The Korea Herald


[Weekender] Meet change-makers in corporate world

From shoemakers to welfare services, social enterprises emerge as practical solution to tackle social ills

By Cho Chung-un

Published : Oct. 29, 2017 - 10:50

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A picture of President Moon Jae-in kneeling to pay his respect to the dead during the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement ceremony went viral online this year.

It became a talked about issue not just because the ceremony was held a week after the presidential election, but because of a pair of the president’s old shoes that were exposed to cameras. The shoes that Moon has worn since 2012 were made by a small social enterprise set up by the blind and the hearing-impaired. But even with Cheong Wa Dae requesting another pair for the president, the shoemakers couldn’t do so, as the company had already shut down in 2013.

The story of the company touched many hearts here while revealing the reality of social enterprises in South Korea, which struggle to pursue a financial profit and social good at the same time.

Graphics by Nam Kyung-don Graphics by Nam Kyung-don

Though a high-profile corruption scandal involving the de facto chief of the nation’s largest conglomerate and a former president deepened antagonism toward the Korean corporate world, stories of people who have taken on the mission to prove that businesses can produce something “good” for society have started to emerge.

The president’s shoemakers, who once lost their jobs due to marketing issues, are also back with the support from people who want to see them get back on their own two feet. Incubators that aim to raise social enterprises at various platforms are being operating by young people who believe in changing the world. And big companies, as well as some entrepreneurs, are also stepping up efforts to build a healthy eco-system for social enterprises’ operations.

The year 2017 marks the 10th year of the law stipulated to nurture social enterprises in South Korea.

Social enterprises are not a charity or nonprofit organizations, but businesses with certain missions operating to make profits.

But the range of social enterprises in Korea also cover co-operatives, community services and companies that help people from low-income brackets to pursue independent lives.

Led by the government’s drive for the last 10 years, the number of social enterprises certified by the government has surged from 55 in 2007 to 1,814 as of September this year.

According to data compiled by Korea Social Enterprise Promotion Agency, the number of people working at social enterprises also jumped from 2,539 in 2007 to more than 40,000. Of the total, 60 percent are from low-income brackets.

But social enterprises are still facing social prejudice, and their mission of making social contributions are being underestimated.

“Some treat us as social failures or some sort of unionized labor group, though we believe what we do is a critical mission to tackle emerging problems associated with the ageing society,” said Choi Jong-nam, secretary-general of Wonju Oldest Customer Coop, a social enterprise that coordinates jobs for elderly members in the city.

The former business consultant is a part of the administrative team for the coop organized 10 years ago to help the elderly members pursue healthy and independent lives.

Financial instability is a major problem, making it difficult for the organization to hire the administration staff required to seek more business opportunities.

But then a social enterprise incentive program launched by SK Group came along. With the three-year incentives, the Wonju Coop was able to hire three more employees, as well as a 12-passenger mini-bus that gave better mobility.

”With the incentives, we are able to provide quality services to our members, and we will use a part of the fund as seed money to build a training center for elderly people to help them pursue better and enjoyable lives.“

By Cho Chung-un (