Roller skating along the tree-lined avenues of the University Park Campus as a child, Debbie Leilani Shon ’74 never doubted she would one day graduate from USC.
The granddaughter of Korean immigrants, she lived next to campus on McClintock Avenue and took piano lessons at USC. Her mother, Mary Chun Lee, a social worker and teacher, graduated from USC in 1939, one of the first Korean-Americans to do so. Her uncle, Sammy Lee, the first to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in diving, and aunt, Elizabeth Dolly Rhee, received their master’s degrees from USC. Her father, Herbert Pedro Shon, was a pharmacist and chemist.
“It was a great childhood, walking though campus and seeing my favorite football team practice as I was on my way to what is now 32nd Street School/USC Performing Arts Magnet,” Shon said.
I could never have thought of going to any other school but USC.
Debbie Leilani Shon
“I could never have thought of going to any other school but USC,” said Shon, whose sister and husband also attended USC. Shon earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
After a successful career in international trade, commercial law and international government affairs, Shon has been named the U.S. Steel Corp.’s new vice president of international trade and global public policy.
Based in U.S. Steel’s Washington, D.C., office, she is responsible for the company’s international trade strategy, manages all trade enforcement actions and leads the company’s global public policy initiatives.
After earning her law degree at Georgetown University Law Center, Shon’s career started in government, where she served as a legislative director for Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr., founder and first chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. She then joined Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Los Angeles, becoming the first Asian-American woman to be made a partner at a major American law firm. Shon then served as the assistant U.S. trade representative for intergovernmental affairs and public liaison during President Bill Clinton’s first term.
“Of all the things I have achieved in my career, I am proudest of this,” Shon said. “For a third-generation Korean-American woman to have had the privilege to serve in the Clinton administration, it was my greatest achievement, confirmed by my mother, who teared up with pride.
“We were always taught to be mindful of the great honor we have in being Americans,” Shon continued. “It was instilled in us that we try to pay back to this great country some small part of what we have been able to achieve.”
After leaving government, Shon taught international trade policy and international business at the USC Gould School of Law for 10 years. In a career overflowing with achievements, other highlights include being made CEO of Ticketmaster China, right after the Beijing Olympic Games and becoming an entertainment sports lawyer and the first woman to become an NBA-certified agent.
A special place in American history
Shon said U.S. Steel is at the confluence of everything she loves.
“It’s international trade law and policy, public diplomacy and engagement with all stakeholders, which includes reacquainting the public and elected officials about this company’s special place in American history.”
Shon credits her undergraduate experience at USC Dornsife for encouraging her intellectual curiosity and giving her a fearless approach to life.
“Everything started for me at USC, whether it was as a kid walking through campus and wanting to be a Trojan, to actually being able to go there. The world just opened up to me at USC Dornsife. I was able to explore everything I loved so much, including being able to watch my dear football and basketball teams.”
Shon said USC Dornsife allowed her to explore many facets of the world.
“It fed my intellectual curiosity and if you don’t have that curiosity, then I don’t think you have a soul,” she said. “If you just blithely live your life and accept things without probing and asking the next questions and the next, then I think you miss out on so much, there’s no passion or love.
“I remember taking a course in history and thinking, ‘If I had taken this course in my freshman year, I would have been a history major.’ That’s how wonderful USC was. Every course I took opened a new chapter for me.”