Editor's note: Senior Director Corporate Development at Baedal Minjok
There is a Chaebol in Korea that is nameless.
No HQ, no CEO, not even an email.
It has massive worldwide influence; setting trends in Asia within a matter of hours. The nation’s economy fluctuates with the slightest movement of this corporation.
The organization’s dominant power and reach far surpass the ranks of Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. Combined.
There is not a single institution it’s members have not penetrated; controlling the country like a stringed puppet. They dictate the rules. They command the future. What they want, they will.
The employee base is globally educated and meticulously trained in a diverse range of professions. New ventures are attacked with military precision; bred from a deep ancestry of native warriors.
A syndicate that will control the foreseeable future of Korea; political, financial, even armed forces are at the mercy of this group. Their grip on the destiny of this country is undeniable and their rule can not be avoided.
Korea has never seen the likes of this. Ever.
The Nation’s Preeminent Empire.
Yet, despite this. Despite this gripping reign of power, this Chaebol has been rendered powerless in the past decade. The armor of this Goliath has been pierced. In the greatest of ironies, this country with a history of being invaded from the outside, has been attacked from within.
Korea’s mightiest corporation has fallen ill from a self inflicted disease. The virus?
A lack of genuine self belief. The loss of unrelenting hope.
You haven’t heard of this Chaebol have you?
Let me introduce you to them: Korea’s Young Professionals. The Tiger Chaebol.
The air was frigid. A glacier gloss glistened along the tree lined footpath as I anxiously walked to my first day of work in Seoul. Ice crunched beneath me; hands paralyzed in a deep cocoon of wool. This Bay Area native was getting his first sense of true winter.
I was smiling though. Ear to ear; grinning. A childlike giddiness fueled me as I stepped towards my new office. As I rode the elevator up, my heart began to thump; a soft scent of Krispy Kremes shadowed me. I’ve never enjoyed going into a first day empty handed.
After months of deep thought and finally making the decision to move my life to Korea; this was it. I was stepping foot into a whole new world. As far as I knew, this elevator was my own personal spaceship to a foreign galaxy.
The first day was a blur. Navigating a new land awash with a trove of meaningful moments; I struggled to absorb it all. In my broken Korean I managed to get through the day with a deep sense of gratitude to my new teammates and plenty of laughter.
And it was here, on day 1, that I first received the question.
The following days, weeks, and months would be a consistent cycle of encountering the question. Coffees, dinner parties and general city exploration always led the conversation to one, reoccurring question.
The Question, perpetually delivered with a puzzled look: “Mike.. why would you leave San Francisco/Silicon Valley( America ) for Korea? You left the Bay Area voluntarily!?”
It was the question…
And always, my response, with a giant smile, a resounding:
“Why would I not?”
The future is here. You are here. And it will be You, Korea’s millennials, that become the next significant authors of Asia’s next chapter. I wasn’t joiningBaedal Minjok that day, I was joining the ranks of Your Chaebol.
There is no doubt in my mind, it will be this Tiger Chaebol that roars Korea into a century of majestic new milestones. Yet, it can not be fueled by my fervent belief alone, it will need to come from within. The largest factor for Korea to rise to it’s own potential greatness will be altering it’s youths outlook of their country and their own lives.
South Korea’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans’ Affair conducted a poll among school children to garner the extent of their national pride which delivered particularly weak results. The index concluded that Korea scored 62.9, with China at 84.2 and the United States at 70.6. Further, the rate of suicide is devastatingly high; ranking first in the OECD. ( 11 years in a row.. )
Many young Koreans feel helpless and are disheartened by a tenacious work culture filled with long hours, hierarchical management, little room for professional growth, high youth unemployment, and the much dreaded nunchi ( 눈치 ). Students are hammered by an arduous education system with suffocating expectations. In addition, the constant comparison of one’s personal life and relative success has become a piercing bullet. I won’t disagree that these conditions may make life disheartening, but let me tell you an uncomfortable truth: You are lucky.
I’m sure you’re questioning my sanity, but here’s why I so deeply believe in you and our collective future in Korea:
You, we, possess the power of free will.
There’s an adoration of the West in Korea. Silicon Valley glory, Hollywood glam, an independent lifestyle, innovative culture and fashionable entertainment, but if there was ever something young Korean professionals should truly idolize about the U.S., it should be their absolute steadfast and unwavering resolve to consistently fight for the life they want. To consistently battle to reinvent their country to the dream they dare it to be. America became the place so many desire to go because Americans fought for it to be that way.
The current state of the U.S., which many Koreans admire today, stretches from a long shadow of uprising. America’s history was chiseled with turbulent and courageous movements that shaped it’s current rendition. From the civil rights movement to women’s suffrage, gay rights to equal pay; Americans stood up, braved malicious ignorance, and challenged the status quo with staunch conviction. They had hope for a better nation; The American Dream.
That’s the lesson young Korean professionals should take heed in.
The change you dream of has always been and will always be, within you. Not across the Pacific Ocean…
It is common for me to hear young Koreans desire leaving their country for what seems like greener pastures. However, very rarely did I ever hear my friends in the U.S. desire moving abroad to combat the cultural stresses of daily life. Young professionals in America rarely, if ever, thought the solution to their daily struggles was leaving the country.
Exceptionally high rent ($3,000/month in SF ), office politics, inequality for women in the workplace, racial discrimination, youth unemployment, strained parental relationships, nosy neighbors, etc. are not relegated to just Korea. These are universal issues young professionals face both in the U.S. and Korea. Yet, it’s simply not common to hear American friends suggest leaving the country as a manner of improving their lives. Instead, they face opposition and challenges with a furious vigor to change it.
Women in Silicon Valley are fighting a battle that should be observed by not only those in technology but globally. Similar to Korea, the number of women in executive positions and board seats is disgracefully low. Only 11% of executives in Silicon Valley are women and their male counterparts with the same credentials earn 73% more. These are atrocious statistics, and by no means where this hub of innovation should be. However, what gives me great hope is the spirit of the women in Silicon Valley who are rallying together to build the Valley they know it should be.
Despite the repercussions and societal nunchi (yes there is nunchi in America) these women are destroying an offensive cultural construct and rising. They are trailblazing. They are damn inspirational.
So I implore you, Korea’s young professionals, to look past the glitz of America and become a student of America’s greatest genius: Their aptitude to transform hope to reality.
Rosa Parks didn’t move to another country when African Americans were being lynched and relegated to immense racial segregation due to the color of their skin. She stayed home and fought for her People.
Harvey Milk didn’t move to another country when gay and lesbians were being brutally beaten due to their sexual orientation. He stayed home and fought for his Civic Rights.
Susan B. Anthony didn’t move to another country when women’s voices were muted and denied the right to vote. She stayed home and fought for her Women’s Rights.
These leaders. Pioneers. Activists. Crusaders. These visionaries are no more human than you. They simply had the courage to rise above the blockades of their time to become agents of change. Self pity was a diagnosis they refused. Rather, they medicated themselves with an audacious sense of courage, no matter how hostile the environment, and began the work of rebuilding the culture they deemed necessary and right for their country.
The core strength of these revolutionary leaders: belief in themselves.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” — Oscar Wilde
My enduring wish for This Chaebol, The Tiger Chaebol, is to believe in yourselves and to KNOW YOUR VALUE.
You are, collectively, the most powerful Chaebol in Korea. Don’t ever forget that you hold the pen to your future. Parents, bosses, friends, professors; they may assert influence but in no way determine your future. That’s only up to you.
This month, in Berkeley, California, hundreds of high school studentswalked out of class in solidarity to protest the disgusting racist threat of a public lynching left on a library computer. Thousands joined their movement.
In Missouri, the entire college football team boycotted play until the University President resigned due to his inaction confronting racial incidents on campus. He stepped down in a matter of a week.
The power of common belief can move mountains. Just imagine if every woman in Samsung walked out until each and every single one of them was paid the same as their male counterparts and demanded that 50% of the board be women. There isn’t a thing the CEO could do to keep the company from toppling.
Imagine if every student walked out of Hagwons to demand a balanced lifestyle. No amount of parental force could stop the walkout. No one can force the mind to retain data other than you.
Together, collectively, you hold the power. You always have.
The Tiger Chaebol, not those on top, control the future of this nation. Never forget that.
I’m all in, not because of startup gold, but because I have the deepest of faith that this generation of young Koreans will not only change the country, but the world. Part I and Part II of this series highlights just how bullish I am on this nation and this generation. ( I moved my entire life to Seoul on this belief.. )
On an August day in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights activist, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared a dream. He did not preach for those being persecuted to leave the country. Alternatively, he inspired a nation to rise against the culture of hate and racism to build the nation he knew it could be.
I too, share a dream of building together with Korea’s Tiger Chaebol, the nation’s most significant startup:
The greatest startup Korea can develop will be a culture of audacious self belief; a legacy of hope for generations yet to come.
This; The Korean Dream.
“You can not live on hope alone, but without hope, life is not worth living.” — Harvey Milk
Take the Reigns
Korea has waited for this very moment for 5,000 years.
After centuries of being manipulated and pillaged by neighboring nations, this mighty peninsula has survived. It has overcome. It has prevailed.
During the Joseon era, Korea was subject to a dominant China that exercised political and cultural influence over Korea. Three to four times a year, Korean monarchs paid tribute to China as a part of a policy of sadae, or “submission to the stronger.” At the onset of the 20th century, Japan colonized the country leading to atrocious violence and despicable acts of horror to the Korean people, culture, and way of life.
Just over 60 years ago this country burned from the somber ashes of the Korean War. Poverty was a national condition. Moreover, the late 80s brought the hard fought and bloody battle for democracy. 400 invasions and Korea has stood. It has endured.
The eyes of Korea’s forefathers have yearned to settle on an unobstructed future that could only be paved by the Korean people. No outside influence. No submission to others. Beholden to no one. Just itself.
Now, for the first time in it’s history, Korea can do what it’s ancestors so desperately fought for: Write It’s Own Destiny.
This gift of free will, forged through 5,000 years of unimaginable adversity, now rests in the hands of Korea’s newest and mightiest Chaebol. It will now need to invest towards reforming the existing culture to one driven by great hope and self belief.
Culture, like a river, can erode at the banks of it’s past. Even the most hardened constructs can melt to the pressure of change and new direction. Over time, with enough force and most importantly, courage, the current that was deemed unforgiving can bend to the will of new hope.
In Part I of this series, I declared Korea is rising. Indeed it is, and in order to continue to rise it will not only need engineers, product managers, startups, and venture capitalists, it will need to recruit cultural architects.
Who will Rise to be the champion for women’s rights?
Who will Rise to fight for the voices of the disenfranchised and elderly?
Who will Rise to be the education activist that reforms Korean schools?
Who will Rise to represent the voices of our youth in parliament?
Who will Rise to stand up for healthy work/life balance in our corporations?
Who will Rise up for those marginalized due to their sexual orientation?
Who will Rise to support those struggling with depression and destroy the stigma surrounding psychotherapy?
Who will Rise to bring together a torn nation into one?
Somewhere in Busan, Daegu, Seoul, Daejeon, there is a child looking for a hero. Searching for hope.
It will be, it Must be, this Tiger Chaebol, that rises, much like our ancestors did, to provide a future better than that we inherited. This generation may face hardships, but consider the hardships our ancestors endured for it’s current youth to enjoy a slice of ‘Happy Cake’ on Garosugil ( Dore Dore ).
The seismic cultural shift has begun though. It has been the startup community in Seoul that have been the pioneers engineering a new norm. Young Korean entrepreneurs are shattering conformity and ripping apart the fabricated life others wish them to have and instead, living their dreams.
I can’t tell you how much this inspires me.
And let me declare, there is absolutely nothing Silicon Valley has that Korea does not. Nothing. Korea has it all: Investment capital, globally recognized universities, a wealth of talent, incubators, accelerators, a historical backbone of entrepreneurship, a democratic governing body, modern infrastructure, and plenty of coffee.
The only missing piece, which arguably is the most important, is the steely belief that my future is mine to determine. It is not a tangible variable, but it truly is this belief that when altered will catapult not only Korea’s startup scene, but Korea as a whole, to it’s next chapter.
It’s time for Korea’s most powerful Chaebol to no longer remain silent. Future generations are watching, waiting. Navigate your heart to your dream life, ignore the burdensome cultural demands, and pursue the gift you are. Pave the path for those yet to inherit this beautiful nation. Whether you aspire to be an artist, political leader, entrepreneur, musician, restaurateur; go live. You are far too talented to succumb to a lifestyle that is not of your choosing.
“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” — Joseph Campbell
An often discussed topic among the Korean startups scene is ‘how to go global.’ I don’t believe it has anything to do with strategy, capital or mobile infrastructure. Earlier I recalled the question: ‘Why did you leave the U.S. for Korea? If Korea truly holds aspirations of going global, it needs to alter the question instead to:
“How do you plan on changing the world?”
It’s a mindset, and it will mean everything for Korea’s success. Every generation develops a new voice. A new art. A new language of life. Today, this responsibility rests upon the Tiger Chaebol. While the debt this generation owes it’s forefathers can never be repaid, it can be honored by a single act: Live. Live with Hope Beyond Reason.
The cure to the virus.
I wholeheartedly recognize that I am not a native son. But I am a son nonetheless. You may discard the weight of my words due to this technicality, but I hold true, that together, we will forge a light that will echo in the chamber of Korea’s heart for eternity.
Korea will Triumph. Korea, will Korea.
DE. HAN. MIN. GUK. 대한민국!
THIS - is our Minjok. THIS - is Korea’s Time. THIS - is Your Time.
Witness, The Rise.