Korean Entrepreneurs Thriving in Silicon Valley
Korean entrepreneurs have made significant inroads into Silicon Valley. Their ability to blend cultural values with technological innovations has proven successful businesses for them, thanks to political leadership dedicated to economic expansion and proactive government measures.
Sophie Kim is the founder and CEO of Korea’s largest dedicated online grocer Market Kurly. With an educational background in finance and consulting, Sophie holds an entrepreneurial spirit that drives Market Kurly forward.
Shin is one of the co-founders of PortOne, an innovative payment orchestration company for Asia. He brings extensive experience in e-commerce and payments from his previous endeavor, TMON (Korea’s largest e-commerce unicorn). A graduate from Wharton and Yale School of Management respectively, Shin’s companies have amassed over $3.5 billion in GMV – making him one of the world’s foremost technology entrepreneurs.
Overseas students turned into entrepreneurs were instrumental in initiating an early surge in Korean start-ups. These immigrants, mostly aged 30-40 when arriving, brought with them extensive management knowledge from Korean companies expanding overseas markets, such as Samsung or Hyundai Motor. With that expertise at their disposal they established labor-intensive, capital-intensive or skill-intensive start-ups depending on their prior knowledge or expertise – pioneers such as Imsong Lee taught at UC Berkeley from 1970-1978 before founding Digital Electronics startup commercializing microprocessor technology in 1974 were among these pioneers.
These immigrant entrepreneurs had another advantage – business networks in America that they could use as a springboard for their ventures, helping to avoid cultural clashes and build competitive advantages. Furthermore, having studied in America as teenagers, these immigrants were more equipped for the long process of starting businesses back home than most native-born Korean entrepreneurs were.
Immigrant entrepreneurs were far more likely than native-born counterparts to gain access to finance. This was partly because they had more saved from previous jobs and relied less on family or friends for assistance financially. Furthermore, banks and venture capital firms familiar with Korean companies could offer financing. Unfortunately, however, lack of local markets proved a formidable hurdle to their business development.
Lee Byung-chul is a South Korean businessman best known as the founder of Samsung Group. One of Korea’s richest men, Lee has contributed his time and resources to aiding Pyeongchang’s bid for 2018 Winter Olympic Games as well as setting up scholarships for young people in Seoul. Lee started out by working for a trucking company before later opening up wool factories in Daegu and branching into sugar refining, electronics textiles media insurance as he expanded.
Byung-chul was a family man who believed in loyalty and employee development. An early advocate for family-centered management, he sought to model Samsung after Japanese companies. Samsung quickly expanded and soon became one of the country’s premier import-export businesses; later expanding into textile production as well as steel production before finally ranking among the world’s 50 industrial firms by the mid 1960s.
At the time of Park Chung-hee’s May 16 coup, Byung-chul was living overseas and for some time did not return. Once back home he eventually gave up some control of banks under new economic directives from Park’s administration and followed its directives for their return.
Byung-chul transformed his company from exporting to importing, while placing emphasis on quality. He encouraged investment abroad, setting up factories in Wynyard, England as well as semiconductor plants in Austin Texas and Suzhou China. Byung-chul encouraged innovation within his executives and challenged competitors such as Sony. As an honorable leader who demanded excellence from everyone within his organization he became an icon among Asian entrepreneurs.
Richard Min is the founding President and Managing Director of two of Korea’s first major startup accelerators: SeoulSpace and KStartup. His efforts in creating Korea’s startup ecosystem were highlighted by INC Magazine and other global media outlets, and Richard was honored with an INC Award. Richard also founded +822 Convergence Conference and Cityfest; co-founded Fashion Technology Accelerator; and managed Fashion Technology Investment Fund – among others.
The study demonstrated that Korean business entrepreneurs have been tremendously successful at starting new businesses, and have experienced remarkable sales growth. They have overcome hurdles which might otherwise prevent their success – such as cultural differences or language barriers – as well as using their unique set of skills and talents in ways which enable them to capitalize on growing markets in the US, Japan and China.
Overall, the study revealed that most Korean entrepreneurs interviewed were highly-educated professionals with advanced engineering degrees – 19 of the 25 studied entrepreneurs had bachelor’s degrees in engineering while 16 had degrees beyond bachelorhood: six received their Ph.D.s and four their M.S.s in engineering.
Korean entrepreneurs tend to possess both strong technical backgrounds and substantial financial resources and connections, which has enabled them to build businesses and attract investments in the US. According to one study, most respondents were positive about overall business environment in Korea while even those less optimistic had positive outlooks about its future prospects. Unfortunately, it also identified weaknesses within Korea’s business environment; specifically that Government Policy: Support and Relevance ratings were lower compared with GEM level A economies.
Saeju Jeong is co-founder and CEO of Noom, a wellness and weight loss company. Their flagship product, Noom Coach, has become one of the highest grossing health apps on Android and iOS devices. Furthermore, Noom’s health and wellness products range from weight loss apps to stress management tools and sleep quality improvements. Furthermore, Jeong regularly speaks at events regarding entrepreneurship and leadership topics.
Noom CEO discusses his experiences and provides advice to entrepreneurs on how to grow their companies. He emphasizes how customer obsession has helped the startup achieve success; building strong teams; and prioritizing company vision as being essential. Furthermore, he notes how important overcoming challenges will be in attaining long-term success.
At 19 years old, Jeong embarked on his entrepreneurial journey by founding BuyHard Productions. Soon thereafter, it quickly outgrew and competed against some of South Korea’s largest music and concert production companies. Following such significant success, BuyHard expanded into media business development while diversifying operations into technology and entertainment.
In 2008, Jeong met Artem Petakov and established WorkSmart Labs together. Together, they released CardioTrainer on Android market within months – quickly becoming a top grossing fitness and health app in no time!
Over time, Jeong and his co-founders realized their company could help people enhance overall wellness. They created Noom, a weight loss app focused on healthy eating habits and exercise regimens; as well as Noom Mood to manage stress and anxiety. Now with over 45 million users worldwide.
Sophie Kim is a performance poet, lyricist/librettist and playwright with degrees in theatre from UCLA and Yale School of Drama. In 2022 Theater Offensive Emergent Artist Residency Cohort and currently working on developing SWAN as her experimental play. Sophie explores queer identity with monsters; making the unstageable or at least bearable accessible.
Most Korean entrepreneurs interviewed were immigrants who moved to the US after college or graduate school, although some like Michael Sohn of Diamond Multimedia System who provides video surveillance products and Steve Kahng from PowerComputing who refurbishes semiconductor capital equipment came as teenagers. What united them all was their strong relationships with Korean Americans living in Silicon Valley.
After working for Intel and Synertec in Silicon Valley for some time, Kyu Hyun Choi returned home and established several start-up companies specializing in chip design such as Soft Logic and Silicoinians in Korea.
Many of those interviewed cited financial constraints as their biggest challenge when operating their businesses. Furthermore, many noted how American banks often disadvantage minority-owned firms when lending. As an alternative, informal cooperatives were formed within the Valley.
Most Korean entrepreneurs interviewed have an unwavering sense of national identity and possess a thorough knowledge of Korean culture, with many visiting Korea recently to rekindle relationships and invest in high tech industries; yet due to high labor costs they cannot make substantial investments there.