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[Herald Interview] Donggubat CEO strives for social well-being along with revenue growth

Korean firm hires one full-time disabled worker each time its posts a monthly sales hike of 4 million won

Donggubat CEO Noh Soon-ho, is a millennial business leader who is confident and ambitious about his aspirations to kill two birds with one stone: raise profits and employ people with disabilities to bring about a social change.

His social enterprise, founded in 2014, manufactures and sells premium soaps.

“I wanted to be referred to as a change-maker before graduating. I thought it was important for me to experience giving my all to a social issue as an undergrad in order for me to not have any regrets in life,” Noh, 28, told The Korea Herald.

A worker at Donggubat makes premium organic soaps at the company’s factory in Seongdong-gu, Seoul. (Donggubat)
A worker at Donggubat makes premium organic soaps at the company’s factory in Seongdong-gu, Seoul. (Donggubat)

Among the company’s 32 full-time workers, 20 are disabled.

The high percentage of disabled employees stems from Noh’s management principle to hire one full-time disabled worker each time the company increases its monthly sales by 4 million won ($3,304).

“The firm started with a goal to offer a place for people with developmental disabilities to work, so we decided to hire (them) in line with the rise in sales,” Noh said.

He added the company plans to expand the number of disabled employees to 30 by the end of the year.

Most disabled employees are divided into two groups and work four-hour shifts -- 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2 p.m.-6 p.m -- while some work eight hours a day.

Disabled workers at Donggubat have a full-time employment status and are covered by four key national insurance programs.

His first encounter with developmentally disabled people dates back to 2014 when he was an undergrad studying law.

Noh and three members of his university club started a gardening project in Gangdong-gu involving people with developmental disabilities as part of their social contribution project.

The project led to a second project in 2015 aimed at helping the disabled become independent by forming their own small garden.

The yearlong project failed to record sufficient sales.

“I had created the project without any understanding of people with developmental disabilities,” Noh said.

“I realized that viewing it (employment of people with developmental disabilities) as a ‘societal issue’ that I can solve can come across as aggressive. Rather, we needed to discuss with them about what they need,” Noh added.

While the project failed, it was a stepping-stone to look ahead and broaden his outlook as the leader of a social enterprise. 

Donggubat supplies premium organic soaps, shampoos and conditioners to a range of hotels, including the Grand Walkerhill Seoul, Playce Camp Jeju and Hotel Cappuccino.

High-end products made by Donggubat (Donggubat)
High-end products made by Donggubat (Donggubat)

“Our high-end products have a competitive edge. We see them as cosmetics and hygiene products,” Noh said.

The company produces an average of 4,000-5,000 products daily at two factories in Seongdong-gu.

Donggubat’s products, recognized for their high quality and eye-catching packaging, are also exported to the US, Japan, China and Thailand.

The company’s sales have grown 10-fold between 2015 and 2017, according to Noh.

In 2015, it recorded a little less than 70 million won in annual sales and the figure reached near 200 million won in 2016.

It wasn’t until 2017 that the company took off and Noh was able to pay workers more than the minimum wage.

In 2017 the company recorded 700 million won in sales and last year it flagged its first-ever profit, enabling him to give employees their first incentive bonuses.

In order to meet the goal of hiring 10 more workers with disabilities by the year-end, Noh has set this year’s sales goal at 2.5 billion won.

The company has taken off, but Noh remains meticulous and careful about every business decision.

“Donggubat is very conservative in terms of how the business is run. We can’t ever make a choice that would jeopardize the company. This is what differentiates us from other startups,” Noh said.

“We have to make safe choices. The moment we fall apart, the values we strive for will vanish.”

Noh prioritizes stability in hopes that Donggubat’s business model that incorporates people with developmental disabilities will be adopted by more companies.

“I am certain that in the future there will be more focus on people with development disabilities due to technological advancements. Those with physical disabilities will be able to live like regular people,” Noh said.

“A large proportion of disabled people acquire disability after birth, while the cause of developmental disability is still not known.”

On a personal note, Noh’s next aim is to fund young adults like him who choose to start a social enterprise over going to law school to bring about change in society.

In doing so, he also hopes to give back the help he received from prominent entrepreneurs.

“I’m not sure when I’ll be able to do this, but I hope one day I can be an investor. I want to help aspiring change-makers and social entrepreneurs facing the same struggles I had back when I was 24 years old. ... I too would not have made it this far without help from prominent businessmen. I received a lot of help from (SK Group) Chairman Chey Tae-won’s venture capital and (Socar) CEO Lee Jae-woong,” Noh said.

“I want to bring about a big change in society.” 

By Kim Bo-gyung (