Refashioning the World

Korean retailer Sung Joo Kim uses her string of high-end boutiques to market designer labels—while opening doors for women and raising funds for good works.
Refashioning the World

Sung Joo Kim talks with equal ease on the topics of business, family, education, religion, social responsibility, and luxury goods. For Kim, the founder of retail fashion chain Sungjoo International in Seoul, Korea, they’re all inextricably linked. She is keenly aware that as one of the rarest creatures on earth—a Korean woman who runs an international business—she is in a position to support good works, inspire other women, and generally make the world a better place.

Adding charm to her business savvy, social conscience, and willpower, Kim comes across as an unstoppable force. That’s particularly true when she describes how she convinced her father, a strict traditionalist who did not believe women should pursue careers, to allow her to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts in the late 1970s. First she staged a hunger strike. When that didn’t work, she searched for prominent Amherst graduates in Korea—such as scholars and cabinet members—and invited them to her father’s house for dinner.

“They said to him, ‘We understand your daughter was accepted to Amherst. Would you allow her to go?’” she relates. “Ten pairs of eyes focused on his face. He couldn’t say no!”

She had already earned a B.A. in theology and sociology from Yonsei University in Seoul. The B.A. in sociology from Amherst was quickly followed by two more degrees: a master’s in international relations from the London School of Economics and a master’s degree in theological studies in business ethics and economics from Harvard University. In 2000, she also was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Amherst.

Her desire for an education and a career led to a years-long estrangement with her family, but they eventually reconciled. In 1989, her father lent her the money to launch Sungjoo International, and Kim introduced Western-style retailing to Seoul. Today, the 85 retail stores carry designer brands like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Lulu Guinness, Billy Bag, and Marks & Spencer. Under the umbrella of Sung Joo Group, Kim also runs Sungjoo Merchandising Inc. and Sungjoo Design Tech & Distribution Inc., and together the enterprises gross more than $100 million.

Her success has led to a host of accolades. She was named one of the 1997 Global Leaders of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum; one of the most powerful businesswomen in the 21st century by Working Woman magazine in 1999; and one of the seven most powerful women in Asia by Asiaweek in 2001. In 2004, the Wall Street Journal called her one of the Top 50 Women to Watch.

While Kim loves fashion retailing, she sees it as only part of a higher calling. She serves on the boards of Save the Children and several other foundations, and her business donates money to charitable organizations throughout Asia. She is passionate about bringing women into the Korean workforce and is deeply involved with two Web-based initiatives—HRKorea.co.kr and iwillb.com—that focus on helping women find jobs, get educated, and manage money. It seems fair to say that Kim is dedicated to saving the world with fashion and style.

When I was at Amherst and Harvard in the ’80s, I found it quite worrisome that students at leading schools in a mighty country like America could be so parochial. A lot of Americans have very inside-the-box thinking.

Your education choices are fascinating. Did you have a career plan in mind when you began enrolling in programs for theology, sociology, and business ethics?
I wasn’t thinking about a career path; I just wanted to escape Korea. Girls brought up in traditional Asian families are not expected to pursue careers. They’re expected to graduate from college, get married, and have big families.

I had three brothers and two sisters, and I watched them very carefully. I wondered why girls, even when they were as capable as boys, weren’t allowed to choose the subjects to study in college. Instead, their choices were limited to literature, music, art, and home economics.

It’s the other way around for men. The only way they can draw respect from society is to enter the top schools. My older brother died in a tragic way when he was 18 and was trying to gain admission to a top school. This made me question why human beings suddenly appear and disappear. It made me ask fundamental questions about my being and my life, which made me interested in theological studies.

Why did you move into the field of sociology?
Sociology is the opposite of theology. Theology is top-down. You assume God is there. But in sociology, you assume that everything is based on statistics or scientific theories, so you don’t really consider the presence of abstract beings. These two courses of study gave me a great sense of balance.

When I studied sociology at Amherst, it also helped me learn Western society, because it touches all the broad subjects, from economics to culture to art to women’s studies to political science. At the same time, it provides a particular skill set, teaching students to read statistics and understand numbers.

Both theology and sociology seem far removed from business. How did you first develop an interest in business as a career?
At Amherst I started to recognize my business blood. I had grown up in a house with maids and janitors and drivers. But at Amherst, I was washing my own clothes and making my own bed; and I took a job in the school cafeteria washing dishes. That gave me a lot of independence.

I was also a member of the choir, and we were selling T-shirts to raise funds to go on a European tour. I learned that selling is a function of how you promote yourself. Most people were selling T-shirts for $10. I sold one T-shirt for $100. I raised more than $3,000 for the fund, and I thought, “Hmm, I have good sales skills.”

During the time that you were estranged from your family, you began working at Bloomingdale’s. How did that job come about?
A friend introduced me to Marvin Traub, the chairman of Bloomingdale’s. He was looking for someone to help him do a promotion with Korean goods. In the mid-’80s, Korean cars and electronics were showing up on the American market, and everyone was looking ahead to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Korea was one of the major Far Eastern companies exporting to the U.S., because this was before China opened up.

Bloomingdale’s was the best retail business school in the world, and I was paid to attend! I was there about two and a half years, working with top managers, and I could see how they planned events and coordinated merchandise. During this time, they launched a few well-known brands, like Armani, to American markets. I learned a great deal.

In 1989, you opened Sungjoo International. Why did you think the time was right for you—or anybody—to start a high-end retail fashion business in Korea?
I wanted to start my own business, but I had no money. Around this time, the Korean government made luxury import business possible, so big brands were coming to Korea looking for partners. Everyone was interested in working with me because I was just back from New York, I had been trained at Bloomingdale’s, I had a good education, and I was from a respected family.

I had helped my father with some business deals, so in 1989, he called me to his office for the first time in my life. He said, “I owe you something. What would you like?” He lent me $300,000, and I started my company.

Running an international business requires you to maintain a global perspective. How can business schools give their students that global outlook?
When I was at Amherst and Harvard in the ’80s, I found it quite worrisome that students at leading schools in a mighty country like America could be so parochial. A lot of Americans have very inside-the-box thinking.

I compare the education I got there to the education I got in London. I think, because of historical events, Europe has been exposed to international cultures on a global scale, and Europeans have an enormous understanding of the world. Although it’s hard to generalize, I don’t think American education has really provided that. My American education has given me great leadership training and great fiscal training, but it still presents a very American view of the world.

At the London School of Economics, what I noticed was that they didn’t teach us to look for the correct answer. They taught us to look for the right answer for the right situation. The British education provided me with a multidimensional way of looking at the world and with enormous space to observe and understand different cultures. Maybe that was because of the department I was in, or the subject I studied; but a tremendous diversity of cultures was represented among the students. That’s what American schools are lacking.

How can we educate American students who are going to excellent business schools, who are going to run multinational corporations on different continents? America is so big that it’s a self-defined market—Americans don’t think they have to go outside of the country. A well-known British director told me that when he worked in Hollywood in the 1980s, very few Americans had ever even applied for a passport.

And today that number is just over 20 percent.
That still means the majority, 80 percent of Americans, never travel outside the country. They’re only exposed to the world through the media. So that’s how they look at American affairs. That’s how they see the way America deals with Iraq and China and the European Union. From my point of view, that’s a form of isolation. If the schools don’t teach students about globalization and different cultures, those students will have very boxlike thinking.

Many American business schools are forming partnerships with schools in Europe and Asia, so they might feel this has changed.
The only reason they are forming these partnerships is for the sake of opening another door for themselves, not necessarily training their students on a global scale.

When American schools do partner with schools in Asia, what would you hope the students would learn there?
Students should do what I did. I came to America from Korea without being able to speak proper English. I was eventually able to break my small mode of thinking as I was exposed to a great new space. Now I can possess both East and West, and I have a multidimensional view. In this new era, without globalization there is no way to survive.

Worldwide, in both business and business schools, women are still a distinct minority. How can business schools convince more women to enroll in their programs?
They must bring in more female faculty. They must deal with more cases that show how women succeed. They must bring in more subject matter in which the curriculum relates to women. For the national economy, for national competitiveness, more women have to go into business, because women create more jobs.

Not only is fashion retailing great fun for me, but it is a great channel to access other women. Out of my company of 500 people, 85 percent to 90 percent are women.

You’ve said that, when you speak at Korean universities, you encourage students to consider your company as a case study for a management model where women take leadership roles. What do women bring to the business table that men don’t?
In front of us is a new paradigm, brought about by the Internet revolution and the light speed of globalization. We are moving from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge based economy, and that’s just provided a new playground for women. All that matters now is brainpower. With Web sites, with e-commerce, we don’t see our customer any more. This gives us access to the whole global market in an indiscriminate way.

The Internet-based service sector is the industry now—and not just for software and computers, but also for content development, data warehousing, and customer relations. Already there are women who have achieved stardom in companies that are IT-based or Internet-related—such as Meg Whitman from eBay and Cynthia Harriss from The Gap.

Women can take their sensitivity and blend it with technical ability. This is the new equation: IQ plus EQ—which is emotional quotient—equals WQ, which is women’s quality. The new era, the new paradigm, the new century all require women’s leadership.

Business schools must bring in more female faculty. They must deal with more cases that show how women succeed. They must bring in more subject matter in which the curriculum relates to women.

This sounds great, but do you believe that women also have some weaknesses as top managers?
We have to learn to think about succession planning. Men know how to bring subordinates along. Even though women are good at looking after people, we’re not necessarily good at looking after our younger women and bringing along the next generation.

Since you’ve started your retail operation, how has the business climate for women changed in Korea?
Among women of working age—those between 20 and 50—about 65 percent are working, which is decent. However, among college-educated women, only about 30 percent are working. If you look at middle management, you see that less than 3 percent or 4 percent of women get promoted to that level. And if you look at the biggest corporations, you see that there are no women vice presidents.

So who are the working women in Korea? Some are cleaning ladies. Many are teachers. Some are working in the factory. That’s it. We are completely undermining half of the population.

During the Asian financial crisis, it was very interesting. Some Asian countries utilize women—like Hong Kong, Singapore, and China. Korea and Japan do not. The countries that do not utilize women are the ones that really went into crisis.

After the Korean financial crisis of 1997–98, I wondered why one of the healthiest economies in Asia went through such chaos. I thought one of the ways to cure this problem would be to work through the women, because there are three fundamental causes of problems in our society.

The first one is education. When women don’t work and have babies, they want their kids to succeed. Frankly speaking, women are the ones who create some of the over competition in education. The second problem in our society is corruption. A lot of times, bribery and tax cheating are caused by wives who are overconsuming. The third problem is that half the brains are not exploited at all. When we lose the brainpower of our women, we lose half of our competitiveness.

So I don’t believe the financial crisis is just a man’s problem. Women in Korea used to be victims of tradition, but we’re not victims any more. Now we’re helping to cause all of these problems. I want to tell the women in Korea to wake up. Don’t sit around and complain to men. Unless we wake up, society will not change.

What can you do to wake up Korean society?
After the financial crisis, I invited Dominic Barton, the chairman of McKinsey’s Asia Region, to write a report about how women can contribute to the knowledge economy in Korea. McKinsey did a pro bono project for me, researching other countries to see how they utilize women’s capacities. They wrote a paper, made a booklet, and handed it to the Korean government, which eventually created a new ministry of women’s affairs.

I also wrote a book titled Wake-Up Call, although in Korea the title was I Want to Be a Beautiful Outcast. I described my experiences in business, how I fought against corruption and male chauvinism. I talked about how women can really maximize their strengths. I also described how, in my business, we adopted the IT system early enough to make all our transactions transparent.

Transparency, ethical governance, and social responsibility have been critical to your business from the beginning. How have these enabled you to be successful?
In cultures where corruption is rampant, to go forward you have to bribe someone at every step. But I said, “I would rather stop doing business.”

So how was I going to succeed? I realized I knew my customers better than other companies, so I would look after my customers. I also realized if I looked after my employees’ welfare, I would get more loyalty from them. So I provide all the scholarship funding for every single employee who has children. I offer health aid assistance any time they have health problems.

Whatever money my company earns, 10 percent of the profit goes back to society. We’ve helped fund a North Korean medical mission, a hospital in Madagascar, habitats for homeless women with children, and the Red Cross. For me, social enterprise is a great motivation. By helping other people, we’re earning more than just money. We’re earning trust and loyalty from society. Customers know that whatever they pay for an item, 10 percent will go back to society. That’s the most powerful marketing tool we’ve ever had.

You’ve accomplished so much in your life already. What else is left that you’d like to do?
A lot of people think I will go into politics, but I don’t think so. I’m too straight. Being in politics in Korea is dog-fighting in a mud patch, and I don’t want to do that.

I believe that in five or ten years, North Korea will open up, and I really want to devote myself to helping North Korea. I’ve been sponsoring medical missions there. A lot of work already is being done through church groups—it’s more like missionary work. Now I’m a luxurious, chic lady from the fashion field, but when I retire, I really want to devote myself to that.