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Why Korea Will Become The Next Silicon Valley



South Korea will become the next Silicon Valley. In four chronological layers that span several decades of development, Korea has fostered six key variables that feed off each other to create this viable startup atmosphere. These layers are:

  • Layer One: Educational Attainment (Historic)
  • Layer Two: Internet Connectivity + Hyper-Consumerism (90’s and 2000’s)
  • Layer Three: Government Involvement + Changing Korean Mindset (2o1o’s)
  • Layer Four: Migration of Younger Koreans (2010’s)

Internet Connectivity as a Foundation for Growth

Chances are if you have talked to anyone from Korea, one of the first things you will hear about is the unparalleled WiFi speed.

Just how quick is this Wifi?

Well, as you can see by this and this, it is the fastest in the world. Not only this but the connection is so spread out that on the metro most people stream TV shows or baseball games while commuting to and from work.

In many American metros, you’ll be luckily to get cell service — being able to live stream a baseball game is something out of the Twilight Zone

Internet, and the dispersion of connectivity, is the cornerstone of building a technologically advanced city. Unlike in other parts of Asia, Korea is not forced to develop technology around any Internet impediment. Rather, this connectedness pushes technological developments to the next level. The citizens of Korea have been spoiled by these Internet speeds and expect their technology to take full advantage of them. This means that, not only do developers have the technological means to create the next great application, but they have a people ready to adopt it immediately.

When is comes to Internet in Asia, Korea is King. (Source:

Why a Lifetime of Studying is Good for Startups

You’re born. You live. You die.

That’s how most people lives go — expect in Korea it is slightly different.

You’re born. You study. You live. You study some more. You die. Then you probably study some more in the afterlife.

The Korean educational system is one of the most intense in the world. Outside of class, Korean students study an average of eight hours a day. From an early age, children are expected to be learning from the early hours of the morning to the dead of night at cram schools (“hagwon”).

There are around 100,000 cram schools in Korea and over 3/4th of students attend at least one of them

Education is drilled into you in preparation for the Suneung — the test that decides where you go to college (think SAT but more deterministic of your future). Students study for thousands of hours for this 9-hour exam which is only offered once a year.

Suneung is a huge deal for the entire family. Families cheer as students march towards the test. No pressure, right?

So, what does this mean? It means Koreans understand the meaning of perseverance. Having the ability to study monotonous material for years and years teaches you how to push through your current struggles for a greater goal.

Ask anyone who has started their own startup and one of the most important things they will tell you is that you must be dedicated to your work and be willing to roll with the punches and face any hardship that may arise. What better people to take up this mantle that those who have been studying at 110% for years with societal pressure placed squarely on their shoulders to succeed.

If you have been waking up at dawn your entire life to study all day, persevering through the ups and downs of startup life is virtually second nature to you by now

Let’s Bring It All Together Now

Looping back to the introductory blog post, I set out trying to prove that South Korea is a ticking time bomb of startup growth that will put it on par with Silicon Valley in five to ten years. The variables at play are:

  1. Government Backing
  2. Migration of Younger Koreans
  3. Evolution of the Korean Mindset
  4. Hyper-Consumerism
  5. Technological Dispersion
  6. Nationwide Educational Attainment

I’ve shown how each of these power the startup scene separately but now I want to show how they work together. To do this, I’ve broken it down into four layers based on their chronological development in Korea.

First Layer: Educational Attainment (Historic)

Hagwon Life

Striving for high levels of educational attainment and the unrelenting effort this requires has been in Korea for decades in its current form, and centuries in the historic ‘gwa-goh’ system. This long cultural history begets a people that understand persevering and pushing through the hard times for a long-term goal. In order to be successful at a startup, you must be able to withstand the lowest of the lows. If the people of a startup ecosystem give up after they hit a few hard spots then the startup ecosystem itself will surely falter and cease to exist.

This perseverance, when looked at in isolation, does not guarantee anything. If you lack the proper technical infrastructure for development or have no demand for what you are creating then this is a non-starter.

Second Layer: Internet Connectivity + Hyper-Consumerism (90’s and 2000’s)

Korea’s fast Internet pre-dated the age of the startup and what it does for the budding startup scene is provide entrepreneurs a large canvas on which to create their technological works of art.

That being said, there would be no incentive to become an entrepreneur and leverage this technical backend without a pool of ready consumers.

This is where Korea’s hyper-consumerism comes into play.

The extreme sense of consumerism and accompanying peer pressure provide a demand function with a massive “X” variable upon which entrepreneurs can test out and distribute their product.

A metro with strong Wifi and long commutes adds another way for Koreans to consistently consume new technology.

Despite these first two layers, we are still lacking all the necessary pieces to create an environment in which creativity and startup growth can explode. At this point in Korea’s history, people still did not want to start their own company. Little funding was available for their ideas and the societal structure rewarded and reinforced the Samsung Mindset (i.e. get a stable job at Samsung and stay there your entire professional career).

What alleviated this was an influx of government involvement which informed and was informed by an evolution of the Korean mindset.

Third Layer: Government Involvement + Changing Korean Mindset (2010’s)

Government involvement came about a few years ago in the form of the Creative Economy. This gave additional means of support to then-current entrepreneurs while providing incentive for future ones to start their own companies. It helped take away some risk of becoming an entrepreneur by providing financial capital, co-working spaces, mentorship opportunities, etc.

President Park and the Creative Economy

Occurring alongside this was a steady dispersion of the idea that maybe the Samsung Mindset was not the best career path. Maybe there were other options — such as starting your own company — that would prove more fruitful. While this idea had been around for decades (not everyone bought into working for Samsung), it had not really picked up any steam until recently. This movement provided much needed human capital into the startup scene to go alongside the financial capital of the government.

That being said, there’s still a major issue with all of this. The corporate culture at Samsung and other international conglomerates encourages a specific way of thinking and tackling problems. In order for a startup to take off, it needs a bevy of new and innovative ways of looking at problems and planning for the future. This is where the migration of younger Koreans comes into play.

Fourth Layer: Migration of Younger Koreans (2010’s)

The return of native Koreans as well as movement of Korean-Americans into the startup ecosystem is a new phenomena that is helping provide a new outlook on management and strategy.

Coming to Korea, they are bringing with them different ways of tackling business problems as well as different views on company culture. Having people who have experienced different cultures migrate into a specific location is what helped drive Silicon Valley to greatness and can do the same for Korea.

MangoPlate, the Korean Yelp, is one of the many companies to benefit from this migration.

Why the Five to Ten Year Window?

So why did I give the five to ten year window? Well, all of these six variables are just now starting to work in unison and it takes some time before they can start to produce at their full potential.

When you combine all six of these points together you get an environment in which the necessary pieces for exponential startup growth — of which the world has not seen since Silicon Valley — are readily apparent. All that is needed is a spark to catapult Korea from an afterthought to the first thought when it comes to startups and innovation.


About the Author

This article was written by Alex Gershon. Alex works as the global liaison for Send Anywhere, a venture-backed file sharing startup. Alex is responsible locating and nurturing global business partnerships for the startup’s API as well as optimizing all outbound material to guarantee the highest ROI and customer acquisition rates. Additionally, Alex has experience in Marketing for various Silicon Valley startups including one that was acquired (OpenDNS, 2015) in which his role varied from email marketing, to third party vendor management, to the project head on various efforts aimed at jumpstarting sales Reach Alex


Women on Top in Tech – Dawn Dickson, Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. and Founder of Flat Out of Heels



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Dawn Dickson is the Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. (formerly Solutions Vending, Inc.), the company behind PopCom Kiosks and the PopCom API, which provides a software solution to make vending machines more intelligent. She created the company after her own struggles to find vending machines that could sell her roll-up flat products, Flat Out of Heels, at high-traffic areas like airports.  She was awarded First place in the PowerMoves NOLA Big Break pitch Competition and second place in the 2016 SBA Innovate Her Challenge.

What makes you do what you do? 
I love solving big problems and working with amazing people to get it done.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
After working in the vending industry for three years selling Flat Out of Heels in vending machines in airports and nightclubs, I was frustrated with the lack of data I was able to collect from my hardware. I also wanted more engaging and interactive experiences for my customers and after speaking with several retailers they felt the same way. That is when I decided to focus on PopCom and developing a software solution to solve the data problem in self-service retail.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)? 
The fact that I am not the usual, leadership demographic is the main reason why I was up for the challenge. The industry is in need of a change and I believe someone with a unique and different perspective and experience is needed. I look forward to collaborating with the industry leaders and veterans to build a product that everyone loves and finds value in.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I am involved in several different industries and sectors – retail, self-service retail, hardware, software…so I have to learn a lot of information quickly.  There are several people that I look up to, follow their career, and seek advice from. I was fortunate to be able to participate in some of the country’s top accelerator and entrepreneurship development programs, including Techstars, Canopy Boulder, and the BIxel Exchange – the mentorship and network I gained from these programs has been invaluable and very instrumental in our progress.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
I have learned that spotting talent takes time, it takes patience, and building relationships with people and networks to meet new people, most of my connections come from introductions. I focus on finding the right fit for the company culture, there is a lot of great talent out there, but the culture is different, I want us to be on the same wavelength. I am fortunate to have met some great people through the programs I was in that came on as mentors, advisors, and eventually full time team members. I take time to get to know my team individually and understand what their personal goals and ambitions are, ask them what their dream job looks like, understand their needs so they can be happy at work and be fulfilled. I believe in self-care and making mental health a priority, if a person is good within themselves they radiate positivity and are more productive.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I am a black woman so I am diversity. Naturally, we attract people we can relate to and have things in common, so I found that my team was heavily female and my diversity initiative was finding more men…when I thought about it I found it funny. Now I have a balanced team of men and women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives which is exciting.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb? 
To be a great leader you have to be a team player, my rule is I never ask someone to do something that I would not do myself. I also have a rule to give the team the freedom and flexibility to work when and how they are most productive. That means some of us working different hours and being in the office different days, but happy team builds the dream!

Advice for others?
My advice is never give up if you believe in it. I started my company selling shoes in vending machines in 2011, it took me 7 years, a few failed hardware attempts, and many people telling me it would not work because the market was not ready. I was patient and what I believed would happen is happening. In May PopCom is bringing the PopShop to market, a next gen smart vending machine to sell and sample products. Our API will be ready in July and for the first time vending machine and kiosk owners can understand their conversion rates and have the level of data and analytics available that eCommerce stores have, but better. It has been a long journey and I feel it is just getting started, but I am only here because I never gave up.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dawn Dickson, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about PopCom, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Elaine Zhou, Co-Founder of China Women Equipping Center



Elaine went on a journey of self discovery and once she knew her true self she could be successful in her own business.

What’s your story?
I am very proud of where I came from and I am grateful for where I am living and working today. Singapore is my adopted home and it is my aim to always contribute to and serve this country and its people.
Twelve years ago, I moved to Singapore for an internship opportunity. I was twenty one years old and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t understand the culture or the customs. Everything was new and strange to me. Everything was difficult, but my parents had tremendous faith in me.
My parents have worked diligently on the family farm to raise us and send us to college. My parents had a huge influence on me. The important things I learnt from them are to love, to never give up, to be a hard worker and to have a can-do attitude. These are the qualities that I embrace in my daily life.

What excites you most about your industry?
We offer more than just training. Our business is a resource to be leveraged for transformation, improved teamwork, leadership behaviours, communication skills, relationship skills, coaching skills and increased job satisfaction and productivity.
Our passion and purpose is to help people grow as leaders and to create tremendous results by serving others well. We take people to daring destinations, beyond their imagination.
My greatest joy is to see people grow, change and transform and live a purposeful life; this is what motivates me to do more and do it well.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in China and I have spent all my adult and professional life in Singapore.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore and China.
Singapore is a very sophisticated and systematic country. It is a structured and highly efficient business environment and people are generally nice and honest. Also, the convenience and diverse culture is a great advantage for people who want to settle down there, no matter if they are from the East or West. You always feel at home in Singapore.
I also like China because of its fast growth. The population and the market is here. However, it takes time to settle in because of the language barrier and the very different traditional culture. But you will also find it is very interesting and you’ll want to learn more about China. The people are nice if you know them well. It is always about relationship first and business second, and when you are in a business meeting, you really have to master the skill of “reading the air.” It is a skill to let people know and understand you; your values, your background, why you think in that way or why you do or do not do certain things. Doing business in China is like swimming in the ocean; it is an abundant ocean and it is full of risks. Always know your values and stay true to yourself and make decisions close to your heart. It will help you see things more clearly and get things done in a way that doesn’t violate your values.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Be yourself, Elaine.” That is the best advice I have ever received. It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. It was also the moment I truly and honestly looked within myself. I realized that when I am being my true self, and not trying to be someone else, I am able to connect with people instantly in a genuine and authentic way. It is a great feeling.

Who inspires you?
There are so many people who encourage me, lift me up and challenge me everyday. My mentor, John Maxwell who helped me discover my purpose in life; Michael Griffin, for his passion for Christ which is contagious and Wayne Dyer, my spiritual mentor who passed away in 2016. Also, people who are living with a purpose and striving everyday for their dream, they really inspire me. My clients, mentees and students. When I see that joy and peace in them, that inspires me to do more and do well. My team inspire me, especially when they said, “Elaine, I joined the business because of you.” They inspire me to make it work for the team and the business because it is beyond my own self interest. I am grateful for having so many people in my life who inspire me.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
China is a big country, we all know that, and it is also an internet giant. Recently on a team meeting, one of the directors who manages a successful beauty business, shared with us, that everybody is on the internet, especially on WeChat. People are obsessed with online communities – for ordering food, getting taxis, forging relationships, connections and friends. Almost anything and everything can get done online. But right now, there is a new trend; more and more people want the “offline” experience. It usually takes one to two hours from one place to another in Beijing, but people want to make the effort to have a real connection with other people, to attend networks, seminars, workshops and business meetings.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I started my first business when I was 24 years old, it failed. One year later, I started my second business and after a year and a half, I closed down the operation. After several painful experiences and two failed businesses, I started to look within myself, and seriously and intentionally invested in my personal growth at the age of 28. If I could turn back time, I wish I could have grown a lot earlier. I strongly believe that the level of our success is determined by the level of our self growth and we are always learning, everyday. But I also understand it is not the only way to live. I also consciously and intentionally try to live in the now. It is a beautiful and great way to live. In fact, I am grateful for what I have gone through; the pains, setbacks and challenges in my earlier life.

How do you unwind?
I like to stay connected with nature. For example, taking a walk barefoot on the grass and smelling the roses on the street. Having a beer or coffee along the riverside with friends; reading a good book; hunting for nice restaurants; swimming or running.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand – nice beaches, food and people.
Bali – fantastic beaches and food, great people.
Malaysia – Nice food and people, particularly Langkawi, Penang and KK.
Of course Singapore, it is always a place dear to my heart. It’s my home.
There are a lot of other interesting places in China which I am still exploring.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill
The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Tao Te Ching: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life by Wayne Dyer
Developing the Leaders Within You by John C.Maxwell
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
These are some of the books that truly transformed my thinking and shaped my values.
I used to read a lot of different types of books, from sales, marketing, branding and management to different business models. I found it is really hard to master all of it and I was not optimizing my own strengths.
Entrepreneurship is a skill to be learnt. But it is really important to recognize what we are good at and what we are not so good at. We can not be everything.
Entrepreneurship is a journey of self-discovery and soul searching. It is all about learning and striving. We should try and always remember why we started our business in the first place.

Shameless plug for your business:
The China Women Equipping Center, is something both my team are I are very proud. We have put our hearts and souls into it, to help women in China grow and transform. As a developing country and with the rise of China, people are not lacking in money, everywhere is full of opportunity, but the challenge is the civilizations, values and faith. In fact the Chinese government puts a lot of effort into improving and shaping the international image to ensure it is making progress. But people are still facing a lot of pressure, especially women.
One of our business partners who is runs traditional Chinese medicine retail stores, shared that 80% of his patients are female, and the reason they are coming to see him are anxiety and depression.
Our China Women Equipping Center creates a safe and comfortable environment for women to help build their values and characters. My local team and I are very passionate about our mission and purpose. Beijing is our headquarters in China. We are planning to take three to six months to establish our business in Beijing and grow and expand to other major cities in China after that.

How can people connect with you?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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