‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
Every Christmas, Bryan Min, B.S. ISE ’86, watches Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one of his favorite movies. In it, a depressed George Bailey, played by James Stewart, contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve. As his thoughts darken, a guardian angel shares a unique gift: a glimpse into an alternative world where he’d never been born. Seeing how many lives had been touched by his existence, Bailey chooses life.
The 1946 classic is more than just a great movie to Min, the namesake of the Min Family Challenge, a Navy veteran, a successful entrepreneur, and a member of the USC Viterbi Board of Councilors. Instead, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is both a source of inspiration and aspiration.
“The thought of what George Bailey did moves me so much,” said Min, who admits to dissolving into tears every time he watches the movie. “It never gets old. I want to be remembered for the people I’ve impacted.”
Like George Bailey, Min has had his share of challenges that have “shaken me to my core.” In the film, Bailey is nearly ruined and wrongfully accused of embezzlement. For Min, it’s a scenario he understands all too well.
In September 2015, Min, the CEO and founder of Epsilon Systems Solutions, a San Diego-based defense contractor, learned that the company’s chief financial officer — a person Min had trusted, “broke bread” and played golf with, and considered a friend — had misappropriated company funds. For the next year and a half, Min worked to save Epsilon as government auditors and the inspector general’s office as well as federal prosecutors swarmed the company.
“When this first broke, we didn’t know how extensive the embezzlement was. Everyone thought the worst,” Min said. “Given that we were playing with taxpayers’ money, it wasn’t good, to put it mildly.” A forensic accountant hired by Epsilon painstakingly dissected the company’s finances to find out how much had been stolen. The amount: $825,000.
More important, Min worried that the federal government would cease doing business with Epsilon. Min literally spent sleepless nights worrying about the future of his business and of his family. In fact, the government designated Epsilon as a “high risk” defense contractor in 2015, 2016 and 2017, which impacted sales.
Instead of sliding into despair, Min opted to bring joy by giving. Amid his personal and professional turmoil, he and his family created the Min Family Challenge, an engineering social entrepreneurship contest that encourages would-be social entrepreneurs to build companies that benefit the underprivileged locally, nationally and even worldwide.
“In the darkest time of my life, when everything I’ve worked for is about to crumble, the vision of the challenge was something that came alive,” Min said. “We were committed to doing something good, to making the world a better place.”
In the ensuing years, the federal government not only removed Epsilon from the high-risk category, but also increased its orders. Over the past three years, Epsilon’s valuation has increased more than fivefold.
Throughout the decades, Min has made a profound impact. Driven by his deep Christian faith and belief in the biblical proverb “Much is required from the person to whom much is given,” he has long set aside more than 10% of his earnings for philanthropy. “Wealth is just a platform,” he said. “What’s important is what you do with it to benefit mankind.”
Indeed, Min feels particular pride in the creation of the Min Family Challenge.
Launched in 2015 with a generous gift from Min, his wife, Julie Min, and their children, the business model competition offers a $50,000 grand prize. Over the years, participating students have traveled to Texas to aid victims of natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey; gone to Lesvos, Greece, to create life-improving innovations to help refugees; and more recently, leveraged entrepreneurship for the benefit of underserved populations.
“It is likely the only such competition nationwide. It gives USC Viterbi students a new way of solving societal problems through the lens of social entrepreneurship using engineering innovation,” said Dean Yannis C. Yortsos.
Past participants include Duet, which was featured in the PBS documentary “Lives, Not Grades.” Duet, one of the world’s first student-built, micro-philanthropy platforms, uses an algorithm to allow donors to buy refugees needed items available at stores in their host country. Social Benefit, the winner of the 2021 challenge, is creating a digital platform that brings transparency to government benefits for low-income populations and case managers to help end cyclical homelessness and poverty.
At this year’s challenge, Bryan Min quipped about how his support for MFC could substantially brighten his long-term prospects.
“I go to the Pearly Gates, and I can see God asking me, ‘Bryan, what good have you done?’ I think I could point to the Min Family Challenge,” he said. “And maybe God will allow me in at that time.”
A Trojan for Life
Born in South Korea, Min immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 8. Over the years, his immigrant parents owned several small businesses, including hamburger shops, a dry cleaner, a laundromat, a video shop and a shoe store. Although they always provided for their family, money was tight. To help out his mother and father, Min paid his way through college on a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship.
He loved USC’s academics, athletics and the support of the surrounding community. Min also appreciated professors such as Bruce Patty and Najmedin Meshkati, who took a personal interest in him and his success.
“Bryan has always impressed me as a most decent, honest, enthusiastic and focused man with an entrepreneurial knack and talent for the integration of concepts and ideas,” said Meshkati, a professor in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Decades later, Meshkati even taught Min’s son, Brandon, who graduated in 2017.
After graduating from USC Viterbi, Min received his commission into the Navy. He initially hoped to become a jet pilot but that dream ended when he needed glasses. Although disappointed, Min believes that “when one door closes, another one opens,” and he instead joined a highly competitive nuclear submarine program. Although he still cannot divulge the classified details, Min said he feels tremendous pride in his service, which he believes truly made him an American citizen.
“You could say I was involved in a game out at sea, against a formidable enemy, during the height of the Cold War. I deployed to the Western Pacific and got to see many different countries and ports — Hong Kong, Subic Bay (Philippines), Yokosuka (Japan), Chinhae (South Korea), to name a few,” said Min. “I’m proud that I served and contributed to bringing down the [Berlin] Wall.”
After resigning his active duty commission at the end of 1992, Min joined the Navy reserves in January 1993 and served for five years. In a sense, though, he has never really left the military. Between 1993 and 1998, he worked at DSR, a defense contractor in Washington, D.C. Min’s responsibilities included working with the Department of Energy to clean up nuclear waste sites. His years in the Navy and in the defense industry gave him the confidence and contacts to head west to San Diego to start Epsilon, which in its first year alone posted sales of $450,000 and grew to seven employees.
When then-USC Engineering Dean Max Nikias stopped by his office a few years later for a visit, Min had the motivation, financial wherewithal and desire to reconnect with his alma mater.
“He snagged me and pulled me back in and grabbed my heart and my imagination with his vision, both as dean and later as USC’s president,” Min said, adding that Nikias recruited him to serve on the USC Viterbi Board of Councilors.
In the ensuing years, the Min family’s bond with USC has only strengthened. Min and his wife have such an affinity for Troy that they sent their two children there: Brandon, B.S. ISE ’17, who was known for his leadership on the University Spirit team; and Brittany, a 2020 graduate and a Renaissance Scholar in cognitive science and music industry. Min is also ecstatic about the latest addition, his new daughter-in-law, Priyanka Moolchandani, who is a Presidential Scholar and a Dornsife graduate.
“We are all a part of the amazing Trojan Family,” Min said.
A Legacy of Giving Back
The Mins have a long legacy of philanthropy at USC, including the establishment of several USC Viterbi scholarships. They have also funded military support organizations, international micro-finance, and Christian and educational organizations. In 1998, the Mins cofounded the Lighthouse Bible Church to spread the gospel.
Bryan Min also injects his values and ethics into Epsilon, which he founded more than two decades ago. The company repairs ships and submarines for the military and makes communications software for the Navy and U.S. intelligence services. Epsilon, which Min initially funded with a credit card and home equity loan, now has 1,100 employees in 22 locations internationally with sales in the hundreds of millions. It is also a 100% employee-owned company.
“I think giving up control is closest to having democracy in a business. It provides checks and balances,” Min said. “And having a piece of the rock is one of the secrets to wealth creation.”
D.L. Manning, an Epsilon technician who works on aircraft carriers, is one of several current and past employees who appreciates Min’s largesse and light touch. “I’ve worked for several commanding officers, and Bryan is by far the best,” said Manning, a Navy veteran, in an email. “I’m motivated to do my job knowing he supports me.”
Similar to how George Bailey felt when friends and loved ones shower him with love and money at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Min said such missives — and he has received many over the years — “take my breath away. They make me think that I’m on the right path.”