[Viewpoint] Betting your life on it

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[Viewpoint] Betting your life on it

Recently, I met a businessman who had just closed his company. He said his business had been struggling for several years until he plucked up the courage to call it quits. Why would he need courage to close his business? He explained that the president of a company is jointly liable when his company borrows money from a bank. If the company fails to pay back any loans, the money owed becomes his personal debt, so closing the business was a big decision. We both almost cried when he said he would become a fugitive if he gets a notice to pay off the debts in a few months.

We hear people talking about entrepreneurship all the time. Events like the “Entrepreneurship International Conference” and “Venture Korea 2009” are held, and special lectures and programs on entrepreneurship can be found all over the place. People praise entrepreneurship as the only way to survive, and they are right indeed. The absence of entrepreneurship is largely responsible for the extended slump in investment. The market was uncertain and management was unstable in the past, but we used to worry about excessive investment back then.

Various solutions are proposed now. Some suggest abolishing the joint liability on guarantee, because we cannot expect true entrepreneurship in a society if a failed business leader becomes a fugitive. Unfair practices by big business also need to be tackled since no one would be motivated to start a business if the large corporations dominate all the profitable businesses. Failed business leaders should be given a second chance, and the startups should be supported better to enhance the success rate. But these measures are not enough to revive entrepreneurship. A more effective solution is to change the social perception of criticizing Kim Woo-jung as a failed businessman and Ahn Chul-soo as a respectable entrepreneur. Economists explain entrepreneurship as animal spirit or innovation, but I would like to interpret it as “wagering everything.”

A true entrepreneur risks his life entirely on his business. In order to save and expand his company, he would endure any humiliation, devote 24 hours a day to his job and put his family and himself to the side. Daewoo founder Kim Woo-jung has, more intensely than anyone, waged war in business all his life. He never slept more than four hours a day, had meetings with different people every half hour and spent two out of three days abroad on business trips. He never took a day off, much less a vacation with his family on a beach. Business was the only thing on his mind. He had to make excruciatingly critical decisions every moment of the day. He was at risk of losing all his personal assets if he failed, and big business was just as powerful back then.

But Kim overcame all the hardship to make his startup on par with Samsung and Hyundai and created 320,000 jobs. He made a legend of himself because he staked everything he had.

Professor Ahn is different. He founded the security solution provider AhnLab but became a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Of course, he deserves respect, and he gave up a cushy life as a doctor to pursue a more creative and intense career. However, I think Kim deserves more respect than Ahn. The professor doesn’t seem to have risked his life on his venture like Kim. The size of the company and the number of jobs created are considerably different as well. If Kim were the CEO of AhnLab, he would not have retired so young and pursued a career path in academia.

Korean society gives a higher rating to Professor Ahn than to the former head of Daewoo as a respectable entrepreneur. It would have been understandable if Professor Ahn were ranked higher as a respectable man, not an entrepreneur. Kim Woo-jung is not well known among young people, and those who know him consider him a failed businessman who had to pay over 20 trillion won ($16.9 billion) in restitution.

In this climate, talking about entrepreneurship is meaningless. True entrepreneurs cannot bloom in a society where aspiring business leaders want to become university professors once their companies grow large enough.

We need to view former Daewoo chairman Kim Woo-jung in a new light. He failed, but was full of entrepreneurship and deserves respect for his spirit. So I hope to see Kim Woo-jung giving lectures on entrepreneurship around this time next year.


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-wook
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