Being in business is a tough job, whether you're a man or woman, but in many ways, it's doubly difficult in Asia. Historically a patriarchal society, the traditional methods of conducting business in North East Asia, and particularly South Korea, were inspired by Confucian-based principles, often comprising male-dominated environments, which I like to call 'old boys' networks.' These regularly involve commercial deals that usually occur out of the office during heavy drinking sessions.
As a female entrepreneur, the corporate arena in which I started my own company was unimaginably difficult, since these prevailing rules were entrenched in gender-biased traditions where networking was based on school ties, home-town links and other common pursuits. These male-dominated networks created tightly-knit systems which not only became challenges for female entrepreneurs like me, but maintained high barriers to entry and glass ceilings for other women. But my determination to succeed in this hostile environment was very strong, and only through unwavering persistence and positivity was I able to pave the way to success.
As I progressed, I faced new struggles in addressing these forms of corruption in order to change the rules for my business. For example, for product marketing the prevailing practices required illicit rebates and bribes, a route which I refused to take even if my business suffered as a result. By so doing, I chose the more difficult road to success, but my persistence has paid off.
My company therefore challenges the traditional methods of corporate practices by 1) enabling horizontal environments that allow open dialogues and communicative networking, while seeking distribution through women-owned networks versus enabling authoritarian structures or 'big boys' clubs' in forming alliances and distribution channels. These democratic communication dialogues have been best suited for global business operations; 2) Embracing team-oriented, relationship, value-driven leadership models through women's leadership rather than vertical and top-down management frameworks. Through this framework, we regard our employees like family and deem their welfare with the utmost importance; and 3) IT adaption and implementation. During the 90s we became an early adaptor of IT, where we integrated IT systems throughout our retail operations in order to garner transparency and avoid fraud. Today we utilize hi-tech systems in order to insure timeliness in delivery while overcoming intercultural and geographical barriers.
While these odds were indeed difficult to overcome, they nevertheless catalyzed our competitiveness in Korea and around the world.
I've given advice to many women on how to succeed in business in Asia. Girls -- be wise and believe in yourself. You need to maximize your strengths as much as possible, to help others. Be proactive. Take on challenges and have a critical perspective. You should not be forced into a situation but try to take charge of a situation by yourself. In the 21st century knowledge-based economy, this world needs high quality women's leadership desperately. The privilege I have is to be able to say to any woman around the world 'You can do it too.' Therefore my motto is 'Girls, be ambitious!'
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.