Hee-Won Cho

Hee-Won has been involved with the Hackney Jedis from day one. He is motivated to help young people from disadvantaged communities in London raise their life aspirations through sport.

As a marketer at Kraft Heinz during the day, and a background in finance paired with a love of sport,  Hee-Won devotes his spare time to managing and coaching the Hackney Jedis. He’s driving the impressive growth of the club and achieving game changing impact on the lives of the young people.


Where are you from?

I’m from Incheon, South Korea. I moved to the UK for boarding school when I was 12 and have since been back-and-forth. I was based in Oxford for university then moved to London for art school before working – it has been 6.5 years since I became a proud Londoner!

What role did sport play in your life as a young person?
Sport has helped me forge new friendships, particularly in new environments – be it when I first moved to the UK, worked in Rome during a year off university or lived in Warsaw for a work project. Similar to the phrase ‘music knows no language’, I loved the bonding and camaraderie felt in team sport despite the minimal understanding of the local language.

Rugby was my main sport so pushing physical boundaries to achieve a common goal naturally brought us together and I was lucky to make some great friends. During my teenage years, when I returned to Korea for the holidays, I spent most evenings with my local friends at local outdoor courts. Now this sport has introduced me to the Hackney community and our team of coaches who have become some of my closest friends.

Sport has also taught me discipline and the merits of hard work. I learnt that a whole lot of effort and persistence can help achieve good things not just in sport but pretty much anything. During my four years at university, I steadily progressed from the 4th to the 1st rugby team and had the opportunity to play at Twickenham stadium. I often remind myself of this journey if I find myself daunted by my work ahead or life direction.

Who influenced you as a young person?
Sport wise, my greatest influence was footballer Park Ji-Sung, the first Korean to play in the English Premier League. As a young rugby player, seeing an Asian athlete succeed and be loved in the Western world inspired me greatly. His work ethic and humility motivated me to keep pushing myself, particularly in times of doubt from being the odd one out (e.g. only Asian on the pitch).

What is your educational background?
I studied maths at Oxford University then completed an art foundation at Central Saint Martins in London before I started work.

The move from Korea to the UK also meant a move from state school to private education. This led to a small identity crisis in my early 20s and I believe this partly nudged me to get involved with the community and in this case, Hackney Jedis.

What is your career background?
I currently work as a Brand Manager at Kraft Heinz. I was a Financial Auditor at EY for 3 years before joining Kraft Heinz in a Finance role and I made the jump to marketing half a year ago.
Pick three words to describe yourself?
Hardworking, energetic and honest

What do you do in your spare time/hobbies?
Gym, Hackney Jedis, painting and friends

How long have you been with the Hackney Jedis for and what led you to become involved?
I’ve been with the Hackney Jedis for 5.5 years since its birth in 2014. After leaving university, I felt continuing rugby regularly would be difficult with a busy job, but wanted to be involved in sport. I also wanted to contribute to the community and help with grassroots development. With rugby still a relatively ‘posh’ sport, I decided to try basketball clubs in East London.

I contacted five or so clubs and one person got back – Perry had been planning to set up a Hackney basketball club. Soon after, I was following Perry to some of his training sessions, was put on a coaching qualification course and Hackney Jedis was set up with Young Hackney. I met Rich with whom we started the training sessions – both the club growth and our friendship started from there!

Why do you think sports works so well to engage young people?
I believe team sport brings camaraderie and makes young people feel part of a community. During teenage years when internal emotions and external events can affect young people greatly, having a collective (be it sport, music or whatever activity of interest) where they feel welcome seems important. Sports then have the benefits of physical exercise and stress release with endorphins adding positivity to the interactions thus keeping them more engaged.

What are some of the main challenges the young people you work with face?
As is the case for many impressionable, inner city London teenagers, the main challenge that many young Jedis face seems to be around violence such as gang involvement and knife crime. There are many temptations (e.g. money, respect) to be directly or indirectly involved with gangs and so keeping them engaged in the evenings and weekends is important. Related to this, many of the young people have single mothers, some of whom struggle to discipline their child who finds himself/herself caught up in gangs or petty crime.

What positive changes have you seen since you began with the Hackney Jedis?
As a club, the most common positive change we see is improvement in behaviour, be it at school or home. Many players have learnt to control their aggression through the sport and it’s great to hear that they are behaving and no longer getting into fights.

I personally like to emphasise the importance of being on time for training and thus being prepared for matches and after years of many team sprints, the players have become more reliable with timing. We have also instilled a culture of encouragement over blaming when mistakes arise so it’s satisfying to hear phrases like ‘unlucky’ instead of ‘what are you doing!?’ during matches.

What impact would you like to achieve going forward?
As the club continues to grow, I personally would like to ‘impact’ our young people on matters off-court and outside of Hackney. It would be great to motivate the kids with many opportunities (education, jobs etc) available ‘out there’ that doesn’t limit their talent to just basketball and Hackney.

Who/what do you rely on to create the impact in your community?
Not sure how to answer this question but I rely on our team to make an impact with the kids, perhaps the best indication of our impact on the community. We have different skillsets from different backgrounds and I believe the right inputs from the right people can act as good guidance and mentorship for many of the young people.

What have been some of your biggest learnings so far?
o The need to create a sustainable model – and in the long-term a self-sufficient one
o The need for financial obligation, however small, to encourage commitment
o The need for incentivisation for quality work from voluntary resources
o The importance of gaining respect and credibility from a new community through time regardless of how much you think you can offer

What are some of the challenges you face going forward?
o Giving the care and attention needed to each young person as the club continues to grow (e.g. by splitting the age group remits by lead coach)
o Forming some autonomy for each squad group to ensure effective management of work within the club (e.g. avoid coaches unrealistically trying to get involved with every team)
o Managing the growth of the club within our financial means

How much of your time do you dedicate to fundraising over the implementation of the programme?
o Young Hackney meeting once a year in August to discuss funding needs for the upcoming season (i.e. academic year) – a day’s prep to summarise club direction and document cost forecasts
o Annual fundraiser summer BBQ – a few hours here and there over two weeks to organise event (e.g. managing social media event, hiring generators etc)
o Grant applications – if time and relevant grant, a day’s work to fill required templates

What are some of the best or most memorable experiences you have had?
o U16s winning the Community Basketball League (CBL) last year after overtime
o Visiting the Shard with the Jedis for the Kraft Heinz family day
o Attending the Young Hackney sports awards at Hackney Town Hall
o Visiting Thorpe Park for an end of season trip
o Winning a minibus as an award from Kraft Heinz

Who/what inspires you?
People with purpose or those who seem to have found purpose.

What would be your message to others trying to create impact in their communities?
Reach out to people and start now!

I have friends who are hesitant as they seek the perfect opportunity (interest, location, time), similar to when one seeks the perfect yoga class, book club or work opportunity abroad that never materialises.

Meet people with similar ideas and you’ll generate the perfect opportunity to create your impact in the community.

  • Hee-Won Cho