The Korea Herald


Female entrepreneurs see old challenges, new successes in Korea

By 황장진

Published : April 11, 2011 - 18:53

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When Shim Yeo-lynn was replaced by her colleague with better English-speaking skills for a meeting with foreign clients, she did not just set out to hone her English skills. She founded a start-up herself.

After hopping from one English prep school to another and taking a series of one-on-one lessons from native speakers, she realized that there was no service that teaches how to communicate in the language that Korea is particularly obsessed about.

“The entire country spends enormous amounts of money on private English lessons, and people take English classes at school for more than 10 years,” the 31-year-old CEO of Speakcare said. “But we were still incapable of speaking when moments command. I thought something was wrong.”

Leaving an employer like NHN Corp., the country’s leading Internet company which perennially ranks high on the list of most-coveted workplaces for college graduates, to begin a start-up is a daring move in a country where people highly value job security, financial stability, prestige and other perks that come with working for big corporations.

For most women, particularly Shim, a working mom with a 4-year-old son, a decision to leave a big promising company is all the more unusual.

Though the nation’s quick adoption of smartphones in the last couple of years and the fast deployment of the mobile Internet are fanning a new venture boom in Korea, the phenomenon is still a far-fetched reality for women entrepreneurs.

The number of registered venture firms in Korea rose to a record 24,842 in January, higher than in the late 1990s Internet start-up boom known as the dotcom bubble. But only 7.3 percent of them were run by female entrepreneurs, according to state-run Venturein.

Data also shows that it is harder for women start-up entrepreneurs to sustain growth in their businesses for a successful initial public offering. Out of 1,227 companies listed on the country’s tech-laden KOSDAQ market, only 1 percent, or 13 companies, were led by women last year, according to the KOSDAQ Listed Companies Association.

But the few women who have successfully led their start-ups through the early stages of their debut see this data as little or no indication of their future.

Starting a business of her own was a long-held dream for Shim, a graduate of Seoul National University, the country’s top institution for higher education.

She was the only female member at her college venture firm club, where she met her husband and a colleague who both joined her in founding her online start-up.

Within less than a year, her company began to make a profit.

Speakcare won a 300 million won ($270,000) investment from a local venture capitalist, not a humble sum in Korea’s venture community.

Its service, helped by its unique feature of linking credible English teachers in the United States with people in Korea through daily phone conversations, is being sought-after by corporate clients who want to adopt its online curriculum for their employees. 

(Yonhap News)