2019 President Tommy Choi sounds off on the upcoming year, what he’s learned from cheeseburgers, and how a mindset of abundance has transformed his career.
How do you set your goals for the year?
I like to set challenges for myself to stay sharp and creative. I carry these Moleskin pocket notebooks around. I have shoeboxes full of them. When I think of what I want to do, I write it down, and it stays with me. Then around Thanksgiving each year, I review them.
One of my goals is getting interviewed by Oprah. Another is getting on the cover of Source Magazine, which is a hip-hop magazine that’s no longer around, so that’s probably not happening.
My thing is that I always think bigger. But what fuels my thinking – cause thinking bigger is really ideation to execution – but what fuels that is dreaming big. These are things I dream to do one day.
I’ve always spoken on panels. Three years ago, I was given the opportunity to speak at NAR’s YPN Leadership Summit. I remember getting off the stage and feeling this high. I had this level of energy that was just insane, like, this is what it feels like to be a rockstar. Three months later, I heard from people being like, “I did what you did, and I saw results!”
I thought, how can I grow this? I wrote down this goal: eight years from today, I want to speak at the United Center to a sold-out crowd. When I wrote it down, I thought, what do I need to do today to be one step closer to the United Center? Well, I needed to find more opportunities to speak, and I needed to find content I could speak on. So, I did that.
I was getting opportunities. I footed the bill – drive somewhere, fly somewhere. I just wanted to be in the batter’s box. And then I started getting requests to speak, versus me asking if I could speak. Then they started reimbursing travel expenses. And then they started asking about my speaker’s fee, so I did my research. And that was a pivot, because as soon as I accepted money, I needed to invest that back into myself. I hired a speaking coach. I tightened up my presentations, to ensure I’m still bringing value. I treat it like, if I’m in the audience, what do I want to know? You get non-granular data watching so many panels. For me, I always want to provide granular data and proven results.
And that’s where we’re at now. I’m giving keynotes. I’m traveling. But, I don’t want to be a professional speaker. This is my way of getting to the United Center.
How has being a parent changed your approach to your life and business?
As much as I like to share my experiences, I’m learning a lot more from watching my kids and how they interact. There are so many learning moments with having kids.
They’re teaching me patience, but the biggest lesson they’ve taught me is appreciating being in the present. It’s such an eye-opening thing. As adults, as REALTORS®, we’re always thinking about the next deal, the next month, the next lead. We rarely take time to just be in the moment of what’s going on. This whole idea of “where has time gone” — my girls have taught me just to be focused and in the moment, whether it sucks or it’s fun, and to appreciate and be grateful for that moment. It’s helped me slow down time.
What’s with your obsession with cheeseburgers?
When I was going into first grade, we lived in Mayfair with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. It was a multigenerational household. My grandpa worked at home and took care of me. He’d always ask me right around 11:00 AM, “what do you want for lunch?” Usually, it was a Korean meal and he’d make it. For some reason, this day, I asked for a cheeseburger. He said, “Ok, sit here and don’t move.” He got on his bike, and when he came back, he had a cheeseburger and fries. Many years went by, and for whatever reason, this memory stuck with me. Later, I realized what it really meant. He didn’t speak the language. He didn’t know the currency — I’d help him figure out the coins to pay the CTA bus fare. Yet somehow his grandkid says, “I want a cheeseburger” and he just figured it out.
So when I need to get uncomfortable and do something I just don’t want to do, when I need to draw strength from something, I think of my grandpa and of cheeseburgers.
As president, what do you want to accomplish in 2019?
My goals as president all come down to the foundation of why I’m so invested in giving back. I’m always thinking about my grandpa coming to this country for the privilege of owning his own home. It’s important that we protect that, not just for those who are immigrating here, but for those who are working two jobs to save up for a down payment. I want to make sure that private property rights are protected and in favor of those not just in our industry, but for the consumer. We can do that through investment in RPAC and advocacy in general. This industry’s been kind and generous to myself and my family. It’s created opportunities that I don’t know any other industry can give.
I want to make sure this industry, from an association standpoint, is still around for many years, so people can continue to have these opportunities. From an income perspective, you can legitimately double your income in 12 months if you want to. You protect that opportunity by being education-based, by ensuring you’re providing education opportunities and that members are taking advantage of those opportunities. Content should be at another level —we should always be pushing the bar so that our content isn’t just textbook CE stuff. People should be raising their hands to share, or we should be tapping them on the shoulder, saying, “You’re really good at this. If we provide you a platform, will you please share?”
People love to share, but they feel bashful. They’ll never say, I’m good at this. We need to help.
Selfishly, this association is a big reason why I’ve seen a lot of success. I remember joining CAR and signing the check and wondering what it was about. In March after I joined, I got the Chicago REALTOR® Magazine. It was the Sales Awards edition, and I remember looking through that and being like, wow, Platinum. This is the highest recognition. I’m going to cold call these people.
I had a script: “Hi, I’m Tommy Choi, I’m newly licensed. You don’t know me. I saw you in the magazine and I see you’ve won the highest award – you’re clearly a successful agent. Can I borrow 15 minutes of your time for coffee or lunch to pick your brain? I want to learn what makes you successful, so I can emulate that.”
Millie Rosenbloom was one who said, “Sure, let’s meet for coffee.” When we did, she pushed me to get involved, go to events and meet people. She said, “Call CAR, tell them I said to call them and ask them which event you should go to.”
I went home, I called the CAR front desk. And a week later I was at a Global Real Estate Council event.
Then I found out about YPN. I remember looking around the table, being like, “I don’t know any of these people.” We were all fresh in the industry. We just stuck together. I applied to be Chair and I remember interviewing all these new faces – people who, have turned into the ones getting the platinum awards, who came up in the industry together during a nasty time. The framework for what we had should be protected so that the torch continues to be passed.
My involvement grew when I started going to CapCon in April, and then Public Policy meetings in January, and then Midyear in DC. It opened my eyes that, wow, there’s a bunch of other weirdos who like to volunteer their time who do this, while transacting at a high level. They’re carrying the torch to make sure Chicago is represented in Springfield for Illinois, and then Chicago and Illinois are represented nationally. So now I’m here, trying to put my foot in the door and then extend a hand to whoever wants to follow the path, saying here, let’s catapult you to where you need to go.
That’s my why. It fuels me to go and grow and bring on more opportunities.
A big pet peeve of mine is when people say, “Why do you give back? Won’t it take away from your business?” No, it’s not. It enhances my business. My clients love that I’m out there protecting their privilege to purchase private property. I’m also out there trying to better the association, whether it’s professional standards, education, making sure we’re always in the spotlight. And I get referrals from it. It’s insane and it’s really cool. It fuels it. You can’t beat that.
When Millie was president, she was a Top Producing agent too. You can be a leader and not sacrifice production at that level. Plus, you gain through service to others. When you help other people, good things happen to you. It’s how the universe works.
How do you approach competition?
I’m a very competitive person – not in the sense that I’m overbearing. In 4th grade, I ran for class treasurer. Our teacher, Miss Cory, would gather the ballots and tally them in front of everyone. I lost by three or four votes. For some reason, I got very emotional in class. My friends were ragging on me, being like, “I can’t believe you were crying!” I sat in the front of the bus, because I was so mad, and I found myself having a reflective moment. I thought about how much it sucked to feel this way, and I promised myself I would never, ever have that feeling again. That drives me. I may not get something on the first try, but it pushes me to keep trying. It’s never to prove someone wrong, but to prove myself right.
What role does industry advocacy play for you?
My RPAC involvement came from my YPN involvement. I presented the idea of throwing a black-tie Casino event, with all the proceeds going to RPAC. The thought was that, together, we could raise more RPAC dollars than any other committee. We found the sponsorship dollars, we brought in Women’s Council of REALTORS® and we scrambled. We did it at the Blackstone Hotel. We raised the money.
Before then, I was doing the minimum RPAC donations by default. It became a chip on my shoulder to let people know we wanted to put our money where our mouth was, and back a cause we believed in. I wanted to lead by example, so I became a Major Investor. I remember cutting that check and being like, whew. Here we go.
I’m always encouraging people to come out to DC for Midyear because once you see our influence in action, and the sweat equity, that’s more impactful and more important than anything.
What do you wish more people knew?
Have a mindset of abundance, versus scarcity. We should look at each other as community, and not in competition with each other, ’cause we know how big the pie is in Chicago. Let’s learn from each other and become the best and change the landscape. We can all share, we can learn from each other. Focus on people.
Why “Growth through Gratitude”?
I live through gratitude. I truly am grateful not just for the opportunities, but the positions and being in this industry. Even as stressful as it can be at times, it’s still very gratifying. This year as president, I’m not looking to compile a list of accomplishments. I don’t care about that. I’m more about continually digging a foundation so that our future leadership can continue to see results and that our association and our industry remains strong. It’s not about what I can do or accomplish, it’s what can I continue. It’s all about the long game.