As we wrapped up our final dinner before heading back to New York, we reflected on the diverse experiences and learning that we will be taking away from South Korea.
Starting with business lessons – we knew beforehand that chaebols were the main show in town, and this trip further reinforced that idea. Columbia Business School’s connection with Lotte Corporation is a visceral example of the far reach of chaebols that we could only read about prior to our visit. During the morning of the company visit I drank a Lotte iced tea from the Lotte Mart and left the Lotte hotel to go to the Lotte Tower, the highest tower in Korea, which sits next to Lotte World, the world’s largest indoor amusement park. While the impact of each conglomerate can be seen in almost every aspect of life, business and government is beginning to open up to entrepreneurship and social impact businesses, albeit slowly and in their own style. During our visit to the Lotte Accelerator (note that conglomerates are even involved in startup incubation) we were given presentations from three portfolio companies that have all been marked at multiples of their invested value. As an interesting aside, all three founders were Samsung alumni. Regarding Social Enterprise, our visit to the co-working space Heyground gave us a look into the social impact organizations focused on solving specific issues such as child adoption, child care, and others that the current business environment is not addressing. As the global trend towards using business to solve societal issues continues, I would expect start ups and impact focused companies to continue to proliferate in South Korea.
Korean economic success has also led to the exportation of culture in the form of K-Beauty and K-Pop. While the growth and size of both industries was obvious, we gained a greater appreciation for the global influence of South Korean style and beauty sensibilities and the importance of these industries in burnishing the country’s image abroad, recent scandals aside. The Korean beauty ideal of skin maintenance and health is a departure from the standard skincare/beauty philosophy and has been embraced in Asia as well as western countries. K-Pop’s approach to making music borrows from the global entertainment business’ standard practices but the outcome is uniquely Korean and is clearly a hit for certain demographics.
In between company visits we learned about Korea’s dynastic history, its relationships with North Korea and its love for baseball. While visiting Gyeongbokgung, the largest palace of five palaces in Seoul, we learned about the Joseon period which ruled Korea for over five centuries. The Korean historical progression prior to 1900 showed remarkable stability, with The Silla dynasty ruling Korea for almost 300 years and the Goryeo dynasty ruling for almost 400 before the Joseon dynasty took power. During our visit to the Demilitarized Zone, we learned about past efforts at reconciliation between the two Koreas including the Sunshine Policies of the 1990s and the Kaesong Industrial Zone. We came away with a sense that the South Korean Government and Business community is eager to promote reunification. Finally, we attended opening day for the Korean Baseball Organization – Korea’s professional baseball league. The first notable characteristic is the sponsorship of each team by a major company – the game we watched was the Doosan Bears vs. the Hanhwa Eagles. The second and more enjoyable characteristic is the constant energy and coordinated cheering from fans throughout the game. The experience was more akin to a rock concert than a MLB-style baseball game.
Seoul has been a wonderful place to explore and learn about. I know I speak on behalf of the group in thanking the organizers for their tireless efforts to create this unique experience.
Vincent Su (CBS ’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School