The Art of Leadership, South Korean Style

As a woman growing up in patriarchal South Korea, the path I took to start my own business certainly wasn't the easiest -- despite the fact that my father founded the utilities conglomerate Daesung. I hadn't been in touch with my family for five years, after defying their wishes by first studying in the U.S. and then marrying a foreigner without approval. But that's another story (or blog). We eventually had a reunion over a business deal. My father was in Detroit on a business trip to start a joint venture with a company there. He called me do the interpreting, and the negotiation between my father's company and his counterpart was very intense. They were finding it difficult to bridge the gap, and in three days the talks were about to end without any results. I asked my father: "If no-one is going to win, at least give me a chance!" I became the mediator between the two, offering alternatives for both parties, and in three hours a $200m joint venture was born. Later on, my father called me to his office and asked me if I wanted anything. He said it was a gift for making the agreement happen. It was then when I asked him to lend me the seed money for my company. And that's how Sungjoo Group came into being. I was able to pay him back every penny plus interest. Being unconventional is always challenging but is rewarding as well.

When I attend business networking events, aspiring female entrepreneurs frequently ask my advice. Having survived several recessions -- including the Asian financial crisis in 1997 when my company lost $30m overnight -- here are my top tips for success:

  1. Run your business transparently

When I started my business, the retailing environment in South Korea was extremely corrupt. However, my company persisted in avoiding corrupt practices, opting for transparency. As a result, I was able to establish an indelible reputation for transparency and anti-corruption and thereby garner respect and support from Korean consumers. You have to be willing to fight against the unjust and corruption. It requires a lot of courage.

  • Be technology driven
  • To achieve a more effective decision-making process, I have invested intensely in installing state-of-the-art IT systems ahead of my competitors. Instead of the easy way of doing business (following old Korean business practices), I have opted for the path of transparency, technology and human resource investment to create an optimal environment for both the consumers and my employees.

  • Play like a woman, and win like a woman
  • This is much to do with leadership because being a business owner means you being the captain of your vessel. In my opinion, our leadership style is different. Women tend to be better communicators. We do not think profits come before other, more humane values such as fairness and honesty. We place a high value on corporate & social responsibility. We do not tolerate corruption and bureaucracy and we are therefore better placed to become good leaders.

  • Corporate social responsibility
  • CSR practice is the best investment for my company reputation, for the well-being of our society and for our future generation. My company tries to invest 10 percent out of the net profit to community programmes, including one for the handicapped and one for young women leaders. We also provide aid for North Korea since the North Koreans are in dire need of help.

  • Employee welfare and education
  • I am a firm believer in enhancing the welfare and quality of my employees through quality programs and proper training and education. They are necessary to strengthen the competitiveness of our organizations, especially in today's brain-intensive knowledge-based business environment.

    I truly believe there are three criteria that are common to all successful entrepreneurs: having the confidence to challenge the status quo; being very proactive; and being at the cutting-edge of a chosen discipline.

    If that's the path you choose to take, I wish you good luck. You'll have fun along the way.

    Sung-Joo Kim is a featured speaker at the APEC Women Leadership Forum 2014, 20-22 August 2014 in Beijing. For more information, please visit here.