“I pray that God gives you prosperity in your endeavors,” Hye Jin Lee told a room of students and guests at the most recent Crowell School of Business Distinguished Speaker event. “But know that in this world there's no utopia. We are going to have challenges. Still, God knows what he's doing.”

Lee is the Director of Public Works for the city of Chino. She oversees over 120 employees, from maintenance workers to professional engineers, and runs the water system, sewer system, parks, fleet, and environmental compliance. Her career in civil engineering includes projects with Downtown Disney, South Coast Plaza, bridges on the 405, and toll roads 241 and 261. She holds bachelor and master of science degrees in engineering from UC Irvine and has been a mentor for Crowell graduate students since 2016.

She shared what she learned about God and about herself when she unexpectedly lost her job in 2023. Here are the main takeaways directly from her speech.

Preparing for Career Storms: Diversify

One thing I did from the beginning of my career was stay open and flexible. So when times got tough, like if my transportation projects dried up, I jumped into private development. And when that slowed down, I jumped into the next open project. I never said no to anything — whatever it was, I'd do it, especially the projects that other engineers didn't want to do. Nobody wants to work on park projects? I'll do it! It was so much fun — my kids were little, and they’d want to go to the parks that mom worked on. When park projects slowed down, I worked on environmental projects. Once we had some water quality problems, and I said, I'll take that. So I took over and got us back into compliance.

That willingness to jump around and learn and take on the less-desirable lower-profile projects allowed me to build different skill sets, which is very helpful for me now because I can effectively supervise a wide range of departments. But most engineers don't build that kind of portfolio because they either get pigeonholed or they pigeonhole themselves. So don't get pigeonholed just doing one thing, even if you do it well. Diversify your skill set.

The Shock of Bad News

I was the director of public works for another city here in Southern California when the new city manager decided that I had to go. I was the first director in city history to be fired without cause.

I came home that day, and one of the things that broke my heart was my son had just been accepted at Baylor University, and he asked “Can I still go to college?” My husband is a pastor for a small community church, so it's primarily my earnings that provide for the family. But we had been frugal and we had money saved for his education.

And God was so faithful. Within 24 hours I had colleagues calling and telling me, “Here's an opportunity for you to consult” or “You should apply for this opening.” So in the interim, I was able to find a consulting job to continue to serve and keep my family afloat.

Surviving Career Storms: Know Yourself

Whether you have a job or just lost one, it’s crucial to know who you are and what you stand for. I never compromised. I once had a boss who wanted me to do something that was totally against our values and ethics. I said I'm not gonna do that, that's just wrong.

When you stand firm and you have standards, you think you’re standing alone, but you’d be surprised when people rally around you. After I was fired, I got so many calls and texts, checking up on me and offering support. Just two days ago, I got a call from someone I worked with at the place that fired me, saying " Hey, just wanted to check in and see how you're doing, we are rooting for you.”

Applying for my next position was an interesting experience. I'm a very transparent person — I don't like to hide anything. So on my cover letter, I actually wrote I'm looking for a new opportunity, because I was recently dismissed by a new city manager. I got five or six interviews and four or five job offers, and I chose Chino. One of the things that they said was, We were so impressed by how transparent and honest you were in your cover letter.

After the Storm: Forgiving and Learning

I never expected something like this to happen, and now I understand how it feels for other people who have gone through it. But our God is so faithful, and there are a lot of good people out there who care for you. I was so blessed by the totally unsolicited care that I received from others.

Now, when I pray about it, it is no longer grief for me, but compassion for those who did me wrong. And I didn’t let it ruin my self-image. It had nothing to do with me as a person — it was circumstances that happened to me. In the Book of Acts, with all the things that happened to Paul — beaten up, shipwrecked, hungry, cold — his focus wasn’t on his circumstances, it was on God and seeing God's kingdom prosper.

Deep inside we knew that God would take care of us and so we had perhaps not happiness but contentment — the contentment of knowing who our God is.

We are only earthen vessels, and sometimes earthen vessels get broken. But with Christ in us, we not only hold the treasure, we are the treasure, too. It doesn't matter what it looks like on the outside, and it doesn't matter the circumstances where we are placed. We are still God's treasure and we're very much valued.

The Crowell Distinguished Speaker Series brings a selection of accomplished business leaders to campus to share their varied professional and personal insights and provides the opportunity to network with fellow attendees including alumni, MBA mentors, faculty, and current and prospective MBA students. The event is always free and open to all. Future events can be found on the Crowell School of Business events calendar.