Taekwondo Masters Rondy McKee and Teri Lee are two of the most accomplished school owners in the U.S., with some 2,700 active students between them. But success didn’t come easily to either woman. For years, they fought their male counterparts, who sought to suppress, or take credit for, their every achievement. Overcoming this attitude took a combination of smarts, patience and guts. In the process of creating their individual martial arts empires, McKee and Lee also became role models for women and men alike.
Both Lee and McKee can site a list of incidents illustrating the struggles they endured while trying to find equality among their male peers.
McKee was a successful artist. She began her training in college, and eventually moved to Korea where she was able to train alongside the Korean Tigers, a world-famous taekwondo demo team. She was the only female non-Asian on the team at that time, earning her the nickname “White Tiger.”
When McKee returned to the United States, her old taekwondo master felt that the modern methods of training McKee now endorsed were not a good fit for his classic school. Along with her husband, a fellow Korean Tiger, McKee started her own, new, school in Cary, North Carolina.
For fifteen years, McKee and her husband grew their White Tiger Martial Arts school. However, her husband’s extramarital affair – with one of their students, no less – ended their marriage and business partnership. McKee was able to buy out his interests in the school. However, she soon discovered that without a Korean male counterpart by her side, she was suddenly cut off from the taekwondo community and the Korean community, both of which had been an integral part of not only her school’s success, but her own martial arts journey.
Meanwhile, across the country in Sunnyvale, California, Teri Lee was facing challenges of her own. She was a karate black belt, married to a taekwondo master, who taught at and owned one school. Lee worked as an elementary school teacher, until one day her husband announced he had leased a second school.
When Lee asked who was going to run it, she was told, “You are.”
With no business experience, and no taekwondo training, Lee felt like a non-swimmer thrown into the deep end of a pool. Still, she quit her teaching job and devoted herself to learning business management – and, of course, taekwondo.
Lee was able to make connections with other more experienced martial artists, including Ernie Reyes, Sr., who became her instructor for over 25 years. With their help, she was able to make rapid progress in both her new art and new business.
However, Lee still faced challenges, more often than not related to sexism. She was often assumed to be nothing more than an extension of her husband, rather than an individual master in her own right. Lee was told that she didn’t deserve to have a school; that it wasn’t really hers. Once, in a meeting with other instructors, when she chimed in with an idea, a man looked at her husband and asked, “Can you not control your wife?”
Despite these obstacles, both women have risen to the top of their industry. In fact, recounting their stories for MASuccess, the women found humor in their shared experiences.
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