By Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers, GEM Executive Director
South Korea, with its advancement in producing new technologies and introducing new products and services to customers, is a lead country in the region in terms of entrepreneurship. The Korean entrepreneurship community and government have an ambitious agenda for the future and I was able to see this first-hand on a two-day trip to Seoul at the end of this past September. Here are three key takeaways from my trip.
1. Take our value propositions to the next level.
My first port of call was the Korean Entrepreneurship Foundation (KoEF), a GEM as a global sponsor from 2017 to 2019. Gihyun Kum, Secretary General of KoEF hosted the meeting. We had a discussion about KoEF’s three year global sponsorship experience and particularly the impact of hosting the 2018 Annual Meeting and Global Report Launch in Seoul (an event I unfortunately missed out on as I wasn’t in my role yet). A clear message emerged: GEM has an opportunity to think of other, new ways and means of attracting sponsors. GEM produces the global report, national reports and special topic reports leveraging 20 years of rich and insightful data. To make this possible, GEM has a plethora of national sponsors, sometimes even three or four per country (there are some 70 national teams overall). We need more global sponsors - in a globalized world - that wish to join us in thought leadership and outreach on entrepreneurship all over the planet. There is potential to hold regional events and promote thought leadership in entrepreneurship at a regional level, as well as scope for global sponsors to take on regional leadership responsibilities. Thus, the conversation was both meaningful and enriching. We will use our experience with KoEF to build the best, value adding sponsorships possible for GEM with other organizations into the future.
2. Educate the next generation of entrepreneurs.
During the two days, I also spent an afternoon at the Next Challenge Foundation (NCF), a global accelerator for start-ups that works out of a new age silicon valley-type set up in the outskirts of Seoul, with no less than 138 early stage start-ups buzzing under its roof. Moon Sun Kim, previously of KoEF and who has recently joined NCF, travelled with me. The Chairman of NCF is Rocky Kim, a cool passionate entrepreneur with an equally cool name who has a vision for a new type of university for entrepreneurs. Rocky’s view is that currently 19th century classrooms, 20th century teachers and 21st century students are co-existing in today’s educational system. He feels that as technology develops and society changes, traditional education cannot provide the skills that are needed in this 4th industrial revolution. So the Next Challenge School will focus on an entrepreneurship cycle of Explore, Analyze, Create, Communicate, Reflect and Remember, with students completing startup missions and project in multiple countries. As we passed through the building complex and observed an animated on-site training workshop, I asked what percentage of the current 138 start-ups would be likely to truly develop into successful companies. The answer was anything between 5 and 10%. Yes, its tough breaking ground, but we all know that. However, Rocky’s ambition is to increase that percentage substantially.
3. Remember the role of social purpose on the entrepreneurial journey.
I also had the opportunity to visit Minwoo Nam, Chairman and CEO of Dasan Networks holding company. Minwoo, the ultimate Korean entrepreneur, is also on the Board of Directors of KoEF. His company is on a determined path to becoming the number one Korean communication device company. DASAN Networks - the “pride of Korean internet solutions” - has helped to hardwire IT superpower in Korea, while also contributing to building global IT networks. The company does business in network, software, automobile parts, engineering and materials. The aim, says Minwoo, is that DASAN Networks becomes a truly global company and the Korean entrepreneurship success story.
We had a fascinating discussion about his company and entrepreneurship in general and then even about geopolitics and history. Minwoo’s philosophy to life and business is based on the teachings of the Tao Te Ching, said to be written around 400BC. In this context, we had an interesting exchange about corporate purpose. I did a lot of research on this topic some five years ago while at IMD business school heading its corporate sustainability research center. Corporate purpose has recently emerged into the limelight after the all-powerful US Business Council made some surprisingly about-face statements. Previously, the Business Council advocated for the Milton Friedman idea of shareholder primacy and maximization of profits as the only driving force that matters in corporate decision-making. Now the group has finally acknowledged the importance of other stakeholders – customers, employees, supplier and communities – as just as vital. Better late than never!
According to Minwoo, all companies should have a social purpose. In his view, the most important contribution is to create jobs and wealth for society, but we also need to look at the way in which we conduct business. He handed me a diary as a gift, with his own English translations of the teachings of Tao. On the very long flight home I read some of the teachings and picked out two that are relevant to leadership in entrepreneurship:
“The sage (leader) stays behind, thus he is ahead.
He is detached, thus at one with all.
Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment.”
The sage (leader) doesn't talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!"
I leave you with those thoughts.