“My Parents Won’t Let Me Marry You Because You’re an Entrepreneur:” Cultural Challenges to Growing Entrepreneurship

4/28/11Follow @BillAulet

During my recent trip to Korea, an American expat told me about his friend, a successful young Korean entrepreneur who employed a half-dozen people in an education business. He fell deeply in love with a Korean woman and wanted to get married, but her parents refused to approve of the marriage until he got a “real job.” He agonized over this hard decision before he finally chose to pursue love, laying off his six employees and taking a groundskeeping job on the government payroll. When he told the woman’s parents about his new government job, the father said, “Welcome to the family, my new son.”

Politicians are pushing entrepreneurship on a global level with a lot of monetary investment, but their efforts will only be effective and efficient if a region’s underlying cultural mores, values, and pressures support risk-taking and entrepreneurship. This account of the Korean entrepreneur might seem a bit extreme, but it is representative of the underlying pressure on Korea’s best students and young people to get “stable jobs.”

Work in a big public company or the government, the mantra goes. Samsung, LG, and Hyundai don’t fire people.

The big public companies can afford to not fire people in the short term because of their size and recurring revenue streams. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, have no such security blanket. They learn to earn their stripes every day. Several generations have now been brought up in the German/Japanese/Korean conservative corporate mold, which is devastating to the growth of entrepreneurship—and to society. Entrepreneurs, much more so than large companies and governments, drive economies to innovate and to create the jobs needed to absorb a growing number of people into the workforce.

Finland is a good example of entrepreneur-driven economic growth. With the decline of the country’s flagship employer, Nokia, small groups of entrepreneurs are sustaining the economy through new innovations, such as mobile application software. The “Angry Birds” video game app is the most visible of the Finnish products getting global investment and attention. Rovio, the company that makes Angry Birds, is creating sustainable new jobs in Finland and establishing a cluster of excellence in mobile apps—resulting in even more sustainable jobs. Inevitably, there will be further disruptive innovations to replace “Angry Birds” and its cohorts, but a pro-entrepreneurship culture will embrace the risk-taking necessary to adapt and succeed.

Korea is not the only area where culture constrains entrepreneurship: Spain (especially Andalucia), for instance, has similar challenges, as do many other societies. In a companion post to this piece on the MIT Entrepreneurship Center website, I lay out counterpoints to the bias against entrepreneurship, along with some potential solutions for overcoming critical cultural obstacles to innovation. Please read that article for the full details, but just to give you a taste here, my counterarguments include:

1) Entrepreneurs Create Jobs

2) Entrepreneurship = Controlling Your Own Destiny = Stability

3) Entrepreneurship = Personal Growth = Personal Satisfaction

4) Entrepreneurship is Cool

Systemic issues like culture are hard to address because of their vexingly imprecise nature—it is far easier to develop and fund a new program. However, failing to address the root causes of an anti-entrepreneurship culture will lead to unimpressive results and disillusionment with entrepreneurship itself. This would be most unfortunate, because we need entrepreneurship now more than ever.

[Bill explains why it is not risky to be an entrepreneur in this companion article.]

Bill Aulet is the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also the author of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup”, published by Wiley, which was released in August 2013. Follow @BillAulet

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  • Mario Garcia

    Bill,

    Your comments on the attitude of Koreans toward entrepreneurship are spot on. I am in business school in South Korea, and have seen first hand the cultural barriers that entrepreneurs face here. Even though there are are government-funded programs that give office space and seed money to ventures, many of these ventures are not successful because of the social pressure that young people have to find “stable” jobs. Even worse, in some conservative circles, young women are still expected to go to a top university in order to find a good husband and be a good housewife to him.

    Another problem is that there is also a lack of true mentorship. There is a small entrepreneurship community at my university. They get free office space and a PC to launch their business. Their offices are in the basement of a building in the far end of a parking lot. There are hardly any individuals with real world experience that come by to aid and encourage them to successfully launch their businesses.

    On the other hand, people should not underestimate the ability of Korean society to adapt. Whenever Korean society develops a consensus that a certain policy or plan is good for the country, a tremendous amount of resources are unleashed. Think of heavy industries in the 70′s and 80′s, and semiconductors and electronics in the 80′s and to the present. Korea recently decided to make renewable energy the next champion industry, and the amount of investment is phenomenal.

    If the Korean leadership decides to pursue an economic strategy that relies on entrepreneurs to create economic growth, things could change very dramatically in a short time.

  • Traditional Kim

    Bill,
    Thanks for your comments.
    I’d like to add one more to your analysis.

    The most serious problem in Korean entrepreneuship nowadays, especially in start-ups, is “Unfair Economy-eco System between existing giant conglomerates “Chaebol” and rest of small-mid companies including start-ups.

    “Chaebol” eats everything built and developed by small-mid business entrepreneur thru their powerful influence on government, media, the judiciary, and the congress.

    That’s why the preconception that being an start-up entrepreneur is one of the most dangerous and stupid things in Korea. If business failure comes from the giant’s illegal and unfair attacks and that happens so often in the market, the best thing to survive is to bend my knee to the merciless giants.

    You can see many evidences thru the posts, lectures, and even Korean presidnets Lee Myung Bak’s announcements. I suggest you to have a chance to read “Cheol Soo Ahn’s latest lectures and announcements on the serious problem on Korean Economy. Ceol Soon Ahn is the founder of AhnLab (Security Solution Company), and the professor of Seoul National University (No.1 univ. in Korea).

    Mr. Ahn depicts this situation as “Samsung, LG, Hyundai Zoo economy system”.

    The most Korean companies can be independent and free entities as they leave “Samsung, LG, Hyundai Zoo” by death like slaves and animals at the zoo.

    I am serious.
    I hope this info. may help you understand recent issues in Korea better.

    ps. the picture you use is totally wrong to illustrate Korean costumes. I think it’s chinese.

    Also, the private companies in Korea fire people very often. Your information might be 80′s something.

  • http://www.eie11.com/ John Murray

    Come to Scotland. Start a Business.

    http://www.eie11.com/

    John

  • eMBee

    the companion article linked at the bottom moved to here:

    https://entrepreneurship.mit.edu/news/it-is-not-risky-to-be-an-entrepreneur-1