forward to planning a family. And he had developed an entrepreneurial itch. In 2017, his parents made a request—would he take over the family’s wholesale apparel business in Los Angeles?
As he considered—and initially resisted—the proposition, Stephen found himself wondering how he could adopt new technology and an entrepreneurial approach to make the company more efficient and profitable. He took on the role of CEO of Popular 21 in February 2017 and began implementing changes immediately, with the full faith and support of his parents.
The work was risky—and the stakes were real—his first child was born in 2018, and his second in 2020. As he poured money into a new approach, he had to wait for his solutions to actually work. Eventually, his strategy paid off, and since 2017 the company has tripled its business—even through a global pandemic that put all aspects of the business to the test. In the last year, his sister, Liz ’10, joined the company as the chief operating officer.
Having stabilized the business, Stephen contemplated a gift to Flintridge Prep. He knew he wanted to honor Greg and his high school experience.
“Greg and his family dedicated themselves to philanthropic causes—especially the homeless and animals. I thought a lot about that when he passed away, and it lingered in the back of my mind for a long time,” he says.
“For anyone considering a gift in honor of their education,” he reflects, “I would ask them to consider how much of an impact their high school had on their trajectory. Without Flintridge Prep, I wouldn’t have been able to take full advantage of [my college years].”
Stephen’s children are now 5 and 3, and true to his thoughtful nature, he is already thinking of the lessons he wants them to learn from his experience. He hopes they will live good lives, as his Great Books teacher Peter Bachmann instructed him.
“It reminds me of our Great Books discussions,” Stephen says. “The good life is doing the right thing because it makes you happy, and that’s what this gift was about. I want my kids to understand that giving is more emotional than logical. For me, it felt like the right thing to do, and that’s what I learned from Flintridge Prep.”
“I would be a fundamentally different person without Flintridge Prep. Giving a gift like this feels like coming home.” —Stephen Kim ’04