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Hansoo Lee was a visionary, a close friend, and my co-founder at Magoosh. On March 4, 2013, at the age of 35, he lost his 15-month battle with lung cancer. Hansoo changed my life, and I will be forever grateful.
Hansoo and I were classmates in the full-time MBA program at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. He came to Berkeley-Haas fully aware that he wanted to pursue entrepreneurship. In fact, he wrote the following in his MBA application:
“I believe in the power of a well-operated, sophisticated organization that generates social and economic value. My career goal is to found and lead this type of organization.”
In our first semester at Haas, Hansoo and I joined Pejman, another Haas classmate, and his friend Vikram in creating Magoosh, an online education product initially focused on test preparation. Hansoo quickly emerged as a leader among the group. He was deeply passionate about changing the world through education. He served on the Board of World Savvy, an education non-profit, for several years prior to Haas and continued to do so during and after. Unlike the rest of us, Hansoo had worked at a startup before and knew what it took. He acted with conviction and focused on getting things done instead of trying to make the perfect decision. He had a bias towards action, a value we hold dear at Magoosh today.
Hansoo and I pursued Magoosh full-time during the summer, foregoing traditional paid internships. We worked out of the basement of his apartment for 10+ hours a day. That summer, we released Magoosh in small iterations, from just one page with a question, video explanations, and a text box for email addresses, to over 200 GMAT math questions with full-on video explanations. Early into the first semester of our 2nd year, Hansoo and I were the only remaining full-time members of Magoosh. We were at a crossroads: Should we go back to corporate America or continue to work on Magoosh full-time after graduation?
Hansoo, the visionary
Hansoo was fearless. The decision to pursue Magoosh full-time was a no-brainer for him despite the company having very modest revenue and no funding. His confidence was unparalleled and often led to tension between us. But I later realized that while I could only see what was right in front of us, Hansoo could see through the fog. He had a vision for Magoosh of making high quality educational material accessible to all, and he had confidence in us to see that vision through.
He dragged me, often kicking and screaming, through many of Magoosh’s milestones. In October 2010, Hansoo spent weeks convincing me that we should raise a seed round. I still recall a three hour walk we took around Berkeley’s campus debating the merits of fundraising that ultimately he won out. And the process was easier than I expected, thanks to the previous 12 months that Hansoo spent building relationships with potential investors. I could always come up with thousands of reasons to defer a decision, but he would usually get his way, and we would take action. His way was the right way — make decisions and move forward — it’s why Magoosh is successful today.
In late December of 2011, I received a crushing email from Hansoo. “Hey Bhavin. I’ve been diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer…” I could barely read on. I was 3,000 miles away visiting my wife’s family in Massachusetts, but my heart was with Hansoo in California. I didn’t understand. He was fit, active, and a non-smoker. He did everything right. How could this happen to him?
He stepped away from Magoosh operations as of January 2012, but he remained fearless about his prognosis and the company’s future. His positive attitude was infectious. I still can’t believe that during this time he provided me with support because he knew running the company as a sole founder would be difficult.
Unfortunately, his condition worsened throughout the year. Despite going through various advanced treatments, he faced complication after complication. Our weekly walks turned into monthly phone calls and then just the occasional email. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through, and I wanted to do more for him. But whenever we spoke, he told me to focus on Magoosh. He was watching from a distance and loved seeing the team’s progress.
On Monday March 4, 2013, Hansoo passed away due to complications from his cancer. He died in the arms of his fiancee and was surrounded by his family. We had spoken for nearly an hour just two weeks prior, and I’m grateful that we were able to chat then. I was able to tell him about his impact on me and on Magoosh.
Hansoo’s impact on Magoosh
Hansoo left a lasting impact on our daily lives at Magoosh. He was the impetus behind our daily standup meetings and the weekly one on ones between managers and employees. He cared so deeply about crafting an amazing culture and brand that he led us through an exercise to define our core values when we had only 4 full-time team members — we still hold those values dear today. He was transparent with our vision and finances because he believed in providing everyone with purpose and autonomy in their work.
I’m reminded of Hansoo everyday when I walk into the Magoosh office. Without him, Magoosh would not be what it is today, and I would not be who I am. We’ve grown into a successful business and have helped thousands of students improve their GRE and GMAT scores thanks to Hansoo. He was our leader, and we’ll miss him.
How you can help
To honor Hansoo’s memory, we have created the Hansoo Lee Fellowship. The Fellowship will provide a stipend and mentorship to help Berkeley-Haas MBA students pursue their venture full-time for their summer internship, as Hansoo did. Students will receive:
- A summer stipend of $5 – $10K
- Mentorship from Haas alums focused on entrepreneurship
- Office space donated by Magoosh
This fellowship is a realization of Hansoo’s vision. He always looked for opportunities to give back, and this is our way of celebrating him. To donate to the Fellowship, click here.
Update as of March 23, 2013
Hansoo’s fiancee, family, friends, and I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and donations. Thank you. Please continue to help us spread Hansoo’s story by sharing it with your friends and followers. Also feel free to re-post this article. Lastly, if you have any other ideas on how to help or would like to send a personal note, you can email me directly at bhavin (at) magoosh (dot) com.