When Pamela Weeks took a job teaching English in South Korea, she didn’t know her passion would become an enterprise here.
Ms. Weeks, a children’s educator from Georgia who uses music in her teaching methods, had strong relationships with the Korean community in Atlanta and a history of helping kids learn through entertainment, but she had never traveled to Korea, and she had no experience doing business here.
But nearly two years after her initial landing in Seoul, Korea, Ms. Weeks now has a job in the coastal city of Mokpo, and she’s beginning to see more demand for her services as a singer/teacher.
It has been hard work, but she has gone from simply a teacher to an entrepreneur who holds a full-time work visa and protected intellectual property in Korea.
Ms. Weeks credits the Seoul Global Center, a network of facilities the Seoul metropolitan government launched at the beginning of 2008, with providing information and services that helped her succeed.
Established by Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, the global center exists to make Seoul more “foreigner friendly” for businesses, said Simon Hong, a consultant for the global center who has worked closely with Ms. Weeks.
It helps small- and medium-sized companies from overseas with the whole gamut of issues they might encounter when setting up shop here, from legal advice and tax issues to driver’s licenses and cell phone rentals, all free of charge.
Ms. Weeks said the center helped her successfully navigate a legal dispute against a Korean business when she was new in the country.
“I was motivated by their enthusiasm as they supported me, a little American country girl, from Georgia,” she said. “The Global Center became my home away from home. I actually moved near City Hall to be near the center, so I would have resources readily available to me.”
Seoul is one of the world’s major metropolitan centers. Nearly half of Korea’s 48 million people live or work in or around the capital city. Many companies providing educational services, technology or consumer products want to crack this market, but they often don’t know where to start, Mr. Hong said.
South Korea’s economy is largely controlled by companies locally called chaebols, massive conglomerates like Samsung that through their separate units touch businesses in most economic sectors, from consumer electronics to restaurant franchises. Hyundai, known in the U.S. as an automaker, has a unit that is one of the top construction companies in South Korea, as does Samsung, which most U.S. consumers would only recognize as a premier electronics brand.
“You can’t do anything in Korea without eventually running into them,” Acie Holt, vice president of development for Atlanta-based Portman Holdings, told GlobalAtlanta in Seoul. Mr. Holt has been traveling to Korea for more than four years to work on a huge mixed-use development. The project will be anchored by the 151-story Incheon Tower, which will be the iconic structure in a newly developed free economic zone in the city of Incheon. Samsung and Hyundai are the general contractors on the Portman project.
Peter Underwood, founder of IRC consulting firm and the representative for Georgia’s office in Korea, said the chaebols are still strong, but they have become more decentralized since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.
Larger American companies like Portman can work with these big players, and they have fewer problems entering the market.
Small exporters or entrepreneurs find it more difficult. While it mostly focuses on attracting investment into Georgia, Mr. Underwood said the state’s Korea office sometimes assists companies looking to export a product or bring a service here.
The bottom line is that they need local partners, and they should be diligent about making sure they comply with all the regulations set forth by the Korean government, Mr. Underwood said.
“Talk to as many people as you can,” he said as a word of advice to smaller companies. “We would help as well to try and identify a partner in Korea. Somebody’s got to sell the product, somebody’s got to sell the service in Korea and it’s got to be beneficial for that person as well.”
According to Mr. Underwood, Seoul has not been particularly active in targeting smaller foreign entrepreneurs on a broad basis. The city has generally gone for larger foreign companies and focused on helping Korean companies find markets abroad.
But as a government-sponsored effort, the global center is an exception to that rule. Mr. Hong, the business consultant with the global center, said it will expand into a new building over the next two years to provide “more convenient services for foreigners.”
Just established last January, the center already has six “village” locations in addition to the main office. These villages target specific overseas communities that have settled within their areas, helping them with language, banking, anything to make their experience in Seoul more convenient, Mr. Hong said. One area focuses on Chinese, another Americans, still another French businesspeople.
The global center’s new building, which is under construction, will have an incubator that will provide rent-free space to small companies.
Mr. Hong said that Korea sees further integration with the world as the future growth engine for its economy. Two-way trade currently accounts for about 70 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. In the dynamic Asian arena, Seoul has to compete with fast-moving cities in China, Japan and other countries, so Korea wants openness to be what sets it apart, he said.
“I think there is no other thing like (the global center) in other countries like Singapore. They don’t care, because even though they don’t do any advocacy role, foreigners come in and they live there,” he said. “We think the government can drive those activities to be more dynamic, more positive, more aggressive.
One of the global center’s offices is in Gangnam-gu, a rich Seoul district that signed an agreement on June 29 to become a sister community with Gwinnett County, Georgia. GlobalAtlanta traveled to Korea to report on the event.
Leaders from both sides hope to foster economic exchange. Read the full article here.