Koreans Away From US Laundromat Business
By Jeremy Chew
The first Koreans emigrated to the United States over a hundred years ago seeking a better life from their native home.
In 2008, for many first generation South Korean-Americans, the United States continues to offer tremendous promise and opportunity. However, many seek to break from the stereotypical dry cleaning business that's commonly associated with Korean-American business owners.
We are curious to understand why they choose to reside in the United States when South Korea is now the 13th largest economy in the world and continuing to grow.
Yet, many Koreans choose to live the American dream. James Sun from Seattle gained national attention after almost being selected as Donald Trump's apprentice on his reality television show, ``The Apprentice,'' and for managing a multimillion dollar trading platform and online social-networking company, Zoodango. He regularly speaks at conferences and has aroused the question of how many more like Sun are out there.
We caught up with three entrepreneurs, each native to South Korea who have each lived in the United States for more than eight years, to take a glimpse into their struggles and successes.
In New York, Henry Kim, founder and President of Effilon NY, a marketing firm, is excited about expansion due to strong demand forecasts. Effilon launched Effilon LA in November 2007.
``Both New York and Los Angeles are traditionally entertainment and marketing hubs and we expect to capitalize on that.'' Kim has found success in reaching out to Asian entrepreneurs from Japanese sushi restaurants to Korean furniture homes.
Kim's team is all Korean and, in spite of salient and bold portfolio works, finds difficulty in bridging the cultural gaps and winning contracts with traditional American companies due to language barriers.
He is, however, making significant inroads by hiring Korean-American account managers who speak both fluent Korean and English, reflecting the importance of bilingualism.
In 1999, Shin In-sup left an assistant manager position with Komac: Korea Maritime Consultants, a marine construction firm affiliated with the Asia Development Bank and emigrated to the United States for both education and work.
Through hard work, he currently manages a mobile phone store on Wall Street. ``My English education gave me the credibility to work in the States, but my years of serving the Republic of Korea Army instilled the discipline I needed to take on managerial roles.''
Shin also laments the difficulty for non-citizens in finding work. ``Because I am not a citizen (nor) do I have an H1B Visa, I am not eligible to work in the United States.'' Undaunted, Shin finds employers who recognize his strong work ethic and are empathetic to his citizen status.
Asked that his company not be identified, Shin's mobile phone store is owned by Korean Americans. We wondered why he chooses to stay in the States and not return to South Korea.
Shin responded by saying, ``In America, I am free to pursue my interests and the overall higher educational system is stronger in the States compared to Korea.''
Also, he confided that although he is well into his 30s, if he returns to Korea, he must help manage his family business rather than pursue his business interests.
Shin is supporting his fiancee as she completes her university education in New York.
In California, Ben Song, CEO and founder of ActsPower Technologies, built his company around the WiFi-WiMax space. Song said, ``The company secured contracts with South Korean blue chips: Samsung and RF Controls, but, like Kim's plight, soliciting US-based contracts is more difficult although Song has worked with U.S. defense contractor, General Atomics.'' In terms, of telecommunications, Song feels South Korea is light years ahead commercially compared to the United States, but Song would like to retain his focus on industrials.
Reflecting on his years in business in America, Song said, ``One of the main motivations that drives me to work harder is the impact Korean Americans, especially this generation, can make on the American society.
Korean teenagers and children need role models to look at aside from successful Caucasian businessmen and women.
Song said, ``I hope that I can too one day become a role model for Korean children and provide them with more opportunities in career choice. Even though I am not yet an American citizen, owning a business in America and being highly dependent on the American economy has made me become a more active citizen here. I take more ownership in my country, now America, and want to show the rest of the society that Koreans can make contributions to the American economy as well.
``Although there is nothing wrong with owning stereotypical businesses ― dry cleaning and liquor stores ― I hope to show Americans that Koreans can do more than just that, and that we have a lot of potential. Hopefully my career in RF Communications and wireless technology can show Americans that Koreans are diverse.''
Like the aforementioned men, Song completed his education in the United States and earned a Ph. D from Virginia Tech in electrical engineering. He owns a home in San Diego, is a member of the local church and his daughter is currently pursuing a business degree at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Song and his family are no doubt firmly rooted in the United States.
Although all three men come from different industries, one thing they jointly agree on: hard work is an important ingredient in success and risk and barriers are a daily reality.
According to 2006 U.S. Census data, 1,350,500 million Koreans live in the United States, about 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. The entrepreneurs look to the year of 2008 with great optimism and anticipation in America.