Korea and the Creative Economy Initiative: Shifting Towards an Entrepreneurial Culture at the 2013 STEPI Symposium

I had the honor of speaking at Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute (STEPI) 2013 International Symposium in Seoul last week. STEPI, a think tank led by Dr. Jong Guk Song, orchestrated this conference to address the new administration’s bold new vision for Korea’s future: the creative economy. Other speakers at this conference shared thoughts on new models of government-funded entrepreneurship and exciting new areas for growth in non-traditional sectors (e.g, space and deep sea exploration). My talk focused on entrepreneurship education models and recommendations for how Korea can maximize the number of startups emerging from universities. This post will share some of these experiences.  

From a Western perspective, the story relayed by Doug Yeum, head of Google Korea, was remarkable. Doug told us about how a friend of his in Seoul left the startup world to pursue a job with a large corporation because he thought it was needed in order for him to find a woman that would marry him. He acted on the cultural belief that if a woman couldn’t recognize the logo on his business card, she wouldn’t recognize him as a viable candidate for marriage.

This cultural belief–that startups are insecure or fanciful and that large corporations are stable or serious–is what holds back the entrepreneurial capabilities of many of the communities in which 3DS operates. Unlike education in frameworks and tactics, such as Lean Startup, Customer Discovery, and Business Model Canvas, a cultural shift is a more daunting proposition.

But this doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. One solid approach we have found is to trumpet the local success stories, to champion those who have proven what can be done within the confines of cultural norms.  And a massive success story is not necessary—just a modest success is fine. Regardless, Korea has a few exceptional success stories including Ticketmonster and entrepreneurs such as Chul Hwan Kim, with 5 startups (2 of which had exits) under his belt.

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View from the panel

During my talk, my recommendations centered around making the community aware of the examples of success already in their midst. Of course, relaying examples of success takes you only as far as the people you are speaking with. This is why my talk stressed the importance of starting this entrepreneurial shift in the place most receptive to change–the university. University students are to a large extent still forming and cultivating their own identities, while also making decisions about which cultural norms to accept and which to reject. In the United States, university students are the recipient of messages bombarding them about which beer to drink, which fast food restaurants to frequent, and what cars to drive. It only makes sense that these same students should be exposed to the possibility of starting real technology companies.

The extreme focus of 3DS programs on students and authentic, student-driven approach to entrepreneurship harmonizes well with a cultural shift toward the risk-taking spirit necessary for entrepreneurs. After running 3 Day Startup programs on over thirty different campuses across the globe, we have seen these shifts in mindset and culture take place. In Beijing, we’ve seen timid students grow fearless when challenged to start companies. In Qatar, we’ve observed female entrepreneurs own the room and lead diverse teams seeking business models to empower female small business owners. In Austin, we’ve watched as a team of students investigated and created money management tools for the poorest in our society.

Cultural changes occurring at the university level can either be supported, suppressed, or entirely ignored. But the key to leading entrepreneurial ecosystems on university campuses is actively supporting students that want more entrepreneurial activity. As I explained in my talk, this is best manifested in programs that teach entrepreneurship by doing, and programs that encourage students to take risks on their ideas and innovations. While students should not be encouraged to fail in the classroom, they must be pushed to try the less secure path.

The Koreans also sought general advice about supporting the Korean entrepreneurship ecosystem. For this part of the talk I leaned heavily on Josh Baer’s letter to Obama, which captures what Josh and other Austin leaders shared with Obama when the president visited Austin a few weeks ago. President Obama wanted to learn strategies about how to emulate Austin’s innovative and entrepreneurial culture and ecosystem in the rest of the United States. This letter is a fantastic articulation of how to frame an entrepreneurial ecosystem and as a bonus is extremely inspiring. There are three major pillars:

1. Physical space
2. Community leaders
3. Angel Investors

Korea has some fantastic examples of all of three from the fantastic space that is Seoul Space, community leaders such as Seok-bong Lee, and investors such as Chul Hwan Kim. Korea has five years to make the shift to the creative economy, and the above forces will play key roles in the process. The change will not happen overnight but with the right focus and execution, any community has the power to become more innovative and entrepreneurial. Korea, with its young and highly educated population, proximity to other rapidly growing Asian economies, and extremely high bandwidth, has the potential for a massive startup boom. I cannot wait to see this opportunity unfold and help contribute to the university piece of this growth with a 3 Day Startup program in Korea.

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